'Braver Angels' in Vermont Want to Change Political Discourse | True 802 | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » True 802

'Braver Angels' in Vermont Want to Change Political Discourse

By

Published November 28, 2022 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated December 20, 2022 at 2:04 p.m.


About 50 people attended a Braver Angels meeting in St. Albans in September - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • About 50 people attended a Braver Angels meeting in St. Albans in September
Braver Angels, a national nonprofit that seeks to unite conservatives and progressives, has a new Vermont organizer and is holding a series of workshops as it seeks to gain traction in the state.

State organizer Lincoln Earle-Centers recently held a training in Charlotte and plans more this winter in Shelburne and Barre to teach the group’s conflict resolution principles, which are based on helping people understand others’ points of view.

Earle-Centers, 38, said he took up the role last year because he’d like to help people speak in a productive manner — without lashing out, dismissing others’ views or trying to overwhelm their opponents with information. He's participated in New England-wide virtual Braver Angels sessions over the past few years and said the experience was a welcome antidote to what he was witnessing online and among friends and family.

“It felt like people were beating their heads against the walls, in terms of nobody being open to others’ perspectives,” Earle-Centers said. “There was a bafflement and disdain for other positions.”

In Braver Angels, Earle-Centers found a structure and framework for helping others to understand someone rather than try to convince them. A key, he said, is helping participants to remember they’re talking about the issues, not each other.

“People are so attracted to this work once they do it,” Earle-Centers said. “People are hungry for it.” 
The Braver Angels depolarization half-wheel - COURTESY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtesy ©️ Seven Days
  • The Braver Angels depolarization half-wheel
Braver Angels groups are called alliances, and one has been going strong in St. Albans since 2017, shortly after former president Donald Trump’s inauguration. The St. Albans alliance — the only one in Vermont — meets about four times a year, said Dan Pipes, a conservative who founded the local alliance with his progressive neighbor, Shanna Ratner. About a dozen people show up, and the discussions are almost always civil, according to Pipes.

"There are some people on both ends of the political spectrum who are unable to have a civil conversation, to disagree without being disagreeable, and they pretty much self-prune," said Pipes, 59, a retiree who spends hours in his orchard at his home in Fairfield.

It can take a year — or more — for people to develop a level of trust where they can speak candidly in the meetings. Ratner is a trained moderator, which helps immensely, Pipes said.

With Earle-Centers, Pipes and Ratner held a statewide meeting at the Hard’ack Recreation Area in September to encourage Vermonters to start alliances. About 50 people attended.
Earle-Centers, who lives in Montpelier and has three children, is passionate about taming the wild divisiveness that has come to characterize much of the political discourse in the U.S. these days. But he’s also leery of inviting criticism of his own political views, which have evolved over the past few years from blue to red-leaning. He describes himself as an independent.

Conservatives in Vermont, he said, face so much heat from their peers that it’s difficult to find ones willing to cofound Braver Angels alliances. The groups must have a cochair from each side of the political spectrum. All are volunteers.

“One of the big challenges in Vermont is to invite folks who feel politically alienated and marginalized to come to the table,” he said. “I know people who feel looked down upon because they don’t agree with the socially liberal consensus.”
Lincoln Earle-Centers - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Lincoln Earle-Centers

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of Vermonters report that they are Democrats, or lean that way. In November, voters elected a supermajority of Democrats and Progressives to the Vermont House and Senate — though the state also gave Republican Gov. Phil Scott a landslide victory. He got 70 percent of the vote.
But Vermonters also seem eager to emerge from the bitter discord. About 20 people showed up to the first skills-building workshop that Earle-Centers held in Charlotte in September.

Some Chittenden County philanthropists and business leaders invited Braver Angels co-founder and president David Blankenhorn to Vermont in September for an event at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain and a workshop at Hula, the tech workspace in Burlington. About 70 people attended the ECHO event, said Michele Asch, the Twincraft Skincare vice president who was one of the organizers.

"Since then, I've had a couple of state legislators get in touch with me," Asch said.

While the goal is to have a balance of voices in each alliance, Earle-Centers said Braver Angels also provides workshop structures designed for the times that doesn’t happen. At those sessions, called "Depolarizing Within," participants learn how their unconscious assumptions can affect the ways they interact with others. He thinks Braver Angels can flourish in Vermont.

“I would love to see more and more local groups taking up this work,” he said.