Magazine Feature

We’re Listening

Political differences, a common humanity

By Marilyn Cooper

Winter 2023

When Diego Flores, a junior at John Brown University, a private Christian institution in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, entered the cafeteria at Philander Smith College, a historically Black college in Little Rock, Arkansas, he felt that all eyes were on him. “Everyone turned and stared. It seemed like they were all thinking, ‘What are you doing here? This is not your space,’ ” Flores says. For the first time in his life, he thought he could understand what it was like to be Black in the United States. It was a humbling experience.

Darrian Parrish, a senior at Philander, also recalls feeling uncomfortable during her first encounters with students from John Brown: “I was nervous. I thought they would be totally square and that they wouldn’t get us. I felt they would not want to understand that Blacks live in a different America from them.” But once students from the two campuses started to interact, she was surprised to discover that they had a lot in common. “They’re actually fun, and it turned out that we like many of the same things,” Parrish says.

These encounters took place through Bridging the Gap (BTG), a program that pairs colleges and universities with different ideological missions. During the usually semester-long course, students explore commonalities, build relationships and friendships, and learn to have constructive conversations about serious differences. To allow for in-person meetings, the two campuses must be geographically close to each other.

Research shows that these kinds of interactions are increasingly rare. Data from the Heterodox Academy’s 2021 Campus Expression Survey indicate that students are reluctant to discuss controversial topics and feel apprehensive about expressing their opinions on campus. Almost 60 percent of students surveyed actively avoid “hot” topics such as politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, and gender.

Most students reported that they did not believe their campus supported an environment in which constructive disagreement could occur, with 63 percent stating that their campus climate prevents them from speaking up about their beliefs. Fears about ostracism, social media bullying, and offending their peers and professors drive these apprehensions. An overwhelming percentage of students, however, upheld the importance of civil discourse at colleges and universities, with nearly 90 percent agreeing that campuses should encourage students and professors to interact respectfully with people whose beliefs differ from their own.

“College students need a safe space where people can trust each other and see each other as humans, rather than dividing everyone up as either enemies or allies,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “It’s just too common today to label those we disagree with as evil or stupid.” Students need to understand why people disagree with them, Lukianoff says, and would benefit from learning about one another’s lives beyond politics. “I’ve become very enthusiastic about programs that focus on listening,” he says. “Hearing someone without the goal of arguing with them is powerful.”

Through listening, storytelling, and relationship building, BTG seeks to create just such a space.

The program is the brainchild of Simon Greer, a longtime union organizer and the president of Cambridge Health Ventures. After decades spent as a hard-nosed political operative battling conservatives to pass progressives policies, Greer had a life-changing conversation. During a breakfast at the White House to celebrate President Barack Obama’s 2012 electoral victory, Greer found himself saying to a senior staffer, “Now [the American people] will have to do everything he wants.” When Greer contemplated his comment during the following weeks, he realized he was wrong. Everyone in the country was not going to do exactly what the second-term president wanted. That insight served as a wake-up call for Greer. “I realized that I was part of the problem of demonizing the other side,” Greer says. “I had gotten into political organizing because I believed in people, but now I was more interested in being right. I thought other people should be more like me.”

Greer set out on a journey of learning to listen to and deeply engage with those he had vilified. He had meals and meetings with groups he had previously caricatured or deprecated, such as White working-class conservatives, corporate executives, and corrections officers. “I began to understand that it’s all too easy to blame the other guy for being wrong and for being the problem,” he says. “I was inspired to return to my roots, to my faith in other people. Rather than just judging, I began to cultivate curiosity about why people think the way they think.” Greer came to believe that the United States is in a spiritual crisis in which people are so caught up in toxic disagreements that they no longer see their shared humanity. Trapped in different political and cultural silos, Americans have lost their ability to talk across differences.

This crisis, Greer found, is even more acute in higher education. “College is the time to challenge your own ideas, to engage with different viewpoints, and to speak your mind,” he says. “We’re doomed if we graduate a college generation that can’t do that effectively.”

