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Oberlin College and Spring Arbor University students talk over dinner as a part of the Bridging the Gap program.

Yevhen Gulenko

Michael Henderson, a junior at Fisk University, a private historically Black institution in Nashville, Tenn., remembers that the room was tense when he told his story to a group of students.

During a facilitated discussion about their encounters with law enforcement, Henderson, the only Black man in a group that also included students from Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, told his peers how his parents, like many other Black parents, taught him to keep his hands on the steering wheel and not to argue if he ever got pulled over by a white police officer in order to avoid an escalation that could turn deadly.

“The white students had never even heard of the kind of training, for lack of a better word, that I went through,” Henderson said. Some of them who had previously jumped to share their own stories felt “silenced” by the gravity of the experiences he and other students of color described. They also felt a certain amount of shock and disbelief at how different his experience was from theirs.

What could’ve devolved into awkward silence or a heated argument turned into a productive discussion among the 30 students. Henderson felt like they reached “common ground” and left with a better understanding of each other’s life experiences and how those experiences shaped their perspectives.

Difficult conversations like this one are the goal of Bridging the Gap, the program that brought them together.

Most college exchange programs bring students from different countries together. But Bridging the Gap, a program expanding this academic year, connects American students to each other at campuses that may share geographical boundaries but are ideologically far apart.

The program, run by Interfaith America, an organization focused on interfaith cooperation, pairs Christian colleges with campuses known for their progressive ideals. The campuses usually hold a joint semester-long course where students from each institution learn listening and storytelling skills to effectively share their experiences and then meet to delve into a national issue of interest, such as criminal justice reform. Students finish the course by working in small groups to brainstorm potential solutions to the issue, which they present jointly to the class, often at one of the campuses or on a group retreat.

The goal of the program is to address religious and political polarization across the country by helping students bridge ideological differences through candid conversations and relationship building.

“This program, I think, really provides an alternate approach to how we can engage with one another,” said Mary Ellen Giess, vice president of strategic initiatives at Interfaith America. “To me, the pieces that are most missing in our national culture right now are curiosity, listening, humility—all things that the program prioritizes.”

What started in 2020 as a pilot program at Oberlin College, a liberal arts institution in Ohio, and Spring Arbor University, a Christian institution in Michigan, has since spread to 19 campuses around the country, including five new campuses this academic year. At a leadership summit held in Chicago by Interfaith America last month, a group of 52 faculty and staff members from 36 campuses also participated in special programming to learn more about the skills taught in Bridging the Gap and ways to apply them on their campuses.

To broaden the scope of the program, Interfaith America plans to dole out a total of $50,000 in microgrants to summit participants interested in launching campuswide efforts or individual projects that involve teaching students these skills. The grants are supported by the Fetzer Institute, an organization that aims to “build a spiritual foundation for a loving world,” and Stand Together Trust, an outgrowth of the Charles Koch Institute, whose billionaire namesake has historically donated to conservative causes.

Giess noted that ideological polarization is particularly acute on campuses.One student gesticulates while talking to another.

A 2021 national poll of 2,513 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, released by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, found that a third of them reported political differences getting in the way of a friendship. Differences of opinion on race relations, support for former president Donald Trump and immigration were described as the most likely issues to cause a rift. A 2022 Pew Research Center report also found that 72 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats felt members of the other party were more immoral than other Americans.

“There’s lots of conversation about cancel culture,” Giess said. “A lot of the reasons why the cancellations, or cancel culture, arise come from very real concerns about historical injustices and marginalization … that absolutely need to be addressed.” But the “demonization of alternate perspectives” and the people who hold them isn’t “leading us in a productive, solutions-oriented, democracy-focused direction.”

A ‘Smorgasbord’ of Beliefs

Simon Greer, a longtime union organizer and labor activist, founded Bridging the Gap as an independent project. He believes Democrats’ shock at Trump’s election revealed a deep rift between conservatives and liberals. The first exchange program he organized wasn’t on a campus but between a progressive synagogue in New York and a conservative-leaning labor union in Michigan in 2018.

“I came to see that solutions were going to come from mining the depths of our differences, not simplifying or caricaturing the opposition,” he said.

