At the Stevenson Community Library and across FVRLibraries in 2019, the organization now known as Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) presented a talk called “How to Talk Across the Political Divide.” Braver Angels is a national movement that brings liberals, conservatives, and others together at the grassroots level to foster open and honest discussions around people’s different points of view as well as what they hold in common. While it was a topic that I was invested in, I assumed it would draw maybe a dozen people if we were lucky, but was surprised to see a level of interest normally reserved for the ever popular mushroom identification talks. Thirtysome community members in a town of roughly fifteen hundred turned out on a fall evening in the middle of the Cascades in 2019 with the hope of learning how to talk to each other again, just months before the world would be plunged into COVID lockdowns.
Heartened by a solid response, we started to plan for an all-day workshop, looking for space that would accommodate that sort of programming. We had a hunch that this work would be sorely needed as the 2020 election cycle kicked up. Like many plans hatched in late 2019, it was relegated to an alternate timeline of library services without quarantines, along with brewery book clubs, STEM programming at local schools, and summer reading magicians packing in 100+ kids into that same small room that had snuggly accommodated 30 adults for the previous Braver Angles event. With all of that potential sidelined by lockdowns, those plans went to the back burner.
A few years later, when events were back in full swing, a new coordinator for Braver Angels showed up to one of our free monthly meditation classes at the library. She was looking for partners to restart efforts in the area, and we set out to pick up where we had left off. For myself, this was partly motivated by the climate that the country, and libraries in particular, now find themselves in. While the sort of dialogue promoted by these events does not illustrate a direct response to anti-library rhetoric, I believe that it is an excellent example of foundational community work that addresses the underlying cultural environment that expresses itself in the negativity that we see toward libraries currently.
The Red/Blue workshop is one type of Braver Angels initiative. Discussions were facilitated within and between two groups, one identifying themselves as “Red-leaning” and the other as “Blue-leaning.” A typical exercise had each group examining what they considered to be the most common false stereotypes that the other group held about them. Then, the task was to correct that stereotype, explaining their own side’s perspective. Finally, they were challenged to expand their point of view and identify any kernel of truth within the stereotype.
Ultimately, thirty-eight interested citizens plus eight Braver Angels volunteers participated in the Red/Blue Workshop held in Stevenson, WA on April 22, 2023, co-hosted by the library. The event required registration, and participants were recruited from local political organizations and public offices as well as the general public. This resulted in an even split of red/blue leaning participants in a county where Trump won by double digits after voting for Obama in 2008 and Romney by a thin margin in 2012.
A left-leaning participant in the workshop said, “I have to admit that I approached the Red/Blue Braver Angels event in Stevenson with both skepticism and anxiety. To openly identify as ‘Blue’ in bright ‘Red’ Skamania was daunting for someone who has been conditioned to believe that it is not socially acceptable to discuss religion or politics in public, much less in a group of people known to be on the other side of the divide. I was particularly skeptical when I learned that two men I believed to be far-right heavy hitters with known political agenda would be participants. I was surprised, and relieved, to see how well the Braver Angels' format helped to facilitate meaningful discussion of how personal beliefs and experiences informed our political views, and steering the participants away from political sound bites. I found myself listening and believing that there were others listening to me. ‘I never thought of it that way’ was said more than once. While nothing that was said changed my political positions, I have found myself, two weeks after the event, thinking about what I heard, researching the background to better understand an idea I had not considered before, and thinking I would love to have an opportunity to continue the discussion.”
A Red participant commented that “The stereotype exercise was particularly challenging and helpful, and the overall tone of multiple conversations made me optimistic that this Braver Angels movement can really make a difference.”
A variety of challenging topics emerged throughout the day, including interpretation of the U.S. Constitution; gun controls and gun rights; abortion rights; environmental regulations; relationship between church and state; and immigration policies. It was refreshing to see the discussions unfold; people were given space to explain their views without being pressured to change their position, and where nearly every person became genuinely curious about the rationale behind an opposing point of view.
After the workshop, one Blue participant commented that “Because of this workshop, it's important to me that I not only stop perpetuating disinformation about ‘Reds,’ but to also stop negative conversations among family and friends in my home. I will make it a priority to put an end to those conversations when they begin.”
Braver Angels exists because they believe humans are capable of having passionate and honest differences of opinion while maintaining the ability to work for progress with those who don’t share the same perspective (but who often share the same values). A large part of their success is the quality of their trained volunteer facilitators who kept the conversations productive by focusing on good faith questioning, and firmly redirected participants away from ‘gotcha’ questions and other toxic habits that are common in the broader political discourse. The facilitators were brought in from outside of the area to maintain objectivity. This was especially important in a small town where everyone is so familiar with one another and can have set opinions about each other, justified or not.
Following the workshop, a Red participant wrote to say “I would like to thank you for inviting me to the Braver Angels event this past Saturday. It was a great learning experience for me. The inability to talk to friends, relatives, and people in general to share information and viewpoints that differ from mine without everything going off the rails is very frustrating. I'm concerned by the direction this country is going and see the need to get things right. This workshop has given me a starting place and hopefully a method I can use to bridge the divide!”
In the months since this workshop, which was spearheaded by the larger organization, the local Columbia River Gorge chapter of Braver Angels was founded after recruiting Red and Blue co-chairs from this event. They have continued to meet monthly in the region. In addition to organizing future events at these monthly meetings, they regularly pair up and practice their listening skills with one-on-one conversations about contentious policy issues. They join the other three groups operating in Washington state including groups in Western, Eastern/Central, and Snohomish County.
These are exactly the sort of conversations that libraries should be fostering in their communities. And not only because libraries are foundational to a healthy civil society. It is also a response to the anti-democratic rhetoric that has increasingly turned into action against public libraries through attempts to ban books, programming, and displays that seek to center marginalized voices within our communities. Strengthening our ability to disagree with our neighbors, patrons, and coworkers without demonizing them, is one of the few ways forward in engaging with our communities in productive ways that break what often feels like an impasse centered on limiting access to or outright banning of materials in our libraries.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Braver Angels national organization or finding (or founding) local groups in your area check out braverangels.org.