BY KIM WHITING
“Those of us who were ‘Blues,’ listened and observed, unseen, as the ‘Reds’ talked amongst themselves,” explained Reverend Barbara Prose to her congregation at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prose was describing the “fishbowl” exercise, conducted in a workshop offered by Braver Angels, the largest organization in the country dedicated to bridging the political divide.
With passions still high following the 2016 presidential election, the founders of Braver Angels assembled 10 supporters of Donald Trump and 11 supporters of Hillary Clinton in South Lebanon, Ohio. This would become the first-ever “Red/Blue Workshop.” The goal was simple. They wanted to see if Americans could still disagree respectfully and, just maybe, find common ground. Some thought it wasn’t likely.
But Braver Angels leaders found that Republicans and Democrats could actually like each other. They just had to hear one another’s stories. Black and white, native-born and immigrant, Christian and Muslim, no matter what their differences, these Americans could learn to appreciate each other’s opinions. They simply needed to see where these opinions came from, and understand how and why they were formed. They could listen to each other’s points of view once they saw one another, not as stereotypes, but as neighbors in a country they shared.
After the first successful gathering, everyone agreed: this effort to bring people together and help bridge the political divide need to be expanded. Braver Angels powerful new approach to political depolarization has sprouted across the country, using a grassroots approach of workshops, facilitated debates, book and film discussions, and more.
Back at her Tulsa church, Prose continued to share her experience at the recent Red/Blue workshop, The Reds (a.k.a. conservatives) were to answer the questions, “Why are your side’s values and policies important to our country?” and then, “What’s problematic about your values and positions?” Prose said she listened, skeptically, as the Reds answered by saying, “We are innovators. We value prosperity over charity. We believe in the potential of each individual to live their dream. We believe in religious liberty. We believe in the intrinsic dignity of the individual, that people are inherently worth something.”
Prose jotted down notes, ready with rebuttals, but then slowly softened. As the Reds continued, she said, “I sensed how scary it was for them to voice their positions.” Next, the Reds listed what might be problematic about their positions: “We are too corporate-oriented. We are too dismissive of climate change. We put too much focus on religious ideas. We are too okay with the distance between the haves and have-nots. We can be resistant to change. We don’t always show that we care.”
Reverend Barbara Prose is one of the ministers at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a “Blue” coordinator for Braver Angels “workshops.”
In reaction to this list from the Reds, Prose said, “The power of their vulnerability took my breath away. I, who had been ready to line up and shoot the traitors (figuratively speaking) from the insurrection at the Capital the week before, felt my heart melt. I was emptied of disdain and contempt” and surprisingly, found myself listening with curiosity, and even respect.
Prose co-hosted the Tulsa Braver Angels Red-Blue workshop with conservative Tim Tardibono, Director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, because Braver Angels ensures that both sides of the political spectrum are equally represented in every aspect of their organization.
Prose went on to say, “And then it was the Blues (a.k.a. progressives) turn to be in the ‘fishbowl.’ The positions we saw as good for our country included our belief in equality for all. We said we valued the welfare of the community, even over freedom. For example, if we’re afraid of getting the COVID vaccine, we will get it anyway, for the good of the community at large. We are open to change, to trying new things. We believe and are committed to the democratic process. We are on the side of the underdog. We believe in people giving according to their means. We believe in helping each other.”
Prose continued, “In answer to the question ‘what might be problematic about our positions,’ we said, ‘We are becoming too intolerant. We can’t build consensus, even amongst ourselves. We ignore the religious dimension, and we project bad intent when there is none.'”
In a recent interview, Tardibono said, “As the Blues in the workshop talked about what was important to them, I began to recognize some common ground in our ideals and goals. I see our nation’s culture, particularly media, as pulling us apart. The fishbowl exercise took me, and the other Reds participating, out of that oppositional context so that we were more open to listening and compromise.”
Tardibono continued, “After the fishbowl exercise, Barbara (Prose) told me that as the Reds shared their positions, she realized how scared conservatives were to voice them. It was very soothing to me that she recognized our fear. Many of us are afraid of the ‘Cancel Culture’ (the practice of shaming and/or withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive). Barbara told me that she started to think, ‘What can we do on the Blue side to make them not so fearful about talking with us.’ Barbara and I also talked about women’s reproductive rights, which is big for both of us. We discovered that our different terminologies made the other uncomfortable, and that when we left those terms out, we could have a productive discussion and even find common ground. After the dialogue with Barbara, I thought, ‘What language can I use when discussing this issue with liberals, that will make it easier and more dignified.'”
