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This fall America experienced a presidential election like no other. For many college students, this was their first opportunity to vote and what a way to enter the democratic process. After four years facing a difficult political-polarization in America reminded us on election day, and (even more dramatically) in the days since, that we are a deeply divided nation. As a result, we demonize each other in our divisions.  

From our vantage point as Deans of Student Affairs (at two very different small liberal arts institutions), the process towards healing the divides in our nation could only be achieved through finding our collective humanity, not through vanquishing our alleged enemies.

As leaders at our respective campuses, we know that there are powerful forces in politics, media, and culture that advance the notion to disagree with the “other” – that these disagreements should be reviled and ridiculed. According to that narrative, students at Oberlin College (a renowned bastion of liberal thinking in Ohio) are elite, intolerant “snowflakes.” Students at Spring Arbor University (a private, Christ-centered, liberal arts school in Spring Arbor, Mich.) are seen through prejudiced lenses often as reactionary, intolerant mean-spirited evangelicals 

Each is supposed to view one another as the irreconcilable opposition.

This spring, students from five colleges and universities: Cornerstone University, Hamline College, and Bethel College, in addition to Oberlin and Spring Arbor – have launched a new program called Bridging the Gap: Dialogue across Difference  –  a three-week project to “challenge” views that depend upon increasingly limiting labels. We felt that if our students could come together across lines of difference, it would be good for them and our institutions. 

This was not a kumbaya idea animated by a naive hope that we would all just “get along.” Instead, it would build on the values and programs of our institutions while building from an experiment that began last spring by Oberlin and Spring Arbor, to “Bridge the Gap.” 

There were precedents for this experiment at both institutions: In the spring of 2017, Spring Arbor began work on the “Honest Conversations Project” through the Office for Institutional Diversity and the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee as a way to foster communication and dialogue across campus. A year later, Oberlin launched a 14-week sustained dialogue program built around listening to understand and designed to help students engage productively with perspectives and experiences different than their own, both initiatives were widely embraced at each campus.  

Even with ongoing outreach programs on both campuses, students said, “more work needs to be done.”

As John Walter Parker, a fourth-year East Asian studies major at Oberlin said, “there are a lot of people at Oberlin who think that engaging conservative, evangelical ideas is bad discourse.”  

Bridging the Gap was led by Simon Greer, a nationally-renowned facilitator who began with a simple prompt: take seriously the things that others hold dear. If it matters to you, then it will matter to me; we are not here to convince anyone they are wrong or try to change them; and, we are curious why people think the way they do and rather than thinking we are diminished by listening carefully to ideas we might disagree with, we trust that we are enhanced by it. 

The pilot program consisted of more than 125+ hours of combined classwork, fieldwork, and homework. Over three weeks, seventeen students invested a great deal in this journey. They learned and practiced skills such as listening, providing feedback, and telling their stories. Kristina Grace, a senior Business major from Spring Arbor University commented, “we focused on how to have hard conversations.”

Our students spent eight days living together. They explored each other’s values, worldviews, political ideas, faith traditions, and much more. Elizabeth Stewart, a junior Communications major from Spring Arbor explains,

“We all knew it was a safe space to learn and that meant it had to be a safe place to disagree. Simon designed it based on hearing the other perspective and made sure it was natural to disagree. Our goals were things like curiosity and intellectual humility, and it was a safe route because of the setup.”

Students were encouraged to hold to their convictions and not to blur differences or seek watered-down compromises

The results exceeded our expectations. Elizabeth recalls, “I had a hesitancy to share my faith because I wasn’t sure if they would allow room for me to express it; my encounter was the opposite of my expectations. They respected me. They asked questions about my faith. They sought to find common ground and even encouraged me in my Christianity.” 

The last phase of the program was an application of Simon Greer’s approach to a policy issue. The issue they focused on was criminal justice reform. They began the deep dive by meeting all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system from state legislators, and corrections officers, to formerly incarcerated individuals and advocacy organizations. They even toured a prison. 

Our students reminded us that whether you are secular or Christian, conservative or liberal, we all have our own stories that make us human. As Darielle Kennedy, a second-year Law and Society student from Oberlin shared, “One of the biggest bridges I had to gap was talking about Prison Reform with Corrections Officers. In hearing the voices of those working in corrections, the skills I learned from Bridging the Gap such as active listening and being curious, both helped me when I met CO’s who really do care about the safety and well-being of prisoners. And now in thinking about prison reform more broadly, I believe that all impacted voices, including the voice of officers, are needed if we are ever really going to improve the system and I am hopeful that by hearing from all voices we can start to imagine a road forward that benefits all sides so no one is suffering.” 

We would not be writing this op-ed together if our pilot program had been a complete success. Much more work needs to be done. But we are excited that today, despite the global pandemic, more campuses and more students are expanding on the pilot program. Engagement across differences can both help us clarify and strengthen who we are, illuminate things we may not have understood, and by bringing a bit of humanity to how we understand the “other” instill some spiritual and moral health to a society in need of healing.

Our students taught us that as our future leaders they want much more than what’s being offered today. They are ready to honor each other’s humanity and to engage across lines of difference. They want a chance to solve real problems together – by bridging the gaps that divide us.

Meredith Raimondo is Vice President and Dean of Students at Oberlin College.  Kevin Brown is the Chief Diversity Officer at Spring Arbor University. To watch the Bridging the Gap film click here: