“A lot of organizations would be happy to have a relationship with my wallet. But Braver Angels wanted a relationship with me. They wanted my thoughts, my energy, my ideas.”
That’s Stan Lisle describing how, in late 2018, he was drawn to the organization not long after watching a 60 Minutes program that mentioned Braver Angels and its activities. Based close to Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, Stan is the lead organizer and Blue coordinator for the state, and he has big plans for bolstering and expanding alliances.
“Our goal would ultimately be to have more alliances in eastern Tennessee – maybe as many as three,” he says. “Chattanooga is big enough to justify having an alliance.” He also mentions Johnson City in Tennessee’s northeast corner, a few hours’ drive from Knoxville.
The Volunteer state already represents Braver Angels very well. Aside from the East Tennessee Alliance that Stan belongs to, there is already a very active alliance in Nashville and a newer group in Memphis, in the southwest. Not bad for a state that ranks 16th in the US terms of population.
Stan joined the organization not long after being widowed and after retiring from a career in commercial real estate. Finding he had plenty of time on his hands, he put one of those hands in the air to help organize the next Braver Angels bus tour around the country. But when the pandemic torpedoed that plan, Lynn Heady, then the state’s Blue coordinator, had other ideas for leveraging Stan’s talents: she asked him to organize a Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop in Knoxville.
At that point, the only alliance in Tennessee was in Nashville; a few people were involved from the east. “Some of us started trying to build an alliance in that part of the state.” He gives most the credit to Vandy Kemp, the head of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. “She is an influencer,” he says. “She’s a person who is immensely involved in her community.”
Which leads Stan to make a vital observation about how Braver Angels can expand and ideally scale. He believes that the involvement of influencers and local dynamos like Vandy is absolutely critical. “I can say without any hesitation that the growth of an alliance has everything to do with the strength of the champion who agrees to take it on and work it tirelessly,” he says. Earlier this year, Stan and Lynn harnessed a Memphis champ, Kali Kucera, to pull together enough interest to start a Memphis Alliance.
Stan also acknowledges a truth about alliances: they are not all alike. Research led last year by Braver Angel Jennifer Hall-Witt uncovered that fact, showing that metro-based alliances operate quite differently from rural groups.
That’s evident in Tennessee, where the Nashville alliance draws from a wide enough metro area to have significant momentum and no shortage of event activity, whereas the East Tennessee alliance, with a dispersed group of members, relies on monthly Zoom meetings and has more of a social aspect centered on discussions of key topics.
For its part, Memphis, the state’s newest alliance, is just getting on its feet, with small group get-togethers in coffee shops and suchlike. Early efforts to contact potential allies such as Rotary Club chapters were cut short by Covid. But those efforts revived when a Quaker congregation in the city approached Braver Angels. Lynn Heady and Stan made a presentation to the Quakers, and the seeds of an alliance began to grow.
Like his counterparts around the country, Stan is bothered that it continues to be difficult to recruit Reds. He has led an effort to try to supply Braver Angels speakers to Rotary Clubs in smaller Tennessee towns that lean heavily Red, but without result so far.
Indeed, Stan is not optimistic that the dearth of Red Braver Angels will change, and he voices a sentiment based on his experiences in his strongly conservative retirement community where he and his fellow Blues certainly interact with fellow Red retirees but don’t readily socialize with them. “It’s almost like this inability to talk to your neighbors is our new normal. It’s just accepted that there’s a Red world and a Blue world,” he says. “This is not a Braver Angels problem – this is a national problem.”
But none of that is stopping Stan Lisle from cranking – 10 and more hours a week – on what he can control as Blue state coordinator. He is working hard to try to bring the Collegiate Debate program into Tennessee’s university system. He is proud that there are now several trained moderators in east Tennessee and Memphis, enabling more events to be planned and implemented. He is on the lookout for new “champions” who’ll sponsor a workshop or who want to build an alliance and are fully prepared and able to do the work to make that happen.
And he signals his commitment to Braver Angels in his description of how he personally has benefited. “I’ve been influenced greatly,” he says. “I am not in my echo chamber nearly so deeply as I was before. I’ve developed the humility to realize I’m not right about everything.” He notes that for many people, a Braver Angels workshop can be a life-changing experience, as it was for him.
That reflection, all by itself, is reason enough for Braver Angels everywhere to recharge and refresh in our shared effort to depolarize all across this great nation.