Just as warmer weather has brought hints of spring to the Clinton region this past weekend, so was there a dramatic thawing of the often icy relationships between Republicans and Democrats thanks to a series of workshops with the Better Angels organization.
Seven Clinton area residents who self-identify as Republicans, or conservative-leaning, met with seven people who identify as Democrats, or liberal-leaning, to engage in respectful and civil conversations. They gathered at The Canticle, home of the Sisters of St. Francis, and were led by trained facilitators from the national, non-partisan Better Angels group. The participants gained a better understanding of the experiences and beliefs of those on the other side of the political divide and found areas of commonality in addition to differences.
Better Angels has a mission to "reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes." Launched in 2016, Better Angels offers skill sessions to teach how to communicate across the political divide and daylong workshops in which participants commit to truly listening to those who believe differently about profoundly held issues and to speaking in helpful, constructive ways to address those differences. The events use conflict resolution techniques to depolarize political dialogue, via a series of exercises designed to work out partisan conflict.
The weekend in Clinton began with a skills development workshop on Friday night which helped to lay the groundwork for civil conversations. This was followed by an all-day "Red/Blue Workshop" on Saturday which consisted of a series of structured listening exercises and feedback.
At the Red/Blue Workshop, participants broke into their party affiliations for a session on stereotypes. Each group was asked to determine the four main stereotypes they feel projected on them from the opposite party and discuss what they actually believe about the topics before pinpointing the "kernel of truth" in those stereotypes.
Participants then moved on to a fishbowl exercise, in which each group took a turn listening to the other group discuss what party values and policies they think are good for the country and what reservations they have about their party.
In listening without the chance to respond, participants were able to learn more about the experiences that shaped each other's beliefs, even if they might never agree with them.
Afterward, participants said they found the experience enlightening. Many said they were surprised by how civil and enjoyable the experience was. Celeste Robbins reflected on the event saying, "I came to realize today that a lot of us we all have the betterment of our fellow man in mind but we have different ways of getting there and different ideas...of what that is."
Fellow participant Roberta Churchill added, "The thing that amazed me the most is that I am going out so much more optimistic than I came in because I learned that the people on the (other) side have much more in common with those of us on (our) side than I would have ever guessed."
At the conclusion of the weekend events, the facilitators encouraged the group to get together again to determine ways to move forward in our community. A meeting has been set for next month to do just that. Better Angels Alliances are local groups of people who have attended a Better Angels workshop, have become dues-paying members, and want to help unify America and promote better public policy.
The events were sponsored by the Franciscan Peace Center which works to promote active nonviolence -- honoring the mission of the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton. Lori Freudenberg is the Community Outreach Director for the Franciscan Peace Center. "We had been watching the work of Better Angels for some time," she said. "We really felt they could help us bring people together in a positive and respectful manner. We are excited about the progress that was made this weekend and look forward to getting more people involved as we go along."
Individuals who are interested in learning more about future local Better Angels events may contact Lori Freudenberg at 563-242-7611.
Photo: Participants in the Better Angels Red/Blue Workshop included seven Republicans, seven Democrats, 15 "observers", two better Angels facilitators, and Franciscan Peace Center Community Outreach Director Lori Freudenberg.