America’s thorniest question: How do we bridge differences and find connections? Thoughts and questions from Florida      

Photo from

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by Julia Burns, a partner in a Florida-based consulting firm. Julia describes the challenges of living and working in Florida and what she is learning from her consulting and life there about communicating, working, and living with people who see things differently.

Across the country, there has been blowback against initiatives focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Florida is one of the states taking a strong policy and governing approach against these initiatives.  Governor Ron DeSantis, with his now unsuccessful bid for the US Presidency, has initiated policies that are oppressive to people of color and the LGBTQ community. And ultimately all of us as state residents.

Books are widely banned in schools and can be individually pulled without question if they make one person uncomfortable. Black history has been glossed over or outright pulled from school curricula. Much of the history of Indigenous peoples never made it into the curricula. Public colleges and universities are prohibited from having any welcoming or inclusive program for people of color or people identifying as LGBTQ – even if it is funded by private donations. Trans care of any sort is under attack. Workplace training for inclusion cannot be mandatory. And the language of diversity, inclusion, and equity, though ironically still sprinkled through Florida legal code, is now being stripped from any publicly funded agency or nonprofit organization. Even where no law or policy is in place, the state has cultivated a chilling effect with the fear of potential and unknown legal or funding reprisal.

As an individual committed to the idea that every person has value, I am angry at these policies. They feel to me like they are perpetuated – gleefully — by people who unreasonably see other’s success as a direct threat to their own. I am concerned by the diminishment of facts. I am concerned that politicians like DeSantis and Trump are actively seeking to divide people for their own political and personal gains.

And with everything just said in the last four sentences, I distance myself from people supporting those policies. I simply cannot imagine how they justify their beliefs.

As a professional person, I facilitate conversations for clients to help them come to a consensus. In that role, it is often helpful for me to be impartial so that I can help surface multiple perspectives and ask challenging questions. Part of setting the stage for difficult conversations includes making sure that everyone can speak and access the conversation – by adjusting the time, setting and place we meet, providing information that is relevant and meaningful, and by using questions that do not make the participants defensive while still surfacing challenges.

If I reflect with my impartial facilitator’s lens on the initiatives supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion today, I question whether we, the people who support these initiatives, have at times set ourselves up for failure. Can we find a better way?

As a volunteer, I regularly facilitate conversations with local organizations meant to open dialogue between people. Our stated goal is to recognize common humanity no matter your color, who you love, how much money you have, or who you vote for. These conversations have a purpose towards achieving equity for all. But invariably, the people drawn to these conversations already share common goals supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Does this echo chamber setting make us/me less likely to be open to recognizing the humanity, the fears, or concerns of those perceived as the other side? How do we include those who don’t share the same goals?

The Center for Ethical Leadership seeks sustainable social change on complex social issues, including racial equity, through developing relationships and meaningful conversations. They urge us to “invite the stranger,” the person or idea that we do not understand. As people committed to bridging differences and making connections, we / I need to ask ourselves whether our work invites the stranger, or if it sometimes pushes the stranger away.

My daily reality in Florida is a woven social fabric where people of vastly different opinions are integral to each other and to me. We rely on each other for jobs and employees. We celebrate different holidays. We teach each other’s children. We vote (or do not) for different issues. We stock the stores, buy the goods, and order take-out. We put hate graffiti on billboards. We volunteer to help others. We are all part of that same fabric, like it or not. My MAGA neighbor with the hateful bumper stickers who moved in to care for his aging mother and always has a cheery greeting is part of my daily social fabric.

One of the nonprofit Executive Directors who I have most admired in Florida started and ran an organization for LGBTQ young people. When families kicked out or did not understand their child, this organization provided support. The organization stood proudly for acceptance and love, and for the recognition that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers made our community better. This Executive Director was unfailingly welcoming … to everyone. She always had a smile. At the same time, she never backed down on her mission of acceptance, respect, hope, and love. Did this approach succeed? Locally, I believe she was effective in changing hearts and minds. 

As an individual committed to the idea that every person has value, I urge myself and others to keep trying to invite the stranger, to tear down the barriers, and to stay unfailingly committed to change. And that begins with an open heart and an aspiration of being kind to all, including those we don’t understand or disagree with.

To learn more about Julia and the work of Clarity Transitions, visit



  1. Robert Francis

    Hi Tom — This is a very important discussion and one that deeply disturbs me. Julia Burns encouraged us to invite the stranger — the person who holds different opinions or may come from a different culture to our table for dialogue. In my career as a youth advocate, i always sought to do that as I found it led to a richness of decision-making. It’s like making an omelet — the more fresh vegetables and a wide variety of cheeses, the better it tastes.

    What’s happening in Florida where one person objecting to a book title can have it removed from the shelves, deprives others of a diversity of thought. Don’t they understand that banned books have become best sellers because if you ban something, everyone will want to read it. This only encourages more people to want to read it. The other part that is most disturbing about Florida and some other states who have replicated its practices is that a wide swath of African American and indigenous people’s history has been erased. Countries like Germany that owned up to the Holocaust and the way they treated Jews are richer for it. They demonstrated to the world that atonement and vulnerability are good for the soul.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Bob for your thoughtful comments. Indeed it is both aspirational and a challenge to be open to all and disturbing to see the consequences of ill-informed policiies. Tom

  2. Pam

    I enjoyed reading this and will try to implement some of ideas.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Pam, I appreciate your interest in this topic.