Tim Tardibono is Director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council and a “Red” coordinator for Braver Angels workshops.?
After completing two Braver Angels workshops, Prose noted during an interview, “As trained as I’ve been in inclusivity, I was shocked to see how much I polarize.”
Braver Angels offers a self-assessment questionnaire as part of its “Depolarizing Within: Becoming a Braver Angel in Your Own World” workshop. The survey aims to answer the question, “How polarized are you?” Or, in other words, “Are you currently contributing more to our country’s divide, or to bridging it?”
1) How often do you find yourself thinking about “those people” on the other political side without much regard for the variation among them? (Usually, we’re aware of great variation within our own group.)
Circle one: Often Sometimes Never
2) How often do you find yourself assigning mainly self-serving or negative motives to the other group? and mainly positive motives to your group?
Circle one: Often Sometimes Never
3) How often do you find yourself focusing on the most extreme or outrageous ideas and people on the other side, thereby making it hard to see how a reasonable person could remain in that group?
Circle one: Often Sometimes Never
4) How often do you find yourself comparing the worst people on the other side with the best people on your side?
Circle one: Often Sometimes Never
5) How often do you feel a “rush” of pleasure with friends when you ridicule those crazies on the other political side?
Circle one: Often Sometimes Never
6) Which of the following is closest to your overall emotional attitude towards the majority of people who support the other side? Circle the one closest to where you are now and then the one you aspire to, if they are different.
– Hate: The are enemies out to destroy the country
– Disdain: They are ignorant and should know better
– Pity: They are well meaning, but duped
– Basic Respect: They make contributions, even if they are mostly off base.
– Respect and Appreciation: They make unique and necessary contributions
Braver Angels also asks workshop participants to identify how they think and talk about those who differ from them politically. Do you stereotype, dismiss, ridicule, express contempt or feel superior/more enlightened?
On this subject, Tardibono adds, “What role do you play in labeling the other side, even if it’s unspoken? We need to watch the language we use to talk about the other side, and recognize that they don’t have horns, hoofed feet and a tail. Just seeing another person, instead of another side, is so important.”
The name Braver Angels was inspired by President Abraham Lincoln’s call for Americans to summon the “better angels” of our nature, and the courage needed to pursue a more perfect union “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.”
John Waldron has that kind of bravery. A high school history teacher turned Oklahoma State Legislator, he’s a Democrat in the state’s predominantly Republican House of Representatives. “Politics is set up as two opposing teams,” Waldron said in a recent interview. “Two teams that organize the exchange of ideas, so this is useful. But there can be so much indignation and disdain for the opposing side that ideas are met by minds that aren’t open to considering them.”
Waldron continued, “There’s a parable about the sun and wind having a competition to see who could get a guy to take off his jacket. First it was the wind’s turn and it blew hard, and then harder, trying to blow the man’s jacket off, but the harder it blew, the tighter the man held onto his jacket. When it was the sun’s turn, it simply beamed its warm rays onto the man, and feeling warm, the man took off his jacket.”
“I do my best to model the sun’s strategy. For example, when debating, I begin by addressing my colleague on the other side as ‘my esteemed colleague,’ point out the positives of the person, highlight our shared values, and then proceed. That doesn’t mean you can’t throw an elbow at the person’s position, just do it with respect for them.”
Oklahoma State Legislator John Waldron
Waldron believes he has more influence when he lets go of trying to win or of being right. “It’s far more productive when I’m curious, instead of certain, and go at issues like a researcher. In my experience, what most fosters bipartisanship is breaking into small groups where we focus on a certain issue, such as funding education, and get to know each other better as people. Informational forums on issues have also served to bridge the divide. In that setting, people show up to increase their knowledge on the issue. They show up curious instead of certain, so the atmosphere is less emotionally charged.”
Waldron finds that the best way to get his position heard is to keep stating it, along with the reasons underlying that position. He explained, “For example, I’ll say that I’m for legislation that protects the environment, because I’m very concerned about the world that we’ll be leaving behind for my son. People may disagree with my overall stance on the issue, but how can they disagree with my concern for my son? They can almost certainly relate to worrying about a child, so that gives us common ground and diffuses judgement and animosity.”
“But in politics, you can only speak personally for so long. You’ve got to get to the issues and facts, and this is where temperatures can rise. When confronted with hostile or unproductive conduct, I respond by calling out the person’s behavior. If we make the common enemy incivility, instead of the people whose views differ from ours, then we can debate.”
