St. John-Crane: Restoring civil discourse in a time of division
Photo courtesy of Serve The People San José

Having been on the periphery of countless conversations about Diridon Station developments, the “Google village” coming to San Jose and fears of gentrification and a growing class divide in Silicon Valley, I felt compelled to share some observations on the discourse thus far and reflections on how our community might take a turn towards a more courageous conversation.

“If you want to change the world, shut up and listen.” – Ernesto Sirolli

Truth. I learned the importance of deep listening as a television host. If you don’t listen, you can’t connect the next question. You can’t have a conversation. You miss the mark and the opportunity to go deeper.

I regularly witness the cycle of deep conversations leading to empathy and new understandings among leaders during American Leadership Forum Fellows gatherings. I remember watching a conservative private sector CEO and non-profit social sector leader create space for each other to be heard, after months of relationship building through the class experience. The breakthrough of understanding was palpable.

We don’t create enough spaces for this transformational understanding to happen. We don’t invest in the building and nurturing of relationships that need to operate at the highest, most functional level in order to yield the results we crave and our communities deserve.

We jump from introducing ourselves to problem solving. Really, how can I solve problems with you if I have no idea who you are and how you got here? What are your values? What shaped your perspectives? What motivates your decisions?

I had been at the helm of American Leadership Forum just a few months when the 2016 presidential election happened.

Immediately following, ALF Senior Fellows were connecting on the importance of true “dialogue,” a skill taught and practiced throughout the Fellows program class experience. For us this means listening with courage, authenticity and empathy, and remaining curious in conversation while suspending judgment. It means silencing the mind from crafting the ultimate comeback line while someone else is talking.

Can we commit to modeling this behavior with whom we vehemently disagree?

On Dec. 4, the San Jose City Council was set to vote on the sale of parcels to Google in preparation for its plans to build a headquarters downtown. I felt drawn to be there, as a member of the San Jose community and colleague to many involved, on both sides of the issue.

Was the civic engagement process working to achieve the results we all want: A thriving San Jose for all?

I walked into the packed chambers and spotted my friend Chris, a developer. I sat next to him and asked what brought him to the meeting. Dressed in a suit with talking points in hand, he had been waiting three hours to speak on his agenda item – which was to be heard after the Google vote.

He was part of a development consortium proposing a housing project, substantially leveraging land in partnership with a local school district. I sympathized with him and wished him well. Ultimately, his item would be postponed.

Groups of protesters and concerned residents were lined up to speak their truth during public comment. I understood their anger having worked on the issue of homelessness for the last ten years and having had a mother who was homeless while I was putting myself through school. At least I had the opportunity to work full-time and put myself through SF State.

Given housing prices, I doubt the average working student could afford an apartment, let alone a room for rent. I’ve never been directly affected by gentrification though, a visceral concern of many protesters trying to ensure that they are a part of the rewards this new development would surely reap in a community they helped to build.

Eventually, the council deemed a group of protesters too disruptive to continue and cleared the chambers.  Attendees were ushered into the crowded foyer. Protesters continued their chants while others conversed in small groups. I watched one very heated protestor walk up to a group of men in suits, flipping them off and screaming at them. It was clear that he assumed they were a part of the Google project.

They were actually there to propose a housing project that would yield dozens of houses in the area. Their item would be postponed as well.

I struck up a conversation with a woman who identified as a part of the Google team. She lived in the Bay Area, but her parents had to move out of their house in order to retire. The cost of living was just too much. She had hoped to go visit them over the holidays.

I watched my colleagues from the NAACP and the Law Foundation stand with the protesters in the foyer, listening with empathy to their concerns about housing, gentrification and being shut out of a city their families had helped to build.

Checking my watch, it was time to head home and see my kids before they fell asleep – a privilege I recognized while elected officials, city staff, protesters and the public were obligated to soldier on throughout the evening.

I walked out of the chambers, hearing protesters chanting from 4th Street. I stood next to Flames for a few, watching as young protesters were being arrested and loaded into the police van. A young guy walked up – 30s, Caucasian, professionally dressed – and asked me what was going on.

I explained that the Google vote was tonight, and this group was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of a growing and thriving San Jose due to skyrocketing housing costs.

Another young man walked up, 30s, Filipino, appearing to be coming from SJSU. We explained to him what was going on, and the three of us just watched. At one point, the Caucasian man said, kind of uncomfortably, “Well, I moved here a few months ago for a tech job. I guess I’m the asshole.”

The student responded, “Naw, man… you’re just trying to make an honest living.” I was struck by how even a brief exchange between the three of us brought out the humanity of our circumstances.

Later on, the meeting resumed to an empty chambers only being televised and live streamed for viewers.

Councilmember Raul Peralez told the story of a “kid from the Washington neighborhood,” who fit the profile of the protesters in the room and the families they seek to protect. “Because of mentors and city programs, this kid was able to get out of poverty and now works for Google,” helping to bridge the relationship between the community and the tech giant.

Ironically, this “San Jose kid” is now being harassed and threatened because of his work.

I was reminded that we are all a part of an ecosystem and we all have history and stories that shape our perspectives and reality. Our words and actions have a ripple effect that we don’t know the totality of, unless we courageously inquire.

Here’s what I believe. We all want San Jose to thrive, to have opportunities for all, to have the tax base that allows for robust city services and job pathways for residents who have helped to build the city.

We just disagree on the how.

Our community is hungry for neutral and respectful spaces where civil discourse and innovation can flourish. Now is the time for dialogue — in the spirit of learning from each other and relationship building, with courage and open minds.

We may find that the solutions we can develop together, in partnership and equal power, will create an equitable and thriving San Jose — beyond any one side’s wildest dreams.

Suzanne St. John-Crane is the chief executive officer of the American Leadership Forum Silicon Valley.

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