Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age

Nathan Bomey Cover 1 1
Nathan Bomey Cover 1 1

Nathan Bomey of USA Today Describes How to Heal Our Divides

Tell us about yourself and why you chose to write Bridge Builders.

Nathan Bomey: After writing a book published in 2018 on the erosion of truth in society and how it’s contributing to polarization, I was pretty bummed out. When you come face to face with study after study and example after example of how much we, as Americans, are succumbing to tribalism, it’s pretty depressing. I also see it in my day job as a reporter for USA Today, where I have a first-hand look at how much America seems to be coming apart at the seams.

That’s when I decided I wanted to do something. So, long before I had a book deal, I went out and visited with people who are trying to bring others together despite their differences. I went to Charlottesville, Annapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit, D.C., Appalachia, and many other places. 

I started interviewing these folks, figuring that if I could find a way to tell their stories in a compelling fashion, we could all draw some incredible insights from them on how to begin repairing the deep divides that plague us as a nation.

What does it mean to be a “bridge builder”? Can you highlight one or two examples in the political realm? 

Bomey: Bridge builders come in many shapes and sizes, but they have a lot in common. They believe in accountability, meaning they don’t ignore the past. They educate people about it and learn from it. But they also don’t seek to shame others because they know that shame simply produces a counterproductive response. Instead, they seek to build understanding through relationships and conversations with people who aren’t like them.

Fundamentally, we remain a very segregated country. We are separated by race, religion, politics, class, and culture. So bridge builders believe that the only way to begin tackling our divides is by breaking down those barriers. This comes down to pursuing racial reconciliation, helping Americans overcome misinformation and reconnect with the truth, and reimagining what it means to strike a compromise.

One of the most dynamic stories in the book is about a group called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. When I interviewed members of the Collective, including the founder Rev. Alvin Edwards, I was struck by how determined they are to address the ways in which their own religious institutions have exacerbated racism and hate. As an interfaith group, it is very challenging for them to close gaps on issues such as racial, political, and theological divides. So they started with the very basic act of building relationships with each other. They had lunch. They got to know each other. They started by building trust. Only then did they begin to address some of the issues that divide them.

You say, “Someone always has to be the first one to start building a bridge.” How did your bridge builders take that first step? 

Bomey: Yeah, every ravine looks impassable before construction. And we have to acknowledge that some divides can’t be crossed. You can’t build a bridge across an ocean. I think the challenge is that sometimes the divides we think are oceans are actually rivers.

Bridge builders begin their journey by investigating the history of the territory where they’re building. You can’t build a bridge without understanding the foundation and having a strong grasp of the terrain. 

Honestly, this often starts with listening. They listen to people on the other side. I know that sounds soft. But it’s not. It’s actually quite countercultural. We live in a speak-first culture, so listening to the other side is a pretty radical concept. 

I’m not talking about hate speech or racist bigotry, of course. We cannot and should not listen to that type of thing. But a lot of things that divide us are not rooted in hate. So bridge builders recognize that some people just need to feel heard. And they recognize that when you show someone that you care, they are more likely to listen to you as well. And that’s when you can begin to build trust and begin to repair the divide.

You talk about the particularly important role journalists can play as bridge builders. Do you think the news media is currently living up to that ideal? As a journalist yourself, how might the journalism community do better? 

Bomey: Thanks for asking this. This is really important to me. As journalists, we often view ourselves as objective observers of the world – like we don’t have a responsibility to address some of these divides. I reject that premise. I think it’s very important for journalists to take on the role of bridge building. Too often we’re obsessed with conflict and uninterested in solutions. 

I’m not advocating for ignoring conflict. Of course not. We still need to provide accountability journalism and investigate wrongdoing. But we also need to think long and hard about how we can place a heightened emphasis on solutions journalism. We need to help point the way forward instead of simply pointing the finger backward. 

To answer your question, I think we, as a news industry, remain central to the health of American democracy. We perform a vital First Amendment service and we have been the target of unwarranted attacks on our integrity, falsely accusing us of “fake news.” I will always defend journalists and journalism against false accusations.

But I also think it’s important to have an honest conversation about how sensational content, clickbait, and an obsessive focus on conflict over solutions have unquestionably worsened America’s divides.

Lastly, I’ll also say that we need to invest more in local journalism. Local journalists are especially well suited to help restore trust between Americans and the media. Why? Because they are on the ground and form the kinds of relationships that build trust. We desperately need to breathe new life into local journalism – and nonprofit ventures can go a long way toward accomplishing that.

You say, “Clearly we can’t send everyone to Better Angels workshops.” So, what is needed to exponentially scale and expand the efforts of bridge builders? 

Bomey: Yeah, I didn’t want to write a book that was too anecdotal or theoretical and didn’t offer any practical suggestions. As a journalist, I have a bias toward the practical anyway.

All of my suggestions are based on integrating a culture of building relationships and having conversations between people of difference into our institutions. Take education, for instance. I think schools and colleges can implement policies to force students to interact with people who aren’t like them. In the Zoom era, why can’t students from one district form lasting relationships with students from another district by working on projects together? 

Nationally, there’s a bipartisan movement waiting to happen: public service. All sides love the idea of investing in a national public service campaign and that’s great because public service is a proven way to heal divides. When you’re serving others together, you form trusted relationships with the people you’re serving and the people you’re working with. 

In the book, you make an interesting analogy between political bridge building and literal bridge building. But, we can’t all be civil engineers and architects nor do we all need to be. What steps can and should we all take to be bridge builders or to support bridge building? 

Bomey: Indeed, I interviewed a few experts on actual bridges for my book on metaphorical bridge building because I figured they might have some interesting insights. And they did.

For example, they pointed out that bridges aren’t always built from both sides simultaneously to meet in the middle. Sometimes they are built from one side to the other. Other times they are built-in small sections, protruding in each direction from pre-constructed pillars.

The bottom line? You don’t have to necessarily meet in the middle. Sometimes one side is right, and the other side is wrong. We need to be clear about that. I would say that in many cases, the balance of blame is not 100% vs. 0%, but the point is that, yes, often one side bears more responsibility for the divide.

Yet that doesn’t mean we can ignore the divide. I mean, we can, I guess. But ignoring it will only make the problem worse for all of us. So it doesn’t really help matters to spend all of our time blaming the other side for making it worse. We’ll all be better off if we focus on how to fix it.

If you are interested in reading more, you can purchase “Bridge Builders” by Nathan Bomey here. You can also read more Divided We Fall book reviews at our “Book Club” page

Nathan Bomey
Nathan Bomey
Author | Website

Nathan Bomey is a reporter for USA Today and author of three nonfiction books. His latest book, Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age, will be published by Polity Press in May 2021. He previously served as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and several newspapers in his hometown of Michigan, culminating in his debut book, Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back. After growing up in Wisconsin and Michigan, he now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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