Unlikely allies can solve society's most complex problems.
- Bishop Omar Jahwar has worked beside all kinds of unlikely allies, from Aryan Brotherhood gang leaders to former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
- What is an enemy? A true enemy is rare, says Bishop Omar. “Enemies come when there is true violation, not true rhetoric… sometimes you have to go beyond the rhetoric so you can see the real.”
- You cannot solve deep problems from the comfort of an echo chamber—it takes courage. The key to courageous collaborations is meeting your so-called enemy to ask: “What do we fiercely agree upon? And let’s work like hell to make it happen.”
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
BISHOP OMAR JAHWAR: Well, I started out in the early '90s, I was the first gang specialist hired by the state of Texas. My job was to essentially go into youth prisons and some of those young early adult prisons and deal with the gang phenomenon that happened in the '90s. The job was to negotiate peace in those environments and then furlough those young men out and allow them to go back to the neighborhoods and talk with their OGs and their leaders to ask them to give them free passes back into their world.
In this culture, now it's less gang it's more identity with whatever—whatever area, whatever neighborhood, whatever scenario that you're in, you identify with that, so that becomes your protection, it becomes your identity, it becomes your way of life. So someone has to figure out how to go through that system and say, "Let's get reality from those false identities, those falsehoods." But you've got to be careful, because no matter if it's false or not, if someone believes it they'll die for it, they'll kill for it, they'll live for it, so you have to know how to use whatever influences you have to bring about a different perspective.
I'm going to tell you, once I did a gang negotiation with the Aryan Brotherhood, the Aryan Nation, the Nazis, and when they gathered they all had to affirm their belief system. And it was so interesting, the guy he looked around his group and he said, "We hate blacks and we hate Hispanics and we hate..." and he looked at me and he said, "But not you, sir; we don't feel like that about you." I said, "Thank you, man." Because what I realized what he said to me was, "Man, we need you right now. This is our speech, and not necessarily entrenched." And that guy became one of the leaders of this "emoji" council that we did in prison, which is a unity council.
But the point I'm making is that enemies come when there is true violation, not true rhetoric.
See, rhetoric don't make enemies, man, you've got to go past that. There is some stuff that I promise you I would not say on camera, that me and my wife have argued about, and you think, "Boy, they are enemies." No! She wants one thing on TV and I wanted—it just got out of hand.
So sometimes you have to go beyond the rhetoric so you can see the real. So you've got to classify a person, if they're an "enemy," with their intent, with their consistent behavior, and it's a whole broad range when you try to deal like that. And so you've got to be very, very careful when you're doing it, because you never know who you're going to need on many, many, many sides. So that's how I see "enemy," so you're right about that, it's very rare that in my spirit I would say, "That's an enemy," because, in the work that I do, you would really limit your influence and limit your access if you thought in those terms.
I did work with Paul Ryan. He was doing a poverty tour with a mentor, my mentor Bob Woodson, and it was called 'What Works and Why'. And he was going around to see what really works. And he had this idea called A Better Way Forward. And so they came to Dallas. I had no knowledge of him; he came to Dallas to come see my work. And one of his first trips when he became Speaker of the House was—I do a big celebration every MLK Day where I bring healers from all over the city of Dallas then, but now all over the nation, they came together to just affirm what we were doing and to revisit where we were. One of his first trips, he came there and was there strictly to listen. He stayed for a few hours just listening to everyone and talking in that space and it was so interesting how the perception was not the reality.
Because most people who work in neighborhoods, they have a philosophy that would say 'It don't lean toward where you are, Paul', but he was as comfortable in that moment as I was when he brought us up to talk to a group of guys who were conservatives. And we did a deal at the American Enterprise Institute and other places where we was just trying to share our ideas. And so what we started realizing is there's not a lot of separation. The separation is very small, and so we began to just work in that sense.
You know, perspective comes from where you are. I'll never forget when Paul and I first met, I was saying, "What is he trying to gain from this?" And his direct answer was: information. "I don't know what I don't know, so teach me. Show me what it means to be in this moment and then I'm going to show you where I am." And then he said something that's very powerful, he said, "Omar, there are people who are poised to help you that you wouldn't meet, but I want to introduce you to this world." And I'm skeptical because I'm working in the street saying, "Right, anybody who wants to help me I pretty much know," and I was wrong. So we met at a vulnerable place where we both could learn. And the power of that relationship is that we didn't have to start hiding from real issues to work together. Charles Koch said something that was so strong to me, he said, "What do we fiercely agree upon? And let's work like hell to make it happen." I said, I like that. What do we fiercely agree upon?
So do we really agree that everyone should be a citizen? Yeah. Do we really agree that poverty should not be the destination, it could be a transportation but not…? Yeah. Do we really agree that anyone could transform—transformation to redemption? Yeah. So we just start figuring out what we agree upon, and it was easy to have real relationships. So, Paul then, for me it was not political, it was real. And then when we had real disagreements they were coming from a pure place. "Paul, I don't agree with his policy." He said, "Yeah, it's cool." And we didn't have any heartburn, we had true ideas that could play out in a theater of ideas and see what happens. But the goal was bigger than the role, it was not us trying to figure this thing out. So it stopped being this conversational piece of we figuring out how we play the game with each other, it started really being, "Do we add value to each other and are we solving things that other people run away from?" And it's in this environment of us versus them, right versus left, red versus blue—all of those things create the most echo-chambered life that you can have and it's going to have major consequences when you really have to solve deep problems. You cannot solve problems that way. That's insane. You can't do that.