By Hugh Cherry
Aretha Franklin, Huey Lewis, and even the comedian Adam Sandler all have sung about respect. Why? Because respect is essential in every facet of life.
It certainly is foundational to the Koch Internship Program (KIP), Koch Associate Program (KAP), and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship and it is integral to our efforts to embrace a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and aptitudes.
What is R-E-S-P-E-C-T and why is it important?
Treating others with respect begins by recognizing every person’s inherent worth — that everyone has value as and is worthy of being treated with dignity. When we see others in this way, we grow as individuals, discover new and different ways for people to apply their unique gifts, and make a greater contribution to our communities.
Respect also drives problem-solving.
A culture of respect — appreciating the innate dignity of the individual sitting across from us, even if we disagree — allows people to peacefully exchange ideas and meaningfully engage with people who have differing views. In this way, respect inspires free speech, free expression, and courageous collaborations.
Unfortunately, respect in America is waning.
Why can’t we get some respect?
Disagreements about politics have played a part in eroding respect. In fact, a 2019 study found nearly one in five Americans believe the country would be better off if large numbers of people in the opposing political party died.
These feelings have impacted our discourse. A 2020 survey by the Cato Institute found 62 percent of Americans said today’s political climate keeps them from saying things they believe. It is impossible to solve pressing problems if we are not willing to discuss tough topics.
CKI’s Director of Free Speech and Peace Sarah Ruger has higlighted organizations that are trying to bridge divides. Within KIP, KAP, and the Poynter-Koch Fellowship, we are working to foster the same sort of openness and collaboration our partners are developing. Those efforts start by offering fellows, interns, and associates the chance to work with from some of our Free Speech and Peace partner organizations, but it extends to our daily programming.
A community built on respect
The first step to creating a culture of respect is to welcome applicants from a wide range of experiences, ideologies, and backgrounds. KAP alum Megan Zarnitz is a social worker. Poynter-Koch alum Eddie Burkhalter is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who detoured from writing about the impact of climate change to report on COVID-19. Garrett Ballengee, who participated in KAP and KIP, is reforming West Virginia’s education system.
Our programs offer participants ample time to candidly discuss the problems facing our society. We — and they — know disagreements will happen, but with openness and respect these discussions have the potential to surface substantial breakthroughs in thinking and collaboration. Creating a society of equal rights and mutual benefit starts with modeling respect for others in our own work. The ability to solve problems means the ability to work together peacefully.
We also look for applicants who hunger for learning. Ruger also has explained the importance of approaching conversations with a posture of learning, not persuasion. In a February 2020 op-ed, Ruger wrote, “Conflict resolution experts recommend that by trying to understand an opposing view instead of changing it, you may change the narrative.”
Another essential ingredient to building respect is exposing participants to a vast array of thinkers and doers. Our program participants engage in weekly programming that includes access to social entrepreneurs and innovators like the late Bishop Omar Jahwar, founder of Urban Specialists. Urban Specialists works to end violence in American communities by first offering respect to everyone in the community. From the cop to the formerly incarcerated, every person is approached with dignity and empathy.
Like Urban Specialists, we know this approach is the only way to “disrupt toxic trends” and solve problems.
Perhaps nowhere is our commitment to building a culture of respect more evident than in the relationship between program mentors and participants. The goal of this relationship is growth — for both mentor and mentee. This can happen only when respect, openness, and trust underpin the relationship.
We know restoring respect won’t be easy. But like CKI Free Speech and Peace Fellow Branden Polk, one of our mentors, we are hopeful. Polk recently told Interfaith America, he has “seen firsthand the impact” of the movement of social entrepreneurs across the country who are creating a “national, bottom-up movement for social healing.”
Interested in becoming part of that movement? Learn more about our educational programs.
Hugh Cherry is Director, Education, at the Charles Koch Institute.