As a conflict-resolution practitioner, Samar S. Ali has worked in a variety of settings and at a host of different levels in her career.
She is founding president and CEO of the organization Millions of Conversations, which was created in 2017 as a way to bring Americans together to transcend divide. Ali is also a research professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, and is co-chair of the school’s Project on Unity & American Democracy.
She previously spent 14 years working in Washington, D.C., including her service as a White House Fellow in President Barack Obama’s administration, and later as assistant commissioner of International Affairs in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
But regardless of how far and wide Ali has traversed in her career, nothing had quite the impact on her as the recent flooding in her hometown of Waverly, where both her parents are physicians and where she was a star on the high school basketball court. What she has observed in the town’s recovery efforts epitomizes what she is working toward as a mediator.
“What I’m witnessing in my hometown really gives me hope right now,” Ali said as guest speaker during Monday morning’s FrankTalks session held at the Williamson campus of Columbia State Community College. “I’ve seen the rebuilding of my town as the resolve of the great American spirit — determined, can-do, humbled, unified and resourceful.
“Is everyone in Waverly suddenly unified by who they voted for? No, they’re not. But is it getting in the way of working together right now. No, it’s not. People are putting their political differences aside and they’re saying what do we want our community to be. We just experienced one of the greatest disasters this community has ever seen, and what are we going to do next….
"There’s a common purpose driving the town to transcend whatever political divide exists. ‘We the people’ is at the heart of it all. It always has been in this country, and it always will be. That is how democracy works best. We work together to be our best selves and lead with a common purpose.”
While she’s heartened by what she has seen in the town where she was born and raised, Ali knows the nation is facing quite the challenge in closing a divide.
“In many ways right now, we are seeing people in a prism of friend versus enemy, us versus them,” she said. “You’re either in the tent or you're outside the tent. … Are you on my side or not? Are you for wearing a mask or not? Are you for vaccines or not? That is not a conversation. That is the beginning of a conflict.
“It’s known as negative norm-setting cycle. The [Millions of Conversations] programming we design is meant to purposely disrupt that negative norm-setting cycle that leads to friend versus enemy and replace it with a positive norm-setting cycle that leads to peace, community, productivity and a shared future.
“It starts with pledging to listen. … It’s having a conversation with each other. When we begin to do that, we start to humanize each other. We’re beginning to explore our experiences. That leads to empathy. As we go down that path, that leads to sharing common values.”
Visit the Franklin Tomorrow Facebook page to see the full FrankTalks program from Monday morning.