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Embracing Individuality and Building Unity for Durable Transformation


A lot of folks believe that collaborating across profound differences requires compromising values or even relinquishing identities. But effective bridging strategies do the opposite. They encourage everyone to bring their whole selves to the table, while also cultivating a powerful shared identity. Dual-Identity Contact, as sociologists call it, isn’t necessarily easy, but if done right, it’s incredibly powerful. It is an essential strategy for creating long-term change.


Here’s a real-life example: I had the great pleasure of attending the April 9th performance of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus in DC. The JYC is a group of Palestinian and Jewish high school students and alumni from Jerusalem who not only sing together, but who learn to see each other and to understand one another’s truths. The concert was powerful, and I highly recommend checking out this group and supporting their work, and the work of their sponsor in America, the One America Movement.


The Jerusalem Youth Chorus doesn’t ask the singers to leave their Israeli and Palestinian selves at home. In fact, the JYC only works because the singers bring their identities as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, sharing their truths about the hurts and joys they and their peoples have experienced with each other. They also create a new, shared identity as the Jerusalem Youth Chorus. This is text-book dual-identity contact work.


During the performance, several of the singers talked about why they stay with JYC, even now during this terrible war in the Levant. One student said, “JYC is the first place I could be my whole self; where I could be seen as a Palestinian, and everything else that I also am.” 


You should read that one again:

“Jerusalem Youth Chorus is the first place I could be my whole self; where I could be seen as a Palestinian, and everything else that I also am.” 

I got a good eyeball washing when I heard that. It’s just an incredibly powerful testament to the ability of dual-identity contact strategies to change the way people are with each other, in order to have them dream and do something new with each other.


It’s important to note that just bringing people together to create a new “us” doesn’t in itself work. Research shows strategies that neglect individual identities to build a shared identity can actually undermine progress, by 1) leading both majority and minority members to under-perceive threats to minority group members, 2) leading minority members to stop identifying with their sub-group and opt out of movements for change on their own behalf, and 3) leading majority members to change their feelings but not their actions. … Yikes. There are very good reasons some folks are hesitant to engage in “bridging” or “dialogue” strategies that are premised only on creating a new shared identity. For an eye-opening academic dive into this, see Saguy et al., “Irony of Harmony,” in Intergroup Contact Theory: Recent Developments and Future Directions (2017).


On the other hand, asking participants to show up with their whole selves without building a strong group identity also fails. For example, some DEI strategies have not been successful because they aren’t structured to form a strong, really shared “us,” in addition to the individual identities they bring to the table.  


Strategies that 1) invite participants to bring their whole selves and 2) offer a meaningful shared identity are shown to have more positive and less negative outcomes on behavior change. The great news is that this technique can be incorporated into all kinds of spaces where folks have strong “us” and “them” identities but could also benefit from collaboration. For example, if strategists for climate policy change get together with nonproliferation experts as described in this opinion piece then we might have a chance at safely reaching global climate change goals. 


If you are working in an area that feels stuck in a cycle of polarization and you are looking for help in breaking out of it, or you are curious about developing new kinds of partnerships, Cohesion Strategy can help. 



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