24 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY August 31-September 6, 2023 www.montereycountyweekly.com Hans Christian Andersen, the 19-century author of fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” famously wrote: “Where words fail, music speaks.” Beyond its many programs that emphasize talking, Braver Angels has assembled a dedicated team to explore the role of music in communicating ideas and bringing people together. Recognizing the convention as fertile ground for a musical experiment, the team brought in the genre-bending, gender-blending band Gangstagrass as artists-in-residence to help pilot a new program called Common Ground Songwriting. Kevin (a guitarist/vocalist/songwriter) and I (a vocalist/songwriter) gathered our courage and signed up. The Common Ground Songwriting program began on day two of the convention with 15 intrepid songwriters, six artists-in-residence from Gangstagrass, and five Braver Angels music team staff members. But before we wrote any music, we did more talking. Separated into three smaller songwriting groups, each group was focused on a different policy topic: health, education (myself) or voting rights (Kevin). Our discussions began with “fishbowl” exercises, in which like-lanyarded participants spoke freely about their beliefs regarding these policy areas, while the other participants listened without interruption. Then the roles were reversed, giving folks with the opposite political leanings the floor. Afterwards, each songwriting group reflected on common concerns and overlapping ideas. In my group, we discovered differing views on affirmative action, private versus public education, and more. We all agreed that an education absent of values would not be a complete education. That afternoon, each policy group jumped into the daunting task of writing an original song based on the morning’s discussions. In my education-focused cohort, we grappled with lyrics for nearly three hours. While all of us agreed on the importance of values in education, we repeatedly got hung up over the thorny question, “Whose values?” At one point, this generated a heated exchange between our group’s religious and non-religious songwriters, with pulses quickening and voices rising. But none of us gave up, filibustered or walked out of the room. We regrouped around the task at hand: to finish our song for a concert the following night. We stayed in the creative maelstrom, together. By the next morning, we were scrambling to nail down that pesky second verse, dial in our vocal harmonies and ward off performance anxiety. While I’m no stranger to making music, I had never tried to write a song about a controversial policy issue with six politically diverse strangers in less than eight hours, then perform it for hundreds of people before the scribbled ink had dried on the page. It was hectic, and surprisingly fun. Meanwhile, Kevin’s group was undergoing similarly frantic preparations for its voting rights song. After contributing a rousing guitar part and hooky whistling riff the day before, Kevin was now feeling butterflies of his own. His group included three Gangstagrass band members and New York Times journalist Farah Stockman observing, and he really didn’t want to screw anything up. (He did great!) Meanwhile the third songwriting group, focused on health policy, was tucked away in another classroom, shrouded in mystery—except for the soaring vocals and violin occasionally seeping through the walls. While we rehearsed, other convention delegates were attending sessions with titles such as “Libertarian Perspectives on Depolarization” and “Can We Find Common Ground on Ensuring Trustworthy Elections?” or touring the local battlefield. StoryCorps was recording pop-up conversations between reds and blues for the Library of Congress, and Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, was announcing his new “Disagree Better” initiative. On day three, the convention came to a close with the delegates voting in a new Braver Angels platform. After a final dinner, we premiered our new songs and Gangstagrass brought the house down with their unique mashup of hip-hop and bluegrass. In the semi-darkness of the crowded, pulsating ballroom that night, I found myself noticing red lanyards again—and how good it felt to be dancing beside them. W hich brings me back home, to the most personal outcome of this experience. Three weeks after attending the Braver Angels convention, I drove to Sonoma County to celebrate my birthday with my sister and mother, in the region where I grew up and where our mom still resides. As the date approached, I considered whether to talk with them about the elephants in the room—hurts I had held onto over the years but never addressed. Assumptions and fears about my sister’s faith. Sadness over our slow estrangement. And the growing sense that I had been making it worse by tiptoeing around the difficult issues, selling us short of a more authentic and durable relationship. So, I took a deep breath and talked, then listened while my sister talked. Then we talked some more, late into the night. It was wrenching and vulnerable, and even felt a little dangerous at times, speaking about what had long gone unsaid. But we rallied around what we shared: a desire to be real with each other. We clarified our ideological differences, agreeing to vehemently disagree on some of them. But freed from the need to change each others’ belief systems, the closeness we’d had as children began to resurface. Facebook posts and stereotypes faded away. Instead, I saw her as my sister, a passionate woman with a strong spiritual practice. And I recognized myself as her kid sister again, someone who laughs loud, cries hard, and is deeply connected to her via blood, history and heart. I believe that Braver Angels and other movements working to depolarize America are crucial right now. With our culture at an inflection point of divisiveness, can we afford to write off so many of our relationships? We all need each other to envision and enact broad-consensus solutions to challenges facing our communities and our planet. The convention also taught me not merely to withstand opposing political viewpoints, but to welcome them. It seems clear to me now that, in order to thrive in a democratic society, I would do better to invite different perspectives into my life, rather than to avoid and fear them. As we move into the next presidential election cycle, I wish each of us the courage to state our views freely, listen with a curious mind, experience delight within diversity, and continue to believe not just in the abstract promise of democracy, but to actively participate in creating it. If you have any questions, I’d be glad to talk with you—over tater tots, if possible. To learn more about Braver Angels, visit braverangels.org. To listen to music by Gangstagrass, visit gangstagrass.com. If you are interested in a local alliance, contact Deanna Ross at braver@thejinxes.com. The Braver Angels convention brought together 700 politically minded delegates for workshops and conversations. The convention is an incubator for how to talk to each other, starting by not avoiding the difficult, polarizing topics. Jeff Sevier