Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to the Jali podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.
Dr. Ruth Backstrom is a trained coach in the Dynamic Facilitation technique, a method designed to help people address and solve impossible seeming issues by working together collaboratively to achieve shifts and breakthroughs for large communities and entire systems of society. Previously, she spent 10 years working as a community advocate for more sustainability and a champion for creating a food policy council. She holds degrees from the University of Iowa and Columbia University. Her first book called Igniting a Bold New Democracy: Empowering Citizens Through Game Changing Reforms, just released in March 2023.
So what if instead of fighting over politics, diverse groups of citizens came together to envision and create the kind of system we want? Is that even possible? So, I am thrilled to have Dr. Ruth Backstrom here with me this week. She is an author, speaker, and acclaimed educator, and I love the fact that you’re an expert in facilitation methods that foster deeper conversations because we all know we could use deeper conversations.
Ruth Backstrom: Yes, that’s for sure.
Melyssa Barrett: But I’m really excited about your new book, Igniting a Bold New Democracy, and Empowering Citizens Through Game Changing Reforms. And it’s a beautiful cover. So for those of you not able to see it, go to Amazon and check it out, get the book, and we’re going to talk a little bit about what some of your thoughts are so that we can actually ignite a bold new democracy and what does that even mean? So thank you for being here.
Ruth Backstrom: Oh, I’m excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me, Melyssa.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes, yes. So, let’s just start with, tell me a little bit about how you got here and how you even figured out, like, “I need to write this book on igniting a new democracy. A bold democracy.”
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, yeah. This comes back to a long yearning of mine. When I was a young child, I went through a low-wealth African American community, and I said to my mother, “How come these communities have so much less wealth?” I mean, I didn’t use that phrase as a seven-year-old, because I was seven, but I would say something like that, and she didn’t give me an answer that I found really satisfying. I mean, as a kid, there’s the innocence of kids. It’s often the truth, the deeper truth of things. And I remember thinking, “We should be sharing things more. That’s what all the adults tell us to do. And why aren’t the adults doing this?”
Melyssa Barrett: Now where did you grow up?
Ruth Backstrom: I grew up in Chicago, the south side of Chicago.
Melyssa Barrett: Okay. All right.
Ruth Backstrom: And so then five years later I was listening on the radio and I heard this voice, this deep, resonant voice, and I thought, “This is a man who’s addressing my concerns, and he’s speaking from a place that most people don’t even visit.” I just felt that as a kid, as strong… And I was 13, and at that time, I was going to a school that was 90% African American, and so I knew the problems. It was overcrowded. It had twice the capacity of students that it should have had. They had an up staircase and a down staircase to handle the flow. It was just a mess. It was hard to imagine learning under those circumstances.
And then they had these mobile units in the back, so when I found out there was a protest about integrating schools, because this was not very integrated, obviously, then I went and decided I was going to join. And so I got on the IC with my best friend, and we went downtown and we got to the spot where all the marchers were convening. And they called the superintendent, Benjamin Willis, and said, “We’re going to come and speak to you,” and he said he wasn’t interested in speaking to us. No surprise, right? So then it was decided that we would sit down. And so I started to sit down, and then out of the side of my eye I noticed that our organizer, who was Dick Gregory, who was a comedian at the time.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, really famous comedian. And they were beating him, and there was blood coming down his face. And as a 13-year-old this was shocking to me because I’d never seen a scalp wound before, and how blood is, it just pours out when you have these scalp wounds. And so I was really terrified. So I said to my friend, “Hold on tight.” And this policeman saw me and he said, “I’ll get that one.” And I was like, “Oh, no.”
Melyssa Barrett: And pointing to you?
Ruth Backstrom: Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh.
Ruth Backstrom: He took my comment as an aggressive remark, and he was going to make a point of making an example out of me, at which point I said, “I’m walking into the paddy wagons,” and I walked into the paddy wagons. But it leaves me with the feeling of how courageous that whole movement was and the things that people were up against and the desire to finish it, to really have a fully developed, integrated, equitable society.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, well, no doubt, and I’m sure your mother didn’t appreciate you going to jail that early in life.
