In today's political climate, the concept of civility and open-minded discussions are often missing from the headlines.
A national bipartisan movement known as Better Angels is hoping to “bridge the nation's divide and reunite America.”
The group led a national tour this summer, organizing bipartisan meetings in cities and towns, starting July 4 in Ohio and ending July 24 in Philadelphia - including three days in Leesburg July 21-23.
A diverse group of 16 men and women – eight Republicans and eight Democrats – participated in a weekend of facilitated discussion and an array of exercises at VFW Post 1177 on Old Waterford Road in Leesburg.
They had three goals for the weekend: To better understand the experiences, feelings, and beliefs of those on the other side of the political divide; to mutually identify areas of commonality in addition to differences; to learn something that might be helpful to others in our community and in the nation.
Donna Murphy, who helped organize the group in Loudoun, said she wanted to become involved with Better Angels because she is upset by the polarization that is taking place in politics today.
“I was in my car listening to NPR and heard a segment about Better Angels. They spoke with someone from each side and they had wonderful comments. It sounded like a fantastic idea so I contacted them. It is an idea whose time has come,” she said.
Better Angels selected Loudoun County because they found it has a good mix of people from both political parties.
Murphy, who lives in Fairfax County, said she put her networking skills to work to find participants who would be willing to spend a weekend together.
“Three days is a substantial commitment, but for an important cause. It brings people together and helps you see each other as friends and not enemies. I am proud to say we did accomplish this, and they developed relationships based on mutual respect,” Murphy said.
Overall, the response to the weekend was very positive.
“From a social aspect, people were together for three days and they all liked each other and formed a relationship of respect,” said Ciaran O'Connor, a spokesperson for Better Angels.
On the last day, the group came up with a list of “next steps” and action items – including to continue meeting and start a local chapter. They also agreed upon specific issues where they could find common ground.
“After laying the groundwork, they were able to say, 'We like you and respect you, let's keep doing this,'” O'Connor said.
Charlotte McConnell, a Sterling resident and member of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, said she appreciated the opportunity to participate in the weekend and is hopeful it was spark a change in the nature of political discourse.
“Everyone was very respectful but honest, which was nice. I am excited to continue this process. It's not a debate, it's about understanding. We see everyone as a good person and that is hopeful for the future of our country,” she said.
Norman Brown, a Sterling resident, lifelong Republican and retired Air Force Master Sergeant, said it was a very good event.
“It brought a lot of people together, and I came to the realization there are different ways to achieve the same goals. I am extremely patriotic, and I expected to see less of that [on the other side] than I did,” Brown said.
He said he had an open mind going into the event and was surprised by how much could be discussed openly and not get into an argument.
“There is so much rancor in politics presently. We used to value differences of opinion in the other party and that is not the case now. I was surprised this wasn't the case this weekend,” he said.