Photo: A Walk to Respect (on the road)

How Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass “Turned Outward”

Posted on December 13, 2023 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24

Editor's Note: Email to learn more about how you can bring this inspirational play to your community. The performance is 55 minutes, followed by a 30-minute panel discussion that centers on the importance of turning outward to discover shared community aspirations.


As I shared in a previous blog post, from November 3 – 10, I supported the cast and crew of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect for six performances in front of hundreds of audience members while on the road in Phoenix, AZ, and Reading, PA.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect is a one-act play by The Patterson Foundation’s award-winning playwright Beth Duda, with original spoken word poetry by Cedric Hameed. The play is a powerful illustration of how two men confronted their differences with courage and compassion at a time when our divided nation faced annihilation, forging a friendship that helped to end the Civil War and reunite our nation.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect is part of The Patterson Foundation’s Aspirations to Actions (A2A) initiative. A2A is an ongoing effort to catalyze community impact through 1) facilitation of community conversations that reveal shared aspirations and 2) mobilization of aligned individuals and organizations around those shared aspirations. A2A is powered by training from The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit that supports communities in addressing their hardest and most vital societal challenges and strengthening their civic culture.

Central to The Harwood Institute’s approach is the concept of “turning outward.” Turning outward is perhaps best understood in contrast to turning inward, which focuses on listening only to oneself, thinking only through your organization’s needs, and viewing others as passive recipients. Instead, turning outward challenges us to listen deeply to others, consider all community stakeholders, and view others as powerful stewards.

At Harwood trainings, we’re taught that when listening to others, it’s imperative that we begin with identifying aspirations. That doesn’t mean that we ignore challenges. Indeed, the second part of listening about aspirations is to ask about the challenges in reaching those aspirations. And the third part is identifying the actions we can take to address those challenges to achieve those aspirations. The key here is that by beginning with aspirations instead of challenges, we cultivate positivity, increase clarity about what we’re trying to accomplish, and inspire hope.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass both aspired to end slavery but had different ideas about how to end it. Abraham Lincoln, on the one hand, thought a key challenge was time. He sought to preserve the Union by advocating to outlaw the spread of slavery to new states, hoping that by confining slavery to the South, it “would surely die a slow death.” On the other hand, Frederick Douglass thought a key challenge was cautious politicians like Abraham Lincoln. He fiercely fought for immediate abolition everywhere.

Both men, however, turned outward. Instead of only listening to themselves, they entered into deep dialogue with each other, listening to each other’s perspectives. Lincoln began to consider slavery from Douglass’s vantage point as a former slave and abolitionist. For instance, when Douglass started recruiting African Americans to join the Union Army, Lincoln learned how challenging it was for Douglass to recruit when there was unequal pay between black and white soldiers. Douglass began to consider slavery from Lincoln’s vantage point as president. He learned how challenging it was for Lincoln, even as the president, to achieve non-discriminatory policies. The list of what these two men learned from each other goes on.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are a powerful testament to what’s possible when we turn outward and align around shared aspirations. If these two men, one white and one black, one a former slave and the other not, disagreeing about an issue as morally repugnant as slavery, can turn outward, why can’t we? What would we learn from each other, and what would we be able to achieve in our communities?

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