Colleagues of the Week: Marisa Gottuso and Steve Sphar

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It’s not a competition. But few if any Braver Angels alliances have held as many events as the group in Sacramento, California. At last count, that alliance has run more than 80 workshops, debates, fishbowls, and more.

Put that hyperactivity down to generous helpings of luck and to the non-stop push of a pair of highly engaged Braver Angels leaders: Marisa Gottuso (Red) and Steve Sphar (Blue), co-chairs of the Sacramento Alliance.

Each is quick to highlight the thrill of engaging other people.

“We’re doing things that are making a difference; that feels really good,” comments Gottuso. “When new people come to an event, you can sense this barrier that’s there, but when they leave, it’s down. That’s why I’ve continued to be involved.” Adds Sphar: “What almost always comes out of our events is that people leave feeling excited. That’s extremely rewarding.”

Like so many Braver Angels leaders, Sphar came to the organization because of his agitation about the 2016 Presidential election. An organization development coach by profession, he was drawn to what he had heard about Braver Angels and asked if he could observe one of the earliest Red/Blue workshops on the east coast.

Compelled and energized by what he had experienced, Sphar soon whipped up excitement about Braver Angels’ mission and methods among others in Sacramento. Some belonged to a prominent local church – Trinity Episcopal Cathedral – and Sphar was asked if he could organize a Braver Angels-style workshop at the church itself.

The reason for the request soon became clear. As in many churches then and since, polarization had become a nagging internal issue. Specifically, sermons from clerical leaders at that time were discomfiting Red-leaning congregants.

Gottuso takes up the story. “I was one of a few conservatives in the congregation feeling alienated by messages coming from the pulpit,” she recalls. “There was an assumption that everyone was in mourning following the 2016 election and that simply wasn’t the case.” She quickly signed up to help Sphar organize the workshop in her church.

It wasn’t long before the success of the event at Trinity Episcopal morphed into a formal Braver Angels alliance, with Gottuso and Sphar as its co-chairs. One of the highlights of those early days: an event that drew about 100 attendees, including local media, on the topic of…the media’s influence on polarization.

Sustaining the momentum of the alliance’s events has been anything but easy. It has been aided by the chemistry between Sphar and Gottuso – “we just click”, he says – and by their consequent and continual sharing of ideas. And it has been made easier by the alliance’s orientation toward action: seeding many potential activities and putting energy behind only those that begin to gain traction.

Despite their successes with online events over the past year, Gottuso and Sphar are eager to get back to in-person activities. “People are tired of being on Zoom – especially those who’ve been using it for work as well,” says Gottuso, a tech start-up veteran. The Sacramento co-chairs also want to bolster the alliance’s leadership team. They had expected to have two new co-leaders in place a while ago, but then Covid happened. That push has resumed.

It takes a village to raise and run an alliance. It takes real grit and emotional resilience to be a Braver Angel.

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