“High-speed, low drag” describes Dan Pipes perfectly. It’s the US Army term for those who are highly motivated.
Which is what this retired Army colonel absolutely is, whether he’s planting new plum trees in his extensive orchards, or tending to his bees, or filming his wife’s varsity high-school girls’ lacrosse games, or making maple syrup―4,000 gallons of the stuff―as he did this spring.
And then there’s the no-small matter of all of the energy he pours into his role as Red co-chair of the Braver Angels St. Albans alliance in northern Vermont.
Yet Dan wants to slow things down. He wants to continue building and strengthening relationships among alliance members rather than trying to ensure perfect compliance with tightly scripted processes and protocols.
“It requires time to develop personal relationships,” Dan says of the tight ties among the members of the alliance. He contends that those links are best nourished by making the time to consider the phrasing of a question or a response in ways that support Braver Angels’ ideals, so that trust develops and common ground is found.
“It doesn’t work to assume you can just ‘teach to the slide deck’,” he maintains. That’s like trying to cram 10 pounds of soil into a 3-pound bag. We slow down and do a few things well.” He says a slow-but-steady approach is doubly important to retain the interest and involvement of people new to the organization.
There’s a tension, of course, between developing standardized protocols for organizing the growing list of Braver Angels priorities and enabling alliance activities to emerge and unfold organically. Dan fully recognizes that: “We’re not some rogue outfit. We have close ties with Braver Angels at a national level, and with our New England region,” he says. “But it’s not the ‘systems’ that are important. It’s the core ideas and the ways they’re expressed and how they support Braver Angels’ mission.”
Dan―a career Infantry officer with more than 30 years in uniform―came across Braver Angels in 2017 when the co-founders’ initial bus tour came to rural Vermont. His neighbor, Shanna Ratner, invited the tour to visit St. Albans, the local town, and then asked Dan if he’d like to join her for the event. Shanna is the founder of the Braver Angels St. Albans alliance and serves as co-chair (Blue) and moderator for its gatherings.
Over a spaghetti dinner attended by the state’s Lieutenant Governor and many community members, Dan asked a lot of questions and got answers good enough to encourage him to join.
That day, Shanna set up what Dan terms “Braver Angels lite”: the underpinnings of the local alliance that now convenes 8-12 regular members every quarter and sometimes more often. Early on, the group ran some of the core Braver Angels activities, such as the Depolarizing Within and Skills for Bridging the Divide workshops, with positive feedback from the first members. Dan relies heavily on Shanna’s decades of experience which included moderating group discussions for her company and clients. “ We play to each other’s strengths. Everyone brings something to the table,” he says.
After more than a year, the group found its rhythm; Red and Blue members grew close and enjoyed rich discussions. But some members wanted to go further – to push for action on an issue of relevance to the region, on the topic of personal privacy. By involving several Vermont state representatives in their meetings, they developed draft legislation that was sent for committee discussion at the state house.
And then Covid hit. Not only did the draft legislation expire but the group was forced onto Zoom – a move Dan did not and does not welcome. “I despise Zoom,” says he. “At best it’s one-dimensional. I miss so much of the interpersonal cues; I quite often miss the tone. And I am not a digital native, as my kids will gleefully tell you.”
Now, with in-person and hybrid gatherings happening again, Dan and Shanna are looking at what’s next. “We’re getting some younger people in – 26 or 27 years old – which I’m really excited about,” he says. So does that mean a push for big growth in membership? Not really. “Once you get larger than the kind of group we have now, it becomes bulky.”
The focus instead is on the “what”: is the alliance heading in the right direction? What are its goals now, halfway through 2022? What direction does it want to go in? These are by no means questions for Dan and Shanna alone. “We’re pretty much as democratic as any small group can be,” he says.
In line with its emphasis on local community, the Vermont alliance will soon try something new: a picnic at a local park or similar gathering place. “It’ll be a great opportunity to invite people to learn more about Braver Angels over a burger or a hot dog,” says Dan. Beyond that, the Vermonters are also thinking they’ll host and run a Zoom-based event, inviting Braver Angels nationwide.
Pivotal to their idea: member Andy Crossman, who led the implementation of new workplace strategies worldwide at Pfizer before retiring last year. “That guy knows something about training!” smiles Dan. “Andy created, resourced, and implemented programs for over 20 countries across 12 languages… He’s an example of the amazing depth of experience we enjoy in our core group.”
Meanwhile, Dan continues to act as an ambassador in the region, presenting to groups and to the media while always paired with a Blue, per Braver Angels’ protocol. He and Shanna also work with Lincoln Centers, the organization’s new state coordinator and someone who will help energize formation of other alliances across Vermont.
With alliances such as this—currently the only one meeting regularly in the Green Mountain State—the research shows that there’s generally a good Red-Blue balance. “That’s one of the requirements for joining us; you have to bring someone of the other persuasion,” says Dan. (For aspiring Blue members, that’s not easy to do in one of the most liberal states in the nation.) Another stipulation: new members must have taken the Depolarizing Within training.
All of which leads to great “unit cohesion” – the Army term for the state in which soldiers all pull together and keep pulling together for their mission, and for each other. Dan puts it in Braver Angels-speak: “With almost every topic we’ve wrestled with as a group, we’ve found common ground.”
Now if only the essence of the Vermont alliance—the group’s simple, honest, hard-won togetherness—could be replicated in every town and neighborhood across the nation today, Braver Angels could safely say: “Mission accomplished.”