Ruth Backstrom: Actually, my mother, fortunately, was very liberal, and she was like, “I knew something like this would happen.”
Melyssa Barrett: This is just the beginning, right?
Ruth Backstrom: That’s right. For my daughter.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. That was the beginning of my interest in having really [inaudible 00:07:30] societies. And one of the things that I look at in my book is, what happened? Why didn’t we make more progress on these things? And how can we have conversations that take us to this place of our shared humanity and our shared goals and aspiration?
Melyssa Barrett: Yes, and how can we? I mean, that’s the question.
Ruth Backstrom: That’s right.
Melyssa Barrett: I mean, can you talk a little bit about, when you talk about, and I don’t know whether to start with your facilitation technique or what is a bold new democracy and how do we even get to one?
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. So what I imagine is the bold new democracy is one we create through a civic agenda. We get together and we say, “These are the changes that we really need.” And we know these changes. We’ve talked about them for decades. We know the changes that we need. So we just have to take our power back. We have to come together and say, “This is what we reach consensus on. Just start with what we agree on.” Like money out of politics, everybody agrees on that, but we need to take power back and start locally. Maine actually is a great example of that. They were funding 80% of their elections with local funds for the state, and they had the most progressive agenda as a result of that. So we know what happens if we could take it back and put the voice of the people into democracy.
And that’s not just a wild idea. That’s actually happening all across the country, all across the world in fact. From Washington State to Australia, there are citizen assemblies that are convening around climate change, and people are pushing the politicians to take much more radical measures because they can, once the people say, “You have to do this.” It gives them the political cover to do those things. Let me give you a story to illustrate that. In Austria they were looking at the issue of immigration, and so they convened what was called a citizen’s council. It was a random selection of people and they got together and they were talking about the issue. And at first they were shocked by the numbers because they said, “You have to be a little more transparent about how many people are coming over and stuff.”
And then somebody said, “But we have to see the people behind the numbers,” which kind of stirred everybody’s compassion. So then they said, “Well, what we should do is we should get them jobs.” But then this one guy said, “Well, I don’t think we should get them jobs.” And with Dynamic Facilitation, it’s a safe space so people can say anything and the facilitator goes deeper to understand why that person is saying that. So the facilitator said, “Well, why do you say that?” And he said, “Well, I have a niece who’s been looking for a job who can’t get a job, so why should these people get jobs when she can’t get one? Who can’t get a job? So why should these people get jobs when she can’t get one?” And that made him human. That humanized him, and you saw where his concerns were coming from.
And so then the group said, “Well, let’s include her, too. Let’s include anybody who needs a job in these job fairs.” And that’s what they did in the end. They created job fairs around the state and they invited anyone to come. And that’s an illustration of how groups can work really effectively. I’d like to talk about groups working from the level of their collective intelligence. We talk about individuals doing that, but groups can have that effect too. We talk about individuals being in the zone. Well, we know that groups too can work really powerfully together and listen, to come into a group and you want to maybe putt for your idea to be the one that everybody gets behind. But as you talk, you could actually get to a place where you’re thinking like a group about solving all of the concerns and interests of everyone in the group. And that’s what happens with the use of Dynamic Facilitation.
Melyssa Barrett: Well, and I love that because I remember a time when we used to be able to take one plus one equal three. You really created synergy out of the information that one person would say over here versus another person would say over here. And it wouldn’t be like, “I have to go left or right.” It would be, “Let’s create a new path.” By bringing the ideas together, you actually made an even better idea. And now it seems like, “No, it’s left or right. That’s it.”
Ruth Backstrom: Right, exactly. We’re going the wrong way on this stuff. And we have to realize that it’s not a liability. It’s our greatest asset.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes.
Ruth Backstrom: Problem-solving. The more ideas that come into the room, the better. So we really need that. And now we’ve done enough research about groups, so we actually know what are the conditions that create collective intelligence that allow it to arise from the group. There’s a really interesting book by a woman named Judith Glaser called Conversational Intelligence. She took these methods into the workplace and it was really interesting. She gave people the safety to say whatever they wanted to say, whatever they needed to say about a situation, and they also began to map their different realities together to get a shared reality of what was going on in the company. And she found if she could get to this deeper level of conversation, she called it a level three conversation where everyone’s open to the ideas and they’re thinking together as a group, she could change the entire culture of the organization.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. She took Clairol, for instance, at a time when natural hair dyes were coming out and they were not doing as well as they’d like, and they were like 250 million, and she started this conversation and they went up into the billions over less than a decade. And so it shows-
Melyssa Barrett: Wow.
