Toward a More Perfect Union
in an Age of Diversity



Democratic Conversations about
Our Country and Our Communities

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Moving toward "a more perfect union" has been one of our principal ideals since the founding of our nation. And it is an ideal that has persisted. In our homes, our schools, and our media, the ideal of the union has been heralded, studied, passed down, and revered. Our struggle to fulfill this ideal has led both to inspiring strides and to painful strains. Throughout our history, there have been times of great questioning about what the ideal means and how to achieve it.

Today we are facing one of those times. There is a lot of talk about the United States becoming more diverse, and about what that means for our country. At the same time that we are focusing more attention on racial and ethnic diversity, we are hearing more and more about other kinds of "group identities" such as religion, ideology, gender, and sexual orientation.

Tensions about the meaning of this diversity become apparent as soon as we talk with each other about the state of our union. Sometimes it seems we are surrounded by a war of words. Diversity. Unity. Patriotism, Pluralism. Race. Ethnicity. Group identity. Political correctness. Multiculturalism. Culture wars. Words tap deep feelings, and they can mean very different things to different people. Even the word "American" can bring out strong conflicting feelings between strangers, neighbors, and family members.

But the conflicts we face are about more than words. The tensions that come out in our language reflect varied concerns and ideas about where we should go as a country. These pressures are visible in many of our most complex public issues, such as education, taxes, welfare, and immigration. In many communities, these tensions are evident in daily life -- whether in open conflict among groups, or in tensions and misperceptions that simmer just beneath the surface. Caught in these real-life complexities and divisions, some people are even questioning our ability to live together.

But this is also a time of hope and community building, especially at the local level. A growing number of leaders are exploring ways to bring people together, across differences, to work through issues of diversity. In the process, people are finding that they have common concerns, and that they can work together to address them -- even on the very issues that are related to their differences.

It is the conviction of these leaders that, in a democracy, the only successful resolution of these questions and tensions is one that every person actively takes part in. "We the people" can and must find ways to move toward a more perfect union in an age of diversity. Many community leaders, from every sector and background, believe that this is a critical time to consider what we hold in common, what keeps us apart, and how we can work together to build a strong, better place for all of us.

That conviction is the premise of this guide. Its purpose is to help people have the honest, productive, democratic conversations that are the heart of beginning to live and work together well.

Starting Where We Are:

Addressing Our Diversity and Creating Community

Even the most complicated tasks begin with a few concrete steps. In each city and town throughout the U.S., we must create opportunities for everyday people to sit down together, get to know one another, and exchange ideas about the problems and issues facing our communities. Such democratic conversations bring together people of different ethnic backgrounds and races; of different religious and political views; of different jobs and income levels; from different neighborhoods, life circumstances and lifestyles -- people who share this country, but seldom have a chance to share their views about it or work together to make it a better place.

The discussion process set forth in this guide is a practical way to accomplish this. Study circles -- small-group, democratic, peer-led discussions -- provide a simple way to involve community members in genuine, productive dialogue. Over several sessions, community members have the chance to:

When people have the opportunity to deal directly and openly with their differences, they learn to appreciate and respect each other. They also discover common concerns and develop strong networks to work together on those concerns. The result of these efforts is more than "getting along" -- it is the healing and renewal of our civic life.

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