Wynette Sills walks. And walks and walks and walks.
Wynette is the Braver Angel who conceived and created the highly successful Walk a Mile in My News initiative. Starting in the Sacramento Alliance in California, her two-week media-sharing initiative has been picked up by other alliances in Tennessee, Florida, and many other states.
Wynette (Red) walks almost every day – literally – outside women’s health clinics and sometimes the state capitol offices in Sacramento. She’s there with a sign that reads “Pregnant? Need help?,” as the director of Californians for Life.
And she walks with others – Blues, if they’re willing to do it – for her own physical well-being and because she believes that better conversations ensue when people do something together. “It’s much more difficult to argue when you’re both looking forward,” she smiles.
Wynette, the Red co-chair of the Braver Angels Sacramento Alliance, also walks with her mind – meaning she’s constantly stepping forward with ideas for furthering not only the work of Braver Angels but also of the pro-life movement across California. “I have a natural tendency to enjoy people, but as a tiny, tiny Red dot here in a sea of Blue, diplomacy is a necessity for my existence,” she explains. “So I spend a lot of time thinking about strategy.”
Which is how Walk a Mile in My News came about. Wynette had come away from a Braver Angels debate inspired but somewhat frustrated. “We weren’t able to do any fact-checking or go into any great depth,” she recalls. “It was kind of like bumper-sticker exchanges of what’s on people’s minds.”
Part of her strategic thinking had led her to believe the media had a lot to do with polarization. So, last year, she conceived the idea of pairing a Red with a Blue and having each read the other’s news sources over a two-week period and discuss issues each was interested in. “It would be more of a conversation,” she explains. “More as if we were sitting beside each other, reading the paper together and asking each other what we think so we get a broader understanding of what can be pretty complex issues. More of an exploration of the gray and less of the black and white.”
Wynette brought the concept to other Red and Blue leaders in the alliance; together, they designed the program and, in April 2021, they launched the pilot. For most of the 26 initial participants on most issues, the program was a hit. The alliance repeated the event – and then, after a detailed article about it on Braver Angels’ website – they found it being picked up by other alliances.
But the program’s success has run into limitations. Braver Angels around the country want to know how to run their own Walk a Mile in My News. “I’m finding myself just not able to respond to those e-mail questions,” admits Wynette. “Frankly, I don’t have the time to be the program coordinator as well.”
So there’s a volunteer role right there: for a Braver Angels member to step up as the person to help expand the Walk a Mile in My News program nationwide. If you’re that person – or you know someone who could be – please contact Wynette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your e-mail might reach her when she’s walking to the rice fields on the organic farm that she and her husband Ed run; she might be hosting a gathering of Braver Angels there, or others from her church or her pro-life community, and they might be enjoying popcorn grown in the Sills’ fields. Such in-person get-togethers are another way in which Wynette works to enable meaningful exchanges of viewpoints. She cites the example of how visitors – particularly Blue or Blue-leaning – may not agree with her pro-life viewpoints but they will usually find common ground in the Sills’ organic farming methods and their deep respect for the environment.
Wynette has also tried to launch community service activities – another of her “doing things together” ideas for bridging the political divide. Her first effort fizzled; to her disappointment, she was the only one who showed for the trash pick-up day. But she’s not deterred: her ideas include community service for, say, Habitat for Humanity or sourcing backpacks for kids going back to school. “Anything that means doing something positive together – that will soften the edges,” she says.
And she is off and running – walking, actually — with her next initiative: inviting people of the opposite persuasion to take a fast stroll together. Crucially, she proposes walking in their neighborhoods, the better to put them at ease and so they can point out people and places of interest to them, which opens up more paths for conversation and commonality.
She personally has a test coming up: a neighborhood walk with a Blue who is known to be very vocal with his views. For Wynette, that walk will hold no terrors, though. After years of being on the front lines of the pro-life movement in pro-choice California, she’s the model diplomat – the perfect Braver Angel – in being an outstanding listener and a careful, caring conversation partner.
Indeed, if it weren’t for those traits, she might not be involved with Braver Angels at all. In 2019, she was invited to a BA event by someone in favor of abortion rights: David Jacobs, Blue, whom she’d met and become genuinely friendly with as they each stood with their placards outside clinics. David was an early participant in the Walk a Mile in My News initiative and remains a good friend to this day; interestingly, he has gone on to develop friendships with other Reds through that program. He’s not the only one: “I know a number of people whose friendships have developed across the divide because of it,” says Wynette.
And yet, the Sacramento alliance is struggling. Wynette reports that even though there are several hundred people on the alliance’s mailing list, the energy has dissipated, particularly during the pandemic. “We’re just hoping not to turn out the lights,” she says. She and the team lack the bandwidth to do much recruitment; they’re simply responding to invitations from groups such as churches and civic organizations.
That said, she and her alliance colleagues are planning a relaunch next month, with big outreach to Reds. Wynette wants to persuade them that the Braver Angels community is “a gentle audience with which you can finally share your voice and won’t be shouted down.” And she’s thinking about other “together” activities – perhaps leisure pursuits such as hiking or bicycling that potential members already are involved with rather than asking them to commit more time to the organization right away.
Wynette’s challenges aren’t limited to what’s happening with the Sacramento alliance. With California’s governor recently proposing that the state become a “sanctuary” for women from elsewhere in America seeking abortions, she and Californians for Life now have a steeper hill to climb. “I’m pretty much on call 24 hours a day,” she says.
Asked by others why she carries on the fight in a state whose legislature is so pro-choice, she remains indomitable. She has just testified before the state’s legislature, and although she holds out no hope of changing veteran lawmakers’ minds, she says there are always staff members watching the proceedings on the big screen – younger people in positions of influence whose views on abortion may not yet have solidified. “They may be hearing a perspective from me that they haven’t encountered before. Also, my testimony becomes part of the state’s video archive. So in my estimation, it’s not at all futile.”
That response has real resonance for Braver Angels’ own cause. “My pro-life work is the perfect training ground for diplomacy,” she says. “You encounter people who often have negative interpretations of your position; it can bring about emotional reactions on their part. After 18 years of being out there, I’ve found a wealth of opportunities to be a better listener – to see the goodness in others, to still smile and treat them kindly – and to never give up,” she says.