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Time for Physical Distance Not Social Distance

Photo by Linda M. Barrett

Just a few days before Illinois’ Governor J.B. Pritzker declared a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a hundred people gathered in the countryside community of Barrington, 35 miles northwest of Chicago, to learn and talk about the cost of segregation.

The event was called Challenging Separation — the ninth monthly gathering for our pilot series, A Year of Courageous Conversations. We welcomed guest speaker Kendra Freeman of the Metropolitan Planning Council to share the steep costs we pay by living so separately from each other.

By then, upwards of a thousand people had interacted with the series to explore how to foster greater inclusion and belonging in our communities. The monthly in-person gatherings had thus far been well-attended, featuring leading national experts like Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Krista Tippett, New York Times bestselling author Dr. Robin DiAngelo and Interfaith Youth Core's own Jenan Mohajir.

With 30 Fellows and dozens of regulars committed to attend every session, we had begun to build a devoted community with a desire to delve into dialogue on challenging social issues like privilege and segregation, investigating our own fears, biases and prejudices along the way.

Over the course of the year, we had convened using the Grounding Virtues from The Civil Conversation Project to help us exercise our developing muscles in adventurous civility, generous listening, humility, patience and hospitality. This particular way of being with one another, we hoped, would build trust, vulnerability and authenticity — and, most of all, connection across difference.

By the evening of our March 11 session, Covid-19 had already struck the nation’s coasts and whispers of closures were growing. The irony of the timing was not lost on our team.

"Who knew a year ago when we planned tonight's topic, Challenging Separation, we would also be having a national conversation about social distancing?" asked co-curator Claire Nelson in her opening remarks. Nevertheless, a dynamic dialogue ensued about the nation’s historic policies that have limited access to resources, like housing and healthcare, for black and brown communities.

Days and weeks have passed since that conversation, and we have all watched the lingering effects of those very policies play out in the significantly higher deaths of African-Americans. This virus may be non-discriminating, but we haven't been.

As a new policy of "social distancing" became the norm, its cost began to reveal itself, too. Fear of the unknown and a scarcity mindset resulted in survival behaviors such as hoarding of toilet paper and food. Harassment and hate crimes spiked with the use of racist language about the virus, and incidents of Zoom-bombing expanded Antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism on-line. The added (yet necessary) measure of protective masks rose concerns about racial profiling and created yet another barrier to connecting with one another that we have yet to adjust to.

Needless to say, for A Year of Courageous Conversations, while we practice physical distancing, "social distancing" is not really our jam. If the pandemic has made anything clear, it is that the stakes of equity and inclusion were already high — and continue to rise.

We cannot allow the negative consequences of social distancing to increase the already deep divides we are experiencing as a nation. We believe now more than ever in the need to lean-in deeply to social connection. And when we do, engaging in adventurous civility, courageous curiosity, generous listening and mindfulness is in and of itself an act of service for our collective well-being.

When the masks come off, we’ll have to figure out how to be with one another again. So what better time than now, while we shelter-in-place, to practice who we want to be with each other?

With that in mind, we are forging ahead with our gatherings, quickly birthing new "Physical Distancing Editions." With the help of our committed Fellows, we held our April session not gathered around our usual tables atop Barrington's White House but in a constellation of smaller virtual discussion rooms across Chicagoland. To make this first transition to online as accessible as possible, we offered both phone or video options, so participants could choose their comfort. Going "virtual" also allowed us to welcome some faraway expats who could now join remotely in a way they couldn't before.

Together, we discussed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story — an old favorite for some, a new gem for many. Despite some technical glitches — which our participants navigated with much mercy and grace — the response was overwhelmingly positive.

"The world we live in now is a strange place," said Fellow Stephanie Gates, "and we could have easily abandoned these remaining conversations. But we forged ahead. Each of us is changing the narrative. Moving beyond a single story." Fellow Stacey Mays-Douglas said she left her call “feeling hopeful for our future knowing people really do care and are striving to be more compassionate and better humans and yet we have so much work to do.”

And so, we continue to do the work together, while apart.

A Year of Courageous Conversations will continue and complete our journey on-line. Next month’s topic, Paying It Forward, is scheduled for Wednesday, May 13, 7-9 p.m. CST.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.