Braver Angels brings together Red and Blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. They welcome people with strong convictions and principles. They believe the best way to achieve a more perfect Union is by being forthright and transparent about our political leanings. In that spirit, we say to our fellow Americans, “Come with your convictions, your willingness to listen, and your readiness to talk with others who disagree with you.”
You do not need to have any interest in politics right now to know that there is a great divide in our nation regarding the left and the right. Politics is tough. It always has been. American politics is competitive, thrilling, frustrating, and infuriating. But does it have to bring out the worst in us?
In a 2016 poll, over 45% of both Republicans and Democrats said they would be displeased if their child married someone who affiliated from the opposite political party. That percentage was under 5% back in 1960.
But this is not a new thing that arrived in 2016 with the Trump/Clinton presidential race. Destructive political polarization has been growing between us for at least 25 years. We are in what some call a “cold civil war” in today’s America – with a spreading pandemic, vast economic trouble, and other national global challenges tell us we should support each other like never before.
Braver Angels does not accept this division. They reject the normalizing of this extreme polarization. They say no to the break down of political and social life that it brings. The work of Braver Angels is about restoring civic trust in the USA. It is about healing the wounds between left and right – their work is about supporting a more perfect union.
We spoke to Cameron Swallow about Braver Angels and their upcoming workshops coming to the area. Cameron is one of the Wisconsin State Coordinators for Braver Angels.
Q. For starters, give us your “elevator pitch” on what Braver Angels does for the community?
A. Braver Angels seeks to depolarize our society. We do not try to talk people out of their convictions or change anyone’s mind about the issues; we just help people see that those with differing opinions are also human beings. It’s a way of learning to hate the other side less, of reducing the inflammation around a wound so that healing can begin.
Q. How did Braver Angels get started?
A. After the 2016 election, David Blankenhorn, a Blue, called his friend David Lapp, a Red, and asked if they could assemble 10 Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters in a room to discuss the campaign and election. They called family therapist Bill Doherty to moderate the conversation, and it was so powerful and transformative that the original participants wanted to replicate the experience for others.
Q. What is their mission now and has it changed since they began?
A. The mission of depolarization has not changed, but the ways in which BA pursues depolarization have multiplied. There are new workshops, online offerings, debates, a songwriting contest, partnerships with other civic organizations.
Q. What is the history behind the name, Braver Angels?
A. The original name was Better Angels, a reference to President Lincoln’s first inaugural address when he calls us to listen to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ In April of this year, to avoid confusion with The Better Angels Society which funds the Ken Burns documentaries, we changed our name to Braver Angels. We knew that this election year would require some extra bravery!
Q. How did you become involved in this organization?
A. I saw a Facebook mention of it on a friend’s feed in the spring of 2018, shortly after my move to Kenosha. I was drawn to the mission because my family is politically divided. I was drawn to the work because it uses many of the same skills I used in the classroom for 18 years.
Q. What is your role in Braver Angels?
A. I began as a workshop moderator, a role I continue to serve in and which brings me much satisfaction. At the national BA convention in summer 2019 I was asked to become the BA state coordinator for Wisconsin. I now share that role with my Red counterpart, retired state legislator Susan Vergeront in Waunakee. Since April I’ve been involved in the national BA Music and Arts committee which sponsored a songwriting contest during the pandemic.
Q. What is the general approach for your organization?
A. Our approach is guided by the Braver Angels Pledge: (1) As individuals, we try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. (2) In our communities, we engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together. (and 3) In politics, we support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.
Q. How is your organization funded?
A. Membership fees, which are deliberately held very low ($12 per year) to allow maximum access, and donations.
Q. How many divisions of your organization are across the nation?
A. There is a BA coordinator in every state in the USA.
Q. What are some of your organizations great success stories?
A. The BA alliances (grass-roots groups in local communities led by balanced teams of Reds and Blues) in Minnesota have met in policy groups to discuss potential common ground on pending state legislation. They have then presented lawmakers with ‘head start’ lists of policies that could win bipartisan support. Other alliances have hosted BA workshops for elected officials from both parties, encouraging them to speak and listen for understanding rather than for point scoring.
