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Courageous Discomfort and Empty Chairs

By Creed Bauman

If there is one thing this world needs, it’s more chairs.

Metaphorically, of course. I’m not referring to the kind of black leather rolling chairs that litter office buildings nationwide, or the countless plastic seas of stadium seats, or even the build-it-yourself Ikea variety. I’m referring to the metaphorical chairs we place around the metaphorical decision-making tables we sit at every day of our lives. Widening the conversation and congregating a diverse body of voices – pulling up more chairs to the table, if you will – is a noble enterprise far too absent in the social, relational and political spheres of our day.

At the core of so many of our nation’s most pressing issues is the dehumanization of others – sometimes vehement and cacophonous, but more often subtle and unassuming. Far too frequently, we cast out from our table all but those who look, think and behave like us because the truth is, conversation flows more naturally that way. Day-to-day life can feel much more morally convenient when ‘us vs. them’ narratives and fear of the ‘other’ prop up the feeble legs of our tables, which tend to gradually grow more and more destitute – especially when you realize that, when it comes down to it, everyone is ‘other.’

Instead of this grim and lonely reality, we must learn to embrace dissimilarity. By bringing more chairs to the table and gathering around ourselves a medley of identities and personalities, true and lasting change is possible. There are always more seats available, particularly for those from communities often overlooked and misunderstood. Especially when overcoming an obstacle or settling a dispute, it is essential that the voices of those most affected are prioritized.

When, in 2003, El Pomar Foundation Trustees recognized the need for rural grant making throughout the state of Colorado, this is the posture they adopted, deciding to pull up a multitude of seats to the table. Instead of deciding from afar how best to address issues faced by rural counties, El Pomar created the Regional Partnerships program, which convenes small businesses owners, elected officials, journalists, college presidents and other local leaders to advocate for their region’s needs and provide first-hand insights and funding recommendations to Trustees.

Since its inception, the Regional Partnerships program has enabled El Pomar to significantly increase the number of grants made to rural communities, impacting countless Coloradoans with more than $26.7 million in grants since 2003 and being met with widespread praise from local leaders.

This model is an invaluable and impactful one and, notably, not exclusive to such a large scale. This principle of diversifying conversations is applicable (and essential) in our day-to-day lives. Not only to benefit others, but also to benefit ourselves. Countless foreign concepts, ideas and ways of thinking dwell in the minds of others, inherently undiscoverable from a distance. True, it can be clumsy. Many unexpected barriers arise when attempting to bridge the gap between conflicting identities and ideologies.

But isn’t that the beauty of it? Confrontation with the unfamiliar has an exceptional way of opening ears to unforeseen harmonies and hidden internal dissonances. Whether through broad institutional composition, such as in the case of the Regional Partnerships program, or in a simple ten-minute conversation outside of your comfort zone, it is only through this courageously uncomfortable act that we can truly broaden our perspectives.

The next time you take a seat at this allegorical table of decision-making, ask yourself: why are you sitting here? Who is seated on either side of you? And, perhaps most importantly: which chairs remain empty?

The 2023 Internship application is now open and will remain open until February 10, 2023. Click to view application and more details.

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