Nonprofit Seeks Truly Indivisible America through Depolarization

Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with Andrew Hanauer, founder, president and CEO of One America Movement, an organization whose mission is to build a united American society by eliminating toxic polarization. To do this, organization leaders encourage interaction among people of differing religious, political and racial backgrounds, and partner with faith communities to foster dialogue through community forums and customized training. In this Q&A, Hanauer explains how the organization equips communities with the tools to address division throughout the country. 

Q: What inspired you to start One America Movement and, more broadly, what led to your interest in bridging divides among people? 

I grew up in a secular, non-religious home in a community with pretty monolithic political views. While in college at Dartmouth, I interacted with people from all around the country and world who represented differing perspectives on a host of issues. My roommate gave me a glimpse into the world of religion, which ultimately led me to convert to Christianity. I subsequently met my wife, who is from rural Arkansas and brings a different family background and culture to my life. All of that instilled in me a desire to be exposed to different views and perspectives, and to believe that people can build healthy relationships with people who don’t worship, look, believe or vote as they do. 

In 2015 and 2016, I saw an increased focus on splitting people into different camps or “teams” in political and current event discussions. The negative spirit of social media and lack of true dialogue signaled to me that our democratic spirit – and along with it, free speech and open debate – was in peril. It was a direct repudiation of everything I believe in and everything I think this country stands for. This ultimately inspired me to respond by starting the One America Movement. I wanted to be part of something that was based on values and not partisanship, and that called all of us to be better, more open-minded and stronger.

Q: Founded in early 2017 (incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2019), One America Movement seeks to engage both sides of the political spectrum and create environments that foster the free exchange of ideas. How exactly does the organization seek to accomplish this and what are you most proud of since the organization’s founding? 

To accomplish our mission, we have two primary forms of programming. We bring people together across political, racial and religious divides to reduce division and work together to address challenges in their local communities. And we support religious leaders to lead their congregations effectively despite our national culture of division.  

I’m extremely grateful for the momentum and growth of the One America Movement since our founding and thankful for the staff, volunteers and supporters who have helped propel our tremendous growth  from four staff members in 2020 to more than 20 today. One of the aspects I’m most proud of is our team’s culture, which focuses on challenging ourselves and each other productively. We readily admit we don’t have all the answers and actively listen to the communities we engage with to make our programs and impact even greater. This culture helps ensure we don’t assume that we’re perfect or have all the answers – and that we want to continually iterate, strive for better results and ultimately achieve our mission in more effective ways. We get the best answers not by shutting down discussions but by exposing our ideas to challenges.  

The values we’re seeking to emulate externally also must be lived out by our staff team. I’m proud our team reflects a cross-section of America — left, right, center, different religions, cultures, geographies – and we’ve intentionally focused on hiring staff who listen, learn and offer differing viewpoints and perspectives. To borrow the Roundtable terminology, we seek to emulate “True Diversity.”

Q: On the flip side, as you reflect on the founding of One America Movement, what has been the biggest challenge since founding the organization? 

Honestly, founding an organization – especially one focused on depolarization and bridge building efforts – is not for the faint of heart. Some of the most challenging aspects of the last few years have been working in an ecosystem that applauds and propels polarized organizations. It’s much easier to operate a clearly “X” labeled organization – it’s clear who your potential funders are and who your base is. On the other hand, seeking to navigate the nuanced world of bridge building and depolarization efforts is very challenging and can often feel lonely. After all, it’s much easier to point fingers at other organizations and people rather than seek to identify and find common ground with them. 

Another challenge stems from our model, which bridges diverse communities – it’s not as easy as it looks to bring different groups and individuals together! Though it’s core to our mission and we’re committed to it, it is one of our greatest challenges and opportunities as an organization. We have built partnerships with over 2,100 diverse faith institutions, and much of One America Movement’s ideological diversity stems from the involvement of predominantly conservative religious congregations working with those that are predominately liberal. We intentionally prioritize programming that reaches beyond the coastal bubbles where so much of nonprofit “life” is centered, and work in places like rural Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, western Michigan, Arizona and Mississippi.  

Q: The success of depolarization efforts is difficult to measure and track. How is One America Movement measuring its progress with the programs you provide across the country? 

We absolutely believe you can measure “depolarization.” We embed outcome measurement into every aspect of our programming to see whether we’re truly meeting our objectives or not. If so, we aim to build on that success; if not, these metrics help us evolve and adjust our programs to ensure greater effectiveness in our methods.  

Feedback from the initial wave of our programs shows 75% of participants heard views that they do not normally hear; 91% committed to long-term connections with people they met through programming; and 76% reexamined their beliefs and opinions. We use tools from neuroscience to measure changes in perceptions and attitudes. We also ask participants questions such as, “Are you willing to take action or do service with someone from another group or perspective?” and measure whether this improves over time. This year, we’ve built an entire monitoring and evaluation system taking some of the best practices from international development work as well as from the best research into division and depolarization.

Q: You shifted some of your programming to virtual interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic but restarted in-person events as soon as you were able. Tell us  how you’re thinking about the future. 

We’re optimistic about the future. We know that it feels like division is everywhere but we see throughout our work that the vast majority of Americans are tired of the division and the dysfunction. They want to build a stronger, more united country and stronger, more united communities and we are ready to grow and expand the movement of Americans working toward this goal. 

In the next year, we will be scaling our programming, reaching hundreds of new congregations, opening up new multi-faith, cross-partisan “hubs” in Arkansas and Virginia and potentially Oklahoma, West Virginia and more. We’re expanding our work with clergy and are excited to potentially start programs for Catholic and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders. We’re holding events this year focused on helping congregations respond to the pressures of divisive social media and supporting them with curriculum to help their youth understand how social media divides us.  

Q: One America Movement’s mission of bridging across divergent perspectives complements efforts to celebrate and embrace diversity. As someone who grew up in California in a secular Jewish home, converted to Christianity while at Dartmouth College and subsequently married a woman from the rural South, what does diversity mean to you? 

When I hear the term diversity, I think of my own family, of my upbringing in a diverse, urban area, and I think of our country with all the incredible diversity we have. So many communities in this country really celebrate diversity in all its forms, and yet for many families, the dinner table conversation about politics has started to feel more difficult — or in some cases, we’ve stopped having it. 

For me, when I think about how to bridge divides and make sure that our country’s ideological diversity is a strength and not something that rips us apart, I think about the quote  that “people don’t remember what you say but they always remember how you make them feel.” There is a genuine, foundational power in the building of relationships and establishing trust across diverse lines, so much so, that our individual development and community building efforts depend and rely upon these strong relationships. Indeed, they are the fabric that make American society thrive and flourish. Everything we do moves at the speed of trust and relationship.  

I think there’s often a rush to find “shortcuts” to trust. But there’s no shortcut. We, as a country, must build trust and find ways to better understand other’s perspectives and experiences from a posture of real relationships where we are accountable to each other.

Q: As you think about how philanthropy can engage with and propel your work forward, how can funders get involved? 

I’d like to highlight the vital role that philanthropy plays on our work. We simply could not fulfill our mission without the generosity of our donors. And I’m grateful to the Philanthropy Roundtable for its efforts to address these issues. It matters. 

With this noted, we are also in growth mode over the next three to five years. We have a plan to expand to additional communities across the country and scale our work in multiple ways. Now is the time to invest in our country’s social fabric, and in building relationships across divides that make us stronger, support the spirit of free inquiry and open debate, and transform division into unity. We are grateful to anyone who wants to join us in that work. 

If you are interested in connecting with One America Movement to potentially fund its growth, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.

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