Photo of Dr. Karen Murphy teaching

What I've Learned Along the Way

After 25 years of distinguished service to our organization, Dr. Karen Murphy, Facing History’s Director of International Strategy, will join our partner organization High Resolves as CEO of an initiative called The Human Responsibility Accelerator. Stay tuned for news of our deepening partnership with High Resolves. In this article, we invited Karen to share a bit of what she has learned in more than two decades at Facing History.

There’s no way to sum up nearly 25 years of work in one post, but I do have a few thoughts to share as I leave Facing History and Ourselves. In my next role as CEO of a new organization, the Human Responsibility Accelerator, I expect to work closely with Facing History, so I’m not saying goodbye to the organization or to any of you.

I’ve worked with people and organizations around the world, from Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Poland, Rwanda, Serbia, South Africa, the US and the UK among others. Here is some of what I’ve learned along the way:

We must face the past. There’s no convenient time to do this, no time when everyone is ready to agree, especially because facing the past means understanding what happened, grappling with the implications, acknowledging them and then imagining and operationalizing accountability. I’ve seen communities and entire countries engage in efforts to do this work. It’s often incomplete and imperfect. It’s something we have to keep working at because it is a multigenerational effort. There’s often more to learn as more people are heard, and as history itself becomes more inclusive in terms of the events, peoples and stories that are acknowledged. I’ve also seen communities and countries defer this work, hoping for better or less volatile times. In the meantime, though, views harden, group differences get exaggerated and the truth becomes more elusive. And, I’ve seen communities and countries make up pasts, create versions of “what happened” to either build a (forced) common story (for political objectives) or to build a kind of common ground. But myths and misinformation are like sand. They don’t make sturdy foundations for building relationships or institutions. They are especially bad for democracies.

Look both up close and far away.  It’s so easy to focus on what’s in front of us. Daily life has so many demands. But creating democratic, just, equitable cultures means keeping our eyes on fundamental things even as we go about everyday life. The people I’ve met over the years who are best at this seem to wear a kind of bifocal lens. They are deeply engaged with their communities and have strong local relationships and connections, and yet they also look up and out–at their country and the world. This takes time and effort. It means establishing new routines and habits. It also helps to have an understanding of your own country’s past and the histories of other places. It helps you to hear echoes, identify patterns and know when to worry. We have lots of information coming at us but a lot of it is noise and that noise can be overwhelming. It can make you feel badly and also as though just hearing it as information is enough. But consuming content is not the same thing as taking real action in our communities, countries and the world. Yes, learn what’s going on. Select a few trusted sources. But take the time you are “doom scrolling” or randomly reading articles and choose something to do. If you don’t have much time, support people who do with your time or wisdom or money. And if you can only do one thing: invest in a relationship. Extend yourself beyond your community. Meet someone, get to know them, allow them to get to know you. AuthenticInterpersonal connections are the fuel underneath real, meaningful change. 

Right now is a time to worry, but don’t just worry. Do something. The US and other countries around the world are deeply divided, and too many democracies are acutely vulnerable. We can wring our hands forever about this and also get caught up in our daily lives. But we must stay awake, alert and be willing to change things in our lives and in our countries to make our democracies more durable. This includes understanding what democracy is in the first place. It does include institutions, rights and responsibilities. Voting is essential. But democracy is far more than processes and procedures. It’s fundamentally about relationships between and among people, between people and institutions, between people and their elected representatives, and between people and the idea of democracy itself. The democratic ideal itself is a kind of leap of faith. We have to believe that we and the people around us can do the work of identifying challenges and coming up with solutions together or electing people who can and will. All of this requires trust. And we don’t have that in so many communities and countries. Trust is established between people, in relationships

Invest in repair and prevention. We need to develop a culture of prevention even as we grapple with what is in front of us and do the work of repair, redress and reconstruction. The stronger our repair work, the sturdier our present and future will be.

Cross borders and boundaries. In divided societies (by identity, partisanship, resources, etc), it’s very easy to stay within one’s community. There are incentives for doing this, including convenience. There are disincentives for going outside our communities. It requires effort to cross boundaries. I’ve seen people and communities do this well by approaching other communities with humility, curiosity, and compassion, making an effort to learn and pay attention and also, at some point, just reaching out. They also know that you have to do things like wash dishes or drink tea or share stories together before you have challenging conversations about the worst things that have ever happened in your country. And they know you have to keep doing all these things because once is not enough. Anyone with a family or friends knows that relationships take work especially when there are differences among you.  

We need shared things that act as the glue as we build trust and relationships. There’s much pulling us apart. We need to develop things that bring us together and build on those things. We need rituals that are shared, that mark our process, acknowledge our efforts, act as guideposts and provide opportunities for us to mourn, celebrate, reflect, play, and imagine together.

Learn to listen. Storytelling is so important and we need more stories from more people. But we also all need to become better listeners. It will help us develop relationships and trust.

Hope. As a verb and a noun. We need to believe that we can make a difference, and we need to know that in hard times people have. We need full stories to understand the struggles people faced and how they navigated these challenges. We need to know that better is possible. And, we need to know that we can do something to make the world better, which means actually trying even the smallest action and acknowledging we did that and acknowledging when other people take actions that are going to make our communities and countries more just, humane, fair, and democratic. This is a giant leap of faith and faith requires hope. Hope is civic oxygen. 

Develop a soft heart and an open mind. Right now, it’s so easy to go the other way and become hard hearted and closed minded. But the people I’ve met who are able to bridge the divides, build trust and develop relationships across borders and boundaries have worked hard to be kind, sensitive, compassionate, empathic, and they are not dogmatic. 

We can do this. Together.

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