These concerns inspired him to create the first Bridging the Gap program in 2020. The pilot program brought together seventeen students from Oberlin College, known as a bastion of liberal thinking, and Spring Arbor University, a predominantly conservative Christian institution. At their home institutions, Greer trained students in practical ways to bridge ideological differences, such as through candid conversations and relationship building. The two groups of students then spent eight days living together in a Spring Arbor dormitory, engaging in activities designed to help them delve into each other’s values, faith, and political views.

Spring Arbor University and Oberlin College students come together for the Bridging the Gap pilot program. (Courtesy Simon Greer)

After the pilot was completed, students from the two institutions reported that participating in the program helped them learn to be vulnerable with others and strengthened their ability to understand different people’s stories. Students learned to listen deeply and speak frankly but respectfully. “The program seeks to establish a brave space, not a safe space,” Greer says. “I enforce behavioral norms but not political ones. We never know what people will say—participants get uncomfortable—but they learn to sit with those feelings.”

Although Greer remains heavily involved, to enable its expansion, BTG is now run by Interfaith America, an organization that works to strengthen religious diversity in the United States by connecting different leaders and institutions. Since the pilot, BTG has spread to forty-four campuses, with twenty-three institutions joining in 2022. Greer anticipates that an additional twenty-five institutions will join by fall 2023. Although the program differs each time it’s offered, the basic approach and number of participants remain similar to the pilot.

In addition to the program for students, Interfaith America also convenes an annual leadership summit for faculty and staff. In August 2022, fifty-two people participated in the first summit in Chicago. They learned how to adapt the program to their campuses and trained in the skills BTG teaches. “The program impacts entire institutions, not just students,” says Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America. “Senior administrators and faculty members have reported that they approach their jobs and institutions differently after participating in the summit and then experiencing the program alongside their students.”

To spread the program to more campuses, Interfaith America will distribute $50,000 in microgrants to summit participants who want to launch BTG on their campuses. “There should be BTG student groups all over the country,” Patel says.

BTG is part of the “Bridge-building” movement—a growing group of academics, philanthropists, and practitioners working to address political polarization, improve the quality of civil discourse, and equip people with skills to handle disagreements. The National Institute for Civil Discourse, the Listen First Project, the Consensus Building Institute, Common Ground Solutions, BridgeUSA, and One America Movement are some of the organizations seeking to help Americans, including college students, connect across political divides.

A mindfulness-infused methodology distinguishes BTG from these other programs. At the program’s onset, BTG facilitators ask students to set intentions for the whole experience. These include practicing respect, exercising curiosity about other people’s viewpoints, and staying open to finding common ground.

Guided by these principles, in the first phrase of the program, students engage in intensive skills-building at their home campuses before meeting with participants from the other college. Much of this training focuses on learning to listen. “True listening is a superpower,” Greer says. “It’s key for building trust, empathy, and connection. People think that listening is easy, but we often pretend we’re listening when we’re really planning to shift the conversation to our own views and thoughts.”

Instead, BTG teaches “full-body listening,” in which people pay attention to body language, tone, eye movement, and what’s left unsaid as well as what’s said. “I found out that it takes a lot of energy to sit down and really listen to someone without giving feedback or rewording what they’re saying,” Flores says. “Learning to listen was one of my biggest takeaways from the program.”

Students also develop their storytelling skills. Rather than using statistics, data, and structured arguments to make a point, BTG utilizes storytelling to humanize a potential opponent, diffuse tensions, and build connections between participants. This also helps build strong relationships, another key goal of the program. “Hearing someone’s story helps you understand why they see the world the way they do and why that matters,” Greer says. “We’ve found that the capacity to disagree constructively is directly related to the strength of a relationship.”

In the next phase of the program, students from the two campuses have a series of in-person and virtual encounters with each other and apply the skills they learned about bridge building, effective communications, and relationship cultivation. First, students get to know one another through sharing their values and telling their stories. Working from that foundation, students then explore divisive topics through exercises that allow them to express themselves without speaking. For example, an activity called “lay it on the line” begins with a statement that expresses a strong viewpoint such as “I believe every American citizen should have unrestricted access to legal and safe abortions.” Without talking, students physically position themselves on a spectrum from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The exercise allows students to see their commonalities and explore their differences without getting locked into verbal arguments.

