Colleague of the Week: Jennifer Stepp

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Jennifer Stepp is everywhere. All at once.

She’s the city councilor for Ward 5 in Gastonia, NC. She chairs the council’s Personnel Committee, its Public Safety Committee, and its Transportation Committee. She’s a member of the Facilities / Management Committee, the Central City Revitalization and Housing Committee… the list goes on and on.

And none of that includes her extensive involvement as a charter school board member, as a prolific volunteer in her church, in community arts, dance class, local theater – and with Braver Angels. 

So engaged is Jennifer Stepp that she had initiated a Braver Angels-type interaction before she ever became a member. Through her daughter’s dance studio, she had met a man she knew – Dr. Mark Epstein – he as Blue as she is Red. The two had friendly conversations – about dance and kids and other neutral topics. But when she chose to run for public office, she decided to ask Epstein if he would sit down and talk, so she could better understand Blue positions. He readily agreed.

“After a couple of hours conversation, I realized that Mark wasn’t as radical as I thought he was and he realized I wasn’t as radical as he thought I was,” recalls Stepp. Not only did Epstein endorse her candidacy but he introduced her to Braver Angels, inviting her to go with him to the convention in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

On the drive back to Gastonia, Stepp and Epstein decided to launch a Braver Angels alliance. The long drive went by quickly as they brainstormed idea after idea. They did start a local alliance; soon, they’d organized and run a Red/Blue workshop, and a bunch of other events were in the planning stages. “We were like a little powerhouse in Gastonia,” she says. The two were also busily planning to host the next Braver Angels convention in Charlotte, not far from Gastonia. They piloted a local town-hall event involving candidates and existing elected officials at the state level. Stepp, formerly a church choir director, music minister, and also a teacher, became heavily involved in Braver Angels’ music program. And she joined BA’s Red Caucus. It all added up to more than 20 hours a month on BA activities, on average.

And then Covid-19 hit. It sucked all the air out of the young Gastonia alliance, and it has proved difficult to recharge, especially as participants who had been super-excited by an alliance event went their own ways. To an extent, then, reviving the alliance is part chicken and part egg: organizing events that excite interest and attract attendees and more potential volunteers, yet convening enough keen volunteers to organize events in the first place.

Because the truth is that Stepp and Epstein cannot do it all themselves. “We do hope to recruit some alliance helpers,” she says. (Hey! If you’re a Braver Angels member in south-central North Carolina, please do reach out to Stepp at steppfam86@aol.com to at least have a conversation about what’s needed.)

She and Epstein are working with Red state coordinator Rich Midkiff to discuss a possible regional alliance spanning Charlotte too. They’re also talking about an entirely agenda-free gathering of local members that could spark new ideas – a picnic or barbecue or similar. “Something that’s not politically or emotionally charged,” says Stepp. “The biggest part of this is understanding other peoples’ interests and building relationships.”

The two organizers want to have another workshop before year’s end – provided that Covid-19 doesn’t get worse. They would like to involve Gastonia’s high schools; Stepp’s many, many connections, and her background as a teacher, will benefit those efforts. And she wants to do much more to work with elected officials, both nationally and locally. “Local officials like me are the ones who are accessible – people run into us at the football field, or at church, or at the grocery store,” she says. For his part, Epstein is eager to do more with the media to help promote Braver Angels messages across the region.

Stepp and Epstein also see more opportunities to have an impact at the national level. They have resumed conversations, with David Lapp and other BA leaders, about planning the next in-person convention in Charlotte. Stepp wants to be part of the Red Caucus meetings again. And in an unusual twist, she hopes that BA ideals can begin to have positive effects overseas too.

Before Covid, when in-person events were still happening, a German news station contacted the North Carolina organizers to ask their permission to attend and report on a Red/Blue workshop. The TV program the news team produced attracted the attention of some officials in a town in Germany; those municipal leaders contacted Epstein and Stepp, and recently the duo spent two hours explaining the Braver Angels experience to the German town leaders. “We’re going to follow up with them,” says Stepp. Depolarization worldwide? Yes, it’s necessary far beyond America’s borders too. The challenge for Stepp and many other BA leaders: finding enough hours in the day to do all that is needed – in so many places.

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