A Grey Approach to a Brighter Future

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A Grey Approach to a Brighter Future

Out of all the labels and categories flying around these days, Riaz Patel feels there only two that we should focus on. “In this world, there are those who truly listen, and those who just wait to speak. I think that there are so few of the former and I am constantly working on my own ability to listen.  Because that is the only way to get out of the crazy noise and anger of my own head.”

Our rapidly evolving technology allows news to be shared almost instantly. Social media outlets provide anyone a platform to speak their mind freely at a moment’s notice. Despite these virtues, are we really communicating effectively?  Are we truly communicating at all, when so many of us feel unheard or misunderstood? We can’t help but feel that everything has become a contest of who can scream the loudest to have their point heard.

Ironically the principle of listening – not just speaking out - was the very concept that propelled Riaz into the spotlight. It would be easy for someone who is considered a triple minority (Muslim, Pakistani-American immigrant, and gay) to stay hidden in the shadows. However, the ever-growing discord in our country and world has prompted him to step forward more than ever before.

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Riaz was visiting Orlando, Florida in June of 2016 with his husband and baby daughter when the tragic shooting took place there.

“I was walking in Orlando during the shooting. I was at a Pakistani wedding, wearing Pakistani attire the morning after. To see those faces and the fear — I saw what I’ve seen so many times. I saw it after 9/11, I saw it in high school when people were beating me up because I was gay, I saw it when I was growing up in a Jewish school and people didn’t want their kids to play with the Muslim kid,” Patel said. (Source: www.glennbeck.com)

One month later, Riaz landed a spot on Glenn Beck’s show in July 2016. Beck is a conservative American talk show host and political commentator. Glenn is self-described catastrophist, known for his rabble- rousing rhetoric for a large part of his career. Initially, Riaz’s primary hope was to put a face to the Muslim faith that is grossly misrepresented by our media. “If people got to know who I am, I might be the first person that they met that changed their mind. What people know about this faith comes to them as breaking and horrific news. They don't know the billions of kind and gentle and generous acts of millions of Muslim people.”

The conversation ran the gamut, and provoked Riaz to begin tuning in to varied conservative radio stations. He was searching for a broader perspective of the upcoming 2016 Presidential Election than his own. The first meeting between Riaz and Glenn marked the beginning of an unexpected friendship, symbolizing a bridge between two seemingly polar opposite sides – Patel as a self-described liberal, and Beck being well known as a conservative. Patel insists that face to face, uncomfortable conversations – not social media commentary - are crucial for any real progress to be made. “When I am in a situation where there is so much anger and so much emotion it can't be about me, especially if I don't know the person well. I go into these conversations wanting to like the person and wanting to learn something that I don't know.”

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Riaz believes that the solutions to our problems will not be found in “either/or” thinking. Instead they will emerge from finding ways to blend the best of both sides. He firmly believes that our future depends on listening to those with opposing views with an open mind and heart. As a living testament to this principle, Riaz flew to Alaska one week before the election in November 2016. He earnestly wanted to meet people he wouldn’t normally cross paths with and understand the motives behind their voting choices.  He summarized the trip in his moving article written the day after the election titled, Dear 59,668,724 Disappointed Americans.

In his letter he states, “On my flight back, I realized that for many of us supporting Hillary, this election was about incredibly important social issues. It was a moral election for us. To most of the people I met on my trip, it was about survival. Literally. So when I read Facebook/Twitter posts this morning vilifying 50% of the country for being dumb or racist, I remember Nicole, Jim & Paula and I know that’s not true. But how would I know that if I didn’t meet them and talk to them with an open mind? Only by pulling up a few chairs to PERSONIFY the people we think we hate, will we move beyond ‘black’ and ‘white’ to the way the world really is: grey. Grey is the only way.

Now, before the chat threads blow up below this article, I am not denying that some Trump supporters are racist. Of course. But some Muslims are terrorists.

The point is NOT ALL.”