“I was surprised to find that we were actually on the same page about a lot of things,” Parrish says about getting to know the students from John Brown. “I expected us to disagree about everything. That made it easier to relate to them.”

Once participants began to have deeper verbal exchanges, already knowing each other’s viewpoints helped them disclose their thoughts and have complex conversations. Deep listening was key for this. “I realized that the problem with a lot of conversations is that people talk over each other,” Parrish says. “You’re not going to find solutions if while someone else is stating their grievances, you feel like they’re personally attacking you, and you’re formulating an angry response rather than really listening.”

In the last phase of the program, students apply their new skills and perspectives and collaborate on ways to address contentious policy issues such as criminal justice and recidivism. Students listen to stories from and then interact with a range of stakeholders who could include corrections officers, incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, reform advocates, legislators, and members of the corrections officers’ union. “Even when you strongly disagree, it’s important to see where someone is coming from,” Flores says. “You can walk away without feeling animosity, and sometimes you do find a middle ground.”

The program ends with students collaborating on a final presentation about the policy topic.

While participants value the formal program, many especially enjoy socializing with the other students. “We stayed up really late talking when we visited the John Brown campus,” Parrish says. “We knew each other by then, and it was fun to just hang out.”

These informal interactions are critical for creating strong bonds between students, explains Brian Herndon, an education studies professor and BTG program administrator from John Brown. “Our last night in Little Rock, we invited the Philander students to come over for a meal. I watched the students play games, listen to music, and have a dance party. I could see the students had really connected.”

Informal feedback like this and anecdotal evidence suggest that the program succeeds in meeting its goals, but to date, little formal assessment has taken place. The longer-term impact of the program and whether it will change campus culture and lead to larger societal shifts remains an open question. “This kind of program is often effective at helping students make friends with people who differ from them politically,” Lukianoff says. “That’s important. But problems with freedom of speech in higher education need a bigger fix than that.”

“The scale of the problem is massive,” Greer says, “and right now the scale of the solution is much too small.”

And because students self-select to take part in the program, those who most need to learn to engage in civil discourse are unlikely to participate. “That’s currently a limitation of a program like this,” Herndon says. “Our BTG students already had the mindset of wanting to work across differences. They came in thinking that finding common ground is important.” He suggests eventually making BTG a required course like introduction to writing or basic math.

Second-year Oberlin College student Sarah Wong participates in Bridging the Gap. (Courtesy Yvonne Gay)

Another limitation is that, so far, the more conservative institutions have all been evangelical Christian colleges. Greer hopes to expand to other types of institutions.

Critics have also expressed the concern that bridge-building can sometimes result in the unintended “platforming” of hate. Greer is quick to point out that not all viewpoints are welcome. “We do not expect our students to bridge with the Ku Klux Klan or with Nazis,” he says.

Despite these challenges, the program seems likely to positively affect individual participants and their communities, now and in the long run. A study published in the Journal of PersonalityandSocial Psychology found that taking part in bridge-building programs can help reduce “in-group favoritism” and dependency on stereotyping by fostering curiosity, empathy, and understanding between people with differing backgrounds and perspectives. By taking people out of echo chambers that “engender groupthink and blunt critical thinking,” these programs help participants find their voices, learn to formulate a constructive argument, and become more effective advocates for their positions and viewpoints.

“It’s important for our students to remember that the world outside Philander Smith College does not look like what they’re experiencing within the college,” says Ashley Embrey, a BTG program administrator from Philander. “They need to know how to have conversations with people who do not look like them, who don’t always believe what they believe, and who don’t go to the church they go to.”

According to Patel, ultimately the program seeks to strengthen American democracy. “The only way to have a healthy, functioning democracy,” Patel says, “is to be able to disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. We need to engage with a diverse range of people, including those we disagree with. That’s not just an important perspective to have—it’s a critical muscle to build.”

“If we are going to heal our country and create unity, we need to practice bridge building,” Greer says. “It’s a journey.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the program, Herndon says, “It gives me hope that there can be healing. If people are willing to pause and truly listen, we can achieve meaningful change.”

Illustration by Elena Scotti


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is associate editor of Liberal Education.