Local Alliance Is Determined to Depolarize Politics
By Jessica Laskey
In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, he made an impassioned plea to the people of the United States, stating, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In a nation struggling with political unrest yet again, the idea of appealing to our “better angels” is an important one—one that led to the founding of the aptly named Better Angels nonprofit in 2016.
This national citizens’ movement is designed to reduce political polarization in the U.S. by bringing liberals and conservatives together in “red/blue community alliances” through workshops across the country.
“I’ve been worried about political polarization for years,” says Steve Sphar, founder and co-chair of the Better Angels Sacramento alliance. “As Americans, our core values are pretty much the same, it’s just that the way we want to see those values get implemented are different. But the media has been painting more and more extreme images—distorted, cartoon images—of each side, which is really what’s making us fight each other.”
After the recent presidential election, Sphar noticed an up-tick in this “hyper-partisanship” and felt like there had to be a better way to communicate across the aisle. He traveled to Virginia to watch a Better Angels workshop in progress and came away inspired to found his own local alliance, which he did in January of this year.
“It’s a very structured environment,” the Curtis Park resident explains, who uses his skills as an executive coach and business consultant in his role as workshop moderator. “You don’t just throw out an issue and let people fight. We help people listen to each other.”
Natomas resident Marisa Bogdanoff—an information security specialist, sales executive and co-chair of the Sacramento alliance—especially appreciates the opportunity to have conversations that previously felt impossible in the current climate.
“Post-election, I felt this extreme divide in all aspects of my life,” explains Bogdanoff, who describes herself as “a conservative Republican woman who’s also a vegetarian, a mom and a breadwinner.” “Family and even lifelong friends were being divided by politics. It was especially visible in my church community—I go to services at Trinity Cathedral to worship and feel renewed, but there was this elephant in the room. When you hear certain opinions from the pulpit, it has a meaningful impact both in good ways and bad ways.”
Bogdanoff took it upon herself to approach the clergy to see if there was a way to address the polarization among the parishioners and was delighted to find that they were open to suggestions. Shelley Mydans—a friend of Sphar’s who also attends Trinity—suggested Bogdanoff help her organize a Better Angels workshop. That was the first in a series that has become a resounding success.
“In that first workshop at Trinity, it felt like healing took place,” Sphar says.
“Absolutely,” Bogdanoff concurs. “We were able to come together and connect with each other on a human level—not based on stereotypes or caricatures. The workshop helped people realize that you can have different views, but you can also communicate without it becoming hostile.”
Better Angels workshops (Sphar and Bogdanoff have organized six so far, with many more in the pipeline) bring together “red” and “blue” participants who are led through a series of exercises in which they discuss stereotypes, are encouraged to ask questions of the other side and come away with actionable items to help them move into the future with more understanding.
“I’ve felt empowered to have conversations that before I would have avoided,” Bogdanoff says. “To learn how to have productive, more authentic conversations has been really liberating.”
“The immediate, most important outcome is for people to leave feeling different about each other,” Sphar says. “We’re not changing their views, it’s more about personal transformation and spreading love. It’s rare to be able to affect a big issue, but now there’s a proven methodology where we can really make a difference.”
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.