Say you were going to launch a podcast on the touchy topic of getting along with others. What would you call it?
“Wilk” Wilkinson didn’t have to think long. “Derate the Hate” is the inspired (and inspirational) name this Braver Angel gave to the weekly show he started and has aired from his home in Clearwater, MN, for more than two years without missing one episode.
“I’m anti-hate no matter how you slice it,” says Wilk, a definite conservative. “But I am disgusted by almost all media outlets and politicians because of the way they manipulate. Things just aren’t as bad as they will have you believe.” His advice? “Shut off the news and talk to your neighbor.”
“Talking to your neighbor” sounds like something right out of the Braver Angels playbook. Early last year, the themes and approaches aired by Wilk each week caught the attention of Minnesotans Barbara Thomas and Rick Hotchner; in March 2021, the Braver Angels couple were guests on his show.
It was a short step from there for Wilk to become a member. Barbara and Rick recommended others as guests for Derate the Hate, and that, combined with their appearance on the podcast, led to others at Braver Angels reaching out to Wilk.
One of them was co-founder David Lapp, who at that time was laying the groundwork for what would become the organization’s We the People’s Project (WPP) – a “politically and racially diverse group of working-class Americans working together to build a house united in America” as the website describes it. The purpose is to invite into the depolarization conversation all those Americans without four-year college degrees – that is, almost two-thirds of the nation’s population.
Wilk was a natural to join the WPP. “People at all levels need to be involved [with the depolarization effort]; it can’t just be the most educated,” he says. “We have a huge problem in this country of people feeling that they’re not heard; a very large portion of the working class and lower middle class and even middle class identifies with conservative Republican values.” By the fall of last year, Wilk had become part of the group’s leadership team.
WPP has now hosted several We the People’s Forums – 90-minute, moderated conversations usually between two speakers who often have differing perspectives. After about 45 minutes of discussion with the speakers, the rest of the time is given over to discussion and Q & A with the audience.
The Forums have highlighted America’s class differences, homelessness and incarceration, and other real-world topics. Each has drawn a couple of hundred people – a very solid showing for a new format – and each has held firmly, civilly, to Braver Angels’ core practices of listening, learning, and giving space to others to air their points of view.
“Our WPP group brainstorms ideas for other Forum topics,” says Wilk. “We’re open to any topics that WPP members are itching to talk about – that would be attractive for other people to get involved with the Forums and the issues they discuss. “We’re hearing from people who usually aren’t heard from; we’re giving them an opportunity to speak. People just want to be heard,” Wilk says.
The groups meetings are not without frustrations. Wilk observes that it’s tough, in a Braver Angels setting where changing others’ minds is not on the agenda, to reach consensus on topics that will interest a broad constituency of potential participants. He’s also concerned that fewer than half a dozen of the leadership team meet consistently. And for Reds like him, there is often a “solutions” mentality that doesn’t always mesh smoothly with an emphasis on discussion for discussion’s sake.
“I like actions that lead to solutions,” Wilk says. “After a problem is identified, I like to break it down and then address the nucleus of the problems, not the symptoms.” It’s exactly how he operated in his previous life as a truck driver, and now, as a logistics and transportation manager for a wholesale industrial-goods company.
So what solutions does Wilk envision for Braver Angels’ central challenge of scaling up its nationwide initiative? For a start, he would love it if other members (could that be you?) would volunteer to add momentum to the WPP initiative. Like many, he is keenly aware that the organization skews Blue and urban and college-educated, so he is very committed to the WPP effort. But he is realistic in understanding that there isn’t likely to be an overnight explosion in membership. He harks back to the tagline he uses for his own podcast: “Bettering the world one attitude at a time.”
The idea of transfusing some WPP ideas and actions into every Braver Angels alliance across the country also appeals to him (and to David Lapp.) He has begun talking with Barbara Thomas – now co-leading the organization’s Office of Field Operations – to see how that might start to happen. (If you’ re already involved with an alliance and are interested in whether WPP might offer an interesting platforms for new events, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Wilk at email@example.com or David at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
With his calm, thoughtful manner, his open, well-reasoned approach, his definite Red leaning, and his proven podcast platform, Wilk is very well-placed to have a major impact on, well, Braver Angels’ overall impact in the years to come.
Meanwhile, he’s a family man and working guy with a demanding day job to get back to. Oh, that and a weekly show to run. Hear you around, Wilk!