The Commons: Where are we at in 2021?

Anooj Bhandari

Build Up
12 min readSep 27, 2021

In 2019, we published a blog post on an earlier intervention within the Commons. You can find the post here.

Throughout the past year, we built and ran our newest iteration and intervention of the Commons Project, a project launched in 2017 that focused on depolarizing conversations in the United States. Our original proposal for this past year was to build on our previous work that showed that through modeling peacebuilding strategies of dialogue on Twitter and Facebook, people who we engaged with on social media were less likely to retweet polarizing hashtags and slightly more likely to engage with different perspectives. In addition, these conversations were visible to other people who are networked with us and with the people we engaged in conversation — thus, engaging adjacent users who are also exposed to these conversations.

Our original proposal for The Commons 2020/1 was to extend our previous model around having facilitator-led conversations across Twitter and Facebook, with some testing on Instagram. As our plans met a shifting societal landscape of polarization and its impacts within a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and the 2020 election, we knew that our methods of action had to grow to respond to the moment around. We know that one of the most dangerous impacts of polarization is violence. Some of us acknowledge when violence is necessary as a mode of resistance and hold the importance of understanding dynamics of violence when it occurs, and some of us think more absolutely about non-violence. Simultaneously, we know that violence is unable to strengthen our interpersonal relationships with one another. Violence is unable to foster a sense of deeper security and understanding that can allow us to heal from the violences we have experienced. With this knowledge, we understand that the violence found within the systems around us is not the same as the violence found within users of those systems.

Through several early conversations, we were encouraged to try to expand our approach to moving beyond one that depends on designated facilitators into one that invites people into more of a movement of peacebuilding across social media. This prompted us to ask, What are the mechanisms for inviting people to do their own digital peacebuilding practice through The Commons project? Where we historically centered The Commons on partisan depolarization — centering more squarely with bridging or healing the us-versus-them mentality that corrodes trust and sows division within and across

political parties, it was clear that partisan depolarization cannot be divorced from the systemic racism within the United States — and moreover, that partisan polarization can be a vehicle for furthering systemic racism. Where we have all held this within our belief systems before, we knew that we needed to be more vocal and more active in directly engaging with the forms of racism within the United States. This was a space of learning and growth for us in exploring how we were best positioned as a team.

What has changed?

These early conversations, rather than having us restructure the project from square one, really asked us to build onto what we started through a broadened community of practice. While our take on polarization is simply that polarization is happening to us in the United States, rather than us being the drivers of polarization itself, we understand that the work to discern that difference in our day to day lives is nuanced and tricky. When we post and act online, it can be hard to sense what is influencing us to post and act in the first place. When the blurred lines between self and social media, and online and offline, meet political, media, and spatial systems all at once, the journey of peacebuilding that starts with the relationship with the self is essential. If we challenge ourselves to look at what is influencing our want or need to act online, then maybe we can begin to put a larger emphasis on the power we have in digital space and how we can use that power for positive transformation. This understanding this past year in particular, has driven us to embrace 1) a centering of interpersonal relationships and looking into their dynamics to understand what new interventions around perspective taking, empathy, and action can look like, and 2) an understanding of individual peacebuilding journeys and how different relationships to social media and community combine to create unique and personal entry points to this work for each person involved. .

Finally, this past year has really asked us to define what we mean when we are advocating for a Commons. In the context of political depolarization, a commons can be understood as a space between people, or a place where a shared understanding or humanization can be built between those driven further away from one another through polarization. As the relationship between The Commons and anti-racism and liberatory work is strengthened, the definition of our Commons began to expand to not only be a space between people, but also a common goal, vision, or space, that people experiencing conflict and polarization could mobilize towards and unite around. Focusing on political depolarization alone centers the rebuilding of social fabric through dialogue, listening, civility, and mutual respect — important paths to humanization for many. However identity-based conflict in the U.S. also has different axes, namely racial and gender oppression, that these same paths have been used to subvert or sideline. Other important indicators of peace are parity, nonviolence, and justice that are forged through movements led by the impacted that disrupt the status quo. Working towards a commons in between people may include, especially for folks from generationally disenfranchised communities, reintroduction to trauma or triggering and harmful language through intervening in polarizing or harmful moments online. The commons as something we mobilized around has reoriented our intervention strategies to be inclusive of larger messaging strategies, and asks to vision and dream on a community-wide level that can not only build empowering conversations, but can also advocate for a shifting of resources through working to dissolve the us/them dynamics that we see in the political realm.

