‘A far-left college student, swimming in a sea of reds’

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[Note: The following is a reprint of the weekend edition of the Braver Angels Newsletter, originally published August 29, 2021. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.]

My name’s Esther, and I’m a bit of a rarity at Braver Angels, both on staff and as a member. I’m a 19-year-old, far-left college student swimming in a sea of reds. 

I had a traditional, Christian upbringing, and grew up rooted in my family’s conservative beliefs. In high school, as I began to read more and dialogue with different people, I realized that the foundation of my values was weak—they weren’t my own. I never truly understood why I believed the things I did. After a couple years of questioning and critical thinking, I finally felt as though my values and beliefs were beginning to solidify. Unfortunately for my family, they landed on the opposite side of where they began. 

Then came college. Instead of centering me on the political spectrum, my time at an extremely conservative university—both in student body and in official university policy—has driven me further left than before. I often feel as though I were sitting behind enemy lines, gathering up arguments to spin into rebuttals of my own. 

There I was, the minority voice in the classroom, surrounded by people who I firmly condemned for believing the things they did. And I hated it. 

I didn’t discover Braver Angels until sophomore year. This was in December of 2020, and as I read about the Braver Angels mission of depolarization, I couldn’t help but reflect on the battles I’d fought with my family during previous holiday seasons. Seeing a valuable internship opportunity and the potential to figure out how to talk politics with my grandpa again, I applied. 

The first person I met was Silas Kulkarni, chief of staff for the national debate team. He’s a blue, and my spirits were immediately lifted at seeing a liberal face. I was his intern for less than a week before I was turned over to April Lawson, the leader of the debate team. She was welcoming, kind, highly intelligent, and… a red.

I was taken aback when I first heard her political leanings, but my confusion quickly melted into a small sense of resentment. I liked her a lot, both as a boss and a human being, and I admit that discovering she was red childishly felt like a betrayal. 

I couldn’t find it within myself to harbor anything against April for her differing beliefs. She conducted meetings with grace and respect for all voices, and encouraged me to speak up despite me being an intern. April knew that I was both young and extremely liberal, but she somehow recognized value in that.

“We are in desperate need of people like you,” she said to me. I had never been told that by a red before. 

Braver Angels membership is heavily blue, with far fewer than half of our total members identifying as reds. All I ever heard were stories about reds in an overwhelmingly blue environment, and I’ve sat in on many strategy meetings dedicated to bringing reds deeper into our work. Every time I’ve thought “Why am I trying to recruit more of these people? Do I even want to listen to them?”

The honest answer is no, I don’t. I don’t want to listen to them—which is exactly why they should be given a seat at the table. In the same way that, growing up and in college, I was never told I was needed or valued by conservatives, I myself have never taken the time to assure a red that I wanted to hear their voice. 

Coming off our most recent national debate, the concept at the forefront of my mind is service. At Braver Angels, there’s an unspoken understanding—we are here to serve our nation, and those within it. We, as a nation, are in desperate need of people who want to serve it. I, as a blue, want to serve. Who am I to condemn those that also want to serve just because their service may look different than mine?

The best thing that Braver Angels has ever done for me is humanize the other side. Suddenly the word “conservative” was attached to the names of intellectuals I respected, volunteers I admired, and fellow interns I considered sweet friends. 

My politics haven’t been swayed, but I operate now with a greater appreciation for voices on the other side. I still scoff sometimes when reds play victim, and I still strongly advocate for the recruitment of far-left blues, but I recognize that there is value in bringing more reds to the conversation.

Tomorrow, August 30th, classes will begin again at university. I’ll be back to in-person instruction at my deeply conservative Christian university for the first time since March of 2020, the same minority voice as before. And I can’t help but think that, maybe now, I’ll hate it a little less.

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