Ruth Backstrom: I know. It’s a great concrete example of the change working for them is a more profound level of conversation.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it. Well, and so when you talk about that conversation, one of the things that I was going to ask you is, I mean, how do we actually begin the process of communicating with those that we disagree with? Because you were talking about, I mean, it’s a safe space, so we want to be able to express themselves. People can say whatever they want, but I find when people say whatever they want, then there’s usually some sort of reaction that kind of takes things in a different direction altogether.
Right. And that’s where the facilitator really has to work with the group and let that person’s deeper humanity become revealed, as that example showed. At first you think of him as being unkind and not very empathetic, but you realize it’s coming from his own place of lack. His niece was not getting a job. And I think that is often the case in our country as well. There’s a resentment that these immigrants are going to get things that we didn’t get.
And so that brings up a really important point. We need to treat our citizens better, too. Our citizens shouldn’t feel so neglected. So that comes into the mix as well. Okay, so we’re going to address the needs of the immigrants, but we need to address the needs of the citizens as well. And so it widens the prescription of what needs to be done, so you’re really dealing with a deeper level that includes more issues.
Melyssa Barrett: I mean, how do people get started with… Because I was telling you a little bit about, I mean, I’ve been to our city council meetings and they are not a place that I enjoy going, unfortunately. But I also know there is a necessity to show up because the local politics in many cases have become even more important than some of the national and federal level politics because you can actually drive an impact change in your community. But how do you actually get started? I mean, we have situations where they’re voting in blocks, like, “Nope, the three of us, we always vote the same. And if it’s a no, it’s a no.” Or, “The two of us, we always vote the same.” So how do we get started in actually changing that?
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. I think the place to start is to see if you can get them receptive to listening to the voice of the people. That is the trick. What happened in Austria, the way this got started was, he started in little rural places to refine the technique and get it smooth. And then as it got smoother and smoother, he also started it everywhere. But the trick, I think, is to start with the citizens. Bring citizens together and create a civic council.
I actually have a friend in California I can connect you with who’s using Dynamic Facilitation to do work. This would be a great place to start. I know, and California’s one of the few places where there’s actually a trained Dynamic facilitator. But that is one of the things I want to do is, I want to bring together the training and train more people in Dynamic Facilitation so we can have people practicing that across the country. And another technique that’s really powerful that I mention in my book is Appreciative Inquiry, which has also been really successful at creating visions.
Melyssa Barrett: So, you said Appreciative Inquiry?
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, Appreciative Inquiry is what it’s called. Right.
Melyssa Barrett: So tell us more about what that means.
Ruth Backstrom: Well, it means starting with what’s working. Building on that. But it’s also been used very effectively in organizational development for 30 years, so it has a great track record at being really successful. Both these techniques have a really good track record at being really successful. And there’s a lot of practitioners out there too who would love to increase these conversations so that they’re deeper. And that’s the other thing that they really strive to do, is create this deeper conversation that really focuses on what’s working and how can we grow what’s working? And how can we always think about working from that positive angle to put more positivity into a situation? So there are a lot of really interesting things going on using facilitation to bring new perspectives into the world.
Melyssa Barrett: So, are there lessons that we could learn from the past that have been used before? Or when you talk about the bold new democracy, I mean, are there new things, aside from Dynamic Facilitation, which I think is really getting to the level of humanity, where can we go from there? What can we learn from in the past that might resurrect?
Ruth Backstrom: Yes. I mean, my first chapter, I start out talking about the G.I. Bill of Rights and what a transformative thing that was and what an important legacy that is. We were the first ones to do that. It was this huge sociological experiment. Before that most people couldn’t afford to go to college, they couldn’t afford to own a home, and vet people just paid off in spades. For every dollar we invested, we got a $7 return.
