A young Woodstock native is invoking the power of dialogue and communication in the wake of the presidential election. Emily Einhorn, age 19, has brought international think-tank Citizen’s Awakening to the U.S., beginning with Skidmore College, where she is in her sophomore year.
Citizen’s Awakening is an organization dedicated to combating prejudice and extremism through inciting dialogue between different communities and peoples. It was founded in France by then-18 year old François Reyes in reaction to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, with the foundational idea that both the radicalism and Islamophobia so prevalent in France was largely a product of lack of communication between isolated communities. “People can blindly hate others because they don’t have faces to attach to this ‘other group,’” Einhorn said.
Reyes believed that if people with different dogmas could converse and attempt to understand one another, then hatred and violence would naturally decrease. After establishing Citizen’s Awakening in France, it became apparent that its principle of dialogue between groups could be applied to other nations with different issues. It has since spread to Canada, Britain, Hungary, Kenya, and India.
Einhorn met Reyes when he studied for a year at the Woodstock Day School in 2012. She followed his development of Citizen’s Awakening on social media, and after witnessing the post-election fallout on her own campus, she reached out to Reyes. “I felt like we needed an instrument to keep the emotion from becoming anger and hate and to keep dialogue happening,” Einhorn said.
Initially, she intended to bring Reyes to Skidmore as a guest speaker. “There’s so much activism on my campus, or people who want to do activism,” Einhorn said, “and yet a lot of the time people have trouble mobilizing and really making tangible change and creating mechanisms by which to do that. I thought it could be really valuable for Skidmore to see an example of someone who’s exactly our age who has really created something and is making a difference.” As she planned the logistics of bringing Reyes to the U.S., however, Einhorn saw a more permanent way of applying the philosophy of Citizen’s Awakening to the community. “I ended up asking him if something like this was coming to the States. He said he just hadn’t found anyone who was committed enough to the cause to invest their time and energy into it, so I volunteered myself at that point. I started getting together a team of Skidmore students to help run the national Citizen’s Awakening U.S. entity,” she said.
According to Einhorn, the way Citizen’s Awakening functions is “it has monthly formal dialogues and prior to that, throughout the weeks, Citizen’s Awakening reaches out to different local communities and tries to engage as many different people with as many different identities and communities as possible. This is accomplished by having many different local offices throughout the country that are all coordinated by a national entity, so it works very locally even though it’s under this big umbrella that is Citizen’s Awakening.” Then, the team compiles the issues discussed during the dialogues into pamphlets and targets specific ways of solving said issues, including legislation. Finally, the team lobbies their local government. “We know it’s likely these pamphlets will just be going in the garbage can, but we hope that as Citizen’s Awakening grows and touches more and more people, its power as a lobbying mechanism will grow. This is a really diverse, widespread sampling of the population, and this is what they’re saying. Lawmakers are going to care about that because they need to get elected,” Einhorn explained.
Einhorn’s goal for bringing Citizen’s Awakening to Skidmore, and ultimately the country as a whole, is to “temper some of the resentment, specifically between political parties, that is just so prominent right now. So many of the liberal students on my campus have never even really encountered in a meaningful way someone who isn’t a liberal, or heard out why they believe differently than them. I think that’s probably true of many people within Saratoga, because we’re all living in our own little bubbles. The point is to respectfully have individuals talk about themselves, their own experiences, and the reasons behind why they believe what they believe,” she said.
In terms of structure, Einhorn plans to organize the dialogues by breaking up participants with varying ideologies and perspectives into small groups or even pairs. These groups will also “do mindfulness exercises beforehand to get people connected before they even start discussing politics,” she added. In this way, Einhorn says the Citizen’s Awakening team is “trying to come at this discussion from a more vulnerable kind of place and take down some of the walls, and really let people talk human to human.”
She also plans to extend the reach of Citizen’s Awakening to the community at large. Einhorn points out that while Skidmore is extremely liberal, it is located at the center of the red county of Saratoga. “We’ve got a lot of varying political beliefs and opinions, so we think it will be valuable to get some new perspectives involved,” she added. She plans on reaching out to established public institutions such as churches, schools, hospitals, and libraries. Additionally, the team is working on developing a relationship with a homeless shelter in Northampton, Massachusetts. Einhorn hopes that by establishing Citizen’s Awakening in other locations, it will eventually spread throughout the country. “We think this will have an upward spiraling effect as we get more people involved,” she said.
Einhorn cites her personal connection with and dedication to Citizen’s Awakening as an integral part of how she was raised. “I came from a family that really highlighted the importance of communication…I really want to understand people’s perspectives and get inside their heads to understand why they think what they think,” she said. But her fascination with the importance of dialogue truly began when she participated in a Spanish language-learning program in Costa Rica in the summer of 2016. “I became very close and traveled for four weeks with four Catholic seminary students from Michigan. We had very different beliefs and came from totally different worlds,” she said. As the weeks progressed, however, they discussed politics and certain social issues. Although her own views on these issues did not change through these conversations, she recalled that what did change was how she felt about those who disagreed with her. “We came to a stalemate where we couldn’t go any further because we flatly disagreed, but that was okay — we could respect that, we could not hate each other for that,” she said.
Ultimately, Einhorn was impressed by the change that was made possible by engaging in dialogue. “That so forcefully made me believe that if you can come into these conversations being invested in not getting angry, not proving your points, you can learn so much and let go of so many assumptions and so much anger,” she said.
Einhorn acknowledges that there will be challenges in bringing Citizen’s Awakening to the U.S. The sheer size of the country, as well as the fragmentary nature of the multitudes of communities living within it, can make communication between people difficult. However, these geographical and ideological divisions between people and communities across America are what make Citizen’s Awakening so important. Einhorn concluded, “I’m sure there will be many failures, but I really do believe in making small amounts of change and having that small amount of change be worth it.”