One of the synagogue members suggested he bring the program to campuses. The idea led Greer to launch the original pilot program at Oberlin and Spring Arbor in January 2020 and ultimately a partnership with Interfaith America to conduct similar programs across the country.

Kevin D. Brown, chief diversity officer and dean for student care and success at Spring Arbor, described the program as “an answer to prayer.” He noticed that students on his campus demonstrated a “real failure to communicate well across lines of difference” after the 2016 presidential election, so he was looking for opportunities to bolster students’ dialogue skills.

A group of about 20 students, half from Oberlin and half from Spring Arbor, received separate training and then spent an intensive few weeks at Spring Arbor, where they met with a range of criminal justice experts, including formerly incarcerated people, corrections officers, activists and policy makers. The students were then paired up to come up with ideas for criminal justice reform, which they presented at Oberlin as their final project.

Spring Arbor is now planning to offer its third iteration of the program starting in January.

Students learned “how to listen well, how not to make assumptions or lean into stereotypes,” Brown said. Faculty members told him they saw a difference in how students interacted and “began to see the culture change a bit on campus as well because of that willingness to listen and go deeper.” Students from the University of the Cumberlands, Union College and Bellarmine University at a Bridging the Gap retreat.

Nicholas Heikkila, a junior at Spring Arbor who participated in the program in spring 2021, said he was excited to meet students with a broad spectrum of religious and political beliefs, and he wasn’t disappointed.

“There was quite a smorgasbord,” said Heikkila, who is a biblical and theological studies major. “And a lot of people were really passionate and outspoken about their beliefs.”

He initially felt some trepidation about meeting the Oberlin students but found himself building close connections. He also had conversations he might not have ordinarily had, both in and outside the classroom. For example, Oberlin students asked some of the Spring Arbor students whether they felt uncomfortable with people around them talking about drinking and sex.

“I was giggling, because I was like, ‘Well, no, those are very real things that a lot of the world participate in,’” he said. “It’s just funny, because from the outside looking in, there’s just a stigma that’s warranted or not about how I as a Christian felt … and it was a very pointed question, but it was a genuine question. So, we got to just sit and talk.”

He believes everyone could benefit from similar dialogue training, not just students.

“The benefit is you realize that they’re a person and not an idea,” he said. “That is a person with lived experiences and value and validity. Oftentimes … when you actually get to hear them, you’re going, ‘You know, I maybe don’t agree with you, but I can see how you got there,’ or ‘I can see why you believe that, and that’s valid.’ And they become not a disembodied idea of a political or a religious belief or this side or that side. They become who they are.”

Coalition Building

Jonathan Coley, associate professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, said the model for the program seems “creative and unique,” but he wonders if the students who need it most are the ones signing up. He pointed out that there’s significant political diversity among students at Christian colleges.

“Are students who are already prone to want to befriend and work with people of more progressive backgrounds … the ones signing up for these programs?” said Coley, who researches LGBTQ activism on Christian campuses. “If that’s the case, the programs may not be enrolling the people who could most stand to benefit.”

Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, said the program could pose a dilemma for campus leaders hesitant about partnering with institutions with which they have fundamental policy differences related to issues such as accommodations or protections for LGBTQ students.

“I think it’s really hard,” she said. “Because on the one hand, I could see someone saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think our community should be in partnership with a place that doesn’t accept certain members of the community for who they are.’ On the other hand, if that’s always the measure, then how do you get people to talk to one another?”

“Perhaps this kind of program might maybe have the potential to result in some changes of perspectives,” not at an institutional level, “but perhaps it can make some inroads for individuals,” she added.

Giess noted that, for some students, the program involves “genuine wrestling” with how to interact with peers who fundamentally disagree with or disapprove of their values.

Students from both conservative Christian and more liberal backgrounds often ask, “How can I engage with someone who doesn’t agree with my right to exist?” she said. “How can I work with someone who doesn’t support who I am in a very fundamental and basic sense?”

She tells them this is an opportunity to get to know the “why behind their value system,” and “the need to do this kind of relationship building is actually fundamental to your larger goals, in terms of having support for your community, having support for your identity and having support and moving forward even policy issues,” she said. “This is coalition building.”

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