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A Tale of Two Karens
In some ways, Karen Cotter and Karen Ward seem fated to have become friends—two Karens from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, who share the same middle name, and both with husbands named John. Their birthdays are five days apart, and both are seasoned at dealing with conflict. Ward is a retired police officer, and Cotter is a dispute-resolution mediator.
Even so, their relationship seems miraculous, even impossible, because, as Ward says, the two disagree “on pretty much everything political.” In today’s America, such differences are more likely to end relationships than forge them.
But in 2018, in the midst of growing national discord, Cotter and Ward found each other after Ward read Cotter’s letter in the local paper. Cotter put out an open call searching for others willing to help bridge divisions in the community. The town had recently become embroiled in its own political fracas, one that drew national attention, after a local bridal shop refused to sell a wedding dress to a lesbian couple.
“I noticed that everything was conflating into politics, no matter what the issue was, and I was really worried about potential violence,” Cotter says. “That was my main motivator. I could see that Donald Trump had the potential to really use demagogic rhetoric and inflame base sorts of passions. And I was seeing it happen in real time, so that’s what initiated me writing that letter.”
Several people responded, but ultimately it was Cotter and Ward who wanted to move forward—a progressive liberal who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and her new friend, a conservative Christian with deep loyalties to Donald Trump.
Knowing the work ahead would be challenging, Cotter suggested they join Braver Angels, an organization formed after the 2016 election to “not just depolarize politics, but to reimagine what it means to be American.” (The organization was formerly named Better Angels, drawing on the line from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.)
“We were able to just go to the website and follow the plan they had and have our first workshop,” Ward says. “They rest, as they say, is history.”
Braver Angels’ Red / Blue Workshops and debates bring together equal numbers of liberal- and conservative-leaning Americans for structured conversations to help both sides better understand one another, find commonalities, and learn something they can apply in their own communities.
“I think we’re one of the only organizations trying to provide a positive way for people to come together to essentially try to hold the country together,” says Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer at Braver Angels.
“It starts with individual relationships,” he says, which is why Braver Angels draws heavily on techniques used in couples and family therapy to help people build trust and find their common humanity.
Cotter and Ward deploy these same strategies regularly and reliably in their own conversations, establishing a time frame and topic for their calls, giving each other equal time to share their views, asking one another to clarify, and echoing what they’ve heard from the other to ensure the understanding is there.
“That reflecting back is something that I probably will be working on for a long time,” Ward says, “but the point is that you do listen and hear what the other person said. If you reflect it back and it’s not what they said, they have the opportunity to correct what you heard or what you thought you heard.”
Over the past two and half years, Ward and Cotter have served as Braver Angels’ debate coordinators, event moderators, and now state coordinators who are working to increase participation in the organization in their home state of Pennsylvania.
Both say their relationship has deepened over time, and they’re in touch with one another almost daily by phone, email, and now Zoom. They’ve come to know the other’s political views and belief systems, and also their deeper private lives. They consider one another close friends, not merely collaborators.
While the intimacy in their relationship has grown, their political views remain static. Ward believes Trump won the 2020 election, and widespread voter fraud has been brushed aside to favor Biden. Cotter believes Biden won the election legitimately, and she trusts in the legal system that declined to hear dozens of cases from the Trump campaign contesting election results across the country.
In Zoom calls the Karens recorded in December and January, the two friends describe the conclusions they’re coming to. They try to understand each other, and they admit their differences. Often, Cotter makes sure to end on a positive note after marveling at how far apart they are politically.
“We can talk until we’re blue in the face. We can yell at each other,” Cotter says. “But when it comes down to it, it’s that respect for each other as a fellow citizen—a sister citizen—that has to prevail. And that’s why this idea of working on a common mission together—depolarization—is what keeps us going. I’m not saying it’s easy.”
But Braver Angels believes it is possible, and this “citizens’ movement,” as O’Connor calls it, relies on the participation of “hardcore people on the left and the right.”
“We don’t want this to just be self-selecting moderates, because then it doesn’t really accomplish all that much,” he says. “Everyone’s here because they want to work on the problem together. Because they have the courage to do so.”
O’Connor says membership in Braver Angels has grown significantly in recent months, just as political divisions in the country have grown more volatile. The organization now has about 11,000 members (membership costs just $1). A recent online event, Hold America Together, attracted 4,500 viewers from across the country, with some overseas.
While leadership positions in Braver Angels are evenly split among Red and Blue volunteers, O’Connor says, overall, participants tend to be older, more liberal, and typically White. The organization is working to attract more diverse members, including conservatives, but also Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as LGBTQ+ Americans.
John Wood, a Braver Angels National Ambassador, acknowledges that members of marginalized communities may be reluctant to participate in political conversations with people of opposing beliefs because “engagement in such spaces may be at best unproductive and at worst unsafe.”
But in an attempt to reach marginalized communities, Braver Angels has produced content on subjects like White supremacy, featured dialogues between Black Lives Matter leaders (both liberal and conservative), and held community debates on criminal justice reform.
While Braver Angels has yet to reach the millions of Americans who play a role in the nation’s fracture, the organization is also looking to attract what O’Connor calls the “exhausted majority.”
“I think a lot of people have really reached a breaking point where they understand that the consequences of polarization are not just more divided citizens, but actually increasing levels of political violence,” O’Connor says.
This proved true in the first week of 2021, when a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol during the Electoral College certification process—a new flashpoint in America’s escalating division.
In a Zoom call three days after the violence, Cotter and Ward had drawn no closer politically. Ward focused largely on the actions of those on the left, and said of the people who committed the violence, “Maybe they weren’t all Trump supporters.”
Cotter responded by saying: “It seems like we’re living in two different realities. It sounds like you’re saying things that are not real. [Trump and his surrogates] were telling people what to do, and that is indeed an insurrection. That is the literal definition of what has been happening.”
From their divided realities, the two friends managed to end the call by tempering their frustration and exhaustion with a note of hope.
“On this, we’re very far apart, and the country is very far apart,” Cotter said, “but I think we can come together, and that we will come together, whether it’s addressing this pandemic or trying to work on depolarization, or digging out of a snow storm.” Ward laughed when Cotter mentioned the weather—a topic that seems to bring the two back into alignment.
“She thinks I’m wrong, and I think she’s wrong,” Ward says, “but it’s not going to be a friendship-ender.”
This story was published in partnership with Resolve Magazine.
Jim Tuttle is a documentary visual storyteller, co-founder of Scale Storytelling and a senior multimedia producer with Resolve Magazine.
Cecily Sailer writes for Resolve Magazine.