How to turn a family gathering into a laboratory for political healing

I don’t know what it’s like to have a family where everyone agrees politically. I did not grow up in an activist household where even if there were disagreements about the details there might be an overall consensus that injustice to anyone is something that we dedicate our lives to transforming.

As a Montessori preschool teacher and peace educator at a unique preschool in Petaluma, California, I work on a daily basis with families who, in general, realize the benefit of raising nonviolent peacemakers from early childhood onward. But that wasn’t my experience as a child. Instead, I learned that women’s bodies were as important — if not more than — our minds, and that we children were simply “ungrateful” when we had any disagreement with the decisions made by our parents. There was also spanking any time a rule was transgressed.

When I began to have my own political insights, it was like stepping on a hornet’s nest, and I was wholly unprepared to respond. Sometimes, even as an adult, I still am. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family deeply. It’s just taken a lot of work to be able to find the places of commonality between our worldviews.

When Donald Trump was elected president, we all found ourselves in this situation vis-a-vis the extended “family” that is our badly divided country. What’s more: The holiday season is upon us, and like it or not, we are going to find ourselves confronted by many an uncomfortable conversation with our dear ones — conversations that might even rival other previous life tensions, such as being the sole vegetarian or human rights activist at the table on Thanksgiving; or asking Dad not to insult Mom about her cooking; or coming out; or just simply disagreeing with your sister and brother-in-law about letting their child use a gun. You name it. If any of us have learned any lessons from previous negative holiday experiences, the leading lesson might simply be that we don’t feel great when a peaceful moment with family becomes a traumatic event for all involved — especially when there are children watching.

We’re at a time when we are beginning to realize that we cannot achieve our movement goals by ignoring or shutting down those with whom we disagree. True to the spirit of nonviolence then, we can turn holiday conversations with our families into some welcome and needed nonviolence training.

In a nonviolence training I received from the Meta Peace Team — an unarmed peacekeeping organization from Michigan that intervenes and de-escalates violence at Gay Pride events, KKK rallies or wherever tensions may run high — I learned a method called CLARA. It stands for center, listen, affirm, repeat and add.

Here’s how it works: First, center yourself by drawing from your inner calm, which many people find through meditation, prayer practice, reciting a mantra or simply breathing and counting to 10. The point is, whatever you do, really draw from it. Then listen, affirm and repeat. Remember, everyone has a point of view, and electoral politics are rarely rational since our emotions are played upon from day one of campaign season. To even have a conversation requires some emotional de-escalation. So we prepare ourselves at the same time to listen and be able to say that we’ve heard what was really said. Even when it makes us chaff. Even if we have temporary moments of inner fury. We listen. This certainly does not mean that we are not committed to dismantling a system that made Trump possible. In fact, oftentimes in nonviolence nonconfrontational strategies work in tandem with more confrontational ones.

Finally, and when possible: add. As a friend suggested to me upon hearing about my own family dilemma, “Use talking points.” When someone offers us contention or even aggression, we can respond clearly and confidently with what we actually believe in a way that repeats our core values without dehumanizing or insulting the person to whom we are speaking. This can be hard, so we need to prepare in advance. And practice.

What might some talking points sound like? Here’s a rough sketch that I’m working on for myself.

1. We have more in common than meets the eye. I disagree with how you think we can achieve our common goals, but let’s see if we can identify what they are. It might take us a while to find them, but I’m willing to work on this with you, even if it’s hard.

2. I think I’ll learn a lot if you and I can make our relationship stronger, even in the heat of disagreement. We’d be a model for the whole country, you know?

3. Violence is violence. Whichever side uses it, whether rhetorically or in action. I am not justifying the violence of those who share my political ideals, and I don’t think you should try to justify the violence of those who share yours. Let’s find a way to disagree politically without resorting to violence, even disrespect or harsh language.

4. No human being is the worst thing they’ve ever done. I want to create a society that is based on mercy and justice. Can you tell me a story about yourself so I can know your own struggles better? Can I tell you a story about myself?

5. Can I help wash the dishes tonight? (If all else fails, don’t forget that we also speak with our actions.)

Gandhi said that nonviolence would be a useless thing if it could not be applied as readily on a massive scale as it can on an individual scale. It looks like the tables h

ave turned for many of us: We are being reminded that nonviolence is not just for marches and bringing down dictators, but for our personal life too. And while there are no guarantees about this being a trauma-free process, we can think of this time as a special opportunity to get a little bit better at addressing our issues to the public at large. It sounds trite, but when it comes to creating a nonviolent world, “There’s no place like home.”

This article, by Stephanie Van Hook, originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence.

Image by Carolina Grabowska / Pexels.

Stephanie Van Hook is Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California. She co-created a cooperative board game called “Cosmic Peaceforce, Mission: Harmony 3.” Contact her:

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