What did we try?

In expanding our peacebuilding journeys within the Commons project, we identified four peacebuilding roles and methods of action within them that our movement of peacebuilders could reflect on and use to mobilize, that we used in our direct engagement and reflection:

Healers use dialogue to ground individuals while creating space for humanization of each other. We see healers as understanding that on every path to change there are options that create change while keeping our relationships the same if-not worse, and options that create change while healing our relationships. Online, healers can:

  • Humanize the “Other” or Listen to Outliers
  • Invest Time and Care in Deepening Existing or Personal Relationships
  • Listen to or Build Space for Race-Based Experiences
  • Amplify the Impact and Nuance of Social Issues
  • De-Escalate Defensiveness

Weavers build connections through connecting the dots, and building nuance in the space between people, groups, and communities. Weavers are fierce question askers who are able to make the conversation beyond the moment itself, and into the larger picture of the world around us. Online, weavers can:

  • Foster Complexity and Nuance of Issues and Impact
  • Translate Values Across Factions and Communities
  • Build New Relationships or Invites New People Into Conversation
  • Instigate Constructive Conversations or Ideations for a Shared Future
  • Facilitate Intra and Inter Group Dialogue Opportunities or Conveys Messages Across Generations, Networks, Platforms, or Action Spaces

Builders make moves that shift resources offline and allow the connections we make in digital space to manifest in and impact people’s day-to-day lives. Builders call people to act, to give, to think, and center a lot of their action around mutual aid and uplifting our need to care for our communities holistically. Each of these roles corresponds to a set of tools and actions that we have built out, encouraging advocates and peacebuilders to integrate pieces and parts of each role that feel right for them into their daily practice. Online, builders can:

  • Witness and Amplify Positive Messaging Within Conflict
  • Influence Communities of Trust by Amplifying Opportunities to Build and Collaborate Towards Positive Change
  • Amplify Impacted Voices and Storytellers
  • Imagine or Build Trustworthy Spaces or Institutions
  • Invest In or Share Mutual Aid

Shakers disrupt and advocate during moments of harm. They mobilize collaboratively around what is impacting people, and speak out to find a route of transformation. Shakers shed light on and bear witness to moments of injustice, knowing that communal knowledge of its occurrences also gives us communal opportunities to act together. They know that peace doesn’t just mean the absence of tension, but the act of naming and transforming it. Online, shakers can:

  • Disrupt Pressures to Conform or Vindictive Conversation Threads
  • Disrupt gate-keeping, stereotyping, or vilification, or unjust structures in Groups, Networks, and Institutions
  • Correct Misinformation, or Moderate or Shift Destructive Conversations
  • Mobilize Networks to Identify or Take Collective Action
  • Initiate Necessary Conversations around Oppression, Identity, and History

We utilized these peacebuilding roles through multiple methods of intervention this past year, focusing on an individual, group, and community level:

Supporting the Advocate’s Journey

We hosted two facebook groups over the past year that housed advocates and tools for action, and provided a space to let our community know about opportunities for training and dialogue. We had a small but consistent group of advocates who came together to explore challenges and triumphs in digital peacebuilding, providing supportive spaces to develop ideas for action.

An example of how this looked:

During the 2020 election, we deeply observed a need for our project as the first week of November arrived. This was in the still early days of The Commons 2020/1 so we were just getting started. In the before, during, and after of last year’s election, we were constantly on our toes about what would happen, how it would impact the current divides we were striving to heal between people, and what we could do to be anticipatory and responsive to a future unknown. There are two main pieces that stood out to us during this time: The first being that conversations were taking place exclusively in support or disagreement with either the democratic or republican party and that the amount of talking about impact was seriously damaged, and the second being that money and resources were being poured into the election cycle — the same cycle that feeds into patterns of polarization. We know that there are many outlets and modes of creating and building change, and that the act of voting and its importance is deepened when held in relation to those other modes.

