Colleague of the Week: Vandy Kemp

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Vandy Kemp has watched the movie of the Broadway show “Hamilton” six times. Her favorite song is “The Room Where It Happens” – a satirical rap on the messiness and ugliness of democracy in action.

She cites the song because it also makes a point about meeting with those you may not like – may even detest – in order to attain larger goals. It’s a message Vandy relates to – literally. “My own daughter asks: ‘Why do you even want to be in the same room with those people?’ “ she says.

The people in question happen to be Braver Angels – and Reds.

Vandy, a definite Blue, actually loves interacting with “those people.” Indeed, it’s hard for her not to because they’re all around her. Until recently, she has been the Blue Co-Chair of the East Tennessee Alliance, whose biggest struggle, she says, has been to recruit more Reds.

That struggle is following her as she takes on the role of Southeast Regional Lead, with responsibilities spanning Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Despite those being truly Red states, attracting conservative members is no easy matter. “Once again, I find myself associated with an organization that is perceived as Blue,” she explains.

Vandy is referring to her longtime work with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (the League), the unaffiliated non-profit founded a century ago by leaders of the women’s suffrage movement as a force for promoting democracy. “You struggle constantly with how to be a non-partisan organization when you have Blue splashed all over you,” she says of the League.

And yet something wonderful came out of that perception. To begin with, Vandy had learned about Braver Angels in February 2020 when she, as an active member (and former president) of the local League, received an e-mail invite to a BA workshop in Knoxville. She thought it looked interesting, and she attended. “There was a pretty good mix of Reds and Blues,” she recalls. “I remember looking around the room and thinking: ‘This is important.’ “

But what clinched the Braver Angels deal for her was the outcome of the workshop practice session where she was paired with someone with very different views. The white-hot topic: abortion. “The truth is – good students that we were – this young woman and I found common ground. At the end, she came up to me and said: ‘Can I give you a hug?’ “

The other outcome of being perceived as too Blue? That came later, when Vandy’s local League chapter was running education programs on upcoming redistricting initiatives in east Tennessee. After a program at which Vandy had spoken, she received an e-mail from an attendee who had previously been the vice-president of the local Republican Party. The e-mail said that the woman resented and challenged Vandy’s claim that the League is non-partisan.

Naturally, Vandy was taken aback. But then she thought: “I’m a Braver Angel – I can figure this out!” She invited the woman to have coffee, sharing her own reservations about the League’s non-partisan stance. The two soon found they had similar education and career paths; not long after, Vandy asked the woman – Patsy – to participate in a Walk a Mile in My News event hosted by Braver Angels.

Long story short: the two have become good friends, while respecting each other’s views on issues such as voting rights where they are 180 degrees apart. Now the two are even discussing how the League and the Republican Party might work together on some local events.

In today’s polarized America, Vandy and Patsy would likely never have met – much less become buddies. “It was her being brave enough to question the League’s stance – and me being brave enough to say I’m going to reach out to her,” says Vandy. That pretty much sums up the Braver Angels spirit right there.

Vandy’s work with Braver Angels is just beginning. Now retired as vice-president and dean of students at Maryville College, she runs her own consulting business, volunteers with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the League, and is an elder in her Presbyterian church. But she has ample time and energy for Braver Angels. “I make time for this because it’s so important and because there’s an enormous web of people doing this,” she says. “I’ve just connected with so many people.”

Following a second workshop in late summer 2020 – a Zoom event she pulled together by enlisting field services co-lead Lynn Heady as the presenter and participants whom she’d e-mailed through her AAUW chapter– she built the core of an alliance in the Knoxville area. Although the first meeting drew less than a dozen Blues, the East Tennessee alliance was up and running, and has since drawn in its share of Reds.      

Alliances loom large in Vandy’s repertoire of contributions. She has also worked with BA leader Carlos Hernandez on a handbook for how to put together an alliance. She elaborates on the vital role that alliances play: “I don’t want to be part of a club – I want to be part of a movement. An alliance may look like a club but it’s a tool for advancing the movement.”  

Wearing her new Regional Lead hat, she is keen to help set up alliances in Alabama and Mississippi which currently lack any such structured activity. She is part of the discussion about whether to concentrate on urban areas or do something to reach rural regions in those states and in Kentucky and Tennessee. “My plan is to stick with this long enough to see some significant activity on the ground in each state,” she says.

Not that Vandy is going anywhere. But she is keenly aware of the issue of volunteer burnout; if anything, her professional career in secondary and college administration has sharpened that sense. She recognizes that she will move on to other BA roles and others will fill the roles she vacates, as is happening now with the East Tennessee Alliance.

Burnout, of course, is just another form of fatigue, and Vandy points to a general weariness in the US population as a reason for why it’s not always easy to recruit more BA members – especially Reds. “There’s a psychological malaise,” she says. “People are just tired of the political discourse. Asking them to join up for one more thing…well, they’re just not interested.”

The trick, she says, is to identify the BA sweet spot for every new prospective member. For her new Republican friend Patsy, it was the opportunity for deep, respectful one-on-one exchanges of views.

If Vandy Kemp can help to crack the code on how to customize Braver Angels’ offering to weary Americans and do it at scale, that would be a phenomenal contribution all by itself.

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