And that should be part of our heritage that we remember. We need to invest in people. And we’ve forgotten that, but it’s starting to come out. There’s this movement, for instance, to give homeless people a universal basic income. In fact, they’re doing that in Stockton, California. They’re giving them $500. They found with $500, 35% can attain housing. I mean, you can make a really big difference, and that’s the kind of investing we need to do again.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. I think it’s awesome that you just mentioned Stockton, California. How cool is that?
Ruth Backstrom: I know. I know. It’s right there in your backyard. And another thing we should do is celebrate these things. As citizens we need to go down there and say, “We’re so glad you’re doing this.” Instead of always being in this adversarial position, we need to actually take the initiative and say, “We like the fact that you’re doing this. We’d like to see you do this here and here and here, too.”
Melyssa Barrett: Right.
Ruth Backstrom: And really, this is about taking our power back in a way, seeing ourselves as really important leaders in these things. We’ve sort of given up our power. There’s this expectation that you’ll write checks and send it to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, whatever party you want to win. But that’s not really the most effective kind of engagement. We need to get in there and really have high level civic engagement. For instance, in Ireland, they’ve been having these civic assemblies for so long, and they’re so popular that now if they’re having a debate, they call forth a citizen assembly.
Melyssa Barrett: But before you go there, the question is, because when you go to some of these forums, they’re not the civic ones you’re talking about. They’re not civic.
Ruth Backstrom: No, no.
Melyssa Barrett: So how are they bringing in these civic assemblies when there is so much strife and debate about things? Do they go there and then they say, “You know what? We’re not going to resolve this today, so let’s put it into a civic assembly,” or how does that process work?
Ruth Backstrom: No, the rule is, there has to be 80% agreement, often. That’s what they did in Poland, actually. They did a citizen assembly and they had to have 80% before they even did it. The rule was, if 80% of the people agree on it, you have to enact it. And so that was a kind of an agreement that was brokered from the very beginning, and it was around floods. They had some floods and they weren’t well prepared. And so these citizens met together to decide what they should do, and they came up with a number of recommendations which they implemented, and they were much more successful in handling the next flood as a result. So that’s one way you can do it. And the other thing is, they also asked that everybody justify whatever they were proposing.
So there was the rationality of what they were doing, they were made aware of it and stuff. And there’s something that happens in groups that’s really amazing, in that you can get this energy in the group so people feel free to change their minds. There’s a kind of freedom there that you don’t feel when you don’t think you have to defend your identity. I mean, this is what happens in the city councils and why in some ways it’s not as effective a venue because people get into this sort of identity and they’re stuck in this identity. But for instance, there was one citizen assembly in rural Minnesota around climate change, and she said, “You know, if you’re given the right information, you can change your mind.”
Melyssa Barrett: Yes. Yes. And you don’t feel bad about it, right, because it’s like, “Oh, you make the best decision using the information you have at the time.”
Ruth Backstrom: That’s right. That’s right.
One of my favorite examples actually is a study that Stanford did called America in One Room, and they took 500 people in Dallas, Texas, and it was supposed to be representative of America in the proportions that you’d see in the regular population. And it was just a weekend. They polled them as they came in on how they felt on a number of different issues and how they felt about the state of democracy. Then over the weekend, they met with experts on five different topics, and they polled them again at the end.
At the beginning only 30% of the people thought democracy was doing moderately well. At the end of the weekend, 60% said democracy was doing reasonably well. And that is just a weekend. It’s a really powerful illustration of how just talking to each other is really powerful. And the other thing they found is, everybody went towards the middle. As they heard each other’s arguments, they became less extreme in their points of view, too, which is something I hear a lot when I talk about my book is people saying, “You know, I really don’t want the extremes talking as much. I want to hear more from the middle and stuff.”
Melyssa Barrett: Right, right.
Ruth Backstrom: We have to go quickly. We can’t negotiate with Mother Nature. She’s not going to negotiate, but we can negotiate with each other on other things.
