Melting pot to potluck: American democracy needs diversity and youth at the table

Some of the inhibiting factors to conducting civil conversation in today’s United States — social media influence, polarization, and cancel culture — are the very ones that might keep college students from attending a talk about the needs of our nation’s great democratic experiment.

And yet nearly 100 students and adults, including local governmental leaders, showed up at Western Michigan University Thursday, Oct. 5 to hear Eboo Patel, Interfaith America Founder and President, and Manu Meel, BridgeUSA Chief Executive Officer, talk and answer questions about how to build a more diverse and just democracy.

“Re-Stitching the Fabric of our Democracy for the 21st Century,” a conversation with the community sponsored by WMU’s We Talk, drew people to the Bernhard Center Ballroom, including Kalamazoo City Mayor David Anderson and Kalamazoo Public Safety Assistant Chief Victor Green, both who asked questions that illustrated concern for the polarization in today’s society as it relates to discourse and trust of public safety officers.

"Restitching the Fabric of Our Democracy," WMU's October We Talk drew over 100 community members and students.“A diverse democracy for centuries was thought to be impossible,” opened Patel, an inaugural member of former President Barack O’Bama’s Interfaith Council, and author of a newly-published book, We Need to Build. 

As a democracy, the United States of America with its founding European diversity was the “great experiment”; ancient democracies, like in Greece, were formed by people who were the same race, ethnicity, gender and religion, said Patel.

“European founders were coming out of the feudal world inventing the modern world. Did you expect them to get it right?” he asked. “Yet all of these identity groups engaged in the genius of the American civic (discourse) through common interests, such as education, health, and recreation.” Those common interests guided cooperation, Patel said.

Jad Samman, the WMU senior, raised questions at the event.College campuses, as major civic institutions, are a powerful proving ground, said Patel. “We have to create a space on college campuses where people can deepen their own identity, be in positive relationship with people from other identities, and cooperate with each other.” He congratulated WMU and Fetzer Institute, a co-sponsor of We Talk, for understanding that the narrative around democracy needs to change.

So far, WMU, with its focus on programs, like those through We Talk, which foster increasing open inquiry, diversity of viewpoint, and constructive disagreement, is headed in the right direction.

In fact, WMU recently ranked 21st  in the nation’s colleges and universities for promoting and supporting free speech, WMU President Dr. Edward Montgomery shared with the audience in his introductory comments.

“We’re trying to build on that as we go forward,” Montgomery said. “We can refuse to allow our differences to divide us. They’re real. Continue to be who you authentically are, but don’t let it divide us. Let’s push and stretch each other to go forward. That’s what makes Western a special place. That’s what it takes to make our democracy real.”

In the open question period of October's We Talk event, audience members asked questions related to trust and police, youth and distrust of establishments, and polarizing discourse around community issues.
Mentor and mentee

Meel, a mentee of Patel, awoke to the need for civility in democracy during his college years at the University of California-Berkeley, specifically when violent protests occurred before a scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, a British alt-right political commentator, in 2017. Meel, recently named as one of Forbes' most influential Thirty under 30, said he represents the “student perspective.”

“Young people are reporting record levels of apathy and disenchantment with the structure of democracy itself,” said Meel. “We live in the most ambitious democratic experiment in the history of humanity. We are not just inheritors, we lead the democratic experiment. So why are so many students resistant to this work?”

Meel mentioned that he, like Patel, is concerned that Americans have let the voices of social media be too loud. He says the noise of the internet has clouded our perception of each other.

“Anxiety towards someone who looks different than you is a human thing, something we have to get past,” but Meel said he is afraid we’ve “built this culture where the response to someone’s anxiety towards change is punitive, not open.”

A road trip he took across America engaging people in conversations about democracy and their values illustrated to Meel that people want similar things. “When you bring out the human in the conversation, it is profound. Twitter is not a real space. Society is. We cannot let our social media perceptions cloud the way we see people.”

Potluck democracy

In response to a question about changing democratic metaphors by moderator Dr. Lauren Foley, a WMU political science professor, Patel said that the metaphor of “melting pot” where differences were ignored in favor of homogeneity no longer applies in America. He prefers the metaphor of the “potluck.”

“What’s a potluck? You assume everyone is a contributor,” said Patel. “Do you want a homogenous group of people to come to your potluck? You want a diversity of people to come and to see how the dishes match. That’s the beauty of a potluck. There are a million ways it can go wrong and it almost never does. Things typically go right where people are invited to bring their best dish and see how it cooperates with other people’s dishes.”

Building trust between police and the public

Assistant Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Green was the first to ask a question when the floor was opened. “How do we bring the community and police together so it’s not us versus them?” he asked. “The bottom line is fear. What would you suggest about going into that fear to have dialogue, to get to that safe space?”

Eboo Patel and Manu Meel visited Western Michigan University for their We Talk Speaker Series.After praising Green for his question and presence at the talk, Patel suggested beginning to build an environment around a shared goal, which is public safety. “There’s a variety of institutions that contribute to public safety — families, schools, police officers. How do we do this in a way that is as cooperative as possible?

“Put that shared goal at the table with shared responsibility,” Patel suggested. “Lots of people are responsible and have different roles. Police have a really important role. Work to elevate shared hope and to make it as motivating and inspiring as shared fear would be. If you don’t bring your dish, we don’t have a potluck.”

Social media diet

Meel put forth the idea that in response to America’s overwhelming appetite for social media, even to the point of saturation, an Information Pyramid should be created for an Information Diet, much like the guide to daily food choices the American Department of Agriculture created in response to the increasing availability of “junk food.”

Social media use is a concern for Jad Samman, a senior communications major from Troy, Michigan, who attended Thursday’s talk. Samman said that like many of his peers, he finds himself “deep into social media” and “terminally online.” 

“I have been spending a lot of energy trying to balance and prohibit it for mental health. So when I heard that part of the talk, I did see that 100 percent, social media is an echo chamber that limits dialogue and polarizes. We’re all tracked by algorithms. I don’t see breaking news. I’m confined to my own bubble that includes people near me and things that I like.”

But he admitted some skepticism regarding comments concerning cancel culture. “I feel a little eye roll when people complain about cancel culture,” he said. “I look at people in higher positions of power and they can be temporarily canceled, but I do not see them de-platformed or dismissed. You need to be in a lower position hierarchically to be canceled.”

Samman said the talk made him think more deeply about both his social media use and his political reactions. “In the spirit of the talk, I think that instead of reacting from a place of rage, I need to stop and pause, to bend and stretch my own political thoughts and think about them more clearly.”

And even though Samman admitted he was lured to attend by his professor’s promise of extra credit, he was glad he came.

“In coming to events like this, I’m doing something to disrupt the monotony and diversifying the pool of news and information that I’m already consuming, and it helps burst that bubble.”

WMU’s We Talk was founded in February 2020. Its goal is to “close the emotional divide between conflicting beliefs through intentional listening, rational actions, the use of rational language, and empathy.” Sponsored by Stephanie and Ed Fletcher, the Fetzer Institute, and the Heterodox Academy, We Talk offers Free Speech Cafes, informal panel discussions related to free speech rights and responsibilities, and hosts several speakers throughout the year. 

For more information, go to their website or call (269) 387-2072.


Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.