22 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY AUGUST 31-SEPTEMBER 6, 2023 www.montereycountyweekly.com long brown hair and a blue lanyard. He was engaged in conversation with a soft-spoken man with a white collar and red lanyard, who I soon learned was a Catholic priest from the tiny Glenmary missionary sect in Ohio. Though they had met only five minutes before, they were talking intently about birth control—and they seemed to be bonding over it. The theme of that morning’s opening session was “Why Are We Here?,” co-chaired by Erica Manuel (blue), CEO and executive director of the Institute for Local Government, and Wilk Wilkinson (red), champion of the working class and host of the podcast Derate the Hate. As hundreds of heads nodded over their red and blue lanyards, I saw that this sprawling group of Americans was united in support of Braver Angels’ mission: “To bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” And what I experienced over the following three days was a profound renewal of hope and a tantalizing taste of what America—in all its passionate diversity—could be. B raver Angels was established as a nonprofit organization by two friends, David Blankenhorn and David Lapp, shortly after the divisive 2016 presidential election. Along with family therapist Bill Doherty, they held a workshop for 21 residents of South Lebanon, Ohio (10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters), with the goal of disagreeing respectfully and—perhaps—finding common ground. They filmed this first inspiring event (you can still view it on the Braver Angels website) and followed it up with two bus tours through the Midwest and East Coast, training over 100 moderators as they went. There are now 700 workshop moderators and 100 local alliances throughout the U.S. and 71 types of Braver Angels events. In 2022, over 24,000 people attended more than 1,200 Braver Angels programs, and the numbers show real impact: 86 percent of participants feel they better understand “the other side,” and 81 percent feel better prepared to apply the new skills in their real life. A small sampling of their programs includes the College Debates and Discourse Alliance, a framework for teaching students how to express their views, form persuasive arguments, listen deeply and engage respectfully around the challenging political and social issues dividing our nation. There’s Braver Politics, an initiative aimed at empowering politicians to work with their colleagues and constituents across the aisle. This includes Deliberative Town Halls, in which citizens and their elected officials find common ground and work toward shared solutions to pressing community issues, rather than digging in on their differences. And a variety of flagship workshops continue to be offered in-person and online, such as 1:1 Conversations, a way for Americans with different backgrounds to connect as people who are concerned for their country. Depolarizing Within helps de-normalize the dismissing and ridiculing of people with different opinions. And Red/Blue Workshops are intensive events that help participants clarify disagreements, reduce stereotyped thinking and discover common values. “Never before in our history have Red, Blue, and Independent Americans come together in such numbers, determined to heal our divisions and protect America’s promise,” Blankenhorn said in a post-convention press release on July 13. That determination played a pivotal role in dozens of workshops in Gettysburg and also— perhaps most importantly— over meals and in conversation with each other. D uring my first breakout session, “Braver Lens: Amateur Photography to Heal American Divides,” reds and blues passed around our phones in small groups, sharing photos in response to the prompt “bridges and barriers to flourishing.” It was an intimate exercise, a candid look through strangers’ eyes. My group bonded over the discovery of a shared love of travel, traditions and capturing unique moments with our cameras. Some of us even shed a few tears, understanding that we were in the middle of something unique ourselves. Lunch that day included surprisingly good tater tots and an impromptu conversation on big government with two municipal workers from Idaho (red lanyards), who were surprised by my husband’s stance that bureaucracy often leads to inefficiency. In turn, we picked their brains about what it takes to establish a local Braver Angels alliance (spoiler alerts: it requires red and blue co-chairs, and we want one in Monterey County). Refreshed, we shook hands before heading off to our various afternoon sessions. Kevin attended an event called “Red and Blue Takes on Tech: From Fueling Polarization to Building Bridges,” led by Braver Angels Chief Technology Officer Andrew Stillman and Lisa Schirch, author of the 2021 book Social Media Impacts on Conflict and Democracy: The Techtonic Shift. Schirch presented compelling new research on the ways that “conflict entrepreneurs” are intentionally weaponizing the media for their own financial gain, using the blunt tools of exaggeration and stereotyping to misinform the American public—and how citizens are playing a part in their success by consuming toxic media indiscriminately. Meanwhile, I participated in a faculty gathering in which we debated the effects of social media on democracy using parliamentary procedure in a mock classroom setting. I was humbled and proud to represent Monterey Peninsula College, where I’ve taught in the Dance Department since 2005, among a varied group of educators from UC Berkeley, Princeton and other major academic institutions. I was inspired by the exercise—the debate format engendered honest self-expression and transparent reasoning. In the evening, Kevin and I had a pleasant exchange with a former Republican member of the New Mexico State Senate regarding Capitola’s recovery from last winter’s floods (his family has a house in the area), before attending a theatrical event created for the convention. Four Score: A Memory Play, written by Braver Angels Administrative Director Mark Metzger, featured local red and blue delegates sharing family artifacts harkening back to the Civil War. Through personal stories and live music, it highlighted the fact that we were gathered on ground that had been the backdrop, 160 years earlier, for a decisive battle and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Throughout the convention, it was not uncommon to bump into guest speakers and elected officials in the crowded hallways or in line at the salad bar. There was a talk-to-everyone atmosphere that permeated the humid summer air and elicited conversation. As the hours passed, and initial chats deepened into the sharing of ideas and became human connections, I found myself forgetting to fear the color-coded lanyards. By the end of that first night, Kevin and I walked back to our dorm room feeling a little starry-eyed, as hundreds of fireflies punctuated the lush, green darkness. Deanna Ross lives in Del Rey Oaks and works at Monterey Peninsula College and Hidden Valley Music Seminars. She now keeps this Braver Angels sign in her front yard. DANIEL DREIFUSS