College campuses get tense sometimes, and Kevin Brown knows this well. The chief diversity officer at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, Brown in recent years has seen students navigate hard conversations about race, cope with hurt feelings during election seasons, and struggle with “the blackface incident,” an uproar over a student’s social media post in 2017.
Brown’s job: find ways to get students to talk about their differences and move forward together. “We were at least going to have to figure out how to foster real conversations with folks,” Brown said.
Brown grew up attending a Pentecostal-leaning storefront church in Cleveland, so he did what he was raised to do: he prayed and got to work. But even he was surprised by what happened next. It’s not easy to get college students to have conversations on hard questions, but his small, evangelical Christian campus west of Detroit became a national model for how to do this right – one that’s being emulated by a wave of schools from coast to coast.
In 2019, Spring Arbor piloted “Bridging the Gap,” a program that attempts to bridge differences on campuses that is unique in several ways. First, the program drew students not just from Spring Arbor but also from Oberlin College, a left-leaning, secular, liberal arts school 300 miles down the road in Ohio.
Those participating in the program didn’t just talk. They learned how to listen. They also learned how to work together on public policy reform. For the pilot, Bridging the Gap creator Simon Greer chose a topic important to students on both campuses: criminal justice. It’s a popular major at Spring Arbor, and at Oberlin, a subject of campus-wide activism and protest.
Building on the pilot’s success, Bridging the Gap spread to nine campuses this year. In 2022, Greer will bring the program to at least 20 campuses — large and small, Christian, secular, and historically Black schools from California to Arizona, Arkansas and New York. The list continues to grow.
Greer developed the program after a career as a political organizer “mostly spent on the front lines of political combat.” Over time, he says he grew tired of the battles. “It led me on this journey to start trying to listen differently to people I disagree with.”
One of those people is Andy Potter, a former corrections officer Greer met while working as a consultant for a labor union. Potter represented a cohort of corrections officers whose members included thousands of Trump supporters. Greer and Potter became friends, and together organized a homestay exchange between Potter’s union members and members of Greer’s left-leaning New York synagogue.
“My members found very quickly that those conservative values that they held so close to them, these (synagogue) members who were all Jewish and very liberal, they held some of these same values, (such as) ‘I have kids, I want them to have a good education. I believe in hard work, nobody handed me nothing. I was not born rich because I’m Jewish,’“ Potter said. “Those are conversations we really had.”
The exchange “profoundly changed my members,” Potter said. It also planted the seeds for what Greer shaped into Bridging the Gap.
The expansion to nearly two dozen campuses is fueled by deepening concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building efforts, and a merger with IFYC, a Chicago-based nonprofit with a track record facilitating interfaith engagement over nearly two decades. Both Greer and IFYC leaders saw parallels between Bridging the Gap and IFYC’s established programs, including its dialogue project called “Courageous Pluralism.” The merger allows Bridging the Gap to grow and expand its reach, and in turn will influence dialogue efforts in existing IFYC programs.
“We wanted to try to bring together communities where the deep divides manifested in our political landscape,” IFYC vice president Mary Ellen Giess said. IFYC founder and president Eboo Patel “talks about how diversity is not just the differences you like, it’s also the skills to engage the differences you don’t like in a shared civic space. That’s the piece of Bridging the Gap that I find so exciting.”
Three schools in Nashville will implement the program as a semester-long class in 2022: the elite Vanderbilt University, the historically Black Fisk University and Belmont University, a Christian institution rooted in the Baptist tradition. Todd Lake, Belmont’s vice president for spiritual development, said 10 students from each campus will meet for a semester. He hopes their final projects on criminal justice reform will have an impact beyond the classroom: a recent study showed a north Nashville neighborhood has the highest incarceration rate in the country.
“I think this is going to be the most interesting class any of these students take,” Lake said.
Meredith Raimondo, a professor and former dean of students at Oberlin College, met Greer through an Oberlin parent. She noticed students feared speaking up, “desperately wanting to say the right thing, but not always sure what that was, and so self-silencing.” At the same time, students at colleges like Oberlin were getting branded as “snowflakes” who couldn’t handle difficult topics.
“I became interested in how we help students have the skills to have meaningful dialogue,” Raimondo said, adding, “The world doesn’t really model how to do that kind of work. I don’t know why we think college students should be good at this.”
Raimondo said the students learned they could talk about hard topics — racial identity, abortion, God – and also move beyond talk to work for change. “I thought the real innovation in Simon’s approach was, ‘Let’s take those skills on the road and show how they can be core” to the democratic process.
Oberlin senior Sarah Wong of California and Spring Arbor graduate Alexis Lewis of Michigan both participated in the 2019 pilot project. Wong, a music studies major and a Methodist, is a classically trained singer. At Oberlin, “I definitely felt I was living in a bubble,” Wong said.
Lewis, a criminal justice major whose Baptist church was central to her family life, is the daughter of a U.S. Navy veteran. She has a family member who spent time in jail, another who served in the U.S. Marines. Both Wong and Lewis said Bridging the Gap had a profound effect.
“It reminded me of that TV show ‘Wife Swap,’ because they went with a person who had a different perspective than them,” Lewis said. “It was really cool.”
Not everyone is a fan. Some of the people most entrenched in the nation’s cultural battles see such dialogue programs as unproductive at best; others see them as dangerous forays into the enemy camp. As Greer puts it: “Rome is burning and we’re over here talking about how we see things differently.”
Greer wants those students in the room but says they are often the toughest to reach. “Some students are transformed,” Greer said. Still, “it’s very hard to transform the campus culture. One program alone isn’t going to do it.”
Administrators at Oberlin and Spring Arbor seem to disagree. Oberlin’s Raimondo says the impact is visible. Faculty and administrators at both schools continue to forge strong ties. And she’s watched students complete the Bridging the Gap program and step into campus leadership roles in student government and beyond.
“I can very easily see this whole thing being an hour long special on 60 Minutes. It has the opportunity to be that impactful,” Spring Arbor’s Brown said. “It’s a model of what’s supposed to be happening in Washington, D.C.”
Monique Parsons is the managing editor of Interfaith America.