When Kim Gearin heard about a grassroots movement to depolarize America, she thought of her friend, Lisa Erickson.
“We both come from different political viewpoints but we’ve managed to be open to each others’ thoughts and ideas over the last 20 years,” Erickson explained.
The two Alden residents met shortly after Gearin and her husband had moved to the Osceola area.
“My husband met Lisa’s husband at the bank and they hit it off,” Gearin recalled. “He thought we should all get together, so when we were in town one day we stopped by the bank. I saw Lisa in the office with an infant in her backpack and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I like her.’ I knew we would have things in common.”
Where Gearin leans blue, Erickson leans red. Like many, their positions are nuanced and not fully described in a single syllable. Beyond that, they have always put their friendship before political philosophies.
“We’ve always had different political backgrounds but we’ve never tried to change each other or convince each other to think anything different,” Erickson said.
“We were both really concerned about how polarized things are,” Gearin said, “and both attracted to the idea of bringing into the community the idea that if our communities are going to work we have to be able to talk to each other and jointly solve problems.”
That’s the whole concept behind the Better Angels organization, which started a couple days after the divisive 2016 election. David Blankenhorn and David Lapp brought a small group of Trump supporters and Clinton supporters together for a weekend. Bill Doherty, a family therapist and community organizer, developed the structure for what became the first Better Angels Red/Blue Workshop. Participants were surprised to find that, when they focused less on changing someone’s mind and more on understanding what informed the other’s political philosophes, they liked each other.
The organization’s name, Better Angels, is a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil-War era inaugural address: “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 will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. “
The key, as Lincoln implores, is seeking to understand rather than agree.
“A lot of it is being curious and interested to learn how people came to believe what they do,” Gearin said, “and being willing to enter into conversations where you’re not trying to convince people to believe what you do.”
“It’s learning how to ask really good questions and just listen,” added Erickson. “You focus more on what you have in common and less on what you don’t agree on.”
The pair hopes to start hosting Better Angels debates in the community. They are not debates in a conventional sense, but public conversations between people of divergent viewpoints.
For instance, as Wisconsin delegates to this year’s National Better Angels Conference, Gearin and Erickson watched a debate between a member of Black Lives Matter and the head of the Ohio Tea Party.
“They ended up having more in common that not,” Erickson said. “There were no arguments. There was laughter. These people had never met before and we were all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear what they had to say. You walk away not thinking about whether you’re red or blue.”
“It was so powerful,” Gearin said. “You think you can anticipate what someone is going to say based on whether they’re blue or red. You realize there’s a lot of nuance. There’s a lot of complexity.”
Gearin and Erickson emphasized the need for such understanding locally and nationally.
“Families are being torn apart,” Gearin said. “People are saying, ‘For the first time ever I’m concerned about our democracy.’ …
“We’re so divided, and so evenly divided across the United States and Wisconsin,” Gearin continued. “Neither side is going to vanquish the other. Even if an election changes the party in any given year, there’s still this enormous underlying difference that remains and has implications for how the community functions. No matter who wins we need to be able to talk to each other and engage.”
Added Erickson: “It’s almost like people see it as a battle they need to win. … All the rules of engagement have been thrown out the window. We’re all human. We all have families. We’re all in this together. How can we understand where others are coming from? Just be open and listen. You’d be surprised how it actually changes you.”
“When the purpose of talking to someone shifts from, ‘I want to make you see things my way,’ to, ‘I want to know more about where you’re coming from,’ it changes everything,” Gearin said.
“You can actually physically feel it,” Erickson said. “And you can’t help but want to be part of it.”
“It’s refreshing,” Gearin said, “and it gives me hope to see that there’s a way forward.”
Stay tuned to the Sun for updates on Better Angels debates and workshops organized by Gearin and Erickson. Learn more about Better Angels at www.better-angels.org.