“No question. I was an immediate ‘Yes’.”
That’s Theo Brown, explaining why he jumped at the chance to become Braver Angels’ state coordinator for Mississippi and Alabama, even though he lives and works in Maryland more than 750 miles to the northeast.
Theo, a Blue, has spent his working life as an organizer for citizens’ engagement groups. From 2010 onward, he has run a business consulting to organizations whose purpose is to bridge political and other divides among the American populace. “I’ve been really concerned about the divisions in the country for 10-12 years,” he says.
He had attended Braver Angels’ earliest convention in Harrisonburg, VA. But it wasn’t until about a year ago, as he scaled back on his own work, that he was in a position to do more directly. Of all the bridge-building organizations he was familiar with, Braver Angels was the one he chose to volunteer with. “I thought it was the most effective and had most potential for growth,” he says. “It’s doing the most significant things; it’s the only one doing field organizing.”
Theo had known co-founder David Lapp through his consulting work, as well as Julie Boler, Braver Angels’ community collaborations manager. He had written to Julie, telling her he had a couple of days a week to volunteer, and back came the opportunity to step in as coordinator for two states that have until recently been very light on Braver Angels representation.
As of June 2021, Theo has been doing everything he can to change that. “Mississippi and Alabama have always interested me; they’re both very Red states. Braver Angels is particularly interested in getting more Reds involved,” he says. He benefited from a bit of a warm start: Barbara Thomas, now in the organization’s Office of Field Operations, had made some contacts in the two states that have definitely helped him in his outreach there. But with no more than 100 people in each state even on Braver Angels’ lists, he knew there was work to do.
To start with, his work had to be on Zoom – not the optimal way to build personal relationships. This past Spring, though, Theo made a week-long trip to the southern states, meeting with a host of people he’d previously met only through Zoom and identifying the green shoots of Braver Angels initiatives there – shoots that he plans to help nourish, reseed, and graft elsewhere in each state.
There is now an alliance in Jackson, MS, and that group, featuring a pretty good mix of Reds and Blues, has held two or three meetings to date. In rural Bolivar County in Mississippi, Theo has contacted a couple of largely African-American groups that seem very interested in collaborating with Braver Angels. In Alabama, a group in Birmingham is exploring the topic of how race impacts issues such as education; there are possibilities for Braver Angels to co-sponsor such discussions. Elsewhere in the state, there have been sporadic workshops to which Theo lends a Braver Angels hand if requested.
Theo sees two types of institutions as pivotal to expansion of Braver Angels’ footprint in the two states: churches and universities. He notes that in 2019, there had been a Braver Angels debate at the University of Mississippi on the hot topic of what to do about Confederate statues. “I met recently with some of the conservatives who’d been part of that debate,” he says. He hopes to help spark another event on the UoM campus this fall. In the next state over, there is a very active Braver Angels ambassador who’s a faculty member at the University of Alabama – again, someone whom Theo has now met in person and with whom he can have deeper, more involved dialogue.
He has also been meeting with pastors and lay leaders – a smart strategic move given the degree of churchgoing in the two states. It’s familiar terrain for Theo: back in Maryland, he runs the speaker series for a local church – a client of his consulting business. His medium-term objective is to have large numbers of churches across Alabama and Mississippi hosting Braver Angels workshops. “That would be the best mark of success a year from now,” he says.
Part of the trick is to identify events that will strike chords with pastors and congregants. Events might use modified Braver Angels formats, or be straight out of the Braver Angels playbook, or other; whatever it takes to get things going. Theo has help:
he has been talking for several months with Braver Angels leader Bishop Mark Beckwith (the conversations have included new workshops designed for houses of worship), and he is aware of the church-oriented workshops – both Catholic and Lutheran versions – that Bev Horstman, Ohio state director, has helped to design and develop.
For the foreseeable future, Theo’s work will involve more field organizing in the two southern states, laying the groundwork for more people there to coalesce into groups and for more groups to grow into full-fledged alliances. “There’s now a group of four or five of us who are pushing that field organization,” he says. And throughout it all: promoting, explaining, asking, urging – all of the one-by-one effort required anywhere to expand the ranks of Braver Angels.
As mentioned, Theo is well-placed to reach many more Reds by dint of being the coordinator for two particularly crimson states. But there’s another crucial way in which he stands to make an outsized impact. Fully 38% of the Mississippi population is African-American; in Alabama, it’s nearly 28%. Braver Angels’ complexion is still far too White to be representative of the US population overall.
Theo Brown may be the Braver Angel who can do the most to change that.