Jim Carpenter and Natalie Abbas are on different sides of the political aisle —Carpenter, a Democrat from Frederick, and Abbas, a Republican from Myersville.
But that hasn’t stopped the two Frederick County residents from talking politics in a respectful way. And now, they aim to spread civil discourse through a national nonprofit tasked with teaching Democrats and Republicans how to discuss the issues without inflaming the rhetoric.
Carpenter and Abbas are part of Better Angels, an organization established in December 2016 to combat polarization in today’s political landscape through specially-designed workshops and debates.
The name stems from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, when he said, “The better angels of our nature” would bring Americans together.
Those workshops are meant to determine any core values Republicans and Democrats may share, Carpenter and Abbas said.
Carpenter said there are multiple parts of the workshops, which first involve Republicans and Democrats talking about their own stereotypes and then reconvening with the other side and completing a “fishbowl” exercise.
That exercise shows both sides that the core values of both Democrats and Republicans are closer in common than people may think, Carpenter said.
“There’s quite a variety of opinion and then some kernel of truth in the stereotypes they’re known by,” Carpenter said. “When they get together and share that with the other side, they find out, we’re really more similar... it kind of breaks down the initial barriers no matter what they started out with, and opens them up.”
Abbas, a former vice president of the Greater Frederick Republican Women, said she knew Carpenter previously from local political circles, adding he approached her about joining Better Angels roughly three months ago.
The nonprofit seeks to keep membership balanced between Democrats and Republicans.
“I like to keep my thumb on the pulse of Frederick,” Abbas said. “One of the things I’ve done is keep engaged with the Republican Party, and when I had the opportunity to jump in as the Republican counterpart, I was eager to do it.”
They said a workshop is planned for December at Trinity United Methodist Church in Frederick. They both aim to recruit seven to nine members from both parties and — given their social networks — they said that shouldn’t be an issue.
Since its inception nationwide, Better Angels has held hundreds of workshops. One in Oregon was examined in May 2019 in The Rotarian, a monthly publication of Rotary International.
Both Republicans and Democrats were surprised by how effective the workshop was, according to the article.
“By the last exercise, when people from the two sides come together in small groups to ask each other questions, certainty on both sides seems a lot wobblier than it was in the morning,” author David Sarasohn wrote.
Abbas said she’s most looking forward to that aspect of the workshop.
“I think the part about the workshops that is going to be really amazing to me is to see the transformation, the synergy and the a-ha moments,” Abbas said. “I’m looking for the paradigm shift, and I’m looking for people to pull up their sleeves and get involved.”
Tom Sterling serves as Maryland’s state coordinator for Better Angels. He said members who join first can do a skills workshop and then a Red-Blue workshop, the one scheduled in Frederick in December. After that, interested members can form an alliance group whose goal is to eventually look at policy issues and attempt to create bipartisan solutions.
Currently, there is an alliance group in Montgomery County, and Sterling hopes some can be formed in Frederick and Carroll counties.
The key, Stering added, is making sure there is a 50-50 Democrat and Republican split among those alliances and workshops.
Sterling added he also serves as a moderator during the workshops.
“We have to be so neutral that people come up at the end of the workshop and ask what color are you anyway,” Sterling said, referring to the red and blue associated with the two political parties.
He added Frederick County is a “microcosm of the country” given the Democrat-Republican split, and is interested in seeing how Better Angels develops here.
Sterling was optimistic about the organization’s future, given its rapid growth — and said the exercises teach people to listen closely and try to see each other’s values.
“Once you begin to really listen empathetically to the other side, and really try to take in their views and understand, it cannot help but change you,” Sterling said.