He ends his letter with, “I think a key part of beginning to heal is realizing Trump is not his supporters. Who he is and how he campaigned are truly distasteful to me. But his supporters are not him. They voted for a variety of reasons that are important and personal to them. And when I was with them this past weekend, everyone I came across showed me kindness & humanity. I hope, for their sake, the quality of their life improves. And that they are able to continue to work and provide their families with a safe and loving home. A home into which I hope to be invited.”
Source: (www.glennbeck.com)

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As a television producer, Riaz would prefer to stay behind the camera.  However, he has recently found his usual comfort zone stretched.  Riaz has been a guest numerous times on Beck’s radio show, and they continue to collaborate and brainstorm new ideas to help heal the divide in America. Riaz also found himself on-camera to mediate a filmed conversation between a mixed group of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians – a project independently produced that he intends to keep building upon. He has started putting the work out there by sharing highlights from the filmed coverage on Facebook.  The intent is to generate deeper understanding and compassion on both sides. More importantly, Riaz hopes the example inspires more people to sit down together and try and find common ground. “I think social media has allowed us to think that we are communicating without talking. To me, the real way to communicate is to see, hear, feel …that’s how we start to understand each other.”

“I think what the problem is now is that people think that they are so informed because so much information is coming at them.  But when you step back the information is always coming from the same sources, different names but same kind of story. The reason I keep pushing for people to sit down is because we know that typing and tapping is never going to give you all the information you can get by sitting with someone, watching their face, the way that they say it, what's uncomfortable to say when they're looking at you. I think it's easy to be hateful when you're not in someone's presence.”

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It’s hard to deny the growing polarity in America over the past few years. Riaz expresses concern that the divide has gone so far to even cut across cut dining room tables. As tension has continued to rise, we feel personally affronted and threatened. Often our response is to further entrench ourselves with a side, using broad stroke labels to try and organize the chaos.

One of the clips from Riaz’s filmed project titled, “Who Do You Surround Yourself With?” points out that most of us belong to homogenous groups that make us feel safe and heard. As we disconnect more from those with opposing viewpoints, we fail to see that everyone is crying out in pain. Riaz points out that as we compare our grievances, we are essentially invalidating one another. “As America divides, more neighbors and friends are so insulated from other neighbors and friends that they have no awareness of the other side of life – no empathy with people who may have lessor maybe have it just as bad, but in a different way.”

Riaz continues, “I think that there is a rage… I think the common thread of every American right now is that they're angry.  I think that everybody is angry because what they thought should be their experience of America is not. Everyone is upset that America is not reflecting what they want personally, but America is not personally any one.”

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Riaz is magnanimous, charismatic and humble all at once.  His character speaks for him. His biggest gifts are not only his intelligent and eloquent responses, but moreover, his ability to deeply listen and internalize what others are expressing. Riaz hears the heart and intention behind the words. Still, his efforts have been subject to criticism – particularly because of his collaborations with Glenn Beck.  He has experienced strained friendships and work relationships, in addition to being accused of excusing the behavior of bigots and racists.

Despite the backlash, he presses forward with whatever he has to offer.  He is purely committed to bring people together that might not believe it possible to see eye to eye. This principle comes to life in one of his new projects with Beck, aptly titled, Make America Dinner Again, or MADA. MADA’s website states “In an attempt to build understanding and move forward together, we’d like to invite people to sit down and have dinner. There are many avenues to protest, to donate, to fight, to be heard; Make America Dinner Again is an avenue to listen.”

Riaz elaborates, “I think when we can shift what we can do on our own, then we shift what we can do as a family, then a street than a neighborhood, and so on. I hope that the reservoir of need will be filled and filled and that we won't look so far out to be heard. We will only look as far as our voices can carry us.” His work is proving that such a thing is possible and closer on the horizon than we might think.

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Riaz maintains it’s all what you do about your frustration.  “I ask myself, how can I be more inclusive? How do I move people forward to be happy? Knowing there's a divided has inspired me to find ways to bridge it. And then there are those that are just actively just putting rage forward. They are using their voices, and resources, cameras and companies and media empires to just put rage out. They are the people that are ruining what is happening to all of us – left, right, and middle.”

“I really do think there's a way to turn things around and it's not going to come from the top down. It has to be a grassroots way that is going to take back who we are and what we are to each other - not defined through campaigns or political parties but defined through the people we see and interact with.” He urges that we all need to engage more in face to face conversations and enter them with the earnest intent to learn something new about the other person. A brighter future is waiting for us if we are brave enough to break out of our comfort zones. There is another alternative to trying to scream over the roar of each other… as Riaz simply states, “Go listen.”

Follow Riaz's work on Facebook and Twitter

View more of Riaz's Portraits

Read his letter to disappointed American's Here and his Forbes article Here

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