A NASCAR race car sponsored by Braver Angels? Say it ain’t so.
It ain’t! But the conversation with Sharyn Dowd has just turned to how Braver Angels could attract more Red-leaning Americans, and the notion of a powerful car wearing BA’s red-and-blue logo has surfaced – as a joke, of course.
However, Dowd, who is Braver Angels’ Blue state coordinator for Georgia, is super-serious about the need to engage many more conservatives. She believes in meeting others on their turf – not waiting for them to come to you. She cites the example of the mostly White churches that visibly embrace people of color but fail to truly reach them. “It’s not good enough to just hang out a welcome sign,” she says.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a story of exemplary succession planning to tell.
Dowd is a relatively new Braver Angel – she joined in late Spring 2020 and took over as Blue state coordinator in June this year. Her Red counterpart is Barbara Brown, a schoolteacher who has been with Braver Angels for more than two years. And her predecessor is Dave Blanchard, a community organizer and lobbyist turned couples therapist who has stepped aside for now to help care for a family member.
Taking over from Blanchard is easier said than done. He and Brown have been working together on BA initiatives since 2019; they have learned much about what works and what doesn’t. “Barbara fills in for my weaknesses,” smiles Blanchard. Further, they have developed a deep friendship across the Red-Blue divide. They share polarization in very personal ways, Brown with a Blue-leaning sister with whom the relationship has cooled, and Blanchard with in-laws who are generations-deep Red.
Brown’s and Blanchard’s close working relationship has allowed them to get a lot done. Both have played multiple roles – moderator, organizer, ambassador, and more – and not long after returning from the BA convention in St. Louis, they launched the Atlanta Alliance, structuring it so it could more easily sustain momentum.
Translated: they anchored the alliance with a standing monthly meeting and, as much as possible, built it around events, deconstructing them into key roles to make it easier to onboard volunteers. Further, Blanchard developed the alliance’s website – a valuable asset not only for communication but to foster a sense of community. They have also contacted Georgia State University professors who are keen to bring Braver Angels practices into their classrooms.
The pair’s vision was – and still is – for the alliance to represent Georgians far beyond the Atlanta metro area. However, their efforts have been hampered by reality – not least by COVID. “We didn’t know how hard it would be moving from in-person to online,” admits Blanchard. “We haven’t had the outreach we need in Georgia.” Secondly, their own time has been constrained – Blanchard’s by his family commitments and Brown’s by her ongoing full-time job and because she’s now studying for a Master’s degree.
The two concede that growing a Braver Angels presence is a slow process – the more so because of the operational challenges that confront a largely volunteer-run organization. “A lot of people want to come and ‘look around,’ “ says Brown. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm at first. They see a roomful of people and think they want to be a part of that – but they don’t know how.” This is the case even though Braver Angels now has libraries full of how-tos and starter guides, as well as the support of a robust field management operation.
Nevertheless, Brown and Blanchard have kept plugging away, using their regular meetings to highlight specific volunteer roles. “We say we need A, B, and C – we just keep saying it,” says Brown. “Out of 10 people [who’ve stepped up to local leadership roles], we’ve had three who’ve stayed with it.”
But if there is one initiative that Brown and Blanchard should be extremely proud of, it is their succession planning and consequent onboarding of Sharyn Dowd. It’s an initiative that could be replicated readily. Blanchard contends that every BA leader, regardless of their “color”, should be working on a succession plan.
“We started by viewing Sharyn as a deputy [state coordinator],” he explains. “That was an idea that [BA field manager] Lynn Heady gave me.” He and Brown talked about how they could define the deputy title and role. Then Blanchard simply began a conversation with Dowd, discussing BA approaches in general and asking what she would be keen to do. Concluding that Dowd would make an outstanding successor, he invited her into a conversation with Brown.
If anyone can fill Blanchard’s shoes, it’s Dowd. A retired but still very active pastor, she has deep and wide connections in the faith community across and outside of Georgia and a long history of organizing and powerfully communicating within that community.
Like Brown, Dowd recognizes the imbalance between Reds and Blues; she too wants to see a far larger Red presence in the alliance a year from now.
She and Brown have already reached out to local chapters of the National Federation of Republican Women and the League of Women Voters. They recognize the reluctance of many Reds to jump into an environment where they believe their ideas won’t be listened to. The response from Brown, the Red co-chair? “I want to see conservatives get out of their tribe,” she says. “If you want people to hear you, you have to come to a place where the mode is to listen and try to understand.”
Dowd has hit the ground running. She has learned how to manage the alliance website that Blanchard built. She is checklisting the volunteer roles that need to be filled – a list that has changed as the pandemic has roared back. “We had an in-person workshop scheduled for September but we had to move it online,” explains Dowd. “We still need a breakout room manager, and moderators. And we really need Zoom event managers.”
She and Brown now have a couple of Braver Angels in training to be moderators. They are eyeing younger alliance members who show great promise as future co-chairs. Dowd believes there’s room to expand BA’s Families and Politics workshops locally. “Family splits are the most painful of all the divides that we as a nation are dealing with,” she says. She is already thinking about how to replicate Bill Doherty’s one-on-one workshops in Georgia.
Meanwhile, she and Brown are planning to knock on many more Red doors. And Dowd is tapping into her faith network. She has already petitioned pastors all over the state, and her next move is to get the attention of the people who publish church newsletters.
It’s safe to say that the Atlanta Alliance continues to be in very good hands.