ashland.news
June 14, 2024

Building bridges instead of walls: Ashland series offers hope of connection

Marla Estes. Debra Thornton photo
June 11, 2024

Marla Estes works on ‘Bridging Divides’ in a monthly meeting 

By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news 

In a world seemingly becoming more and more disconnected, with polarized camps retreating to hostile corners, Marla Estes wants to be one of those building bridges — and is working to make it so many others are, too.

Most recently, she’s launched a monthly presentation and conversation on the second Wednesdays of the month at Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library on Ashland Street in Ashland.

Originally from Los Angeles, she studied psychology at  the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, and lived in France for 16 years, where her husband had a chain of Mexican restaurants in Europe, and eventually relocated to the U.S. She relocated to Ashland in 2001.

In 2016, after the bitterly partisan presidential election, Estes began thinking about a range of topics which would inform “Bridging Divides.”

“I woke up with a voice in my head saying, you’ve got to do something about political polarization,” Estes said in an interview. “I saw that if we went too quickly to talking about issues, people weren’t ready, and would close down, leave or cross their arms. We needed to get them ready to talk about issues.”

So she started the “Bridging Divides” program.   

“The first building block is cultivating humility as a foundation of what people are too invested in, in being right or too ashamed to change their mind or be wrong,” Estes said. “We do video clips and a teaching piece. We have discussion. I talk about how our minds play tricks on us. … How do we get ready? How do we prepare ourselves to have conversations that might be difficult, but that can open our minds?”  

Her objective is to help people “listen to points of view that might feel threatening until we learn to calm ourselves down and just educate ourselves.”

“My mind has changed on almost everything, once I got open-minded like Zen ‘beginner’s mind,’” Estes said.

She cites nuclear energy as a topic on which she had strong feelings of opposition. 

“I started reading, I read Michael Shellenberger, who was in the Green movement for 20 years,” she said. “He changed his mind about nuclear.” 

She encourages people “to be open to listening and not going in with closed minds. Who knows everything? Not even experts. Things are changing so quickly.”  

In her upcoming Bridging Divides workshop Wednesday, June 12, at Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library, she will explore defense mechanisms, with the tagline, “If you’re defensive, you can’t build a bridge.”  

Estes also notes this work is useful not just for political conversations, but also personal. It applies to everything. 

“I’m trying to show people how we’re run by all this automatic-ness, even our cognitive biases. There are a lot of studies on how it happens without a conscious choice,” she said.  “Tell people this is how we’re wired and what happens if we don’t interrupt these automatic processes like biases. … If we educate people about how the human operating system works, they’re more able to say to catch themselves and say ‘Actually, I have a blind spot here,’ or ‘I’ve just made a confirmation bias.’ Or ‘I’m going through cognitive dissonance.’

“Between stimulus and response, there’s a space. If we can pause in that space, we can slow ourselves down because we get hijacked. That’s why things can feel so life and death when they’re actually not. We have to self-regulate in order to get along. It’s recognizing when you’re triggered, and then pausing.”

Estes further explains, “There’s something called viewpoint diversity. Diversity is a huge word these days, but a lot of people haven’t been exposed to ‘viewpoint diversity,’ which means all perspectives invited to the table and our ability to take them in, and going beyond our usual silos. Hear the opposite. If I am never exposed to viewpoint diversity, I won’t see my blind spots.

“Many of us have opinions that are based on a one- sided set of facts because we really have different databases. Media literacy is a part of this discussion. People are easily manipulated. We have to become media literate. People have the option of saying ‘I don’t know enough about this to have an informed opinion.’” 

Estes describes herself as “politically homeless right now. I don’t land on either side. I stay up on a lot of studies and polls. It’s about roughly 20% of the extremes on either side that run the hyper-polarization. Most people are pretty purple.  They go by policy instead of party. They’re busy making a living. They call these people the ‘exhausted majority.’

“There is a bridging organization on campuses called Bridge USA. … There are people who are totally fed up with gridlock. There are some people who don’t believe in bridging because their side needs to win, but the people I’ve seen are tide-turning. 

“People are just being practical and they don’t want to see these gridlock anymore. We must work together, which is both a spiritual and religious idea, and just a good idea. Working together on anything gives you a connection to that person, even if it’s just for a short time. 

“I have a job at Urban Rural Action. They take a group of diverse people and do a project together. Maybe their political points of view will come up in doing the project, but it’s not politicized. We’re working on food resiliency in rural communities. … We’re focused on getting food to people who need it, which should not be a politicized issue. People from both sides believe that it is a good cause to put energy and money into.”

Estes has hope, she says, and asks all to “Show me ways that the world can get better.”

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who moved to Ashland from Oakland, California. Email her at debora.ashlandnews@gmail.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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