Guest columnist Tom Weiner: Braver Angels bolstered hope for our country

By TOM WEINER

Published: 08-07-2023 9:45 PM

Gettysburg was chosen for this year’s Braver Angels Convention (July 5-8) and it was no accident that we were meeting at Gettysburg College, which is next to the battlefield where more than 7,000 Americans died during one of the most horrifying battles of the American Civil War. The organizers and many of the 670 attendees from across the country and the political spectrum, who wore blue, red and yellow (undecided or libertarian) to symbolize their political affiliations, were mindful throughout our days together that we’ve not been so close to another civil war than we are in 2023.

I went to the convention with my red-leaning friend, Peter, from Grafton, New York, whom I met at a Braver Angels event in September 2021. We’ve become very good friends via Zoom for the first year and in person since. All told we spent 12 hours in the car.

Our conversation, as were all of the conversations I had at the convention, was respectful, open, sincere and reflective of our both having bought into the methodology of Braver Angels, which is predicated on civility, building trust and becoming known and accepted by one another despite our political differences. Peter and I have most surely achieved the trust and knowledge to be able to have free-wheeling, challenging conversations with boundaries and honoring of our differences.

That was most assuredly the spirit of the convention. The events I attended consisted of panel presentations, my favorite being about polarization in the Black community featuring Tavis Smiley, former NPR journalist with his own radio station in California, and Ian Rowe, educator and charter school founder. It began with an intense response to the Supreme Court affirmative action decision; debates — one on abortion and one asking whether the U.S. is the greatest country in the world; and plenaries with all in attendance, asking us, “Are you ready?” and “Why did you come?”

Each was conducted with kindness, consideration and respect and all were intense, free-wheeling and obviously dealing with difficult topics. I learned much, felt encouraged by the level of sincerity, openness and honesty and, yes, more hopeful that this country might just survive these highly conflicted times.

Whether at meals or at an informal, but nonetheless Braver Angels-style “rap session” (a significant part of my college experience — intense discussions often conducted late at night in the dorm) after the last event on Thursday evening, the commitment to being civil despite our differences was maintained. I had been skeptical that such interactions with numerous people I do not interact with would be superficial and Kumbaya-esque, but I was very pleasantly surprised throughout my time in Gettysburg by the level of engagement, the willingness to hear one another out without interruption, judgment or dismissive words.

The protocols for the debate and for the various presentations promoted tolerance and appreciation, enabling participants to feel heard if not agreed with.

My most profound encounter was with Brian, who attended the “rap session” and with whom I had begun a conversation about climate change before pivoting to my mentioning my deep concerns regarding what I called the Trumplican party. He took umbrage at the term and at that moment a Braver Angels ambassador asked if she could facilitate our conversation.

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She did so skillfully, compassionately and supportively, so that Brian, with whom I checked in the next morning, and I felt heard, understood and appreciated despite our differences. I was able to explain the term I’d used was in reference to the ex-Republicans who have left their principles behind to stay in Trump’s good graces and he ended up accepting my definition, and proceeding to tell me that many of his millennial friends had become disillusioned with Trump and sought to reconnect with their conservative Republican roots. This morning he sent me an email thanking me for our conversation and asking if we could continue our dialogue.

Hope was restored — and this is just a brief slice of what I took away from the experience, all of which Peter and I got to process on the drive back to Grafton. Additional hope flowed from learning about Braver Angels’ nationwide efforts to engage middle, high school and college students with programs intended to have young people learn the virtues of dialogue, civility and citizenship across divides.

We drove through the battlefield before we departed, a great reminder of why Braver Angels is so very worthwhile at this critical juncture in our history. For more information and possible participation in their many coming events, visit braverangels.org/attend-a-workshop/.

Tom Weiner lives in Northampton.

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