Clayton, a novelist and short story writer, is a member of Hands Across the Hills, a group created to improve civic discourse between progressive and conservative parts of rural America.
Sometimes it seems the only thing blue and red voters share is mutual contempt. Organizations like Better Angels or Bridge the Divide try to promote civility by establishing rules for speaking together respectfully in a "safe" space. Their workshops, led by trained facilitators, resist ugly divisiveness. These organizations support an America in which people can talk to one another, and even debate, without demeaning one another.
Our project is doing something different and deeper. Here's our story.
Not long after the 2016 election a few people in my hometown of Leverett, a liberal hamlet in rural western Massachusetts, responded to an essay by a community organizer in eastern Kentucky — Trump country — who asked if any group wanted to join him in rejecting the growing divisiveness in America. We were excited yet wary. Could we bridge the divide?
We began as two collections of individuals. Those of us in Leverett hardly knew one another. But we eventually grew close through our work; then the Kentuckians joined us and gradually we became a mixed group.
How have we been changed? Can we provide a template for other groups?
We believe we can, in part by explaining the principles our group is built on: immersion, facilitated dialogue and a commitment to dissolving stereotypes.
Individuals from Leverett and Kentucky's Letcher County have met for three long weekends — so far. We've spoken together in dialogues, eaten together, danced, sung and even stayed in one another's homes. We gathered in my town in 2017 and 2019 and in Kentucky in 2018.
Increasingly, we've become friends through our immersion. We've resisted the sentimentality of what we call "kumbaya moments." Together we explore tough issues and participate in structured dialogues led by a trained facilitator. We don't debate. We speak about more than politics, because we're so much more than whom we vote for.
You might be wondering if we're changing anyone's minds.
No, that's not the goal. We listen to one another, speak about family, struggles and our hopes. We speak face to face as human beings and discover what we have in common. We don't change minds but we do change hearts. Our group has grown to respect one another, and from our shared humanity explore politics and hot-button issues like class, race, guns and drugs. The point is not to change a few votes, but to really know one another.
We sit together in a circle and talk. But the talk has a number of precise parameters. The facilitator, Paula Green, establishes a framework for the discussion. It's not ordinary conversation; it's highly structured. She creates a safe container, knowing when to open conflict and when to tamp it down.
In our first gathering, Green asked us to tell family stories. The Kentuckians had lived in their hills in coal country for many generations. Their families experienced sickness and death from the mines, yet suffered in different ways when those mines closed. Many of us in Leverett had immigrated or were the children of immigrants who struggled to make a home in America; others lost relatives in the Holocaust. Everyone had stories of family suffering. These stories, in their varieties of pain and the overcoming of it, connect us.
At first, Green's questions avoided hot-button issues. We felt connections where before there had been only differences. A woman from Kentucky responded to a story told by a woman from Massachusetts saying, "I thought you people had never suffered." Another Kentuckian said that she had never met an immigrant.
We listened and grew to trust one another. Without a facilitator, the talk would likely have taken easier paths. There's a delicate balance between comfort and change. Dialogue hovers at the edge of discomfort. It takes chances.
One time a Kentucky woman who had started a bakery and catering business, staffed by recovering addicts and ex-inmates, spoke about the importance of coal for her people. She'd lost a brother and uncle to the mines, through accidents and coal dust. Yet mining, she said, was the only industry they had in eastern Kentucky. Maybe coal would return. Coal production has gone through cycles. Maybe there would be a war and a need for coal.
Green spoke up, saying it made her very sad to hear about war as an option. After she opened her heart, we plunged into dangerous waters. A filmmaker from Kentucky, the son of a mining foreman, told us about the brotherhood and dignity of work in the mines. We trusted each other enough to say that and to hear that. With the guidance of our facilitator we were able to move into deep layers of conflict without losing our connection.
Developing trust takes time and work. The first step along the way is affection, even love. But it's easier to offer and receive affection than to really get to know others as individuals. The strength of Hands Across the Hills is made evident by the individual relationships that have taken root. We spend a lot of time working together. When we see each other now, we're seeing in a deeper way. Now we see complex individuals, not positions.
