How can philanthropy create spaces for people to come together around complex and divisive issues?

In 2017, PACE embarked on a learning process to better understand the seeds of division in civic society, and what philanthropy can do to help.  The seeming intractability of the divisions in our society — and the fact that these divisions are hardly specific to the recent presidential election — present a challenge and an opportunity for PACE’s mission and the work of PACE members.  This exploration will culminate in recommendations for PACE–and for our field–to cultivate support in healing divides.

Read more about our learning process

During the initial stages of this process, we spoke with several PACE members, experts, researchers, and influencers to gain their insight, perspective, and recommendations. The project was executed in a series of overlapping phases.

1) due diligence: gathering perspectives of key informants on questions at the heart of the topic;

2) data and information collection and documentation: review notes from key informant interviews, relevant periodicals, and research from topic experts to inform the observations and recommendations;

3) deliverable development: explore traditional and unique ways to share results of this learning process; and

4) ongoing engagement: as the information and perspectives at the heart of this topic continue to evolve, provide ongoing and evolving support to a growing PACE community.


Central to our learning process was the question: If we accept the evidence that fundamentally different and often irreconcilable discourses are at work in America today, how is dialogue, debate, or deliberation possible?

The assumptions, as evidenced in many calls for civility and underlying many of the civic engagement sector’s activities, assume ordinary people, busy with their lives and with no firsthand experience of policy-making or public administration, are applying a logical understanding of the issues at the center of civic debates. This conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research, and is evidenced in the current pressures on democratic norms and institutions.

It is important to recognize that before they are members of a particular political party, citizens are, first and foremost, members of social groups — with numerous and complex social identities and group attachments figuring crucially into their political loyalties and behavior.



Opportunities for our Field

Today, the civic engagement sector has an opportunity to inspire increased engagement around these complexities in their discussions of civic discord — especially in this current moment — adding depth to the default binary that often frames civic discord (examples: black and white, democrat and republican, conservative and liberal, etc).

Through our exploration, we are finding that this moment of divisiveness and hyperpartisanship is a reflection of a disconnect between the way democratic institutions engage citizens and the ways in which citizens understand their own social identity — their own lives, jobs, religious views, race, gender, geography, and other variables.
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A reluctance to wrestle with the complex identities citizens bring to our most contentious debates has exacted a heavy price, draining public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributing to the technocratic, divisive politics that affect society today. For PACE, bridging civic divides may require that we engage in a new conversation that operates from a new context — one that we have not had before — a civic context that is driven by exploring and valuing our differences rather than artificial similarities.  Philanthropic institutions can begin to shape this new context by modeling a new way of engagement and debate about what drives our society and public spaces.

The “moment” isn’t a “problem to solve” as much as an opportunity to better understand the seeds of division and to transform the culture of civic dialogue from one of fear, mistakes, and self-interest into a culture of diversity, connectedness, imagination, and possibility.

The key to bridging divides in our community is in asset-based framing with a focus on gifts, on associational life, and on the insight that all transformation occurs through language.  PACE aims to support our members in modeling a more robust, complex, and honest approach to discussing the issues at the core of our civic debates. This approach is complicated not in concept but in execution, as it requires we reason together, beyond our silos, and in public, about how to value the social goods we prize. We don’t expect that a more robust public discourse will lead to agreement on every divisive issue; however, we believe this approach will make for a healthier public square and a more resilient democracy.

To learn more about PACE’s work on Bridging Divides, please contact PACE Fellow, Decker Ngongang: decker(at)