Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: The power of relationships, belonging, and change

Published: 6/18/2019 5:15:33 PM

Nearly every Saturday I meet up with a group of friends for breakfast. All week I look forward to our gathering and when someone has to cancel, I’m disappointed. Saturday mornings with these women feels like a refuge.

Our breakfast cabal is an occasion to update each other about work and family, share stories about ridiculous things that happened during the week, and discuss politics. We get to be fully ourselves with people who appreciate us just as we are.

This sense of belonging brings home for me the power of relationships in our lives and as a means of building understanding across difference to create lasting change.

In my work, I see the transformative power of relationships first hand. Students at UMass come from all over the U.S. and the world. For some of our students, this is the most diverse situation they’ve ever been in, for others it’s just the opposite.

Some students come from schools that have every AP class offered, others speak a first language other than English, and others have had to learn in substandard classrooms with out-of-date textbooks. When they arrive at UMass, they find themselves at an institution that expects a lot from them and assumes that they to know how to navigate it.

This means that many students don’t believe that they really fit in; they feel they aren’t up to par with peers who seem to have it all figured out. In the first year seminar I teach, I try to drive home the point that no one has it all figured out in their first year. I strive to create a classroom environment where students find a sense of belonging and can share questions and issues that they struggle with so they can help each other. One of the success strategies I encourage of all students is to build a team of people who will listen and encourage them along the way. The expression, “it takes a village” pertains to college kids, too.

The days when college administrators said, “Look to your left and look to your right, one of you won’t be here four years from now,” are mostly gone. The push to compete rather than collaborate is less compelling in higher education than it used to be. Problem solving and creating change are best accomplished by teams and building relationships is key to success.

The notion that relationships make a difference in individual lives carries over to the public sphere also. When constituents share personal stories, lawmakers change their votes on important issues. Data and studies provide details about how policies might work, but when people stand up in front of their state legislature or before Congress to talk about their real lives, that’s when lawmakers see the impact their work has on a personal level.

Jon Stewart’s recent emotional testimony before Congress pressured them to vote for more health care and financial support for 9-11 responders. In Massachusetts, teachers and students have been telling their stories on Beacon Hill in an effort to push the Legislature to improve the formula for funding education.

This is not the same as relationship building on an individual level, but it does illustrate how people change their minds about issues when they meet someone they can relate to and they hear their story. It’s much harder to deny someone’s reality when they are standing in front of you telling you in their own words.

Over the past decade or two, we’ve seen an increase in what some scholars are calling “tribalism,” an instinct to protect your own beliefs, to consider only what those in your own political sphere say, and to only tune into media outlets that you know you already agree with.

Once we’ve hunkered down into our chosen groups, it’s harder to see the humanity on the “other side,” but that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to change course. It’s also likely that people in power feed this narrative by playing into our fear and mistrust of the “other side” so that we miss the point, which is that the rich are getting richer while the poor and not-so-rich point blaming fingers at each other.

Relationships are key to making true change at the grassroots level. (It would also be great to get big money out of politics, but that’s the start of a different column.) Once you connect with someone face to face and truly listen to the stories that led them to where they are, it’s much more difficult to use “us and them” language to tear them down.

The group Better Angels (https://www.better-angels.org/) is committed to doing this. They have been organizing across the country to build alliances of political liberals and conservatives in an effort to go beyond stereotypes. They do this by bringing people together to engage in conversations. I admit that when I first heard about this group, I was still too angry at the results of the 2016 presidential election to even consider its value but now I’m leaning into the idea of listening openly to those I didn’t think I had much in common with. Let’s start a conversation.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton writes a monthly column. She is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and she is a founding member of the Easthampton Fair and Affordable Housing Partnership.

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