We don't deny our differences — in political attitudes, education or wealth. We face differences honestly while staying close to one another and learning from one another.
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Organizer: Center for the Study of Liberty
The Center for the Study of Liberty is delighted to bring you a LIVE online conversation with John Wood, Jr. and April Lawson of Better Angels. Better Angels is a national citizens' movement to reduce political polarization. By bringing "reds" and "blues" all across the country together in workshops, debates, and community alliances, they aim to teach practical skills and strategies for communicating across political differences. Yet their vision extends far beyond getting us all through the 2020 election. The leaders of this movement are asking questions like:
- "Can we change the trajectory of our civic culture?"
- "Can we repair our torn social fabric?"
John and April will share their insights about the "unmooring" that took place in 2016, the influence of college campuses on our national dialogue, the importance of rebuilding our "emotional economy," and much more.
Organizer: Better Angels
The goal of a Better Angels Debate is not to "win" the argument. Rather, it is a highly structured conversation in which a group of people listen carefully and meaningfully engage with each other's ideas on a difficult issue. If successful, everyone walks away a little closer to the truth, more aware of the validity in opposing views, and with a tighter community of friendships from across the political spectrum.
Location: OpenGov Hub, 1110 Vermont Ave NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC
James D. Coan is co-director of the Media Initiative for Better Angels, a national organization dedicated to reducing political polarization by convening liberals and conservatives in a variety of settings and preaching the virtues of civility and cross-party alliances. A D.C.-area native, he started his career at a Rice University think tank before spending seven years as a strategy consultant, mainly for private-sector energy clients. Starting around the 2016 election he has established himself as one of the country's few depolarization strategists. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's the tweet-length description of your organization?
Better Angels is building a house united to save our republic. We will overcome polarization. We help Americans see what we share and what can keep America together, both in small workshops and through mass media.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
In fifth grade, I wanted soccer goals installed at my elementary school. I wrote to the parks board. Magically, the board listened, and two goals were installed. I doubt anything will be that easy ever again, but perhaps it gives me hope to tackle more difficult topics.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
I should preface this answer by noting two things: I still have a separate full-time job as a strategy consultant. And much of my work in depolarization is behind-the-scenes, planning out what can be successful. What I'm most proud of as a depolarization volunteer: substantial progress taking academic research from various fields to formulate a strategy that can ultimately impact large numbers of Americans. First, I feel I've focused the problem on what researchers like political scientist Shanto Iyengar call "affective [emotional] polarization." What matters most is our intense animosity for the other side, and I've identified a few of the most troubling emotions. Then I feel like I've developed solutions, often influenced by social psychology. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows emotions and intuitions dominate when it comes to reasoning and politics, and one must appeal to emotions to make change. Haidt's most famous article is "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail." It's ironic; the most intellectual people in this space say it's best to keep it simple by speaking to emotions and highlighting commonalities. We're now finding the right messengers who can amplify messages to reach millions.
And your most disappointing setback?
I initially got my start in this space by sharing stories of friends and those in close relationships across political divides. I called it Red Blue Together. I successfully collected these stories. Starting the project helped introduce me to many people in the field. However, I think I'm a much better strategist than an Instagram influencer, so my follower count always stayed low.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm an American, and I feel my country is tearing itself apart. I have to do something to keep my country together. Reducing polarization has become part of my identity, and it's a major part of my purpose in life.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
A former boss said those who are lucky enough to have any choice can still often only choose one of the following: money, fame or influence. I guess by doing this profile maybe it appears I'm choosing fame. However, I try to focus on influence as much as possible.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
"E Peppermint Unum": Upon opening up the pint, there is a little American flag made out of tiny candy cane pieces.
What's your favorite political movie or TV show?
I think old episodes of "The Simpsons" have enough politics for me. I read a lot of news, but I don't believe I go out of my way to use politics as entertainment.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Some combination of personal email, FiveThirtyEight.com, Facebook and The Washington Post
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I don't really like peppermint, so I might not like my Ben and Jerry's flavor.