We ran a campaign, #morethanavote and ran two brainstorming sessions with around 20 advocates. More than a vote was an invitation to our advocate community to share stories about their relationship and experiences in participating in democracy: what is at stake for you, what do you have to gain or lose, and what are the daily impacts felt with that participation? We put out an array of prompts and encouraged people to think about which prompt resonated with them most and to share their story over social media. Our hope was to expand the notion of voting as a singular mechanism of change and to open up dialogue as to the before, during, and after of voting and what we could learn about how to be involved with a dynamic society year-round.

Messaging Ads

As this past year continued to bring to light history and impact of the world around us, we identified spaces where conversations around those histories and impact would be not impossible but certainly challenging, and could provide an opportunity for geographies of similar political affiliation or identity to engage in storytelling and dialogue around topics that could move the narrative around said topics from a place of politicization to a place of impact.

An example of how this looked:

The history and present reality of race, racism and white supremacy within the United States was a critical theme and touchpoint throughout our engagement. May 31 — June 1, 2021 was the 100th anniversary since the Tulsa Race Massacre — sometimes called a ‘Race Riot’ — an often overlooked or erased piece of history that many, many people within the United States do not know about. As many as 300 Black people were killed and more than 10,000 Black people had their houses burnt down or looted — and churches and local businesses were equally burnt to the ground.

Approaching this event with deep care, and also knowing that many people in the United States do not know about this history of violence — and even more, that racism and racialized violence is often politicized, we wanted to open up a conversation around the Tulsa Race Massacre to build awareness, build collective conversation.

We were very specific on who to engage directly with — and how our messaging might be perceived. Our intention was not to contribute to the escalation of conversations around race / racism — but to find people who may be either adjacent to polarizing conversations about race/racism, who may not be in networks where the complexities of racism are held regularly, and to also amplify a need to respond to the reality of violence together as a society within the United States.

Knowing all of this, we posted Facebook ads across places where there was a vocal call for racial justice in the United States, and utilized the comment threads as spaces for conversation. A few of our ads focused on Tulsa and Oklahoma with an aim to open up conversations with people across the United States. This reached 64,800 people, with 8696 engagements, 502 post shares, and 1702 comments.

Rehumanizing Relationships

Building on our previous experience with The Commons, and our learnings this year, we launched a self-guided course, Rehumanizing Relationships: Using Social Media for Depolarization around Race and Politics. This course focuses on the US and supports people in revisiting their relationship to social media and introduces digital peacebuilding. In July, we launched our first cohort model for this course.

The Commons project has a history of learning, and sharing, and we wanted to build a resource, initially, that could onboard advocates into what participation in the project and our groups could look like. Our first iteration of the course started internal to our Facebook groups, with an option to take a course geared towards anti-racism, and an option to take a course geared towards political depolarization. After this first pilot course, we solicited feedback from users. During this time, we began to realize that our two separate course tracks were interwoven with one another, and that together, we could make an even more meaningful course experience. From this, our second iteration of the course was put online, as well as a cohort model that could offer three facilitated sessions to a group of individuals wanting to take the course together.

Our hope for 2022…

As we look into 2022, we have a year of learning rooted in shifting social conditions, and a transformed social media landscape that includes a blossoming of platforms as spaces for resource sharing for action and change. We believe in the Commons project’s central philosophy of rooting this action and change in relationships, and making sure those actions are specific and supported, is what makes this iteration of our work both necessary and unique. Our project has really aimed to take a human-centered approach to an emerging landscape of technology. While conversations over social media can become polarized, violent, and destructive, through exchanges of politicized viewpoints, we know that an underlying value to these conversations is a sense of belonging — specifically, to challenge one’s beliefs and viewpoints can mean to not only challenge a viewpoint, but to challenge the space of belonging or unity that has allowed that viewpoint to exist. We ask together…

How might we name when a viewpoint is harmful, while also acknowledging that it takes a community of belonging to explore and transform violent or harmful thought?

As we explore this question, we invite you to be a part of our Commons Community…

Learn: Take our online course, Rehumanizing Relationships.

Engage: Try out the strategies in the social media playbook.

Collaborate: Reach out to collaborate on new possibilities within this journey!



Build Up

Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.