Dr. Glen White has an unusual problem – unusual for Braver Angels, anyway. He’s finding it hard to recruit fellow Blues for the alliance he helps to lead.
It’s not just because the Central Arkansas Alliance is, well, in Arkansas. Nor is it that there are no Blues to be found in this deeply Red state. They are certainly present in Little Rock, particularly around the metropolitan area’s colleges and universities and in its liberal-leaning organizations.
Glen, the state’s Blue coordinator, thinks the relative reluctance of Arkansas Blues to become active in Braver Angels owes something to a deep-rooted concern that engaging with “the other side” – even within the safe spaces afforded by the organization – will be taken as a sign of weakness or will somehow encourage more policies that they see as potentially harmful.
Translated: his challenge is identical to all those Braver Angels who strive to attract more Reds – and who are well aware that many Reds express comparable levels of distrust about meeting with the other side, much less discussing flashpoint topics with them.
Glen’s experience exposes a deeper and somewhat unsettling truth: Braver Angels has a lot more work to do to persuade those further left as well as further right that there is such a thing as a truly neutral, non-judgmental space where they can speak freely. “Maybe people on the edges see this as an existential struggle. Braver Angels tends to attract the two-thirds of people in the middle,” he says.
But he has the following comment for those in the outer third – particularly those out-of-reach Blues: “If you worry about supporting an organization that says it brings people together for civil discourse in the search for common ground, I ask you to consider the potential power of relationships in moving our society and culture forward.”
Right now, Glen needs a Blue co-leader for the Central Arkansas Alliance because he still occupies that role as well as working at a state level. The alliance job was his de facto role when he started with Braver Angels in 2017, after he helped convene a group of like-minded Arkansans. Several of those individuals trained to be moderators and began training others; soon the group was holding skills workshops and presenting on Braver Angels to libraries and local organizations. The members then coalesced into a formal alliance.
During 2020, the Central Arkansas Alliance thrived. “We really grew at the time of the pandemic,” says Glen. We made plans, we made presentations. The word got out, we got into the newspapers.” But that growth has proved difficult to sustain – as it has in other alliances around the country. Of the nearly 300 Arkansans listed on Braver Angels’ database, Glen estimates that those actively interested don’t number more than 80 or so – and the roster of active local leaders is smaller again. “We haven’t gotten to critical mass,” observes Glen. “There are no other alliances in the state.”
So it’s not an understatement to say Glen has an uphill climb ahead of him – especially as a state coordinator. A retired psychologist, he had started out in 2017 with a buoyant view of how he could help bring scientific methods to understanding what made political beliefs so entrenched and political change so hard, and to learning what approaches can work. These days, he is more measured in his approach, focusing on the value of incremental wins over time.
One of Glen’s real wins has been finding and recruiting Dr. April Chatham-Carpenter as his Red state co-coordinator. Although her full-time role as a professor of applied communications at University of Arkansas at Little Rock means she doesn’t have abundant time, she has, in Glen’s words, proved to be a godsend.
Together, Glen and April have been organizing Skills for Bridging the Divide, Family and Politics, and Common Ground workshops, along with structured 1:1 Red/Blue conversations and a Depolarizing Within session. He and his colleagues have a solid website to support the newsletters they send out regularly. And they are borrowing the fairly informal, unstructured “Coffee & Conversations” program that has proved to be so successful for the Central Texas Alliance and adapting it as what they’re calling “Arkansas Table Talk.”
The Table Talk format has real promise for re-energizing Braver Angels activity in the state, in Glen’s opinion. He and his colleagues are consciously designing the sessions to be as simple, short, and resource-lean as possible – quarterly and not monthly to begin with, just one hour long, and with none of the breakout sessions that require dedicated support and staffing at many other Braver Angels events. “At least for now, we’ll do it all as one big group,” says Glen. “We want to start out in an easy way, so we don’t have a lot of [resource] requirements.”
The first Table Talk, scheduled for January 2022, will focus on homelessness – a topic of nationwide concern and of real relevance in metro areas such as Little Rock. Again, the idea is to emphasize an issue that many local Arkansans care about and may be affected by, at least indirectly, rather than spotlighting an emotionally supercharged political theme such as voting rights or gun control. “We’ll start with something that’s not a heavy lift,” explains Glen.
Pandemic permitting, Table Talk can happen in person as well as virtually. And that will help spark, build, and sustain the personal relationships that are so integral to the success of any volunteer-run organization.
Ever onward, Glen!