Mormon women's group dives into civic engagement in wake of Trump's election

Sunday , September 10, 2017 - 6:00 AM

Photo supplied/Francesco Castelli

Melissa Dalton-Bradford, one of the co-founders of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, has lived most of her adult life outside the U.S. but is deeply concerned about the nation's current direction under President Donald Trump.

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

Soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, a small group of Mormon women privately discussed their mutual concerns about where the nation was headed.

But none of them dreamed those conversations would launch an activist organization that quickly attracted thousands of members.

“I call myself an accidental activist,” Sharlee Mullins Glenn, founder of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, said of the role that now consumes a large chunk of her time. The Pleasant Grove author of children’s books initially started a closed Facebook group where she and some close friends could air their distress. 

In her welcome letter on MWEG’s website, Mullins Glenn said, “These are strange times. Many of us are reeling, aghast at what is happening, dismayed (if not horrified) by what we are hearing on the news and reading in the headlines each day.” Mullins Glenn urged members to get in the fight using the tools of kindness and civility, echoing the advice of former First Lady Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

“We wanted to express our frustration with (Trump’s) unethical behavior, words and actions,” Glenn said of the group’s 15 to 20 initial participants. Those individuals soon added friends to the closed group, who in turn added more friends. “Within days we had hundreds of members, and within two weeks 4,000. It snowballed and touched a nerve out there.”

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At that point, Glenn said members could either abandon ship or figure out how to steer the fledgling organization. They chose the latter, patterning the structure of their organization after a tree rather than a pyramid.

“We had 34 committees and chapters in almost every state and internationally. It was happening so fast,” Mullins Glenn said. 

UNUSUAL TIMES, UNLIKELY DISSIDENTS

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump tapped a vein of societal unrest — fomenting support by denigrating groups of people and making promises about building a wall along the nation’s southern border, booting out undocumented immigrants and barring refugees from entering the U.S.

MWEG co-founder Melissa Dalton-Bradford, a Provo native who has lived most of her adult life overseas, watched warily from her home in Frankfort, Germany, as Trump campaigned, took office and began to govern — in large part by Twitter. Until then, her civic engagement had consisted mostly of voting and paying the appropriate taxes.

“It wasn’t until this divisive and alarming presidential campaign that I started paying close attention,” Dalton-Bradford said. “When I started listening to the slanted, hateful rhetoric coming from Mr. Trump, I gritted my teeth. I thought, I need to bring this man to these tents where I sit with people who have thrown their lives to God.”

Dalton-Bradford referred to her nonprofit work with refugees who continue to flood Germany in desperate search for survival.

“Within a week of the inauguration, a bunch of us got together and decided we couldn’t just wring our hands. We needed to take action,” she said. “But we’re a bunch of writers and grandmas. We’re quiet people.”

Even so, she and others found themselves caught up in a strange “pinball machine” of concerns.  

“The resignations, the firings, the threats, the tweets and the insults on the international stage — my German neighbors’ jaws are on the ground. They think, how can this possibly be happening,” Dalton-Bradford said.

SIMPLE RULES, LIKE KINDERGARTEN

The nonpartisan group flourishes on social media by encouraging well-founded discussion of issues that carry human impact. But they draw a bright line at vitriol and name-calling, tactics that are absolutely not tolerated. Instead, kindness and civility rule the day, and participants are urged to listen to understand, not to win the argument.

“We’re sort of schooling ourselves in being able to talk to each other in that way. In today‘s political environment, there is so much name-calling and people getting angry,” Mullins Glenn said. “And it’s counterproductive. We don’t do things that way.”

The group relies on six principles of nonviolence that guided both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Those include choosing love over hate and striving to defeat injustice rather than people.

And while women of all faiths or no faith are welcome to join, men are simply not allowed.

“It’s an organization founded by women, ‘manned’ by women and funded by women,” Dalton-Bradford said. “Not because we don’t need men, but that it would be something we drove and created by ourselves.”

The group’s founders have also pledged to uphold Mormon leaders and doctrines, which puts criticism of the church largely off-limits.

Calene Van Noy, a Kaysville resident, joined MWEG shortly after it formed. 

“Many Mormon women are busy doing good things and don’t get involved in politics. But a lot of us are like, ‘Wait a second, things are happening that we’re not OK with,’” Van Noy said. “We will not be complicit by being complacent,” she added, quoting a phrase coined by Dalton-Bradford.

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Van Noy participated in an August town hall event for Congressman Rob Bishop, holding a sign that urged him to “Please Represent Our Values — Transparency, Decency, Accountability, Honor and Justice.” While normally not seen as radical stances, Van Noy felt these bedrock beliefs eroding away.

“I’m frustrated by how Trump discredits the media and bullies people,” Van Noy said. “He’s the most powerful man in the U.S., and there should be no need to bully — and he does it on Twitter.”

AVOIDING EXTREMES

Kimberly Wagner, of Fruit Heights, describes herself as a moderate, lifelong Republican. When she found MWEG on Facebook, she immediately enjoyed its potential to educate. 

“I’ve appreciated that this group does not feel like a partisan group. It’s women concerned about issues that have some kind of ethical implications,” Wagner said. “I’ve appreciated finding this forum and feeling there is strength in numbers and keeping one another abreast of issues.

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Marching in lockstep would seem as foreign to these women as burning their bras, so disagreements in online discussions are welcomed as long as contributors back up their views with credible sources and refrain from flame-throwing.

“The idea is that we can engage with one another and disagree, but the goal is to have a reasoned and measured disagreement. It’s a whole different kind of discourse about current events, and it’s so refreshing in today’s atmosphere,” Wagner said. 

And even though MWEG’s reach went global within its first few weeks, Wagner views the group as vital to the shaping of future public policy in Utah.

“In a state like ours where so much of the Legislature is dominated by men, it’s wonderful to hear women’s voices,” Wagner said.

Calls to action within the group include writing and phoning elected representatives about pending or controversial legislation, attending town hall events to ask questions in person, and rallying in support of immigrants and refugees. But the long-term aim is to elect more women to local, state and federal offices.

“I’ve considered running for office ... as my children get older, I’m definitely interested in the public sphere,” Wagner said.

Huntsville resident MaryJan (MJ) Munger serves as the group’s facilitating director. She said she enjoys MWEG’s broad political spectrum rather than it being just another echo chamber. 

“It draws women from all walks of life ... and is one of the few places where we can have conversations about tough issues,” Munger said. “We live in a social media world of memes and slogans, and it’s been great to focus more broadly — and also to focus on action, not talk.”

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In September alone, MWEG urged members to take action to prevent further healthcare shortages, protect “dreamers,” honor American diversity and oppose relaxation of a federal law barring a single broadcaster from reaching more than 40 percent of the country’s population.

But each of Trump’s first eight months in office came with directives that provided fodder to motivate these women to network and navigate the time-honored channels of civic engagement.

“It’s almost exhausting, the onslaught of things that need to be addressed,” Munger said. But she also feels they’re collectively up to the task.

“Mormon women are great at organizing, we’ve been doing it since we were 12,” Munger said. “We believe strongly in the things we stand for, so we’re an untapped resource. Everyone expects Mormon women to be home baking cookies, so we’re surprising people.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.