Traverse City News and Events

From Traverse City To CBS Sunday Morning: Local Workshop About Bridging Political Divide Lands On National TV

By Craig Manning | Sept. 11, 2022

A year ago, as the United States marked 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, headlines juxtaposed the current state of the nation to the way things were in the wake of that tragic day. “After 9/11, a moment of national unity. Then, quickly, more and new divisions,” read the title of a piece published by the Washington Post one year ago today. Those divisions are the core topic of a segment that will air next week as part of the CBS Sunday Morning show. The twist? The segment features footage from a recent workshop session held right here in Traverse City, which focused on fostering constructive and respectful dialogue between people on both sides of the political aisle.

On August 13, an organization called Braver Angels hosted a so-called “red/blue workshop” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Traverse City, located on Old Mission Peninsula. That session invited small groups of “Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning citizens for structured conversations, with a focus on listening and reflecting rather than debating and persuading.” A CBS News film crew was on hand to document the proceedings, and some of that footage will soon air on national television as part of the September 18 episode of CBS Sunday Morning. (Note: The segment in question was initially scheduled to run this morning as part of CBS Sunday Morning’s 9/11 anniversary show, but was delayed “due to special programming to honor the late Queen Elizabeth.”)

How did northern Michigan land a prominent position in a news segment documenting the political division in modern America? According to workshop coordinator Mike Radke, everything fell into place at the last minute, with a few different circumstances aligning to put Traverse City and its political conversation into the national spotlight.

Radke coordinates Michigan programming for Braver Angels, a national organization that formed in late 2016 under the belief that something had to be done to prevent political polarization from “crippling America, threatening our democracy, and making our government dysfunctional.” Braver Angels is a volunteer-led grassroots movement that seeks to unite Democrats and Republicans “in a working alliance to build new ways to talk to one another, participate in public life, and influence the direction of our country.”

The key programming model in the Braver Angels arsenal is the red/blue workshop, a listening-focused event that pushes conservatives and liberals to reckon with their preconceived notions about themselves and each other. Per its website, Braver Angels has now conducted some 10,000 red/blue workshops nationwide. Despite all the experience, though, the August session in Traverse City wasn’t even on the schedule – at least, not until CBS came calling.

“CBS reached out to Braver Angels and said that they wanted to do a feature on one of the workshops, to highlight the work that the organization is doing,” says Hilary Young, another Michigan-based Braver Angels volunteer – and one of the moderators of the August Traverse City workshop. “CBS said, ‘Hey, is there anything going on in August that we can film?’ And there wasn't anything substantial on the schedule at the time. There were some online events, but that was pretty much it. But one of the directors of our organization just so happened to be visiting family in Traverse City, and she called our Michigan team and said, ‘Any chance you guys can pull something together in two weeks?’”

Radke, Young, and the rest of the Michigan Braver Angels team seized upon the opportunity and got to work planning a workshop to be held in Traverse City. That event ended up drawing 14 active participants – eight Democrats and six Republicans – and an audience of 25 observers. Add a film crew led by long-time CBS Sunday Morning contributor Martha Teichner – herself a northern Michigan native – and the August 13 workshop was primed to be an event to remember.

The Braver Angels red/blue workshop approach follows a two-session format. Workshops begin with moderators establishing ground rules. From there, participants split up into groups with their fellow “reds” or “blues” for what is called a “stereotype exercise.” Each group is asked to identify what they see as “the most common false stereotypes or misconceptions of their side, why these stereotypes are wrong, what is true instead, and whether there is a kernel of truth in the stereotype.” Attendees then take these responses and separate into red-blue pairs to talk about what they learned about how the other side sees itself.

A “fishbowl exercise” brings the reds and blues back together, with the groups taking turns to talk about why they think their party’s policies are good for the country and to share any concerns they might have about their party’s values. Again, the other side is instructed simply to observe and listen.

Session 2, though not documented in the upcoming CBS segment, allows reds and blues to ask questions of one another and encourages attendees to reflect on what can be done “to promote better understanding of differences and search for common ground” across the political divide.

According to Radke and Young, the Traverse City session accomplished exactly what the red/blue workshop is supposed to do, by helping participants see that things like finding common ground or having good-faith conversations with the opposing political side are actually possible.

“There were two or three issues that everyone agreed on,” Radke notes. “For instance, the 14 participants came away saying, ‘We all agree that there is a serious problem with money in politics and with the funding of elections, and something needs to be done about that.’”

Radke adds that, for some participants, the conversation even continued into the parking lot, where he spotted reds and blues mingling and chatting for over an hour after the session ended. A few groups, he says, even indicated that they'd be getting together for coffee in the ensuing days and weeks.

Young tells The Ticker that it’s not uncommon for workshop participants to strike up cross-partisan friendships.

“Some people are very wary coming into these kinds of spaces, because they think they have to have all their political points ready to debate and argue,” Young says. “I haven’t met a single person that has come into a red-blue workshop space that hasn’t left completely surprised at the relationship building that happens during these sessions. And that’s because everything we do is about looking internally and then listening to the other side. There is never a chance to go on the offensive. So people who do these workshops are surprised, because it’s completely different from any other political discussion they’ve been a part of.”

Radke is hopeful that sessions like the one held in Traverse City – not to mention national coverage like the segment airing next week on CBS – will encourage more people to have open, reflective political dialogues. More work of this ilk happening on the grassroots level, he thinks, is the best chance America has of getting back to some measure of unity.

“I read an article a few weeks ago that basically said, ‘There are six percent of the Republicans who are just extremists, and there's nothing you can do to change them,’” Radke says. “And then there's eight percent of the liberals who are equally adamant about being liberal, and there's nothing that's going to change them either. But that leaves a lot of people who are willing, to some degree, to be open and to listen and to look for common ground. And it’s those kinds of conversations that we're promoting.”

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