The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Debunking Stereotypes and Myths: Inside a Braver Angels Workshop

On November 4, I attended a Braver Angels workshop entitled “Bridging the COVID Divide: Can we move forward?” Braver Angels is a national organization whose mission is to overcome the growing partisan animosity on both sides of the political spectrum through community gatherings, real debates and grassroots leaders working together. Nashville is lucky to have its own local Braver Angels alliance and like all Braver Angels groups, the Nashville alliance is chaired by two leaders, one of whom leans left or blue and one of whom leans right or red.  

During the COVID pandemic, there was significant friction and debate over the national public health response to the virus including vaccine safety and effectiveness, mask mandates and isolating. The workshop placed the participants into two groups of six individuals based on their respective Covid response opinions as “supporters” or “questioners.” The workshop moderators led the groups through various exercises designed to “humanize” the participants. Throughout the all-day, in-person event, each group worked its way through a series of exercises specifically designed to help each participant feel heard, to clarify disagreements on either side, and to come together in a respectful dialogue.  

In an email ahead of the discussion, attendees were encouraged not to brush up on the facts of the pandemic in preparation for the meeting but instead to consider the impact of the COVID public health response and to think of stories that might be shared to help illustrate this.  

Part of what makes Braver Angels feel so accessible and welcoming is not just the genuine warmth of the members, which is obvious, but also the group’s focus on representing each side equally and fairly. All debates, workshops, events, and initiatives are hosted or facilitated by an equally balanced team of red and blue leaders. There also seems to be strong feelings of mutual respect and kindness between members on opposite sides which is incredibly refreshing given today’s politically charged landscape.   

When I was first asked to participate in the discussion, I enthusiastically agreed and was thrilled to participate. I had learned about Braver Angels a year and a half ago from a friend who is a founding member and joined immediately. Still, being a bit shy in group settings, I had yet to take part in any of the in-person events. As the day approached, I began to get nervous about sharing my views with strangers and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hold space for the opposing side. (At this point, you may be wondering so let me preemptively say that I was firmly on the “supporting” side.)  

When I arrived at the workshop, I was led to a table with fourteen name tags.  After taking the seat corresponding to my name, I realized that the attendees were arranged alternating each seat with supporters and questioners. At the head of the table were our two facilitators. After introductions, we reviewed workshop goals: to learn about the experiences and beliefs of those on the other side, to discover areas of commonality, and to gain insights that might help depolarize others. Then came the ground rules which were mostly about being courteous to fellow attendees. We were there to understand others and not to persuade each other to change our minds, a reminder to speak for ourselves and not others, to maintain confidentiality of fellow attendees, and the usual rules for politeness when speaking to others. 

Each exercise centered around the common stereotypes about supporters’ and questioners’ respective views on the national response to COVID, the core values behind their views, their reservations or concerns about their own perspective, and questions to ask the other side to help facilitate a better mutual understanding between the groups.  

Our first exercise was about stereotypes of people on each side of the debate, but what made the exercise so interesting and non-confrontational was that each side was asked to identify stereotypes about themselves held by the other side. Most striking to me among the busted stereotypes was the fact that not all liberals were supporters and not all conservatives were questioners. We learned that people on both sides felt mislabeled, hurt, and unfairly judged. Also, we found that both sides respected science and did research to arrive at their opinions. Our first exercise finished and already we were finding common ground. 

Another great exercise that we worked on in our groups was coming up with four questions for the other group. From the supporters’ side, the questions were about using ivermectin to prevent and/or treat Covid; what about the Covid vaccine was difficult and why was it different from other vaccines such as polio and flu; what were some of the underlying principles and circumstances of when the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual; and who did the group look to for the data that informed their opinions and feelings.  

From the questioners’ side, the questions included: what qualifies someone to determine what the greater good for society is; what vaccine injuries are possible; who did the group look to for information and how did the group feel about some physician studies being kept from the public; and if you believed the vaccine protected you, why was it so important that everyone else get it. 

As each side presented their questions, multiple members of the opposite side responded with their own answers. Hearing the answers to these questions was perhaps the most enlightening part of the day. By the end of the exercise, I could practically see the connections between the two groups growing.  

In wrapping up the workshop, we spent the remainder of the afternoon sharing about our experience and what we learned. One of my biggest takeaways was that we all value life and place importance on taking care of each other. We learned that the other group experienced pain and vulnerability just as we did. We realized that we shouldn’t assume anything about the other side. We agreed that we all want to learn more and better understand the other side’s perspective. We saw that most people are genuinely well-intentioned and caring. And most importantly, we developed trust. I’d say that was a day well spent.  

Editor’s Note: This gathering was the second of three pilot workshops held across the country to evaluate and refine the format and content before rolling it out to the national Braver Angels community. The local leaders of Braver Angels are Dr. Ron Heady and Dr. Debra Fish. For more information about Braver Angels, visit www.braverangels.org 

 

 

Support The Observer

The Jewish Observer is published by The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville and made possible by funds raised in the Jewish Federation Annual Campaign. Become a supporter today.