Melyssa Barrett: You know the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s one of those things where we really don’t realize the power of that collective, but I think it’s challenging to get to the collective now. I mean, people are in their homes on Zoom, they’re not necessarily in the same room in some cases, or sometimes they are. I mean, there’s really this whole hybrid interaction, so it becomes challenging, I think, just technically to get people organized in the same fashion, just to have that conversation, especially if you’ve got a face-to-face version and a Zoom version, which a lot of city council meetings and such have now. But you’re not really able to connect some of those dots sometimes as well as you’d like as if you were in person.
Ruth Backstrom: Right. Right. Actually, they have developed a Dynamic Facilitation method on Zoom, so that-
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, wow.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. So that’s been used-
Melyssa Barrett: Awesome.
Ruth Backstrom: … when they had to use it. And they actually did these citizen assemblies that way, too. And the interesting thing is that once people get a taste of these things, they love it. Really revitalizing democracies everywhere, versus they did one in Melbourne, Australia, on the deficits. They opened their books to the people and said, “Can you help us get rid of our deficits?” I mean, can you imagine any city in the United States doing it?
Melyssa Barrett: No. No, I can’t.
Ruth Backstrom: No, right? Anyway, the people got so excited because they felt like they changed from just being consumers actually being real active citizens. This one woman calling from the delivery room saying, “I wanted these points to get in.” And another guy who was supposed to go on vacation canceled his vacation because he was so excited to be part of this process.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, wow. Well, and I think it goes to that empowerment. You just shift. The student becomes the teacher in a way, or you just shift your total perspective, and now it’s like, “Okay, well, what do you want?”
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s fantastic. So then, are there some examples of organizations? I mean, we have a lot of nonprofits that are popping up. Are there organizations that can take a more significant role than maybe they’ve had in the past when it comes to politics and citizen assemblies?
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, there are. Braver Angels is probably the best-known organization working in this space. They have chapters all across the country, and they bring liberals and conservatives together to have debates and to have workshops. And they’re really working. They’re having a lot of success, and they have conventions that they bring together. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on in this space, actually.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, that’s nice.
Ruth Backstrom: There’s also a Co-intelligence Institute that’s really working with these citizen assemblies. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on. A lot going on.
Melyssa Barrett: When we think about the organizations, I know you also talked a lot about women getting involved.
Ruth Backstrom: Yes. Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: I mean, why do you think that’s so important in reshaping democracy, getting women more involved?
Ruth Backstrom: Well, because I think that women have a lot of emotional intelligence, and that’s what’s really needed. That’s the learning. One of the chapters in my book I talk about how we have to become a learning society, and we have to. I mean, there’s so much change that has to go on. And I think women have a really good sense of how to balance things and to bring in their innate knowledge of this sort of realm. And that’s validated by research that shows a lot of the women governors did really well with the COVID stuff because they could encourage people and at the same time be sympathetic with how they were feeling. And it’s that kind of balancing that I think is really important.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes.
Ruth Backstrom: I think this is really an important time for women. Also I think they have to call back their own power, too. I mean, it’s amazing some of the laws that have been passed that are really limiting and stuff. So there’s many reasons for women to get involved, and I’m really excited about the idea of women getting involved.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, I mean, just the perspective. I love how you talk about the ability to multitask with empathy.
Ruth Backstrom: Yes, exactly.
Melyssa Barrett: It’s amazing. So that’s awesome. So tell us a little bit about, in terms of fostering deeper conversations, have you found that as you get into the facilitation, that you’re able to uncover things that people wouldn’t normally share? Or-
Ruth Backstrom: Oh, yeah.
Melyssa Barrett: I mean, how do you get through those layers? And I’m sure there’s methodology and obviously all of those things, but I think a lot of times we don’t even do that with ourselves. We tend to stop too soon, and we don’t even ask ourselves deeper questions.
Ruth Backstrom: That’s right. One of the most profound things for me actually, in my personal life, was learning transcendental meditation got me deeper. It gave me that grounding on that really universal level of humanity or something in a way that nothing else did. So I think there are powerful individual tools that we can also use and develop.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, I love that you said meditation. That’s fantastic. I mean, it’s such a mindset process for us to get back into our own selves, so I love the fact that you brought up mindset.
Ruth Backstrom: I think especially for African Americans, it can take away some of the stress that’s there of just being in this culture and ground you again in yourself, in who you really know yourself to be. And there’s a lot of research on this, too. Went to Washington D.C. with a friend of mine who’s working as a transcendental meditation teacher, and he’s trying to get it into the schools because he feels it’s such a powerful thing for students.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes.
