New Builders initiative looks to fight polarization by encouraging collaboration and alliances

By AP News


A coalition that includes entrepreneur and philanthropist Daniel Lubetzky, actor Liev Schreiber, journalist Katie Couric, and director of the Muhammad Ali Center Lonnie Ali announced Tuesday that it would launch Builders, a nonprofit global initiative aimed at reducing polarization while encouraging people to work together to find solutions they can all support


NEW YORK (AP) — Adam Luke remembers entering the first meeting of what would become the Citizen Solutions pilot project thinking, “Oh god, this is going to suck.”

A self-described “educated redneck,” Luke was one of 11 Tennesseans with widely divergent views on gun rights selected by the project to discuss potential recommendations to reduce gun violence. He has fond memories of his dad checking him out of school when he was in first grade to go deer hunting and has long considered himself a gun rights supporter, saying, “Firearms have always had a positive influence in my life.”

Luke, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says he wanted to represent that point of view as well as address the needs of those looking to curb gun violence.

“The reason why I came to the table was that I’m so tired of the idea that we can’t do anything, that there’s no way forward… that the citizens of America are incapable of being able to communicate with one another,” Luke said. “That’s what I wanted to be hostile against.”

That desire to work together, to address a problem, and to fight polarization led the Tennessee 11, as they called themselves, to develop a slate of laws that could reduce gun violence in their state. It also led the coalition of artistic, political and philanthropic leaders behind the pilot project to believe it had enough merit to be expanded.

That coalition -- which includes entrepreneur and philanthropist Daniel Lubetzky, actor Liev Schreiber, journalist Katie Couric, director of the Muhammad Ali Center Lonnie Ali, and others – announced Tuesday that it would launch Builders, a nonprofit global initiative aimed at reducing polarization while encouraging people to work together to find solutions they can all support.

“The problem is the way social media and cable news are turning everything into ‘us versus them’ situations,” said Lubetzky, founder of Kind Snacks and recurring shark on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” “Builders will counteract that by providing people help on how to strengthen their thinking, how to process information, and how they can actually solve problems rather than create animosity.”

Builders rolled out with the release of Lubetzky's recent TED talk on fighting polarization. He said the initiative will have four major components – Builders Media to produce digital content that challenges stereotypes and divisive narratives; Builders Toolkit to help educational institutions encourage critical thinking in their students; Builders Network to amplify the voices of those speaking out against extremism; and the Citizen Solutions project.

“Both Democrats and Republicans don’t think they have anything in common,” said Ashley Phillips, head of programs at Builders’ Citizens Solutions. “But in fact, there’s a whole set of shared values that bring these very different parties together.”

Identifying and mobilizing those shared values became central to the creation of Citizen Solutions, which Lubetzky had previously supported for two decades with his Starts With Us nonprofit. The Tennessee program on gun legislation was the pilot project for the group and it has expanded into Wisconsin, where it is currently working on finding common ground in the abortion debate.

The idea of citizen assemblies dates back to ancient Athens, where men would gather to vote on proposed laws. But in recent years, the practice has returned in some countries to study what should be done about climate change.

“It always amazes me how citizens want to roll up their sleeves and do this work,” Phillips said.

Schreiber, who was recently nominated for a best lead actor Tony for his work in “Doubt,” said he was eager to work with Builders in whatever way he could help fight polarization.

“What I loved about ‘Doubt’ so much as a play was that it put forth the notion that if we can all slow down the algorithm a little bit -- the algorithm which sets us up for conflict and tribalization – and admit that we know less than we think we know and try to educate ourselves, I think it can help,” Schreiber told The Associated Press.

That idea fits with what his nonprofit BlueCheck Ukraine has been doing, informing potential donors about Ukrainian nonprofits’ work as well as bringing to light wartime conditions, especially for children.

“Part of the sickness that we’re all suffering from right now is brought on by social media and the digital age,” Schreiber said. “It feels as if we are now programmed to make rash decisions, to take positions before we are informed enough or understand the positions that we’re taking.”

Lonnie Ali said she and her late husband, Muhammad, had admired Lubetzky’s work against polarization for years. She said she hopes Builders can energize people seeking solutions and looking to form alliances.

“Extremists get up every morning with the intention of furthering their cause and they are driven to divide and destroy,” she said. “We need to channel that same energy, but to unite and build.”

Considering the currently polarized climate on the nation’s campuses, Lubetzky said Builders will make its Builders Toolkit available to universities so they can use the strategies to help prevent or defuse the extremist clashes.

Luke, from the Tennessee 11, says the strategies do work and is eager to see Builders expand. “If we can just start that social nudge for citizens to recognize we can talk about abortion rights, we can talk about immigration, we can talk about hard things,” he said. “How about we come to the table and we both find ourselves saying, ‘The government currently sucks’.”

Agreeing on that, he says, can start the process of discovering what else they agree on.


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