Waldon goes on, “It’s important to keep the conversation going until some understanding is gained. My experience as a high school world history teacher taught me that issues aren’t black and white. For example, World War II was about much more than just democracy vs. fascism. Issues are considerably more complex than they are at a quick glance, so it’s important to hear all angles on an issue.”
“I try to keep in mind that the other side is generally made up of people of principle, and that we have many shared values. For example, there was a guy with whom I had a lot of conflict, until I reminded him that I voted for most of his bills. After that, we drank beers together and realized we had a lot in common. Now, even when we disagree, it’s friendly.”
As to what Tardibono has seen help bridge the political divide, “It starts with listening,” he said. “I think people tend to focus on preparing a response to what someone is saying, instead of really listening. If you really listen to the other side, you’ll recognize that you have more in common than not.” In the Red/Blue workshop, we talked about tax policy. The Blues shared that they are very bothered that extremely wealthy people can reduce their tax burden to almost nothing, saying, “They use loopholes until they’re paying only 7 percent of taxes on their enormous incomes, whereas I, in a lower income bracket, am paying almost my full 20 percent. If we could just have them pay their fair share.” The ‘fair share’ comment raised hackles amongst the Reds, but we continued to discuss the issue respectfully and discovered that the Blues meant they wanted to reduce tax loopholes, and the Reds could generally agree with that.”
Tardibono told the story of his time working for former Republican U.S. Senator Tom Coburn in Washington D.C., during President Barack Obama’s administration. D.C. politics was definitely a setting where people were in oppositional mode, yet Senator Coburn and President Obama developed a close friendship, he said. “It was their spouses who brought them together. The women met during a freshmen Senators’ wives’ dinner and Coburn’s wife, Carolyn, came home from that event saying, “Tommy we’ve got to double date with Michelle and Barack.” Because Coburn and Obama then built a relationship, they were able to recognize their commonalities and worked on a major piece of legislation regarding spending transparency in the federal budget. Obama wanted to expand the budget and Coburn reduce, but they agreed on transparency. Had they not gotten to know each other and built trust, that legislation wouldn’t have gotten done.
Tardibono continued, “I feel a desperation that something has to change. I really want people to give these workshops a chance to get big ears and truly begin listening.” Barbara (Prose) told me that it’s harder to recruit conservatives for the Braver Angels workshops, so as a Red coordinator for Braver Angels in Oklahoma, I want to ask Reds to step up to the plate and get involved in this movement, to show we care about the other person and their dignity.
In our culture, there’s a feeling that we can’t step on the ice without plunging into an icy river. But the atmosphere in the Braver Angels workshops made me feel safe, and much more willing to open up. It’s a trust-building movement and to build trust, we’ve got to take the risk.
Prose feels similarly, “Braver Angels gives the opportunity, in a very structured setting, to talk like we wouldn’t normally talk with the other side. This is important work, because we really are interdependent, two sides of the same coin, and when we tarnish one side, we tarnish the coin.”
More information about Braver Angels and how to participate can be found on the Braver Angels website. You can also find info about how to be trained as an overseer, moderator, or facilitator, and find upcoming Braver Angel events.
Waldron says his vision is to, “see conservatives and liberals on one side of the table and the challenges we face as a country on the other.”
Reverend Prose concluded her sermon at All Souls Unitarian Church, saying, “I’m so moved that people of all ages and races from all across the country are willing to do this work with each other. It’s people saying ‘This matters so much that I’m not willing to leave it in someone else’s hands. I’m going to do whatever I can to create shared understanding.’ No one is expected to change their position, but we’re doing this with the deep faith that we can really disagree and still maintain relationships.”
Prose added, “Our identities are so much more complex than the ideals of our parties. In our conversations, we can address these complexities, which we can’t do in politics. So really, the healing needs to start outside politics, by getting to know each other. And as Gandhi said, ‘When the people lead, the leaders will follow.'”
Kim Whiting is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her here. Kim can be reached at .
The Reporters Inc. is a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a consortium of more than 300 nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to serving the public interest. Our articles are syndicated and shared with hundreds of other media organizations, online magazines, top blogs, etc. Please send news, feature and investigative story tips and ideas to .
Looking for one of our previous articles, investigations, commentaries, essays or book excerpts? Search our archives by typing key words into our SEARCH bar above, or at the top left corner of our site!