Can higher education curb polarization?

Four principles for bridge-building from the Working Across Differences Project.

Sep 14, 2020 · 5 min read

By Emily Lamb

We see the effects of polarization everywhere — from our online communities to our college campuses. And yet, rather than deepening divides, what if higher education offers a powerful opportunity to build bridges across differences? Beginning in July 2019, Ashoka U, the Fetzer Institute, and a consortium of six colleges and universities embarked on a journey to discover how it might be done.

Together the group launched the Working Across Differences project and offered grants to post-secondary institutions to support new, creative campus-wide initiatives that connect people across differences. It quickly became clear that bridge building is a skill — and a mindset — that is critical for everyone, including students, educators, and even institutions, to embody if we are to ever overcome the polarization that plagues campuses.

At the culmination of this partnership, all of us came together to distill our learnings. Here are the four key principles we discovered:

1. Start with yourself

Spoiler alert: Building bridges doesn’t actually begin with a conversation with someone who thinks differently than you, or participating in a project that brings people together. Bridging begins with the self and inner work. Leaders in the Working Across Differences project shared they had to first focus on embracing inner humility, joy, courage, resilience, authenticity, and empathy in order to authentically engage with others.

What does this look like on a college campus?

Two consortium members, Miami Dade College (MDC) and North Central College (NCC), partnered with Boston-based nonprofit Essential Partners to train faculty, staff, and students on one seemingly simple, yet actually quite complex, concept: choosing dialogue over debate. In group settings they started with individuals’ personal stories, values, and identity exploration. As a result, people in the room could begin conversations and relationships on a foundation of curiosity and openness.

2. Create a fabric of trust

“Relationships move at the speed of trust,” says Ashoka Fellow Reverend Jennifer Bailey. Without trust, open and authentic conversations can never happen.

Ada Gregory, Associate Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, learned this first-hand through a training program aimed at normalizing healthy civil discourse on and around campus. After hosting a dialogue training at orientation for all incoming students, her team learned students are eager to grapple with tough, divisive topics and they need time to develop open and authentic relationships in order to welcome differences.

Ashley Clarke and Leslie Lowe at CQUniversity focused on building trust in planning and hosting a series of workshops across Australia about indigenous innovation practices. “I can create a project plan and a training process in a linear, logical way,” Ashley explains, “but to engage in indigenous ways of being, knowing, and thinking isn’t as linear.” She continues:

“Indigenous ways start with trust, which takes a lot of time, but it’s part of the process. The importance of sitting in the space and chatting it out, then co-designing and involving indigenous mentors became a core part of the workshop. In the workshop, we started with a cup of tea and giving space.”

Bridge building did not happen when people came to persuade. Campus partners found that while focusing on building deep, authentic, and equitable relationships (instead of trying to convince the other side to agree with you) took longer, it led to better outcomes. People worked alongside each other to weave a stronger connective fabric.

3. Foster spaces that bring in others

Creating a space that welcomes diverse perspectives requires intentionally thinking about community and culture. Clear community guidelines and norms help participants feel safe and empower them to bring their whole selves into the conversation.

Katy Brecht, Warren College Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at University of California San Diego (UCSD), always began student dialogue circles with group norm setting. Stephania Rodriguez, Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs at North Central College (NCC) used “community agreements” at the beginning of meetings and events to foster a call-in culture among NCC staff, faculty, and students valued. A Duke University professor spent an entire semester crafting norms with class members, like “practice intellectual humility,” “assume the best,” and “offer an out.”

Group rituals can bring collective agreements and ways of being to life. For example, CQUniversity in Australia hosted workshops about centering indigenous ways of knowing and being by practicing rituals like acknowledging the indigenous ancestors of the land, sitting in a circle, and conversing over native bush tea. The rituals embrace shared leadership, equal voices, and other indigenous values and ways of being.

4. Lean into “small radical shifts”

All of the Working Across Differences project participants agreed that sustained change happens incrementally. Change in large systems, like in colleges and universities, happens in small radical shifts — the “seeds” for a garden of possibility.

The initial group of faculty and staff trained in bridge building at MDC included 20-30 individuals — just a handful of the tens of thousands of employees. Still, in just 3 months, individuals who participated in the training started integrating principles they learned in classrooms, student programs, and even staff meetings, and came to see themselves as “culture carriers.”

At many institutions, the idea of reaching across boundaries to bridge silos on campus is still considered novel. But starting shifts doesn’t have to be flashy and new, as Abby Chroman and Rachel Cunliffe from Portland State University point out. Their work at Portland State centered on the idea of bringing self-identified bridge builders from across the institution together to share, learn, and plan together.

We often want big sweeping change to be the first sign of success. Yet it’s important to remember that while the first step can be small and might go unrecognized, it can also lead to ripples of impact.

Summing it up

It’s no surprise that these principles are not new or revolutionary. Some have been practiced for centuries across many cultures. Our main insight is that these principles can be used by anyone — you don’t need a special degree or hundreds of hours of training.

When we elevate bridge-building as a skill, a value, and a mindset with care and attention it can become embedded into an institution’s culture. What if we wove these principles into the fibers of student clubs, academic departments, and the president’s office? What would our classes look like? What would admissions look like? What would funding look like? Who would our faculty, staff, students, and administrators be?

These are the questions the consortium is asking as colleges and universities embark on a new academic year in a sector ripe for deep transformation.

About the Working Across Differences Fund: The Working Across Differences Fund, made possible by the Fetzer Institute, provided grants to accelerate the development, application, and proliferation of bridge building across differences in higher education.

The grantees included CQUniversity, Duke University, Miami Dade College, North Central College, Portland State University, and University of California San Diego. Read about the grantee projects here.


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