Meet the Finn with the uphill task of helping America to heal

After four years when entrenched divisions in American society were exacerbated, a Finnish expert in reconciliation is charting a path for community engagement.

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File picture of Antti Pentikäinen / Credit: Anna Tervahartiala

With America’s long and divisive election campaign finally over, there are few people who would argue the last four years haven’t been deeply damaging for the nation.

The issues faced by communities around inequalities and injustice didn’t begun during Donald Trump’s presidency, but they were certainly exacerbated by it.

Now, a group supporting Congress is planning hot to bring truth-telling, healing and transformation into the national agenda, with a Finnish expert in reconciliation giving them much-needed assistance.

“The United States suffers from polarization, in which people from the middle are leaning to the extremes, and that makes the threat of violence serious” says Antti Pentikäinen from the Deaconess Institute in Helsinki, who is a researcher on reconciliation efforts and works with the US Institute of Peace and Carter School at George Mason University.

“Polarization theories emphasize the need to speak to those in the middle. But eventually reconciliation should have something to offer also to people who don’t want to be in touch with each other” he tells News Now Finland.

This year the United States has been buffeted by race riots, the coronavirus crisis and its economic impact, as well as the divisive election campaign rhetoric that highlighted both long-standing tensions and structural racism that perpetuates inequality between groups of people.

Pentikäinen says a successful process requires support from both Democrats and Republicans at grassroots level to start chipping away at these societal divisions.

“It is clear to everyone that there must be joint support from both parties on this issue. There are currently more than 170 Democrats behind the resolution of California Representative Barbara Lee in Congress. After the election Republicans likely need some time for soul-searching, but efforts will be made to invite their participation to imagine a society where everyone’s dignity is recognised” he says.

Black Lives Matter rally, Helsinki 3rd June 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

How to get people talking? 

When you think about some of the opposing groups in American society today, it’s difficult to imagine them ever finding common ground. How would the far-right Proud Boys ever sit down and come to some sort of reconciliation or understanding with Antifa or Black Lives Matters campaigners?

And for that matter in a country as vast as America, where do you even begin to look at historic injustices as well as more recent divisions? How do you get everybody to buy into the process that can be raw and painful and fraught with emotional pain? State-by-state? City-by-city? Neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood?

Finnish expert Antti Pentikäinen in Washington DC says you can’t expect big gains right away, and that it’s got to be done slowly, starting perhaps one community and city at a time.

“Once you realise that the essence of transformation is an incremental process, it has to be built by the ownership of the communities. It’s not about the president or Senate or Congress appointing commissions, it’s about how the communities themselves define a healthy process and become invested in it” Pentikäinen explains.

A starting point in any community, he says, is to outline what the process can mean, what will be involved and what any outcome could look like – and that communities will need evidence of how positive those outcomes can be, before becoming invested in it.

“I don’t think this country knows how to move on before that evidence is there, and before the different sides that are hesitant on this process can see how it delivers a better society.”

Inside the White House Oval Office / Credit: @whitehouse Instagram

How long does a reconciliation process last?

In other parts of the world – like South Africa after apartheid, or Guatemala after a decades-long civil war – truth and reconciliation commissions have had clearly defined goals, parameters, and last for a certain amount of time: although both of those processes were distinct, and quite different circumstances than America finds itself in.

Finland’s own truth and reconciliation process, between the State and the Sámi people, is a sensitive and deliberately slow affair.

So is such a process even possible in the USA?

“We follow Dr. Gail Christopher‘s model of truth, racial healing and transformation where recognition of historical truth of what has happened is just the beginning, and there has to be a narrative change in terms of how does the nation view its history” explains Pentikäinen.

However, this model recognizes the need for an ongoing process at community level that wouldn’t just be over on a specific date, or when there’s a change of occupant in the White House.

“The racial healing and transformation are very long processes.”