“We really had to fight for this,” National Humanities Medalist Krista Tippett explains from her home in St. Paul. “There was this idea in newsrooms that if you start talking about the spiritual and moral and religious aspects of life you’ll inflame divides, you’ll offend people, you’ll exclude people.” This was nearly 20 years ago, when the seasoned journalist and former diplomat pitched the idea of a public radio show, “Speaking of Faith,” to Minnesota Public Radio.
Her colleagues were skeptical — successful public-radio shows on spirituality that engaged a wide audience were scarce, if non-existent. Tippett argued that “you may be right — we don’t have a lot of good models for this, but this is too important not to try to do it in a way that opens up a space, that opens up imaginations, that pulls in an unlikely spectrum of people.”
Relegated to the least-desirable schedule slots, the show nonetheless gained traction. Renamed to “On Being,” it became one of public radio’s most popular programs. Tippett would go on to win a Peabody award, write a New York Times bestselling book, and receive a National Humanities Medal from former President Barack Obama. She would tape conversations with Jane Goodall, John Lewis, Wendell Berry, Derek Black, Nickolas Christakis, Rebecca Solnit, and countless other luminaries.
The show’s popularity was only one dimension of surprise. The other had to do with the listeners themselves. Tippett recalls, “We were hearing about how people were taking this content into their lives, their hearts, into their minds, into their communities. It was having a real impact, being used in ways that defy the impact of a radio show.” After ten years, Tippett made a decision. “I felt like we had to shut the thing down, or we had to own the impact and figure out the consequences.” In 2013, Tippett struck out on her own, creating an independent nonprofit, On Being Project, to house her media ventures, and much more.
After defining the organization’s founding virtues, On Being Project created a Better Conversations guide in response to listener demand. It’s “what people were asking for,” says Tippett. The guide is one resource within the nonprofit’s Civil Conversations project — an initiative that develops audio, events, and tools for community leaders so that they can create space for meaningful dialogue in schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes across the country, empowering people to practice civil discourse in their own lives.
Owning the show’s impact meant “reciprocity and relationship — creating capacity for listening and engaging and hearing, and then responding to what we heard,” says Tippett. That work has evolved. “Now there is a an entire aspect of our work dedicated to extending and expanding and evolving civil conversations and applied social healing,” she explains.
The co-laborers for this work have varied widely. On Being Project partnered with the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum on the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The museum used On Being material to facilitate hard conversations about domestic terrorism. In Philadelphia, a robust interfaith group organized a year-long civil conversations discussion which trained hundreds of people for discussions across faith traditions. The town of Barrington, Illinois, used On Being material, as well as the Department of Education for Orange County, California. “It defies the idea that these questions have to divide us,” says Tippett. “We may be divided by this or that, and these may be strong, meaningful distinctions, and yet what can we work together on? What questions are we holding in common, and what can we do with that starting tomorrow?”
Through this work, Tippett has developed a different perspective on the state of the nation. “There is the story of our time that is told through the lens of the news. And it’s real, and it has a lot of drama which is riveting. And that drama is real. But there’s another story of our time that has been quietly building for a number of years. I call it the generative story of our time.”
This “generative story” is one of healers and healing. “There are things being learned in small towns, in rural areas, in cities about how we recreate common life.” Tippett notes that this work would be necessary regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even if our politics were not in disarray, even if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, we were going to have to be reinventing how common life works. What are our forms of civil society? Who are the leaders? How do we remake our educational structures, our health-care structures? Our political and economic structures? What worked in the 20th center works very imperfectly in the 21st.”
“That’s the work. It’s audacious and it’s hard. But it’s also incredibly exciting to be a generation of humans remaking those things. And what I’ve seen and heard that excites me is that the call has been heard — this work is already happening.”
One of the challenges of this audacious work is that the agents of social healing are themselves quiet, often overlooked, too busy to hire a publicist for their efforts. “The landscape is quiet, and a bit hidden behind all the drama. How do we shine a light on this landscape of healing? And how do we activate it as a landscape? What’s happening below the radar of dysfunction?”
This is the focus of the project’s social-healing team — identifying leaders and activating an ecosystem. “The people who are actually putting our country back together, who are doing this generative work, feel pretty alone,” says Tippett.
Shining a light on these positive stories and leaders is a tall order. Conventional wisdom says bad news is more catchy than good. But Tippett is just getting started. “I feel a little bit like I did starting a show on religion and spirituality. It’s too important not to try.”
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