Repairing the Divide

A week after midterm elections, “Better Angels Skills Workshop” brings liberals and conservatives to the public library of Brookline, Massachusetts. People from both sides of the political aisle talk politics and surprisingly, they listen to one another.

This is the premise of Better Angels, a grassroots, bipartisan movement that practices a different kind of activism. This type of resistance hosts workshops where people from all sides of the political spectrum practice conflict resolution techniques designed to depolarize political dialogue.

Rob Robertson of Amherst, regional coordinator of Better Angels in New England and New York, shares with participants how David Blankenhorn, president of Better Angels, decided to establish the nonprofit organization after the presidential election in 2016.

“He said, ‘I have two choices. I can work to repair relationships, or I can work in the resistance.’ Then he said, ‘Well, the resistance is fully staffed.’ So, he chooses to work to repair relationships. It’s a personal choice, what one decides to do,” he said.

– Rob Robertson

Jan Aceti is a volunteer workshop organizer for Better Angels who worked to set up the event with the public library of Brookline, the co-sponsor. A Brookline native, Aceti was prompted to join Better Angels after experiencing the growing polarization in the country first-hand while canvassing Republicans and unenrolled voters for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Americans who have different political views are talking with each other less and less. It’s more likely that people on opposite sides of the political divide see the people on the other side as bad people whose beliefs are a threat to the nation,” she said.

But by 6:30 p.m., approximately 30 people fill the conference room on the second floor of the library. Of most participants, middle-aged white men and women, diversity demonstrated were political and ideological — with many liberals, a good amount of undecided or those who identified in between and even a few conservatives.

David Ball, 59, is from Framingham. He is the state coordinator for Better Angels in Massachusetts, but has only been with the organization for a little over a month. His involvement stems from an inclination to have the type of conversations he helps participants start, particularly as the climate worsened leading up to the midterm elections.

“I was finding that I was saying hateful things on Facebook. I was passing off memes that were hateful, making fun of people, calling them stupid. That doesn’t solve anything. It just makes people more hateful. I realized that that wasn’t the person I wanted to be,” Ball said.

The goal is to practice listening and speaking skills under four principles: setting a constructive tone, listening in a way that others feel heard, speaking to help others hear a perspective and handling difficult moments.

Participants are handed a packet with “red” and “blue” talking points to guide audience members through conversations. “Reds” represent conservative-leaning beliefs that tend to vote Republican. “Blues” represent liberal-leaning beliefs that generally vote Democratic. 

Audience members practice in pairs: One person is the “practicer” and the other is the “helper.” The “practicer” implements the skills and the “helper” frames talking points for the other to respond to. In a conversation during the first portion of the exercise, Aceti participates as a “helper” with Cindy Krug, 61, a self-identified liberal from Medford who works at Tufts University.

As Aceti portrays a conservative perspective on immigration, Krug finally interrupts her. “I don’t even know what to say to you. I didn’t think it would be so challenging. I mean, what do you do in conversations when the facts aren’t there?”

34-year-olds Natalie Gilmore, a rehabilitation professional from Allston, and Elisa Hupp, a West Virginia native residing in Arlington, have similar issues.

After listening to Hupp’s “red” talking points on guns, Gilmore finally exclaimed, “I’m trying to listen, but this whole time, I just want to say that’s [expletive], that’s [expletive]! What I want to say is that you’re wrong.”

Once the exercise ended, the group reflects together. Gilmore is quick to say, “I feel really frustrated. I don’t want to know what [Hupp] thinks, to be honest, and I felt like I was being insincere, just listening the whole time.”

Gilmore isn’t alone.

For the first time in surveys dating back to 1992, the ​Pew Research Center study of partisanship and political animosity​ found that an overwhelming portion of those with negative views of the opposing party saw that party’s policies “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

Karla Baehr is a former assistant professor at Lesley University from Newton. The takeaway she shares after participating in the second exercise resonated with many participants as they file out, promptly at 8 p.m.

“The way I looked at it was, it’s kind of like untangling a ball of yarn. I don’t care whether or not I like the color, I’m just untangling it.”

“Later on, I’ll figure out if I like the color,” she said.

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