Mel Pine is a 72-year-old Buddhist who grew up in a Jewish family in Philadelphia. William “Butch” Porter is a 44-year-old Southern Baptist from Shreveport, LA. Pine leans to the left on the political spectrum, while Porter is politically conservative. But the two have become friends and meet regularly for coffee and conversation, thanks in part to the Better Angels organization, which seeks to reduce polarization by bringing folks together from across the aisle.
Better Angels is a national organization launched in 2016 by journalist and author David Blankenhorn with a goal of helping Americans seek common ground in communities and find unifying principles in politics, even when they disagree. The local chapter has been active for the past year, organizing red-blue workshops designed to give Loudouners tools for engaging in respectful, productive dialog and a chance to go beyond the surface with neighbors whose views are different.
“As I’ve gone through life, I’ve had a lot of well-educated, progressive-type friends. That’s my social circle. I’m working, though, for it not to be my bubble,” said Pine, a former journalist and public relations executive who lives in Hamilton. Pine was an early Better Angels member in Northern Virginia and recently became the organization’s Virginia coordinator. He’s also a co-chairman of Loudoun’s Better Angels alliance.
Porter, a former insurance broker who launched the IndED Academies homeschool enrichment program in downtown Leesburg last year, also became involved with Better Angels out of a desire to learn from the other side, which he believes is key to preserving civil society.
“I relish and value talking with people that I disagree with,” Porter said. “It’s something that I think is important to maintaining the republic and civil society. To have conversations with people you disagree with in a rational and thoughtful and caring and compassionate way. I just don’t know any other way to operate.”
Pine says Better Angels workshops are structured to foster respectful listening and exchange of ideas. The organization has scheduled full-day workshops for 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, in Leesburg, and 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, in Purcellville. (See details below.)For each workshop, organizers recruit five to seven participants from each side of the aisle. Participants are identified as “reds” and “blues,” labels intended to cover a range of ideological points of view. At press time, the Leesburg workshop was close to full, but spots were still available for the Purcellville event. To register for a workshop, participants must sign up online and go through a short interview to confirm their commitment to respectful dialog.
The red-blue workshops include a moderator from each side of the aisle and activities designed to promote both self-examination and listening to participants on the other side of the aisle. Pine says workshops often begin with an exercise examining stereotypes and then move on an exercise known as the Fishbowl, where each side takes a turn on center stage, examining the positives and negatives of their political philosophy. There are also opportunities for respectful questions from across the aisle, but no “gotcha” questions are allowed, Pine said.
“Very often, people are surprised that they understand the other side better, that they’re not so far out and extreme, and maybe they understand their thinking better,” Pine said. “Almost nobody ever comes away from one of these changing their minds about their political position but what we want is for them to change their minds about their ability to work together and see the importance of having different points of view and to see that the other side is human.”
The Better Angels movement is attracting national and international attention, and Pine says a public television crew from Austria will be covering the Leesburg workshop.
Pine, a former chief copy editor for the New York Daily News, came to Northern Virginia in the early ’90s through his public relations position with Mobil Oil. Pine and his family moved to western Loudoun in 2000, and he operated two local insurance agencies. He and his wife Carol recently downsized to a small home in Hamilton with solar panels on the roof and an electric car charging in the driveway.
Porter, who has a physics degree from Louisiana State University and an MBA from the University of South Carolina, moved to Loudoun in 2003 with his wife Emily (also a red-blue workshop participant) and worked as an insurance broker before launching IndED, which started its second year of operations this fall. The couple lives in Leesburg with their two children.
Beyond the formal red-blue workshops, the Better Angels Loudoun chapter has created an alliance that meets monthly for informal discussions, and in some cases members take the conversation further, as in the case of Pine and Porter’s regular meet-ups for coffee and discussion.
“He’s very thoughtful and well-researched about it,” Pine said of Porter. “He knows what he’s talking about. He likes to talk and I like to talk, too. … He really does enjoy understanding other points of view and so do I.”
For Porter, who hosted a red/blue workshop at IndEd’s offices last spring, Better Angels meshes with his organization’s mission, offering adults the same sense of engagement he works to foster in young people.
“IndED is an enterprise that’s very interested in civic engagement.” Porter said.
Porter said the structured environment of a Better Angels workshop is a great jumping off point for launching a dialog in a partisan environment where flames often get fanned on social media.
“We can literally lose friends over politics. That’s not healthy, and the solution is not to stop talking about politics: it’s exactly the opposite,” Porter said. “The solution is to learn how to talk politics with your friends and still be friends when you disagree. On that front, for people who don’t have that comfort level yet to work with other people and establish relationships, [Better Angels] a great first step.”
The Better Angels red-blue workshops are scheduled for Saturday, October 13 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Leesburg and Saturday, Nov. 10 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Purcellville. Advance registration is required. For more information about the local chapter or to register for a local workshop, contact Mel Pine at email@example.com. For more information about the Better Angels organization, go to better-angels.org.