Ruth Backstrom: Research also shows it really helps students in their ability to thrive in school and stuff.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, wow. That would be awesome. That’s wonderful because I know, and I think about even with the pandemic and the impact on the students during that time, just the trauma associated, not to mention all the other things that are going on with shooting in the schools and all. I mean, there’s some real trauma that when we talk about just feeling safe, how do you even get to the safe space?
Ruth Backstrom: Right. And one of the interesting things about one Dynamic Facilitation session, they talked about what to do with the concentration camp. And this was a really loaded issue because the facilitator was told, “Don’t touch this. This is too hot. Don’t even touch it.” And in the course of it, one of the women said, “I wish I had been able to do more.” And there was this incredible sense of empathy in the room as everyone felt the pain and the trauma of that whole thing. And the younger people said, “We don’t feel like you’ve talked about this enough.” And the older people said, “Oh, we feel like we don’t ever want to talk any more about it. We talked about it enough.”
And it was a realization that they hadn’t really explored it in this way, on this deeper level, and now they could finally do something with this. So DF, Dynamic Facilitation, is really a good technique, which was started by Jim Roth in Washington State, by the way. It’s a really good technique for dealing with some of these traumatic things, too. And I think there are other ways to do deal with them, other techniques. I think Appreciative Inquiry is very good at holding a space for people to tell these stories, and those are the stories that are healing for us, and that’s the way that we can heal, is to hold a space for those stories and to see those different sides of it, how it was a difficult time and stuff.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, well, and it’s still a difficult time, unfortunately.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. It’s a difficult time for us now, too, and I think we have to hold space for us to come back together. And we need citizens to say, “We don’t want this anymore. We’re tired of the divisiveness. We’re tired of being polarized. We want to come together and take care of each other, and we want to create a future that is one that we want instead of being [inaudible 00:35:05] we don’t want.” So we need to plan for the future. We need to create a civic agenda that plans for the future. And there’s all these things that nobody’s talking about enough. Like work as we know it is going to disappear, so we’re going to need to talk about universal basic income or some of these things in order to be ready for these things, so we’re not blindsided by them.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes. I mean, I love the fact that you’re taking us into this broad view of… I mean, things are changing so significantly that you can’t really even compare. You’ll be able to look back 100 years and go, “Oh, my gosh, this is so different.” We’ve got self-driving cars and all of these things that you maybe dreamt about or some people did 100 years ago.
Ruth Backstrom: Right.
Melyssa Barrett: But it’s so interesting to me because you’re right, there’s so many different things, and we don’t even know what the impact of those things will look like, but life as we know it will be absolutely different.
Ruth Backstrom: Absolutely. Yeah. In so many ways. I mean, my husband’s a computer programmer and he’s talking about the effects of AI, and it’s just… Really have to be careful what happens with that. It’s possibly dangerous unless we really regulate it.
Melyssa Barrett: Well, and it brings another point, which is why DEI becomes so significant because we talk about AI, you talked about even the G.I. Bill, and it’s being adversely impacted on the G.I. Bill. African Americans did not receive the type of legacy that a lot of whites received, right?
Ruth Backstrom: Right.
Melyssa Barrett: So I think there’s a level of consciousness that I love when you talk about Dynamic Facilitation, bringing in those diverse views and going deeper allows people to understand, or at least hear about the experiences in different situations. My lived experience is maybe different than yours, but you have a different lived experience probably than some of your friends.
Ruth Backstrom: When I was writing my book, I casually said, “Yeah, I got arrested when I was 13.” They were, “Wow.” And it was an eye-opener to me because I felt bad that I walked into the paddy wagon, that I was such a coward.
Melyssa Barrett: You wanted to be dragged in there or what? I mean…
Ruth Backstrom: I didn’t want to get beaten up. I still don’t like that experience.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, no doubt. Yeah, I can imagine watching Dick Gregory and what was happening. Oh, my God.
