As they say in when it comes to a calling and career, sometimes the job makes the person, and other times the person makes the job. Braver Angels’ co-founder Bill Doherty has built a life and a career around helping people – and groups of people – to see, understand, and reconcile the differences that divide them. As the creator of the Braver Angels’ foundational workshop, he is a man who found and was found by this unique mission.
For over 40 years, Bill has been a practicing therapist for couples and families (and still is today!). He is also a tenured Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Family Social Science, and even started and runs a family business, The Doherty Relationship Institute, to help train other therapists for family and marriage counseling.
From this unique background and work, he opines on the target audience of Braver Angels: “We are a family, this country of ours with more than 330 million people.” And his way of giving back is to do what he does to support the family. He adds, “I see it as my own form of duty and patriotism to help folks in our country talk to each other… when that happens then real relationships and understanding can follow.”
He started with the movement almost reluctantly when he was asked by two Braver Angels’ colleagues (and fellow co-founders) to help facilitate a tense weekend in 2016 right around the presidential election in support of the first-ever Braver Angels’ workshop, which would become the platform for how the organization “does business” today.
“David Blankenhorn called me right after the election, based on my work in marriage counseling and conflict resolution, to see if we could get folks on opposite sides of the political aisle together. There was the ‘doom and gloom’ group saddling up alongside the ‘hope and change’ crew,” he recalls. They gathered 10 Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters in a church over a weekend to see if they could get them to talk with each other and not at each other.
“We thought it would be a one-off, but after the event we decided we were really on to something as a movement… what came out of that meeting was incredible,” he remembers. “Based on our aim to bring people together, to actually engage each other, positively… it really worked. We were there to support, but the actual Americans who showed up to do the heavy work… they were brave.” And thus an idea become a national mission and organization in the form of Braver Angels.
One of Bill’s epiphanies along the way is just how much and how well ‘regular’ people can help drive successful communication and collaboration, even when the topics and individuals come to the table divided. “Remember we were a group of academics, socials scientist and professionals who ‘do this for a living’ and it was daunting in our minds to think that, given their limited training and practice, we just had to trust that people would do the right things to meet the mission,” he says. But it worked.
Ironically, Bill was never particularly interested in politics, but has always been interested in reconciliation and bridging divides… the “mechanics of the soul” as he calls it. Since the 1990s he has spent countless hours and sweat equity in working hands on with various communities oriented around issues and differences, from family affairs… to race… to policing, and more.
While being an accomplished academic and social science leader, it is his field work, the time spent working with people of all types, that gives him both the insights and the energy to do what he does. He says only half-jokingly, “If I stop working directly with the folks, then I might develop the illusion that is easier than it is. Social change brought us where we are today, and it will take social change – people coming together at scale – to change course and improve the polarization that plagues us.”
Bill has been an instrumental part in helping promote and deliver what is now a truly national movement, with over 2,000 Braver Angels’ workshops across the country each year. “It’s beyond what any of us would have imagined that day we started our first workshop in a church basement just a few years ago,” he beams. And all as a volunteer himself – his work for Braver Angels is part of his calling, not a paid role.
Of late, he has found himself most inspired by his work with Braver Politics, where political leaders from all levels and viewpoints at the city, state and federal level have begun to seek out Braver Angels as a partner in helping them to understand and deal with the challenges of polarization among their own constituents. Braver Angels is adapting its tools and workshops to prepare government officials for how to dis-arm and engage angry voters, as often they must white-knuckle their way through town hall meetings and other public forums.
He notes, “When these kinds of leaders start reaching out to us and across the divide it gives me great inspiration, and hope. And hope is the choice that we all need to make, because the alternatives are much worse.” He believes that, despite the challenges, we are slowly moving from the mindset of “you’re the problem” to one where we can say together, “we have a problem.” And it is such hope that marks the beginning of the end of the deep polarization that divides our country.
Today with two grown children and four grandchildren, Bill continues his life’s work to bring people together, help them see each other, and put them on the path of meaningful, fulfilling relationships. He concludes, “The big stage in America is all around polarization right now, and this is how I believe I can best show my love of country. It’s hugely rewarding for me to be a part of Braver Angels.”