Connie Shortes remembers it well and shudders a little.
“It was just like this big third rail was out there in the room,” she recalls of the Red/Blue workshop she was moderating a few years ago in a rural community south of Austin, TX. Unlike the groups that Connie, Blue, had been moderating in and around the city of Austin, this was a community where everyone knew each other really well.
In fact, that was the very reason why there was so much fear in the air because differences that had previously been understood and probably not addressed were out there in the open.
“These people had been neighbors for years before identifying as Red or Blue or other,” says Connie. “By the end, everyone was acknowledging the tension in the room. During the check-out session, one big strapping guy―a Red―confessed that he’d been afraid. The woman next to him―a Blue―looked at him wide-eyed and said, ‘I had no idea you were afraid too!’”
And right there, Braver Angels had established common ground again.
Connie Shortes had found Braver Angels in 2018 when her partner, Chuck Linton, had read about the organization on social media. Connie, retired as the CEO of a shared office space firm in Austin, was intrigued; as the only Blue-leaning person in her own family, she recalls being “in a lot of pain” because of the sharp political disagreements that followed the 2016 election. “For me, it was real, real personal,” she says.
Finding her local Braver Angels group, she jumped right in, taking a Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop. “I appreciated the structure of it; it took me through the steps of how to manage a conversation. I liked that we had some sample scenarios to work with,” she says.
Next, a Red/Blue workshop in which, over the course of the six hours, she says she really did get into the trenches with her Red counterpart. She recalls it being frightening at first―the intensity and openness of naked opinion in 2018, a time when emotions were running very high―but she saw how the moderators kept everything inside the guard rails. “What I learned was that this was possible,” she says. “You can have a conversation with someone who’s diametrically opposed to your views. It just gave me hope for our country.”
It wasn’t long before her involvement and level of participation were noticed. Someone suggested she should be a moderator. In previous times, Connie had taken some training as a mediator; she likes helping people to communicate. So she stepped forward to take moderator training―and hasn’t looked back.
Workshop followed workshop―some Skills for Bridging the Divide, some Red/Blue, and others. At that time, Braver Angels’ Central Texas alliance was just forming, but its members’ rich web of connections meant that they would get calls to run workshops locally, at a synagogue and at churches in Austin. Often, Connie was the lead moderator.
But her best contributions still lay ahead. When Covid hit, Central Texas alliance stalwart Steve Saltwick had been working with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). He and their leadership got together to see if they could share workshops online. Steve put together the slide decks, assembling all the necessary clip art, photos, and text and creating the time tracker and the format for how to put a team together and prepare them for their online roles.
For her part, and with guidance from Braver Angels’ co-founder Bill Doherty, Connie translated the early moderator guide into a format suitable for Zoom. “We had to come up with scenarios. We started integrating current events into formats, creating sample conversations,” she says. “We put workshop participants through their paces in handling their own ‘immune responses’ to provocative statements. Zoom has been a really powerful tool to help us do that.”
The shared online event with CCL went very well; since then, Connie has moderated multiple Zoom workshops for CCL and Braver Angels together. Indeed, the format has proven so successful that it quickly became the default for organizers and moderators of Zoom events all across the organization.
At the same time, Connie has added an organizer hat to her headgear. When she and Chuck moved out of Austin to the nearby city of La Grange, she quickly built a network of friends and acquaintances, a surprising number of whom expressed interest in Braver Angels. She leaned on the Central Texas alliance and the national organization for resources to start another group in her new town and has succeeded in creating a balanced crew of both Reds and Blues who are enthusiastic about the possibilities of Braver Angels for the community.
The La Grange group is keen to increase the strength of its community bonds by allying with other organizations in the state―among them local chapters of the League of Women Voters and BridgeRural.org. “We’re connecting,” says Connie.
Connie wants others to join her in her lead role. “A year from now, I’d like to have another one or two moderators here in the community. We have a core group of organizers already―balanced Red and Blue―but if we had more moderators, we could do more events. We could reach out to BridgeRural and maybe to the town of La Grange,” she says. “I would so love to make more inroads into the community.”
That sounds like a true Braver Angel, does it not?