BY TRACY ZOLLINGER TURNER
On a Saturday morning in December, Republicans and Democrats came together in a Monroe County Public Library meeting room, hoping to learn to better communicate with one another. After drawing up name tags with the appropriate red or blue markers, the 19 participants, gently guided by a trained moderator, shared stories of heated holiday dinner table arguments and friendships lost in the wake of the 2016 election.
The event was a skills workshop designed by Better Angels, a national nonprofit organization established in 2016 as “a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes.” Through half-day skills workshops or full-day Red/Blue workshops, participants are coached to practice speaking and listening to the other point of view.
“After the election, I was very upset,” says Don Byrd, the Blue co-chair of Monroe County. Feeling that rancorous discussion was disastrous for the country’s future, he was drawn to Better Angels’ goal to heal the national schism from the grassroots up. Not knowing any Bloomington conservatives, Byrd reached out to William Ellis, chair of the Republican Party of Monroe County, who was amenable to becoming co-chair and recruiting Reds. Ellis had already organized his own informal Red/Blue social events. “Just having drinks and getting to know each other as people, without our team jerseys,” Ellis says of those occasions.
There are currently 25 members in Monroe County’s Red/Blue contingency, about a dozen of whom attend monthly Better Angels Alliance gatherings in the meeting room of Noodles & Company restaurant. Workshop attendance is a prerequisite for joining.
“We are not trying to change anybody’s mind, just improve our ability to discuss hot topics without vitriol,” Ellis says. “A lot of us identify the same problems, it’s the solutions we come to that are different. We’re not looking for compromise, but … ” As Ellis pauses, Byrd offers, “Finding common ground.”
The Bloomington group is the only one in Indiana, but Byrd has become the state coordinator, helping to start a group in Indianapolis, and potentially Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, and Evansville.
Visit better-angels.org for more information. To join a skills workshop, contact Byrd at [email protected]