This post was taken from an email message by “David Lapp, cofounder of Braver Angels and director of The Working People’s Project.”
OK, I’ll admit it: it was a crazy idea.
It’s one week after the 2016 election. Many Hillary Clinton voters could not be more upset. One of them, my neighbor, tells me, “People that I thought were friends voted for Trump.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump voters could not be more elated. One of them, my neighbor, hopes that Trump will inaugurate a great new era of American unity. But those Trump voters are also angered by #notmypresident.
“Manhattan feels like a funeral,” David Blankenhorn tells me on the phone on a mid-November day. He is the founder of a New York City think tank and my first boss out of college.
“People in South Lebanon are talking about hope and change,” I tell David.
You probably remember it: the divide felt raw. We had to do something.
“So, how about this?” David says. “We get ten of your neighbors who just voted for Trump together with ten of your neighbors who just voted for Clinton. Let’s spend a weekend with each other; it’ll be an experiment.”
Like fools, we set the date for a mere three weeks away, December 9-11, in my tiny blue-collar home of South Lebanon, Ohio. The church sanctuary in the old elementary school building is our meeting place.
My neighbor, Maryan, a retired postal carrier and former Democrat turned Trump voter, is the first to say she will come. She suggests I reach out to Linda, who leads the county Republican women’s club. “The idea is to better understand what the differences are between [Clinton voters and Trump voters],” I write to Linda on Facebook, “and if there are any points of common ground.” She’s in!
So is my factory worker neighbor who is upset by Black Lives Matter and hopes Trump can inspire racial harmony. Ditto for the retired union/ex-Democrat neighbor, a local gunsmith, and a young pro-life activist.
“OK, great,” I’m thinking, “but where are we gonna find the Democrats?” After all, Warren County, Ohio, went 66 percent for Trump in the 2016 election. I find a generic email address for the chairperson of the county Democrats. She responds within the hour and we meet at a coffee shop. She introduces me to Noha, a Muslim immigrant wondering if she will be accepted in Trump’s America; to a white psychologist befuddled by Trump voters; to a Hispanic immigrant figuring out if he can still talk to his Trump-supporting cousin. They’re all in! Soon, we have our roster: 10 Trump voters, 11 Clinton voters.
But there’s one not-exactly small problem: it’s ten days before the Big Weekend Gathering—and we have no friggin’ clue as to what we’ll be doing for said Big Weekend Gathering!
Enter Bill Doherty. “If anybody will know how to design this, it’s Bill,” we Davids tell ourselves. Bill has spent a lifetime helping couples and families find each other again through conflict. Maybe he can apply those learnings to political conflict among citizens? Sure enough, in like 3.5 minutes, Bill drafts the agenda and exercises for what we now know as the first-ever Braver Angels Red Blue workshop. He checks his calendar for the next weekend and books a flight to Cincinnati.
But will it work? Are people gonna come back for day 2 on Saturday? Will they stay until Sunday? Will fights break out?
There’s a lot to be said about what transpired that weekend, and David Blankenhorn, Bill Doherty, and I dive into it in this week’s new podcast, How Braver Angels Began.
The following quotes tell the basic story.
“I just don’t understand why anyone would vote for Clinton.”
“I just don’t see how anyone could vote for Trump.”
“Now, that guy—I like him.”
“All of us looked over our fence, and saw that we’re not as far from the other side as we thought.”
“What we did in this meeting wasn’t perfect, but it’s a beginning.”
“There needs to be a lot more of this. I would like to get involved–maybe go to other communities, and get this going.”
Braver Angels did get going and did go to many other communities. The improbable, exhilarating series of events that happened next is a story we’ll save for another time.
“It’s gonna feel like a letdown to go back out into the real world,” someone remarked at the end of that December weekend. And I thought: what if this is the real world? What if the seeds of understanding and mutual affection we experienced here is what we’re meant to experience?
Five years later, I find myself amazed by the adventure we have undertaken. And grateful to be in this work with so many crazy-brave American dreamers and builders beyond South Lebanon.
If you found this article interesting, you may also enjoy reading “The Power of Dialogue: Jewish – Christian – Muslim Agreement and Collaboration” by authors Reuven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler.
Read the stories of the Temple University Department of Religion in “Breakthrough to Dialogue: The Story of Temple University Department of Religion”, by many of the faculty and students of that department, edited by Leonard Swidler.