Bridging the Political Divide

On the first day of October in 1964, Jack Weinberg was arrested on Sproul Plaza at the University of California–Berkeley. A graduate student studying mathematics, Weinberg was protesting the university’s recent ban on political activism and expression. His public detainment and ensuing demonstrations led to what became known as the free speech movement—a powerful symbol of large-scale, student-organized civil disobedience. More than seven thousand individuals took a stand against the censorship of political expression at Berkeley. By borrowing tactics from the civil rights movement and bringing them onto a college campus, students made their voices heard in a tangible, effective way.

Berkeley became synonymous with free speech and inspired Americans across the nation to side with its youth. This event directly paved the way for other mass demonstrations, including protests against the Vietnam War. Berkeley students’ demand for freedom of speech enabled future generations to be drivers of change and use their voices for constructive discourse.

More than fifty years later, that mission is alive and strong at Berkeley today, embodied in our organization, BridgeUSA. Initially founded by two students from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Colorado Boulder in 2016, BridgeUSA launched one of its first and most active chapters at Berkeley in 2017. Students from more than twenty-four universities across the country have shown immense interest in BridgeUSA’s work, with many taking the initiative to start their own chapters.

The Bridge mission is rather simple: we believe that “good governance starts with constructive political discussion” and we champion the “Bridge Mindset”: a “commitment to ideological diversity” through “promoting constructive and responsible discourse” and “supporting a solution-oriented political culture” (BridgeUSA, n.d.). With constant communication between chapters across the country, we are able to organize large-scale events and learn from each other, simultaneously developing innovative ideas and acknowledging our mistakes. As a young nonprofit, we are entirely student run and student driven, doing our best to introduce the Bridge Mindset not only to our student peers but also into the national conversation.

Building Bridges in a Polarized Climate

With such a rich history of activism, it is easy to imagine why so many students are engaged in political expression at Berkeley. A vast range of speakers, including counterculture pioneers like free speech movement leader Mario Savio and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., have given monumental speeches at the heart of our campus.

However, during my freshman year at Berkeley in 2017, a group on campus invited political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. Opposition to letting him speak was so strong that protests resulted in rioting, heavy police intervention, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in destroyed property. To be fair, much of the violence was instigated by outsiders, as a paramilitary group infiltrated the initially peaceful protest looking for trouble. While there was plenty of blame to go around for this disastrous event, many students felt that this was ultimately the culmination of years of toxic polarization and destructive political culture.

It is no secret that Berkeley is seen as a liberal stronghold in the United States, but many students felt that the press, government officials, and others made unfair generalizations and issued targeted attacks that misrepresented Berkeley as a place where students were unwilling to encounter different viewpoints. We felt that Berkeley exemplified the best of our country— a melting pot bubbling with the free exchange of ideas and perspectives, filled with individuals unafraid to challenge their own beliefs. Thus came the birth of Bridge at Berkeley.

A Civil Exchange of Ideas

So what do we do to achieve our mission? To start, we must extend our invitation to discuss important issues to everyone. As long as the engagement remains civil, all people, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs, or affiliations, are welcome to attend any of the numerous events we host each semester. We truly believe that the only way to defeat bad ideas is to acknowledge them and offer better ideas in return. To accomplish this, we strive to provide a space where ideas can be exchanged and challenged withoutpersonal attacks orridicule. We have invited many groups and speakers including professors, independent organizations, media representatives, government officials, and students themselves to engage in respectful, constructive discussion where participants leave better informed than when they came.

For instance, we recently organized and hosted an event sponsored by the Village Square, a group that describes itself as “a nervy bunch of liberals and conservatives who believe that dialogue and disagreement make for a good conversation, a good country, and a good time” (Village Square, n.d.). We invited a pair of speakers that are also unlikely friends: John is a genderfluid queer advocate while Heather is a conservative Christian. They taught us how to reconcile fundamental differences in belief and work together to overcome barriers and societal pressures. Their “treasonous friendship” is something that we could all aspire to attain.

BridgeUSA’s goal is not to prove any side wrong but rather to learn to work together toward solutions and foster dialogue. We have covered subjects ranging from political correctness to environmental justice to the polarization of democracies. Our events are often sparked by the relevant political discussions of the day, such as Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s contentious nomination and the Supreme Court’s defense of the Masterpiece Cakeshop’s refusal to serve a gay couple. Wherever public interest turns, Bridge is willing to follow.

Moving Forward Together

Our organization at Berkeley does some great work with genuine intentions of building communication and improving campus dialogue. Our diverse team of directors and officers reflects our commitment to ideological diversity, representing viewpoints from across the political spectrum as well as different races, origins, and backgrounds. The diversity of our leadership is one of our greatest assets, allowing us to consider perspectives we might otherwise neglect.

Our team actively reaches out to student groups on campus to coordinate discussions. We recently launched a campaign to get every student group on campus to sign the Bridge Pledge (see https://bridgeusa.org/petition), affirming community support for our shared ideals of engaging constructively across ideological lines to find solutions to issues that affect us all.

Our movement is free from hidden agendas and external influences. We truly believe that all students should exercise their voice regardless of preconceived notions, political affiliations, or academic disciplines. Jack Weinberg, for instance, was a mathematician and not a political science student, yet he shared our view that all students should have the opportunity to express themselves. I myself was inspired to join Bridge as a molecular and cell biology major.

Labels only divide us. Let us remember that we share this country and planet and that it is our collective responsibility to secure our future. There is an optimistic saying about today’s students becoming the leaders of tomorrow. While I appreciate the sentiment, I would make a slight correction: our students are leading America today.

References

BridgeUSA. n.d. “Our Purpose.” https://bridgeusa.org/our-purpose.

Village Square. n.d. “About Us.” https://tlh.villagesquare.us/blog/about/.


Isaac Huang is President of BridgeUSA, Berkeley, and an Undergraduate Student in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California–Berkeley.

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