Convergence Center For Policy Resolution

Rob Fersh Addresses October 2016 Leadership Council Meeting

We should treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. The Golden Rule does not stop at the water’s edge of politics and public policy.  So the first principle of all is about relationships and how we treat each other.


Remarks to the Convergence Leadership Council
Rob Fersh, President
October 19, 2016

Welcome, thank you for attending. Today, I want to take us back to first principles — what we stand for as an organization, what we have proven is possible, and what impact we have had and can have.

An important early life inspiration for me came from Rabbi Erwin Zimet, my congregational rabbi in Poughkeepsie, NY when I was growing up. Rabbi Zimet was a congregational rabbi in Berlin who escaped the Nazis in the late 1930s. Twenty-five years later, he was marching for civil rights down South. He instilled in a generation of us that we all have a responsibility to seek justice and make the world a better place. This is what many Jews now call tikkun olam, repair of the world.

We never knew if our rabbi was a Republican or Democrat. There was much speculation — but no one knew. Nor did it seem important. His was a call to values — what I think of as universal values.

And one of the key lessons distilled from Rabbi Zimet and from my life experience is that it is not just what you fight for, but how you do it, and who you are as you are doing it. The idea of working to improve the world can be a dangerous one. I have no doubt that ISIS, Al Qaeda, or even the KKK think they are working to improve the world. And that is where values come in.  For me, the key question is whether people are working to achieve their worldview anchored in transcendent and fundamental values.

To me, there is no higher value­­ — which is recognized by all the religious traditions we know best — than the Golden Rule. We should treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. The Golden Rule does not stop at the water’s edge of politics and public policy.  So the first principle of all is about relationships and how we treat each other.

Recently, staff and leadership participated in a branding process for Convergence where we defined our fundamental values: mutual respect, fairness, humility, holding people in positive regard, giving others the benefit of the doubt, trust, inclusivity and honesty. These have been our guiding values in the past and will be what guides us into the future.

It is terribly important that we are as objective as we can be about other people. We need to be careful not to impugn motives; to avoid guilt by association; and not to project negative qualities onto others. We should take extra care to really understand who people are and what they stand for. Generalizations and stereotypes help us sort out a complicated world, but they also can do enormous damage. We can lose an invaluable opportunity for positive impact when we don’t understand each other, don’t see each other clearly, or when we sell each other short.

And what our work — and the work of so many others — proves, is that following these values is not just nice, moral and admirable, but is key to achieving results that would not have been possible otherwise.

Years ago, I worked closely with former Governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot to forward the idea of Convergence on Capitol Hill. Marc was normally unflappable, but I will always remember Marc finally getting exasperated one day when meeting with some very opinionated Congressional staff. They had just disrespectfully dismissed our efforts to promote dialogue across partisan lines. He simply said to them, “You are not as different from others as you think you are.”

It would be hubris to say that our approach is the only way to improve the world or create a more just, fair and functional society. But we can say that over and over again now, we have shown that assumptions about intractability and irresolvable differences do not necessarily hold. We have found that too often we make assumptions about others that either are not true or obscure wide swaths where cooperation is possible.

Our approach started with the success of two projects that led to the founding of Convergence as an independent organization. The first, Health Care Coverage for the Uninsured (HCCU), also known as the “strange bedfellows on health care,” led directly to federal legislative changes to greatly expand coverage. The second proof of concept came from the U.S. Muslim Engagement Initiative. There diverse leaders from across parties and religions issued an influential report that deeply affected the foreign policy of our country.

Now at Convergence, our education work has allowed a divided education community to see each other more accurately and understand they want the same things for kids. The results are a transformative vision, unprecedented national alliances, and hundreds of local educators creating communities of practice. We have an opportunity to transform the K-12 education landscape by lending new energy, further definition, and powerful resources to the growing movement toward learner-centered education. Education Reimagined has attracted an unprecedented diversity of funders — including the Gates Foundation, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, NEA and AFT. Normally they have seen themselves as funding competing interests rather than working as partners. You would be hard put to find another national initiative that has attracted this group of funders.

Beyond that, our Project on Nutrition and Wellness has brought groundbreaking understanding and cooperative action among the food industry and consumer and public health groups. The most concrete successes here have been manifested in the promotion of healthier food sales in retail stores, military commissaries and even convenience stores. For many, just the fact that these often warring groups sat for nearly three years of respectful dialogue was an accomplishment in itself. Our board member Kelly Johnston, the VP for Government Affairs for Campbell Soup Company, suggested this project. He challenged us to create a true dialogue because, he said, he had never heard of a food industry/consumer dialogue where key people had not walked out in protest. This did not happen here.

The concept of our work has also been proven on the topic of long-term care. Here, the ideas generated by the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative could well form a basis for a breakthrough on an issue that has stymied national policymakers for 30 years or more. The collaborative worked for three years to produce a consensus report that identifies a series of public and private efforts that together could address the urgent, unmet needs for supports and services among elderly and disabled Americans.

Beyond these accomplishments, we have what our board member Jean Molino has coined as radiating impacts. People see each other and work together over time differently because they have built relationships of respect and trust.

We are now taking our approach to three new major areas of concern: the federal budget processeconomic mobility, and incarceration. We can report good progress in organizing these projects to date and hope that before long we will have spurred unlikely alliances for action in these arenas.

Finally, some people have asked me whether, with a momentous election just weeks away, I would say anything about it. Here is what I have to say.

First, no matter who wins what elections, Convergence will continue to work with people from both political parties and with people whose views reflect a wide range of experience and viewpoints. Our views on the need for and value of collaborative problem solving will not change. It appears we may be needed more than ever.

Second, our process is intended to transcend elections. We intentionally involve such a diversity of people so that no matter who wins elections, our goal is to generate ideas and alliances that will have currency beyond any election cycle.

And finally, we will continue to promote our values. None of us has a perfect record in building relationships. And yet, as I have suggested, perhaps the central tenet of our work is to put relationships first.  And that is what we will continue to do regardless of who wins what elections.

So thank you for indulging my instinct to not just mention rabbis but to try to act like one. Thanks to all for being here. Enjoy the day.

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