Ruth Backstrom: Right. But John Lewis, he was such a hero. I mean, he was such an amazing example of just the bravery that that took.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes, yes, absolutely. But that’s how we learn, right? Through those situations, unfortunate situations in some cases, but they do serve as a learning opportunity for people to do better.
Ruth Backstrom: And coming back to, I definitely think we need reparations to make up for the social engineering that we did that disadvantaged African Americans. I mean, that just makes sense. It’s just a sensible thing to do. It doesn’t matter what your particular views are. It’s the kind of investment that pays off. That’s the thing. If people are going to school, and I mean, I think we should get school down to a reasonable price. It’s ridiculous that we’ve made education an elite commodity at this point. I mean, isn’t it bad enough that we’re giving them this wobbly democracy, a planet on life support, and then we’re going to cripple them with debt? This makes no sense whatsoever. We need to put wind in their sails to solve these problems and take away the debt.
Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely. I love it. Well, and so many people think reparations are only about money, but there’s so many other aspects to even the acknowledgement, the apology. I mean, there’s so much healing that goes into reparations. Thank you for bringing that up. I think there’s definitely conversations and deeper conversations that need to continue to be had when it comes to reparations.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. In Stockton, they not only gave them money, but people volunteered to be a confidant to them and to talk to them on a regular basis. And that was as powerful as the money, just having someone who can take you out of this stuck space.
Melyssa Barrett: Right. And you’re referencing the homelessness-
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, the homelessness-
Melyssa Barrett: … initiative. Yeah.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. And the other interesting thing is the Harlem Children’s Zone project. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but they started with one block and they just started to talk to people and address the needs that they had on that one block. And then it grew from there, I think, to 37 blocks or something. And it was just addressing people’s needs, just going… And that’s a big point I make in my book, that there’s a man named Marshall Rosenberg who discovered that he could stop conflict if he could understand the underlying need that was driving it.
So he’d go to warring tribes around the world and he’d talk to them, and if he could get them to a point where they could say what their need, and they each agreed to meet the other groups, they could diffuse the conflict. So this idea of addressing needs is a really interesting thing. What is the need that different groups have to heal and to feel like they’re part of the belonging in our country?
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. Well said. I love what you’re saying there, because I think there’s so much that needs to go on when it comes to conversations and healing. I love the fact that you’re digging deeper and helping us to have these deeper conversations across racial lines or anything else, because I know there’s a lot of disagreements on so many things.
Ruth Backstrom: In the end, actually, we have to have a spiritual renaissance where we revitalize our best values. We sort of lost any kind of sensibility of what’s right and wrong. We have pharma making money off our sicknesses, things that just don’t make any sense. These are not the kind of values that we should have, these kind of, greed is just rampant and stuff. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts about some of the values from Kwanzaa, too.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, my gosh. You’re asking me about Kwanzaa? I love it. Well, and you know what’s so interesting to me? One of the reasons I got so into Kwanzaa is because of the principles that it creates. The fact that we’re talking about unity and self-determination, collective work and responsibility, self-determination. Look, I’m going to try to remember all of them in a row. Cooperative economics, purpose, faith. But all of the principles that come up when you talk about Kwanzaa are really about making sure that we are taking ownership as a people, Kwanzaa being created for African Americans in the United States, part of the Civil Rights movement.
But it was really about, how do you take… And I view it myself as being able to take a lot of the anger that comes with all the trauma, discrimination, the belittling, and making sure that we have values as a people to move through the system with all of the trauma that we continue to go through, really. I mean, it’s a continued trauma. And so leaving the world a better place than when we left it, being able to name ourselves, all of the things that we talk about when it comes to Kwanzaa in creating that level of unity, to me, anytime we can do it, and I’ve had Kwanzaa now in my house for, I don’t know, like 23, 24 years. We do a big community event.
We literally bring the community into the house, and we’ve done other community Kwanzaa events where they’re in bigger venues so that we can get more people. But there is some sort of difference when you are fellowshipping in someone’s house versus at some sort of institution. And I think just being able to fellowship over a meal, have that Karamu feast, and really focus on the principles, understanding the values. You talk a lot about the values, but there’s a lot of people in leadership where we are questioning their values. We have to really help people understand what our values are and why we are important. We are valuable. We make a difference. We have a purpose here. And so I think those are all… We matter. I’ll just say it out loud, Black Lives Matter.
