Cultivating CommUNITY

Cultivating CommUNITY

by Heather Conklin

The outdoor patio of the small Mexican restaurant was buzzing with excited locals awaiting the results of the election. I was sitting in the corner, dressed in a white suit that I’d been wearing all day in solidarity with the first female U.S. president to-be. My husband and I took turns checking the election results, repeatedly refreshing the page on the political statistical analysis website, FiveThirtyEight. The election returns started rolling in faster, since the polling stations on the west coast had finally closed. Everything seemed as expected until the percentages suddenly shifted in favor of Trump. I looked at my husband, my eyes wide with disbelief and uttered, “Holy shit” several times. The atmosphere of the party went from hopeful to nervous.

Still glued to the election results on our iPhones, people started asking my husband and me what the most current results were showing and which states were reporting. I started to feel dizzy and sweaty; I became nauseous. I placed my hand on my husband’s arm and mumbled numbly, “We need to go home. Now.” My husband didn’t pick up on my urgency to leave, so he continued chatting with friends. Suddenly, I stood up and bolted off the patio. I almost threw up right there on the sidewalk in front of everyone.

I didn’t sleep that night. The nightmares kept me tossing and turning between the sheets. I awoke the next morning in an exhausted, mentally foggy state, desperately hoping that everything during the prior evening hadn’t really happened. According to the New York Times front page though, it had.

I couldn’t sleep for the next week. During the day, my consciousness was hazy, my waking hours surreal. As the weeks wore on, the immediate trauma began to dissipate and gave way to a more grounded perspective. Various interpretations and rationalizations for the unprecedented election outcome and what would happen now almost obsessively occupied my thoughts for months.

Through speaking with people in the aftermath of the election, including many women, I realized that my reaction was a familiar one (including Hillary Clinton herself, as recounted in her latest book, What Happened). This weirdly made me feel better because I was not alone. There was a sense of community around the response (particularly among progressive women) to this national trauma. “Community” contains the word “unity”, for which our collective response to the election served as a catalyst for change.

Healing the Infection

Despite the rampant confusion, anger, and divisiveness, we as individuals and as a society have an opportunity to make change for the better. Much like an infection, the deteriorating foundations of our democratic institutions and putrid political dynamics that have been festering below the surface for many years have finally come to a head and erupted. To begin
healing from an infection, the infection must first be identified by the immune system and then the body can start to fight the infection. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election was the wake-up call; the shrill emergency message to all of us proclaiming, “Houston, we have a problem!”

With this realization having surfaced, we can finally start to take steps to treat what is ailing our political system. Not just slapping on a Band-Aid to cover the infection, but really, truly healing. This is the silver lining that keeps me going, even when I’m ready to give up. This is the light that can (and will) emerge from the darkness. And it starts with our community.

Building Community Through Conversation

One of the reasons (among many) that we’ve ended up in this current political situation is the breakdown of civic engagement. Our active participation in our communities, such as through neighborhood groups or community organizations, to discuss and address issues of public concern has been on the decline for decades. Civic engagement is a prerequisite for political
participation (e.g., voting) because a sense of responsibility for our government stems in part from a sense of responsibility to our community.

Citizens play an important role in maintaining democracy by holding their elected officials accountable. How can we hold our elected officials accountable (e.g., by voting) if we aren’t regularly participating in our community and engaging in dialogues with fellow citizens about issues that matter to us? Apathy among the citizenry has allowed elected officials to more often pursue their own individual interests over the collective interests of their constituents.

Civic engagement allows for critical discussion (critical as in critical thinking, not judgement-laden) with others who may or may not share your views. This discussion, also referred to as political discourse, is a hallmark of democracy. Although it may seem overwhelming to even think about talking politics in the current political environment, here are a few suggestions to
help you get more comfortable participating in positive political discussions.

  1. Show up with the intention to engage in open dialogues with others.
  2. Practice effective listening, since respectful, thoughtful communication requires
    understanding what the other person is saying before responding.
  3. Becoming more aware of your own views, biases, and preferences can help you temper
    your reactions to improve understanding between different perspectives on an issue.
  4. Recognize that reaching a consensus may not happen. The value of positive political
    discussions is not in finding agreement, but in building trust between citizens and
    understanding of other points of view.

Final Thoughts

As Ravi Iyer and Jonathan Haidt wrote in Wall Street Journal wrote after the election, “…civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.”  Civic engagement, including participation in political discussions, offers opportunities to acknowledge each other’s views (regardless of whether you agree) to help build community and cultivate a sense of unity.

We are all in this and we are most certainly stronger together.

Heather Conklin

Heather Conklin

Heather C. Conklin is a political scientist, speaker, and the founder of SPOT Strategies, focusing on empowering emerging leaders for a better future. Connect with Heather on Twitter at @HC_Conklin.


  • One of my favorite quote from you “Civic engagement is a prerequisite for political participation (e.g., voting) because a sense of responsibility for our government stems in part from a sense of responsibility to our community.” Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate and remember the feeling of “uh oh” as we walked out of the restaurant. Every morning, I awoke with a knot in my stomach, often crying, (feeling) helpless to do anything. And every morning, alongside those tears, there was a voice inside that gently shouted “RISE”. GirlSide Chats was born one week after the election. Thank you for your story and service. You are a gift.

  • Cambria says:

    Love this piece! Realky sets the stage for our upcoming discussion and I kook forward to the civic engagement 🙂 Thank you!

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