The Philadelphia Citizen, April 28, 2018
Like so many (especially) left-leaning Americans, Madelena Rizzo spent the weeks after the 2016 Presidential election disheartened by what was happening in her country. But unlike many of her political compatriots, Rizzo’s real dismay was less the outcome of the election—though she is no fan of Donald Trump—than what the campaign had left in its wake.
“It hurts me to see people being so hateful to each other from both sides, breaking relationships in families, all the divisiveness and name-calling,” Rizzo says. “I was exasperated by the hatred.”
Rizzo went looking for another path forward and found it, a few months later, in Better Angels. The New York-based “citizens movement” holds workshops, community events and conversations that are intentionally bipartisan and therapeutic as a way to bring Americans together even when their views are diametrically-opposed. The organization was launched a few weeks after the election by David Blankenhorn and David Lapp from the Institute for American Values, and renowned family therapist Bill Doherty, founder of citizen engagement organization The Families and Democracy Project. (Blankenhorn is most famous for advocating against same-sex marriage before he reversed course.)
Everything at Better Angels is bipartisan; board, staff and volunteers are made up equally of conservatives and liberals. And the events follow suit: For Red Blue Workshops, one conservative and one liberal moderator invite an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to join them in talking and—even more important—listening to each other. “Better Angels doesn’t want anyone to become a moderate,” says Rizzo. “People are going to have their deeply-held beliefs. The point is not to alter any of that. It’s to get them thinking, questioning what they considered and be open.”
Rizzo, who became a Blue organizer for the Philadelphia area, is co-hosting Philly’s first Better Angels event on Monday evening, a “skills” workshop to give people practice in communicating and listening. Like all Better Angels events, a specially-trained moderator will lead the group in a series of deliberate activities designed by Better Angels to foster discussion. The event is free, for about 2.5 hours, at Drexel’s Kline Institute of Trial Advocacy in Center City.
In May, Better Angels will follow that up with a Red Blue Workshop, a half or all day event with a series of activities based on Dougherty’s family counseling techniques. They start with talking about the stereotypes they find hurtful, and end with a thoughtful session of questions and answers—Blues probing Reds, and vice versa, for explanations about what can seem contradictory impulses. These workshops have been known to lead to more informal Better Angels groups, where participants continue to meet and share their experiences regularly.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, among the many who have written about Better Angels over the last year, summed it up this way: “By the end of the conversations, the atmosphere has changed. Nearly always somebody will say that the discussion was easy because only moderates were in the room, not the people who post crazy stuff on Facebook. The staff tries not to smile, knowing that some of the people were selected precisely because of the intense stuff they posted on Facebook.”
“Better Angels doesn’t want anyone to become a moderate,” says Rizzo. “People are going to have their deeply-held beliefs. The point is not to alter any of that. It’s to get them thinking, questioning what they considered and be open.”
Rizzo is 26 years old, a graduate of Friends Central School, where the attention to commonality became one of her driving principles. She is in the second year of a 7 year JD/PhD psychology program, and is passionate about working with people in the criminal justice system—those she says are “cast aside as unredeemable and trying to find the good in them.” (Which sounds a bit like the motto of Better Angels.)
Rizzo spent two years between graduating Bowdoin College and starting graduate school volunteering as a research assistant with Temple University adolescence expert Larry Steinberg—whose work has been used to inform Supreme Court decisions around juvenile justice; with a guidance counselor at Strawberry Mansion High School, where she is still mentoring a student; and at the Juvenile Justice Center in West Philly, where she did a weekly mindfulness workshop.
She has never been particularly politically active. And while she respected those who participated in post-election protests, that response did not appeal to her. “It hurts me to see so much rancor and hatred,” Rizzo says. “I love interdisciplinary stuff, and it feels more natural and more comfortable for me to exert energy looking at the commonalities between people.”