Q. Why should someone pay attention to a group like Braver Angels?
A. It is both grass-roots and nationwide. And it begins with the necessity of recognizing our common humanity, a step without which no real progress will be possible.
Q. Can you tell us about an upcoming events in the community?
A. We are providing two workshops in Kenosha on the evenings of August 26th and 27th. Depolarizing Within will be offered Wednesday, 8/26 from 7-9:30 pm Skills for Bridging the Divide will be offered on Thursday 8/27 from 7-9:30 pm. We hope to hold both events at the Wyndham Garden Hotel (5125 Sixth Ave.), but we have a Zoom format ready to go if the workshops have to be given remotely.
Later this fall we are discussing online events with both Carthage College and UW-Parkside. Carthage’s Mock Trial class will host some Braver Angels debates. We are inviting colleges, congregations, and civic groups to participate in a new initiative in this election year, called With Malice Toward None. It will focus on the 77 days between the election and the inauguration, encouraging our local institutions and organizations to work through their differences around the election. If we work to recognize that everyone involved is a human being with a story, we can move forward with greater strength and unity.
Q. If someone doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but would still like to help, what can they do?
A. The many volunteer opportunities (some of them entirely online) are listed on the Braver Angels website, braverangels.org.
Q. If someone wants to get fully involved, what can they do to help Braver Angels?
A. Here in Wisconsin, we need more moderators and organizers who can schedule and provide more workshops through congregations and civic organizations. The moderator training is available free online and not a difficult process. Organizers just need to sign up as willing! There are monthly calls with other moderators and organizers across the nation to share ideas and solutions.
Q. Besides the website, braverangels.org, are there other media sources which help relay your message?
A. There is a Braver Angels podcast. There is also a new catalogue of songs from the Braver Angels songwriting contest. We plan to use the songs during BA workshops to speak to hearts as well as minds. The contest also allowed us to convene a group of songwriters and musicians eager to collaborate on future depolarization work, so stay tuned!
Getting personal with Cameron Swallow
Q. Before the pandemic, where could people find you on your days off?
A. Playing bluegrass music with Flat Creek Highway!
Q. When did you and your husband (Carthage College President) John Swallow come to Kenosha, and where did you move from?
A. We moved to Wisconsin in the summer of 2017 from Sewanee, Tennessee. We are happy new midwesterners!
Q. Are you a ‘walk-in-woods at Pet’s’ kind of person, or a ‘sit-on-the-beach at the lake’ kind of person?
A. My preferences are more toward the walk-in-the-woods, but after a lifetime of sweltering southern summers, a July afternoon by Lake Michigan is pretty perfect.
Q. Which is your favorite museum in Kenosha?
A. The Civil War Museum–it is amazingly comprehensive and yet so refreshing for approaching the war through the people’s stories rather than from battlefield strategies or munitions collections.
Q. Packers or Bears?
A. Didn’t grow up watching pro football–we are an SEC (Southeastern College Football division) family–but I believe when your address says Wisconsin, you need to root for the Packers.
Q. It’s karaoke night and you had a couple drinks, what song are you going to sing?
A. “I Will Survive,” or anything from Mamma Mia.
Q. What is the last TV show you binged?
A. Babylon Berlin
Q. What is the last thing you spoke aloud to your pet?
A. “Good boy,” to our basset hound, Watson.
Q. In your opinion, is longtime actor and comedian Steve Martin a legitimate bluegrass musician?
A. Yes. I was skeptical until I heard him live in the early 2000s.
Upcoming Braver Angels workshops include Wednesday, August 26th (Depolarizing Within) and Thursday, August 27th (Skills for Bridging the Divide), both will be from 7 pm – 9:30 pm and be held at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, 5125 Sixth Avenue. To register for this free event, find the button on the home page of this website. Tune in to Happenings Q&A on Friday, August 21st at 12:00pm when Cameron Swallow joins the conversation for more on this organization and their upcoming events.
Interview by Jason Hedman
For more information, visit their website at braverangels.org.