‘Accessing the Best of Our Intentions’: Joan Blades on Listening and Relationship Building

Joan Blades is a social entrepreneur who’s built her career around bringing people together. Driven by her mediator personality and desire to find common ground, Joan has co-founded initiatives such as MomsRising, a network of parents working toward a more family-friendly America, and MoveOn, an online platform where citizens can mobilize for progressive grassroots campaigns.

Her most recent initiative is Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit based on conversational models specifically developed by dialogue experts to heal divides and promote understanding — a mission that’s more important now than ever before, as our culture and political climate becomes increasingly polarized.

In this interview with Bioneers, Joan shares the benefits of communicating intentionally, nourishing relationships, and coming together to collectively care for the planet and each other.

Joan Blades

BIONEERS: What core values do you have that led you to start your initiatives, like Living Room Conversations, MomsRising, and MoveOn? And have those values evolved over time as your campaigns have?

JOAN BLADES: I’m a mediator by origin and inclination. 

MoveOn is about member engagement and empowering member voices. MomsRising was a very intentional effort to find a lot of common ground because there’s a huge bias against mothers in hiring wages and advancement. It is not because most people hate mothers, so what’s going on? And we did, we found a lot of common ground.

Ultimately, it became apparent to me that there was just a need to go directly at this problem of division. Our media and our politicians have been reinforced for focusing on our differences and not on what brings us together, and that is destructive. We’re looking for interventions, and we’re trying to step into the space where what people want in their lives is connection.

BIONEERS: MoveOn was founded in 1998, emerging before any social media platforms really existed. The first MoveOn petition was about the Clinton impeachment. What role do you think this massively successful online movement-building platform has had in how people speak up for what they care about?

JOAN: The first MoveOn petition was the first petition that moved quite in the way that did. My husband Wes and I sent it out to under a hundred of our friends and family, and within a week we had 100,000 people that had signed it, and we’re like, “Oh, why don’t we do more of that?” It has always been about empowering people to have a real voice in what’s going on. That’s what we learned about doing MoveOn. 

People power is fundamental. I still believe that leaders are sitting on top of the foundation that we create for them. We have to create a foundation for good leaders, for the leaders that we admire and respect. We’re not doing that very well right now. We’ve got this pendulum swinging, and it’s just swinging wider and wider in a path of destruction.

I’m hoping after this election we’ll get a lot of people showing up and saying, we’ve got to stop this. Have we hit bottom yet? It feels like we’ve fallen far enough down to me. Can we please turn this around now? That’s my dream.

BIONEERS: What do you think are some of the signs that we’ll see when we have hit rock bottom? And how can we yo-yo back up from that position?

JOAN: I think the fact that we have families not talking to each other, that’s pretty low, honestly. Since when has politics been more important than the relationship between siblings, or parents and children? That’s seriously bad.

Now some people have found a way to hold that, but others have just walked away. People will tell you that if we want to actually repair things, we have to stay in connection with people we disagree with.

We have to have that relationship. This is about holding those relationships and building new relationships.

BIONEERS: What are some of the practices that you think people can incorporate into their everyday conversations to promote that more constructive process of listening and communicating?

JOAN: Listening is incredibly powerful, and we forget that. 

My question is often: “When’s the last time you changed somebody’s mind who really disagreed with you?” I get very few answers to that. But what does happen when you’re in a relationship with someone, when they care about you and you care about them, is you listen to each other in a different way, and your views become more nuanced, and you care some about what they care about, because you care about them. Just for that very simple human reason, and that’s actually a wonderful reason.

Genuine listening and curiosity are amazingly powerful. One of the things I love about doing the Living Room Conversations is people do these and then they say, “I’m gaining skills here,” and they take those skills out into their lives with them. That’s beautiful.

BIONEERS: What are your views about the hyper-partisanship that we’re collectively experiencing right now, as a nation and world?

JOAN: Hyper-partisanship is something that is intentional on the part of a number of players. For some players it’s a way to gain power, because if we are distrusting each other, we are not effective in dealing with environmental issues and dealing with economic issues. We cannot access the best part of our intentions. We’re living in fear, which causes us to shut down.

We like to think that we are thoughtful, intelligent beings. The reality is we’re first and foremost emotional beings. If we don’t recognize that, bad things happen.

BIONEERS: You seem to have a very optimistic view of the future. What continues to drive that hope forward?

JOAN: Optimism is just healthier. I have kids. I want them to have a good future. If I don’t work on it, if we don’t all collectively work on this, it’s not happening. It’s amazing what we can do if we work together.

And it’s amazing what we can screw up if we fail to work together. I choose to focus on the what-we-can-do side. The other side’s not much fun.

BIONEERS: Tell us more about how you examine your own internal biases, and what other people can learn from that process.

JOAN: I think doing this work causes me to be much less certain of almost everything.

There are a couple of things that I’m very solid on. Everyone deserves dignity. We need to have these relationships. But I’m afraid I can be made thoughtful about a lot of stuff, because I don’t know. People like answers that are black and white, but the reality of the world is multicolored. It’s not even shades of gray — it’s a vast array of colors, and when we reduce it to black and white, we don’t see what’s possible.

BIONEERS: What are some of the issues that our country is facing now that are most personally important to you? And what movements do you most align yourself with?

BIONEERS: I got into this because of climate change. If the world as we know it can’t support future generations and all the beautiful things on this Earth, then many things become secondary. So that’s a top concern. Human dignity, moving toward everyone having that experience of being respected and valued is critical. They aren’t separate; they’re intertwined. 

I have tried to get people talking about nuclear weapons, because people don’t want to even think about them. The reality is they still exist and they’re a huge threat. It’s amazing that we haven’t done horrible things in that realm for 70 years. 

I’m hoping that we can step into the spaces where there are dangers for the world, and we can reduce them. It’s a collective effort, and we’re going to have to really get serious about caring for each other. At the heart of this is caring for each other.

BIONEERS: With this empathy-centric view and all of this progress in mind, what are your short-term and long-term goals as you look ahead with your campaigns?

JOAN: It’s wonderful that I can have a Living Room Conversation with six people distributed around the country. The ways in which our media is giving us access is wonderful, especially at this time of COVID while people are isolated. We have beautiful conversations that are about our deeper values, that allow families, and people that care about each other to connect. That’s wonderful. So we can do that part, but how do we reduce or get rid of the destructive aspects of our world? I don’t have the answer. This is something we’re going to have to figure out collectively.

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