Greta Thunberg…Malala Yousafzai…Jamie Margolin… Three young women who began their activism in their teens and whose names you surely know.
Well, Braver Angels leader Mary Thomas-Vallens would like you to applaud one more: Josie Reich, 17 years old, who recently joined Braver Angels and took part in the recent “Depolarizing Within: For Teens and Young Adults” workshop organized by Mary and her colleagues – with substantial input from Josie.
We’ll circle back to Josie in a moment. We’re here to high-five Mary “TV”, as she calls herself. Paired with Barbara Farmer, Mary is the Blue co-chair of Braver Angels’ Orange County/South Bay Alliance, itself part of the super-alliance covering Southern California. She’s also a Braver Angels moderator, and not long ago she was asked to help change the format of the monthly meetings of workshop moderators to help streamline and strengthen how moderators do their work.
“I didn’t want to moderate the moderators,” smiles Mary. Her better idea: a highly interactive session to enable them to problem-solve together in real time. She sought input from master moderator Bill Doherty, among others, and recently, she and her colleagues Maggie Bayless and April Chatham-Carpenter piloted the first so-called Moderator Forum. The event got very positive feedback not only from attendees but also from Bill, who lauded its pedagogical merits. With the new format now proven, it will be used in upcoming sessions on topics such as moderator bias and how moderators can deal with contentious situations.
But kids are Mary TV’s first love. She was an elementary school teacher for more than 40 years, focusing on US history and civics. Today, she works some hours a week as an adjunct professor at Concordia University, and she has many, many connections across the education diaspora in California and even nationwide. “I’m still as passionate as ever about teaching,” she says. “I loved helping students find their passions. The tougher the kids, the greater the challenge, and the greater the rewards.”
Last spring, Mary heard from a parent of three kids she had once taught. The parent knew of Mary’s involvement with Braver Angels and was asking if the organization could do anything to quiet a firestorm of controversy surrounding a politicized high-school yearbook entry.
Mary hesitated for all of two nanoseconds. In short order, she had enlisted the help of Randy Lioz, Braver Angels’ Director of Events, and assembled a team of six Braver Angels moderators with the goal of hosting a workshop for all 600 seniors at
Northwood High School in Orange County. With the blessing of and guidance from Braver Angels’ co-founder Bill Doherty, Mary revised the Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop format to tailor it to teens.
The event – held in October 2021 – was a smashing success. Not just because it opened the eyes of so many young people as well as their parents and educators and school board members, but also because of what it seeded next.
Enter Josie Reich, from the commonwealth of Virginia. Josie had had a close-up of the polarization at her high school when a teen of different beliefs had been ostracized and had ended up leaving the school. Josie was so perturbed by the incident that she wrote a 12-page term paper on polarization.
Braver Angels’ Donna Murphy, also in Virginia, heard about Josie’s paper, and quickly connected her to Mary TV. “Josie contacted me early in 2022,” says Mary. “Here was a student who wanted to do something with Braver Angels as part of her high school senior project.”
Almost immediately, Josie joined Braver Angels, and in no time at all, Mary had begun coaching her in everything from writing and sending letters to creating online promotion tools. And when the idea surfaced of a Depolarizing Within workshop specifically for teens and young adults, Josie pitched in to help organize the event. “She’s so poised,” marvels Mary. “She coined the term ‘Braver Teens’ which is a really exciting idea.”
To Mary – indeed, to all Braver Angels – such active involvement by young people is welcome indeed. (Some might say it’s long overdue, given the organization’s tilt toward those who have retired.) Mary puts it well when she describes the environment in which youth like Josie have grown up: “What has she seen in the last 10 years? A lot of adults behaving badly,” she notes. “It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many kids are totally turned off by politics.”
So when a youngster such as Josie comes along, with her passion and her energy, her articulacy and her fearlessness, it opens doors for all sorts of other ideas. Not that Mary needs to be told that. An irrepressible optimist, she has already been riding the waves of interest generated by the high-school workshop last October.
Not long ago, she helped to pull together a fishbowl exercise at another local school to help students discuss, in a safe and civil situation, whether they should go back to school in person while the pandemic persists. The youthful participants came up with recommendations which were sent to the relevant school board. “It actually influenced the board’s decision about a return to in-classroom schooling,” says Mary.
She has also brokered an interview between the lead architect of the recommendations and one of the school board members. “I love helping people find what they want,” says Mary. “If I can help them find the door, I’ll just hand them the keys and say, “Go for it.’ “
Next up: a Common Ground workshop is being planned in Orange County to discuss how students should learn about race and racism in schools. That has become an incendiary topic nationwide; locally, flame wars were raging on WhatsApp and other platforms. Understandably, Mary and her colleagues have approached it cautiously. Contacting two school board members in the town of Irvine, she has gotten enthusiasm for the idea of having Braver Angels workshops taught in the district’s schools.
The principal of Northwood High School, Dr. Leslie Roach, has become a proponent of such workshops. Recently, she mailed parents telling them the school prepares their kids academically but also has a duty to prepare them to go out in the world so they can have constructive conversations with bosses, team-mates, landlords, and others. Discussions are underway about the concept; many teachers need to be won over, and there’s the question of where to find the time for the workshops in jam-packed curricula.
But that’s not the extent of Mary TV’s moves to engage youth. She’s doing it on a national level too. “In January, I formed what we’re calling the School Board / Education Network across Braver Angels,” she says. “People are seeing the worst in others. [Because of that], we’re losing a lot of great teachers – great nurses and other professionals too.”
The group comprises about 20 members from all over the country, coming together to figure out ways to take the heat out of polarizing school activities. One early idea is a series of Common Ground workshops that could help defuse some of the most explosive issues that erode trust between parents and school administrators these days. Another idea: developing resource documents that help parents to navigate their local school boards with civility, for instance.
For all of her abundant optimism, Mary concedes that Braver Angels has saved her from despair. “It has had such a positive impact on my own relationships with family members,” she says. “The most rewarding thing is when people attending a Braver Angels workshop tear up and say ‘I didn’t know there were people like that. You’ve given me hope.’ ”
Hope will carry Braver Angels far. The energy and connections of volunteers like Mary Thomas-Vallens will help turn that hope into healing and positive change.