On a recent Saturday, Deke Copenhaver spent five hours at the market at Eighth Street asking people questions.
“If we could do one thing to bring Americans together tomorrow, what would that be?” “How do you define compassion?” “Why is America so divided?” were among the questions the former Augusta mayor asked as part of the Starts With Us On the Street interviews.
“The whole purpose is to overcome extreme polarization in the U.S.,” said Copenhaver, of Starts With Us.
Augusta was one of three cities represented in the interviews which have been edited into bite-sized segments for social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The other two cities included were San Francisco and San Antonio.
The organization also has a website calling people to action, to overcome polarization by “each of us individually commit(ing) to the three Cs — treating each other with curiosity, compassion and the courage to have the difficult conversations,” said Copenhaver. “It seems like people are hungry for a better way, but they are trying to find the better way.”
Copenhaver believes in its mission. As one of the founding partners of Starts With Us, he sees himself as a peacemaker and as the city’s mayor from 2005-2014, he said he worked to bring people together on common ground rather than focusing on divisive issues.
“If you provide people with a positive alternative to the status quo of politics as usual, they will go to it,” said Copenhaver, who has written a book called The Changemaker: The Art of Building Better Leaders. “And I ran on governing to the middle and being extremely inclusive.”
Not only has Starts With Us gotten its message out on social media platforms, but it recently organized an event in Times Square in New York City.
In response to a YouGov poll that found “87 percent of Americans are sick of polarization,” Starts With Us enlisted 87 people to dress up like President Abraham Lincoln and demonstration against political divisiveness.
“It’s fun; it’s irreverent, but the reaction of people in Times Square was ‘this is what I need,’” he said.
Where Starts With Us will go, Copenhaver doesn’t know, but he does believe it has the potential to become a movement for lasting change. He sees that it’s provoking conversations, and he’s been encouraged by the responses he’s received. He also feels that those interviews that are being broadcast show Augusta and its residents in a positive light.
“I’m proud of my city,” he said.
Those five hours of interviews showed people who were articulate and communicated their thoughts well, he said.
As for their answers to the questions, they were simple.
“Listening and having real conversations;” “hearing each other out;” and “sitting down and listening like friends; getting to know each other” were among the solutions Augustans see as ways to solve those problems.
For more information, visit startswithus.us.
Charmain Z. Brackett is the publisher of Augusta Good News. Subscribe to the newsletter here.