In conference rooms across the country, an unusual scene is unfolding: Democrats and Republicans, gathered together, engaged in thoughtful, respectful, and supportive dialogue. At a time when even close family members have a hard time being civil when talking across political divides, it’s a rare vision to behold.
These individuals are participants in Answering the Call, a program developed by the New Politics Leadership Academy. The mission of the Academy is to recruit and support alumni of service programs—both military veterans and alumni of civilian service programs like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps—to run for office. Answering the Call is a four-session small group learning journey; this February, it ran in 14 cities across the country, collectively engaging more than 200 participants. The conference rooms in which these discussions unfolded could be found in Boston, New York, Denver, Milwaukee, Charleston, Nashville, Detroit, Milwaukee and several more cities around the country.
Answering the Call is not a traditional training in which participants engage with the nuts and bolts of running for office, learn technical skills, or hear motivational speeches. Rather, the program provides an opportunity for ongoing, substantive reflection led by trained and skilled facilitators. In these spaces, participants are invited to get clear within themselves regarding their deepest sources of purpose and meaning that might compel them to seek elected office, as well as the doubts, fears, and questions evoked when they seriously consider embarking on that path.
Having run the program multiple times at this point, we’ve learned some important lessons about this approach:
First, there is a remarkable sense of camaraderie, community, and shared purpose among these diverse servant leaders. Battle-tested military veterans, inner city educators, and idealists who spent years volunteering in villages across the developing world encounter each other for the first time, and are surprised to find that they understand each other in deep ways. They discover a bond rooted in the fact that they have all made the still unusual choice to serve their country in significant—albeit different— ways. Many are surprised at how quickly that sense of community appears, and how genuine it feels.
Second, these servant leaders discover that they all struggle with some remarkably similar questions and concerns when they begin to seriously contemplate running for office. After years of serving others and putting mission first, many experience deep discomfort with the focus on self that is required to run. Many grapple with the toxic nature of our current political climate, and question whether they really are willing to expose themselves and their families to that kind of vitriol. They question how they can stay true to their values and serve their constituents when so many politicians seem so self-serving and devoid of a moral compass. At the same time, they see the current state of our politics and feel called to step up out of a deep-seated desire to continue to serve.
Third—and perhaps most remarkably—they discover that they can not only connect and communicate across party differences, but actually support and encourage each other with genuine enthusiasm. They share stories of having heated political debates with fellow troops or corps members during their years of service, but those debates always ended with a recognition that ultimately, they had to work together to achieve a shared mission. They may have different views about economic policy, international affairs, educational reform, or the role of government in civic life, but they engage with those differences as a community of tested, experienced servant leaders. They understand that the good of the country transcends party ideology, and they know from experience that meaningful change requires engaging with different viewpoints, honoring the dignity and humanity of others (even those with whom they disagree), testing reality, and seeking pragmatic solutions that address critical civic challenges.
Perhaps the day will come when one of these Answering the Call sessions will devolve into the sort of hyper-partisan screaming matches we see all the time in the news and in our communities these days. But it hasn’t happened yet. So far, this program has produced a glimpse of a politics that works. Active and engaged citizens of different parties come together, seek common ground, engage in respectful and substantive dialogue, and support and challenge each other to step up to seek new levels of political power out of a deep desire to continue serving their country.
We’re only a few months into this approach, so it’s too early to tell how many graduates of Answering the Call will go on to seek—and hopefully attain—elected office. But we can state with certainty that we’ve created spaces that allow an America that works to emerge in microcosm. It’s exciting to think about the impact these servant leaders can have on our politics in the years ahead.