Building Bridges of Compassion from Burundi to Dallas


Michael Painter


Gaping divisions have opened in unlikely, once unthinkable places: in our families, communities, and countries and across the world. It would be understandable if you at first thought that upsetting political argument you had over a family dinner or on Facebook or with your neighbor were all one-offs just about you or your community. I don’t think they are. Instead I think we are trapped in a worldwide web of pain, division and confusion of our own creation.

Over the last several weeks I’ve had the great opportunity to participate in two superb meetings separated by great distance, in fact by an ocean. In early April I was a delegate at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. There, I was drawn to a session called: ‘Unlikely Allies: Partners in Progress‘. The group, Search for Common Ground, hosted the session.

The setup? They matched two Burundi journalists, one Hutu and the other Tutsi, with two Americans, one a liberal filmmaker and the other a religious conservative abortion rights activist.

The session asked, ‘How might we make progress in spite of extreme discord?’. How can we build bridges across chasms of hate? The American filmmaker, Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy Disney, talked about her film ‘The Armor of Light‘, focused on American gun violence. The conservative, Rob Schenck, was the focus of her film. Abigail noted that she looked for ‘my definition of the most evil person I could find’. She found Rob. They should hate each other. They shared how in spite of the gulf between them and against the odds they became terrific friends.

Similarly the Burundi journalists on this panel, Adrien Sindayigaya and Agnes Nindorerea, talked about working together to promote reconciliation after being on opposite perpetrator and victim sides of genocide. The insight from this powerful Skoll session: the context for Burundi tribal divisions and American partisan strife was different—but the dynamic of discord and, most importantly, the way forward were the same.

This week in Dallas at the Council on Foundations conference, I witnessed a plenary conversation between Pastor Bryan Carter and Dallas Mayor, Michael Rawlings expertly moderated by Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune.  The mayor and the pastor talked about the shooting of five Dallas police officers by a black assailant on July 7, 2016.

They mostly focused on what came next for Dallas. Like the Burundi journalists and American liberal and conservative panelists at the Skoll Forum, the mayor and pastor talked about the way forward. They spoke of hope and reconciliation and the bridges so many in Dallas built to each other across the pain. As it turns out the way forward is the same in Dallas as it is in Burundi.

The bridges connecting us won’t necessarily come easily. We have to be intentional and diligent if we want a better future. As Pastor Carter observed in Dallas this week, “You’re either doing the work of building bridges day in and day out—or you’re not”.  The pastor wisely observed that we must look hard at what separates us. We need to listen to people and learn about the inequities driving so much of the pain and division.

Mayor Rawlings said we should look in the mirror. We cannot let our divisions defeat us. They could, of course. We also though have the opportunity to see each other and ourselves in new ways. For the mayor, the Dallas police shootings prompted profound existential questions, ‘How do I think about myself? How do I treat myself? How do I relate to the other, to my fellow human beings?’.

The divisions we are experiencing across the world are not one-off events. They are not terrible things just happening to strangers in Dallas or those people in Africa. The divisions are about all of us. The divisions are part of the world we have created.

The good news is that we can also create something better—a healthier future.  That healthy future will come once we dust off and start using our most powerful tool, deliberately and in earnest. That powerful tool is something simple yet profound. It is, of course, compassion, for ourselves and each other.

Let’s learn from our friends in Burundi and Dallas. Our differences don’t have to define us. A much better world could be within our grasp.

Michael Painter is Senior Program Officer at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

You can find more coverage from the Council on Foundations annual conference 2017 here.

Tagged in: Council on Foundations annual conference 2017

Comments (2)

Michael Painter

Agnes, Thanks so much for your important clarification and help. Does "tribal division" work better? Best to you. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from your Skoll session.

Agnès Nindorera

Hello there. I would like to correct your affirmatuon.. if you attendred the session you won't create the confusion on my idententy! Adrian and i made it clear that there is not different ethnic groups in Burundi. We speak the same language, have the same culture and the same hustory! This is the reason why we, as journalusts new that tge problem in Burundi was more poliyical than whatever othee clivage! I am a membee of on minority group , Baganwa, and would greately appreciate if you could correct what you have published on your blog. Thank you in advance.

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