Ruth Backstrom: Right. Right.
Melyssa Barrett: And it’s not that nobody else’s lives matter. It’s that we want to make sure people acknowledge the fact that we matter. So Kwanzaa, to me, was such a wonderful representation of highlighting some of those principles that you can take with you every single day. When I’m thinking about how my day is going, how intentional I can be when it comes to unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics. Are there African American businesses that I can reach out to? Do I have faith in my teachers? And that’s throughout your whole life, not just while you’re in school. I continue to have teachers, right?
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah.
Melyssa Barrett: And so I appreciate a lot of the work that you’re doing because I think we do need to have deeper conversations, and I think Kwanzaa is one of those things where I get to see people I haven’t seen maybe in a year, but I get to renew those friendships and check in on people and see how they’re doing and actually see them face-to-face in a lot of cases, just celebrating that harvest.
Ruth Backstrom: That’s great. And I think some of those deep ancient values have to come up. I was listening to an interesting video, a Native American talking about how we need to rethink our relationship to the earth, and instead of being the center of it, we need to be the guardian of it and stuff. And that’s a long journey from where we are, but this is the kind of journey that we need to make into these new values to really understand our place in the world more appropriately. I mean, we’re only guests on this planet, really. We should leave it in a better shape than we found it when we came.
Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely. Well, and I think as we even go into what Native American land is my house on. I mean, I did research to try to understand that, and then I found all of these other amazingly negative things that they did to the Native Americans in the State of California not that long ago that I did not know about. I mean, I knew we continue to fight about water here in the valley, and you start to really uncover all the history that’s associated with water rights and land and all of those things. So it’s really incredible what we’re finding out now just by having conversations and people being able to speak up and talk about these stories that are finally coming out, realizing that you got one version of history, but there’s so much more to it.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. I went to Budapest and they had these little shoes of children that had been killed in the Holocaust. And you realize that when a country comes to terms with its past, something really big and healing happens. And I think that’s what we have to keep in mind, that when we really come to terms with our past, there’ll be this huge leap forward for us I think.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s phenomenal. So, before you go, please tell us how we can get access to your book and facilitation and all of those things. So give us the lowdown.
Ruth Backstrom: My book is available on Amazon, and you can get it in Kindle or you can get it in a book form, whichever way you like to read.
Melyssa Barrett: Hardback, paperback.
Ruth Backstrom: Yes. It’s also hardback and paperback.
Melyssa Barrett: Awesome.
Ruth Backstrom: And I’m coming to California, so I’m going to bring you yours.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh, awesome. Well, I ordered it, but I’ll take one from you, signed.
Ruth Backstrom: Okay. That’s right. I’ll give you one signed, too. You can give your other one away.
Melyssa Barrett: Awesome. Awesome. Yes. I can’t wait till you get here, so I’m looking forward to coming by and checking it out.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah. So I’ll be there on the second week, and I’m going to try and do something the second weekend there, in May.
Melyssa Barrett: Okay.
Ruth Backstrom: So, if you’re in town-
Melyssa Barrett: Fantastic.
Ruth Backstrom: … let’s definitely get together and talk some more.
Melyssa Barrett: Absolutely. I look forward to it. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being here. Any last words you want to leave us with?
Ruth Backstrom: Yes. I want everyone to think that they can make a difference. Even a little 15-year-old girl was able to start this huge climate movement, Greta Thunberg, and she’s an unlikely candidate because she had Asperger’s. Says that’s really one of her superpowers. So you don’t have to have any particular personality or be any kind of person. You could just start with whatever you’re really good at there to make a difference.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it. I love it. Thank you so much, Dr. Ruth Backstrom. Get her book, Igniting a Bold New Democracy: Empowering Citizens Through Game Changing Reforms.
Ruth Backstrom: And thank you so much, Melyssa, for having me. It’s really been fun to talk to you. I’m looking forward to some more.
Melyssa Barrett: Thank you. I can’t wait to see you in person.
Ruth Backstrom: Yeah, me too.
Melyssa Barrett: Thanks for joining me on the Jali podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.