Colleagues of the Week: Barbara Thomas and Rick Hotchner

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It’s no secret that Braver Angels needs more Reds. Lots of them. 

Which is exactly why Barbara Thomas and her husband, Rick Hotchner, drove almost 600 miles from Minneapolis, MN to Rapid City, SD to bring the Braver Angels ideals to participants at FreedomFest, the annual libertarian festival of ideas and speakers. 

The couple took along a particularly personal message: the fact that a Red and Blue – he the former, she the latter – could actually get along really well together. In fact, together with fellow Braver Angel Steve House, they started conversations at FreedomFest by asking visitors to the BA booth whether there was someone in their lives with whom it was difficult to talk about politics. The question struck a nerve: all those asked admitted to having such a person in their lives or said they chose not to talk about politics in order to avoid conflict. The question enabled the BA team to strike up more than 100 conversations about the benefits of BA’s approach. 

Barbara and Rick came to Braver Angels quite recently – joining in December 2020 – but hit the ground sprinting. After attending Braver Angels’ big virtual town-hall meeting following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, they threw themselves into workshops, discussions, and a debate. Since then, they’ve become very active members of the Minnesota State Alliance, making their biggest splash as ambassadors, talking to audiences around Minnesota and beyond, and putting the media spotlight on Braver Angels in the process.

Barbara and Rick have reached out to the large Somali community in the Twin Cities via interviews on Somali television and radio and are trying to engage Black communities around the metro area – a vital effort given that Minneapolis is where George Floyd was killed. Barbara has also joined the leadership team for Braver Angels’ office of field operations. “We’re trying to ensure that the field has a deep leadership bench,” she says. “We’re keeping an eye out for rising talent.”

She has also helped establish a BA presence in some states that did not yet have coordinators; she had assumed the state coordinator role in South Dakota and in Mississippi when the field office position emerged. She devotes at least 20 hours a week to Braver Angels; Rick spends less time than that because of his other professional and pro bono endeavors.

Their interest in serving as Braver Angels ambassadors is not at all surprising. Barbara actually was a career diplomat. For 20 years, she represented the United States during five overseas tours, the most recent of which was as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Dublin, Ireland. For his part, Rick had a 28-year career as an operations officer with the CIA, mostly abroad. After retiring in 2018, he followed Barbara on her overseas postings. 

Last year, during the pandemic lockdown in Dublin, the couple were reflecting on the political turmoil roiling the US. “I’d been planning to retire after my Dublin tour,” she says. “I felt things were unraveling at home. It seemed that our society had collectively lost the ability to communicate with those with whom we disagree.” 

Barbara started thinking out loud about what she could accomplish if she stayed for the rest of her tour of duty in Ireland. Rick noted that that was not the only question to ask, and suggested she also ask herself about the opportunity cost of not retiring early. What if, instead, she switched to serving her country at home?

Ultimately, Barbara decided there was much more important work to be done for the US on US soil; her husband was 100 percent behind her decision. Their ace card: the fact that they were a married couple who spanned the political divide. “We talked about whether there was some way to use that fact – to draw upon our personal experience and professional skills – to help people suffering from strained relationships resulting from political differences and contribute to efforts to move things in a better direction in the US,” recalls Rick.

At first, they weren’t sure what that might look like in practice. But a couple of months after returning to the US, they were excited to learn about Braver Angels and became members the very same day. They took the BA ambassador training and were very impressed by the quality of that program and its ability to help everyone from seasoned public speakers to those with no prior experience.

The pair have very clear ideas of what they want to achieve – and how they want to achieve it. “The main thing is to increase membership,” says Rick. That means assertive outreach to Reds, people of color, younger people, those in rural communities, and to socioeconomic groups that are still poorly represented within Braver Angels, so the organization can come to reflect the diversity of thought and perspectives throughout the US. 

Rick expands on that. He believes that reaching less engaged communities now requires a more purposeful approach to growth. “Probably because Braver Angels has grown organically through cities – mostly by word of mouth — it lends itself to certain demographics and not others. Outreach to those less represented requires human and financial resources that aren’t always readily available.”

Their FreedomFest trip exemplifies what he’s talking about. The duo didn’t wait for Reds to come to them – they went where they knew Reds would be. Their goals for Braver Angels are only slightly different. Rick wants the 2022 election season to have a much improved tone compared to 2020. “I don’t know if we can prove we had anything to do with that or measure it, but that kind of improvement is what we’re all about as an organization.” 

Barbara adds her take: she wants voters to start pushing back on campaigns that say you shouldn’t vote for the other side because “they’re going to destroy America” and instead to press candidates to talk about what they personally are going to do to make things better. She hopes Americans start expecting more of their elected officials. “It’s my hope that Braver Angels can reach enough people – a critical mass of Americans – so we can start demanding a different kind of politics from our elected leaders,” she says. “If enough Americans take that stance, then it can change the dynamic.” 

Barbara Thomas and Rick Hotchner are working very hard to make that happen. The sooner, the better.

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