The Berkshire Edge, Pittsfield, MA
To the Editor:
We are two residents of the Southern Berkshires, a Democratic Clinton voter and a Republican Trump voter. We’re looking fora few Republicans who want to have a productive conversation with liberals and a few Democrats who want to actually talk with conservatives.
After the presidential election of 2016, I, Robert Forman, a liberal leaning and new resident of Great Barrington, wanted to understand how on earth people could have voted for the other side? I called up my Republican buddy Doug in Virginia to understand. Doug and I have been talking monthly ever since, trying to understand the distant other side.
Because I found these conversations so interesting and productive, I was looking for a conservative to organize Red/Blue conversations in the Southern Berkshires. When I met Maureen at a chorus rehearsal, a delightful and thoughtful Trump voter, I told her of my hopes. She agreed on the spot to help organize such a cross-tribe discussion group.
A friend told us about Better-Angels, a new group that offers facilitated workshops designed to do just what we wanted: to help people better understand the experiences and beliefs of those on the other side of the political spectrum, and find areas of commonality as well as differences.
It sounded to us like just the ticket: Better Angels’ political workshops began as a sort of civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio soon after the election. With the emotions of the election still raw, a room of 21 strangers, 10 Trump and 11 Clinton voters, spent a few intense hours talking together. They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.
After hours of discussion, the participants did not change their own views. But they left with a softened view of the other side. After such an acrimonious campaign that divided families and destroyed friendships, that itself was a breakthrough.
Since that modest beginning, Better Angels workshops have expanded all over the nation. They generally bring together five to seven conservative-leaning Republicans and five to seven liberal leaning Democrats for structured conversations.
In a typical workshop participants take turns introducing themselves. Then “Blues” and “Reds” gather separately to brainstorm about stereotypes they think the other side holds about them. Among the Reds, a whiteboard is soon cluttered with phrases such racist, homophobic, hateful, misogynistic, anti-poor, anti-Muslim, ignorant, anti-environment. The Blues’ board includes anti-life, pro-dependency, unpatriotic, anti-religious, weak on defense.
Both sides present their lists to the whole group. Participants are asked to talk about what they’ve learned about how the other side sees itself. A woman in the blue group acknowledges she has held many of those anti-red stereotypes, adding that she’s sad that this is the case. Next comes a “fishbowl” exercise. One group discusses and critiques its own values while the other listens; then they reverse roles. Sometimes after this exercise in listening, the participants might begin to interact directly across party lines. By now, however, all feel safe to do so. All feel that they are being heard.
To both of us, Better Angels sounded like a Godsend. Neither of us is out to change anyone’s mind. We want to build little platoons of good will, of people who are willing to do the hard work of listening to one another. And we both are painfully aware that the way things are going these days, we can’t wait for politicians to make real communication happen. We the people have to do it ourselves and lead the way for the politicians.
So we are putting out the call here in this article and elsewhere. If you’re interested in participating in a 3-hour workshop where we will talk, learn with and come to understand the other side better, please contact me, Robert, at [email protected] We’re looking for a few good Reds. And a few good Blues. Let’s really talk.