During Wednesday’s session in Lebanon, nine local Republicans sat on the inside circle and nine Democrats sat on the outside circle in a ‘fish bowl’ exercise. Those on the inside circle were asked to explain their views on the Trump administration to those on the outside, who were asked to listen, and then the parties switched roles. CONTRIBUTED

Local bipartisanship startup begins national tour in Dayton, Lebanon

A group of local residents engaged in political discussions in an effort to alleviate tension across party lines.

Better Angels, a Lebanon-based group that aims to use conversation to enhance cross-party discussion, began their ‘One America’ bus tour on Tuesday night in Waynesville. The group held structured discussions on Wednesday night in Lebanon and Thursday night in Kettering.

By working with local political, community and church leaders, Better Angels selected nine Republicans and nine Democrats from each respective area to participate in exercises. They were asked to discuss stereotypes attached to each party and the basis for those notions. They were also asked to explain their support for or against the current presidential administration and why they identify that way.

“We’re not interested in erasing our differences and disagreements — I’m not going to convince anyone to change his or her party, and they’re not going to try to convince me to change my party,” David Lapp, Better Angels lead organizer and Lebanon native, said. “But what we are interested in is clarifying disagreements, reducing the rancor and mistrust, seeing if we can find common ground, and seeing if we can improve the quality of conversation with each other.”

Rob Scott, the vice mayor of Kettering who was among the nine Republicans at Thursday’s gathering, considered the discussion to be beneficial.

“I think it’s good to get people together and talk about political issues, to understand different viewpoints,” Scott, who was Ohio’s director for President Trump’s campaign last year, said. “It got in-depth and emotional in some places because someone’s political beliefs often come from a personal experience that they may have, or that someone they know might have had.”

Nancy Ciramella, from Clearcreek Twp., found the exercise “quite enjoyable.” She was among the nine Democrats at Wednesday’s gathering, and believes that it is now the job of the citizens to unify the nation.

“The purpose is not to change anyone’s mind, but to soften some of the mistrust, and I think maybe we did that,” Ciramella said. “I feel that we’re past expecting politicians to do it for us, but we have to do it ourselves. It’s going to take a grassroots effort — people participating, talking and communicating to get this done.”

The bus tour kicked off in Waynesville with a benefit concert, during which local Tea Party leader Richard Lynch performed alongside Democrat Peter Yarrow at Lynch’s Keepin’ It Country Farm. After their time in Dayton, Better Angels will make 15 stops across nine states, from Vermont to Tennessee, over the span of three weeks. They will conclude their tour in Philadelphia on July 24.

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The idea for Better Angels started before last year’s presidential election, when group president and founder David Blankenhorn, of New York, discussed the nation’s political divide with Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Lapp worked for Blankenhorn’s “Institute for American Values” think tank after he graduated from college in 2009, and when Blankenhorn and Doherty felt that citizen-to-citizen discourse could potentially benefit communities in the battleground state of Ohio, Blankenhorn called Lapp to get the ball rolling.

Better Angels held two gatherings in Warren County, in December and April, where they found the discussion to be beneficial. The initial gatherings were met with doubt from the public, however.

“Many people that were asked to participate were very skeptical of the process. They thought that this was just going to be a shouting match, or this was just going to be a useless conversation between the two groups,” Kouhyar Mostashfi, a community Better Angels volunteer from Springboro who was involved in the initial discussions, said. “But after the weekend, everybody was very impressed with the quality of the discussion. We had hard-core Republicans and hard-core Democrats that weren’t talking to their family members of the opposite political parties, that wouldn’t talk to their neighbors, that blocked people from their Facebook accounts, and they realized that, over just a weekend of constructive conversations, there is a common ground between the two groups.”

For more local political coverage, go to our ‘Ohio Politics’ homepage

When NPR ran an hour-long feature on Better Angels, they received national attention for their efforts. Community leaders from California to Rhode Island contacted the organization, asking for advice on how they can hold their own group discussions and how they can join the movement to reunify the nation.

This month’s bus tour is the beginning of the Better Angels’ effort to reach out to different communities, beyond Warren County, in hopes of gaining trust between community members on both sides of the political fence. The group is currently developing training and written procedures for leaders across the country to follow.

Lapp considered gatherings in Waynesville, Lebanon and Kettering “an accomplishment,” and said that he has high hopes for the rest of the tour.

“It was an exhilarating week for us here in Ohio. We had everyone from leaders in local Tea Parties to Democrats coming together and realizing that what divides us is not as strong as what unites us, and that we’re a lot closer than we think.”

Better Angels hopes that the success of the recent local efforts will translate to the national level.

“Ohio is one of the most important swing states in the country,” Lapp said. “So, we think that if we can come together as Republicans and Democrats in Ohio, we can do this anywhere in the country.”

Lapp said that citizens interested in cross-party discourse can contact him at 513-268-6233 if they wish to talk to him about attending one of the group’s monthly meetings, held in Lebanon.

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