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Episode 42: Better Angels Bridging the Political Divide

Better Angels

Adam Rosenbaum and Austin Ramsey

Adam Rosenbalm and Austin Ramsey study at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). Both raised in conservative families in the South, they arrived on campus after the 2016 election, when American citizens were more politically polarized than ever. Conversations quickly became debates that led to arguments. Both Adam and Austin wanted to do something about the partisan divide between conservative and liberal Americans. Fortunately, they learned about a new group called Better Angels.  

The citizen-led group seeks to “reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.” They do this through their Red and Blue Workshops. With the help of a skilled facilitator, Better Angels hosts parliamentary-style debates. 

After attending a Better Angels event, Adam and Austin decided to bring the Better Angels’ style of debate to the ETSU campus. They hosted the first-ever Better Angels debate on a college campus. They chose a hot button topic that drew a large audience. Adam explains, “East Tennessee State University is in rural Tennessee. Firearms are a part of most people’s lives, and so we set forth the resolution that said, ‘Resolved: Students should be allowed to carry guns on campus.’ The whole premise of the event after that was people were asked to either speak in the affirmative or the negative on the topic.” Throughout the debate, students were given space to share their feelings about the topic and raise questions. 

What often becomes a heated debate where people walk away angry and further divided instead became a space of deeper understanding and friendship. Because of skillful facilitation and clear guardrails that kept the conversation moving forward, the ETSU Better Angels gun debate was a huge success. Austin says, “It really won over the campus. Students really connected with the style. We had students on both sides of the issues that, at the end, worked together to say, hey, we need to meet to talk about this issue. We need to work together, because now we see this issue is deeper than a gun. It’s about how we’ve been raised, how we perceive this issue, where we were born, and how some of the milestones in our lives affect how we think about this. And that’s important when we talk about these difficult issues.”

After that initial success, Adam and Austin organized debates on other topics. They share with Citizens’ Climate Radio host, Peterson Toscano, some of the insights they have learned that help them foster civil discourse, genuine understanding, and appreciation of people on the other side of an issue. They also talk about climate change and the challenges that must be overcome when organizing an effective dialogue between conservatives and liberals.  


Art House

Being a climate advocate can be very difficult. How do you maintain hope in the face of bad news and apathy from those around you? Where do you find encouragement and inspiration? What role can faith play in our climate work? These are the questions Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade and Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, the editors of a new anthology of essays by climate change faith leaders, wanted to answer. They bring together 21 climate leaders in their book “Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.” 

Contributors include Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Rev. Fred Small, Cristina Leaño, and Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman. In his introduction to the book, Bill McKibben argues for the need for a faith-based book about climate action, “Love, I would suggest, is what finally roots this volume: a love for the world around us, in all its improbable glory, and for the people who alone can bear witness to that glory and rise to its defense. If they are indeed summoned to that calling, it may be in part by fear—by the proper functioning of the survival instinct. But I suspect it will be more by love, the ever-great mystery. This volume opens some windows on that mystery, because the people whose words are collected in it have been powered by that force.”

In the Art House, the editors speak briefly about the book, and then contributors, Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, a research coordinator at the National Environmental Health Association reads a portion of her essay, “The View from My Window.” Corina Newsome from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action shares how her hope was rekindled through the process of writing her piece, “The Thing with Feathers.” Once she received her copy of the book and read the other essays, she found even more hope. 


We hear answers to last month’s puzzler: System Change, Not Climate Change. What does that even mean? 

Here’s a new puzzler question for this month. Imagine you are talking to your neighbor, Darren. You explain the many possible ways we can address climate change. One proposal is to charge energy companies a fee when they extract fossil fuels. The money collected then goes to households. You say this carbon fee and dividend plan will serve as an incentive to switch over to cleaner sources of energy. Darren replies, “Well, that’s stupid. People will just use the dividend they get to continue paying for fossil fuels. Giving them money enables them to stay in their fossil fuel lifestyles.” What could you say to Darren?    

Send Peterson your answer by December 15, 2019, along with your name, contact info, and where you are from. You can email your answers to radio @ or leave a voicemail of 3 minutes or less at 518.595.9414. (+1 if calling from outside the USA.)

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Citizens’ Climate Radio is a monthly podcast hosted by CCL volunteer Peterson Toscano.