Looking around hesitantly, our group of ten John Brown University students and two faculty members entered the Philander Smith College dining hall as all eyes turned in our direction with gazes of curiosity.
It was clear that our group of white and Latino students and faculty was not from the neighborhood. Our defenses were disrupted by a warm greeting from a kind gentleman who checked us in at the register (he had been expecting us) and then introduced us to our new dining space.
Our class, from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, was visiting Philander Smith College located about 3 hours away in Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the Bridging the Gap program, which brings students from two different college campuses together in shared experiences and skills-building in listening, storytelling, and having conversations across difference. A crucial aspect of the learning experience is spending time in each other’s space, and our team knew immediately why this is so important. Most of the John Brown students visiting Philander Smith had never heard of an Historically Black College or University (HBCU), and none of them had ever visited one. They all knew when they stepped foot on Philander Smith’s campus that they were in the minority, which was a novel but important experience for them.
The radical hospitality displayed by our Philander Smith hosts was the crucial first step in bridge-building for the John Brown students. We were greeted with smiles, warm food, and questions about our travel. When we met the student participants from Philander Smith, they asked many questions about Northwest Arkansas, which is miles away, literally and culturally, from Little Rock. The Philander Smith students inquired about the culture of a faith-based institution and wondered what our students do in their free time. Our students quickly learned about the rich community of Philander Smith students who come from all over the world to study in Arkansas. Fear gave way to warmth and laughter as the students began to learn more about each other.
Over the course of our first weekend together, the students developed a level of trust that allowed them to dive into painful topics—racism and racial segregation, class divides, and problems in the criminal justice system. Students practiced listening, and in that listening grew to new levels of compassion for each other. The Philander Smith students courageously called out John Brown students when they sensed hesitancy during difficult conversations, and the John Brown students bravely confessed their tendency toward silence and their need to learn more. Indeed, “courage” and “bravery” were terms that constantly came up in student reflections about their weekend encounters.
We ended our first weekend at Philander Smith with a spontaneous party at the John Brown guest home. Playing card games, eating an eclectic meal of breakfast for dinner and nachos (a cross-cultural meal if ever there was one), and sharing and learning new dance moves, our students left on a high note, having made new friends and developed an understanding of a rich world they never would have known outside Bridging the Gap.
Over the course of subsequent weeks, bonds continued to develop over Zoom as students met leaders in criminal justice reform and began to consider their own solutions to criminal justice issues in Arkansas in mixed-campus teams. The trust built during our weekend retreat allowed students to work across their differences to come to shared solutions for the common good. Bonds were further deepened as the Philander Smith students visited John Brown for a final weekend retreat, with students working hard to finish up their criminal justice reform proposals to present before a panel of experts. Late nights, lack of sleep, and stress led to conflict, but that conflict was managed well through skills learned over the course of the BTG program.
In the end, what did our John Brown students gain from their participation in Bridging the Gap? Their experience as minorities in a campus community helped them understand the barriers to belonging that many of their student peers face on our own campus. At the end of the semester the BTG student team met with John Brown University’s multi-cultural student leaders to talk more about this reality. Our BTG participants also came to realize the complex realities of the history of racial injustice in the United States and learned about the impacts of those realities through conversations with their new friends. They gained the bravery to admit their own ignorance and to pursue knowledge through courageous conversations. They discovered that the common good can only be pursued when we reach out to learn more from those whose experience is different than our own.
We were told many times during our Bridging the Gap experience that we are never guaranteed to find ourselves in safe spaces. However, our students learned that if we work to create brave spaces, we can build bridges with others that can bring us closer to the Beloved Community for which all of us long.
Trisha Posey is a Professor of History and Director of the Honors Scholars Program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.