Picnic at Northampton’s Look Park designed to bridge political divide

  • Look Park in Northampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 7/24/2021 8:09:38 AM

A picnic with hot dogs, salads, games, and surprisingly, political discussion, is set to take place at Look Park on July 31.

Organized by the recently established Braver Angels Pioneer Valley Alliance, the event is dedicated to rebuilding trust and community between the left and right. Braver Angels is a national organization whose mission is to find common ground through open discussions without fear and reducing the destructive polarization so prevalent in the country.

The event will be a chance to sit down and share a meal with people one may not normally have an opportunity to speak with, and proactively discuss how to bridge divides in the Pioneer Valley. The aim is not meant to “push an agenda or change anyone’s mind, but to provide an atmosphere and structure for deepening understanding,” said David Roitman, co-chair and founder of the alliance.

Registration is necessary to participate, and specific details about the event can be found on the Alliance’s website at braverangelspioneervalley.org/.

Before COVID-19, there was a successful Braver Angels group based in Easthampton that held workshops, discussions and debates, partnering with groups like the Smith College Republican Club. The new Pioneer Valley Alliance is a revival of that group, and this picnic will be the first event held since the winter of 2020. Workshops are being planned for the fall, a joint effort between the Pioneer Valley and Greenfield Alliances.

Luke Raskopf, the other co-chair and founder of the local alliance, said he hopes that the picnic can be the beginning of a “vibrant, thriving community of people” who take part in future workshops and events, and “find what we have to offer valuable and want to get involved.”

All Braver Angels events strive for balance in opinion, and people who lean blue or red will be there in roughly the same numbers. Roitman said he understands and is aware that those who are more conservative may fear expressing their political identity, but emphasized the safe environment and the sentiment of mutual respect that will underlie the picnic, and any event the alliance organizes. The reason the branches are called an “alliance,” he said, is because the name “evokes a bond between two different sides.”

Raskopf and Roitman, red and blue leaning, respectively, met at a Braver Angels event and discovered they were from the same area. Raskopf, who is a New York native and only moved here about a year ago, said, “I just knew that I wanted to connect with people in the local community about this stuff…About communicating across ideological and partisan divides.”

Roitman said that “it takes a lot of courage in today’s political and social environment for people to take that step, to reach out to people with different points of view. We’re all kind of stuck in our tribes and bubbles and echo chambers.”

While Raskopf said he is “blessed” to be friends with people all across the political spectrum, he noted that he sometimes fears expressing his views to people who may not see eye to eye with him. But, involvement with Braver Angels has given Raskopf an “empowering” skill set to communicate with people and has made him less afraid during discussion. He said he can decide when to listen, speak, challenge, and empathize, and how to do that in a “grounded, graceful and respectful way.”

He also said that there is a “kind of control and power” in deciding whether or not to engage in political discussion, and “to do so in a way that is just fundamentally not antagonistic.”

The organization has over 70 alliances worldwide and has grown from 12,000 members to over 22,000 in the past six months. The reason for this rapid increase, Roitman said, is because the organization uses tested structures to curate meaningful dialogue.

“Instead of people getting angry at each other and walking away,” Roitman said, “people have fun, get a lot of benefit from the conversation and come back.”

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