Energizing Braver Angels at the local level is not an easy thing. Co-coordinators Cameron Swallow and Susan Vergeront can speak to that.
“Wisconsin still feels like a nascent [Braver Angels] network,” says Swallow (top photo). Adds Vergeront: “It takes a lot of community education to get people to entertain the idea of attending a [Braver Angels] workshop.” Swallow (Blue) and Vergeront (moderate Red) typify the Red/Blue balance that Braver Angels consistently applies.
The limited activity is not for want of trying. Together and individually, Swallow and Vergeront have set up and run workshops, moderated a myriad of BA events up and down the state, seeded local BA groups, spoken to Rotary meetings and churches and more, and worked multiple angles to churn up activity all across America’s Dairyland.
But they could not have anticipated how Covid-19 would impact their ambitions.
In short – and in short order – the pandemic stalled the fledgling activities that were starting to pop up across Wisconsin. Even though Braver Angels adroitly and rapidly pivoted last year to Zoom-driven events, Swallow and Vergeront, like many state coordinators, found that the “energy in the room” often evaporated at the local level.
Swallow has an opinion on that. “I believe that for the national BA network – for its cohesion – the move online was a net positive. People wouldn’t have learned to use Zoom if it hadn’t been necessary,” she says. “But for local operations, there’s no way to dress it up as a blessing.” A possible exception: the five northern counties that constitute Wisconsin’s remote Northwoods region, where distances and low population density may lend themselves more to Zoom meetings.
Both state coordinators are amply credentialed for their roles. In her last career before retiring, Vergeront was a pastor, working extensively in theological counseling in rescue missions. Before that, she had been a five-term state Representative, regularly crossing the aisle to work on fundamental issues such as welfare reform and child pornography. Some of her toughest conversations weren’t with Democrats – they were with deep Reds. “They were telling me not to sit with Democrats in case something rubbed off on me,” she recalls with a smile. “But I knew that God loved Democrats too.”
Swallow is “a prematurely retired secondary school teacher,” as she puts it, and a board member for several area not-for-profits. Like Vergeront, she’s a natural networker who believes deeply in what Braver Angels stands for and in how it approaches its depolarization mission. Both she and Vergeront are keenly aware of how polarization is still raw and real in Wisconsin, particularly now, as the lawsuits over last year’s horrifying violence in Kenosha make headlines.
The pair are now rolling up their sleeves to re-energize Braver Angels regionally. They have hosted a Zoom meeting with volunteers across Wisconsin who have already put effort into alliances. (There is an alliance in Madison, the state capital, and a group in La Crosse, in the west of the state, is having conversations.)
They plan to support and expand on events such as the Red/Blue workshop being planned currently by a group in a suburb of Milwaukee. Vergeront is particularly enthusiastic about Skills for Bridging the Divide workshops: “Those Skills workshops should be a starting point,” she says.” That’s the whole point of Braver Angels.” The two also intend to boost their efforts to strategically leverage existing networks such as churches, fraternities, libraries, colleges, and more. (Just one example: Swallow has laid the groundwork for regular discourse about depolarization at nearby Carthage College, where her husband is president.)
The duo cannot do it all alone, of course. They have a clear idea of the roles they consider essential to fill. “We need a pipeline of new moderators, debate chairs – in fact, all those who put on and run workshops,” says Swallow. “Even more essential: organizers who can really use the Action Network database.”
She pushes that thought further: “There are a lot of materials available at Braver Angels, but you’ve got to have people willing to go find what they need,” she says. “It would be great if we had a lead organizer who could counsel new volunteers and guide them through the steps for finding venues, negotiating lunch costs, finding moderators, and more.”
So if you’re a Wisconsinite with strong moderating or organizing skills, you know whom to contact. Reach the coordinators at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to hear from you!