Group promoting civil discussion opens chapter in Sheridan

Sheridan residents Dan Rieder, left, and Mike Kuzara discuss the life experiences that have informed their politics during a Better Angels information session this week. Better Angels is a national group created to promote civil discourse in political discussions that has just opened a chapter in Sheridan. (Photo by Michael Illiano, The Sheridan Press)

SHERIDAN — About 50 Sheridan residents showed up Tuesday to hear about the launch of the local Better Angels chapter, which is part of a national effort to reduce political polarization and promote civil political discussions.

Sheridan resident Kris Korfanta, who is the Wyoming coordinator for Better Angels, and Rustin Burr, who works for Sheridan Media and hosts Public Pulse, worked together to bring Better Angels to Sheridan after the pair attended the group’s national conference in St. Louis over the summer.

The conference asked attendees to declare themselves as either “red” or “blue” and hosted discussions on divisive issues between people on both sides. The object of those discussions, however, was not to change anyone’s mind or even reach middle ground, but to encourage people to listen to and understand one another’s perspectives.

The objective was to get participants to see that people on the other side of the issue weren’t faceless political opponents but neighbors with a different point of view.

Korfanta said the experience had a profound effect on how she approached political disagreements.

“Going to that conference was truly a transcendent experience for me and for everybody I ran into,” Korfanta said. “…Instead of avoiding (people with opposing political views), we would zero in on somebody on the opposite side and talk and learn about issues.

“It opened my heart,” she continued. “It showed me I had so many stereotypes and helped me dispel those stereotypes. It gave me hope for the future.”

Center for a Vital Community Director Amy Albrecht said Better Angels’ objectives mirrored her organization’s goals. For the past year and a half, the CVC has hosted discussions on topics known to be contentious with the aim of facilitating civil discussions.

Better Angels is an opportunity to build on those discussions, she said.

“When you understand where someone is coming from, you’re already halfway there,” Albrecht said. “That’s why when Kris introduced us to the concept of Better Angels, and the organization, we thought, ‘This is a great partnership.’”

Cathi Kindt, a moderator with the CVC discussion series who also trained to become a Better Angels moderator, led attendees in a brief exercise during the presentation Tuesday. She asked people to pair up with someone they did not know and describe the life experiences that have informed their political outlooks.

She also asked them to consider how those experiences may have created blind spots.

Attendees said even that short exercise helped shift their approach to political discussions.

“It drove home to me how important it is for me to trust people that I don’t agree with,” said Sheridan resident Andy Lowe. “…I’ve been sucked in like so many people to think that the people who disagree with me are essentially wrong and bad.”

The local Better Angels group plans to host its first workshop Nov. 21, which will be titled “Depolarizing Within.” The program will ask people to examine how they approach political disagreements and work to do so without stereotyping or demonizing those with whom they disagree.