Polarization in America didn’t suddenly start with the 2016 presidential election. Chuck Stone traces it back much further than that.
“My first look at how polarized we’d become was in 1990 or 1991, during the hearings for [US Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas,” he recalls. “As a fairly young lawyer then, I was watching these US senators examining the witnesses, and it really struck me how nasty the divisions had become. After that, I saw so many instances of Americans beginning to hate each other.”
Actually, Chuck talks about an even longer span, and uses it as a reference point for why Braver Angels’ mission is so daunting. “You don’t reverse 70 years of gradual polarization overnight,” he says. “There is no knockout punch.” So for Chuck, the Blue-leaning state coordinator for Illinois, BA’s depolarization push can only ever be incremental. “It’s slow work, getting to know each other. It’s really on an individual basis that you can really work with people whose viewpoints are different than yours regarding polarization.”
In effect, Chuck had been waiting for years for an organization like Braver Angels to come along. He joined in 2017 after seeing co-founder David Blankenhorn on TV; soon after, he attended his first workshop and put up his hand to help. He worked as a moderator to begin with. But when the call went out for coordinators for each state (one person had been handling four Midwestern states) he stepped into the coordinator role for the Land of Lincoln in late 2018.
It was a slow start – “a lot of not knowing what to do”, as Chuck puts it – but soon enough, he began to figure out a direction. One of his primary goals: to grow Braver Angels’ presence in the southern part of the state. So far, he and his colleagues have made strong progress in central Illinois, notably around the Champaign-Urbana metro. “That’s a college town; it could be a really important hub for depolarization. I’m looking for people there to step forward,” he says. Things are progressing: BA members there have voted to become an alliance, and before long, they’ll be officially registered.
Currently, the main alliance – officially the Braver Angels-Illinois Statewide Zoom Alliance – is, despite its name, centered mostly around the Chicago suburbs. The group first met in January 2021. But it was their most recent meeting in September that was a major success because the attendees so obviously have gotten to know and like each other and see each other as resources. They discussed ways to stay calm and focused despite the continued polarization in the news. “Several participants said it felt like a therapy session,” recalls Chuck.
The Statewide Alliance has just rotated chairpersons, and Alliance members are keen to help depolarize Illinois’ elected officials in Washington, DC., modeling on how BA co-founder Bill Doherty tackled his recent presentation to the US Congress. The plan is to reach out not only to the members of the Illinois delegation but to declared candidates for 2022. “We’re putting together a team,” says Chuck. “We’re hoping our effort will not be just an outreach but will help get some publicity for the issue of depolarization.”
“The ultimate message has to be that as voters, we won’t put up with our politicians’ performance art,” continues Chuck. “It’s both about getting our elected officials to embrace depolarization as part of their public service, but also getting voters to see this as an American problem that we can fix if we work together. We have to get voters off of ‘my side didn’t cause it so I have no responsibility for fixing it.’ ”
Chuck also points to activity west of Chicago, around Oak Park, where a discussion group may blossom an alliance. If he hears from or recruits members from southern or western Illinois – regions that don’t yet have Braver Angels leaders or local groups – he will try to place them with the Oak Park, Champaign-Urbana, or Zoom Alliance groups so they can see for themselves what an alliance does and how it can work.
Another initiative that Chuck is supporting: the piloting of coaching sessions designed to reinforce the lessons from Skills for Bridging the Divide workshops. “For people who take one of our workshops, we’ve arranged a follow-up,” he says. “We’ve got some great coaches on our design team.”
He applauds colleagues Laura Piemonte, a retired human resources professional who taught communication skills, as well as Linda Cherney, a retired family and marital therapist, and Maryanne Colter, who holds a certification in coaching and has vast experience in the corporate world. “Every once in a while you feel you’ve captured lightning in a bottle, when there’s a lot of energy around a program,” he says. “It’s also a way we hope people get engaged on a more permanent basis.”
Like his counterparts in many other states, Chuck is challenged to engage enough Reds. That’s particularly true around Chicago metro. He did see an influx of Reds soon after the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, but that has tapered off. Unlike his counterparts elsewhere, though, Chuck has no Red co-coordinator – a gap he expects to have filled inside the next year, along with a potential replacement for his own role.
Chuck closed his law practice about four years ago; he continues to teach at DePaul University. But he’s now teaching three classes – often working seven days a week – and it’s become tough to propel Braver Angels’ initiatives as he would like.
So yes, Chuck and his team need more BA muscle – and mind. If you live in Illinois and haven’t yet come forward, please contact him at email@example.com. He’ll be glad to help identify a good fit for you and find the support you need to help Braver Angels make its presence felt in your community – and as the leading influencer for depolarization in your state. Thanks!