Bridging the Gap: Oberlin Students Develop Dialogue with Conservative Religious School

January 28, 2020
Amanda Nagy
Six students sitting at a table set with food.
Second-year Sarah Wong participated in the Bridging the Gap project. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

It started with a leap of faith that two distinctly different schools would, in fact, be able to “bridge the gap” between political, ideological, and experiential differences. 

A new project offered during winter term, Bridging the Gap: Dialogue Across Campus in a Time of Political Polarization, offered a team of 10 Oberlin students the opportunity to build dialogue skills with nationally recognized facilitator Simon Greer, and to apply that practice with students from conservative evangelical college Spring Arbor University in Michigan. 

Through a combination of classroom learning, off-campus trips, and observations of a broad criminal justice reform initiative in Michigan, both groups collaborated to envision how those dialogue skills could be applied to a range of social challenges.

A guiding principle of Bridging the Gap is that students would develop the skills to truly listen, understand, be heard, and seek common ground without attempting to change minds. 

Greer said the project involved a staggering 50 hours of class time and 53 hours of fieldwork between the two institutions.  

“From the beginning, there was a leap of faith that this would work,” Greer said in panel presentation of the project. “From the moment I encountered both sets of students, I realized the accounts were all wrong. I’m really inspired by how they’ve shown up every step of the way. If we invest in this set of people and their peers across the country, there’s not a divide we can’t resolve.

Students sitting in a classroom.
Facilitator Simon Greer, standing, leads a class in Oberlin.
Photo credit: Yvonne Gay

During the presentation, participants from both schools talked about how they started the program with preconceived notions: that Oberlin was a symbol of progressive intolerance; that Spring Arbor would be a “closed, conservative religious bubble.” 

Classwork focused on active listening, how to have hard conversations, and storytelling. Both groups spent three days of immersive learning in the Michigan criminal justice system, in which they talked to a police union, incarcerated individuals, corrections officers, and state legislators involved in criminal justice.

Third-year Austin Ward said he applied listening and storytelling skills in a conversation with a corrections officer.

“He referred to the prisoners as animals. My first reaction was to do what liberals in this country are expected to do, which is yell,” said Ward, an anthropology and environmental studies major. “Polarization is tearing this country apart. I wanted to go in a different direction. I was able to tell him a personal story to relate how I disagree that inmates are animals. I know I planted a seed in his head. I was able to shake his hand at the end and connect with him.” 

Students sitting at a desk.
A classroom exercise in StudiOC.
Photo credit: Yvonne Gay

Darielle Kennedy, a second-year law and society major, collaborated with Spring Arbor students to explore prison reform. Kennedy says she was surprised to learn about the stresses and lack of support for corrections officers, who have an alarming suicide rate in Michigan.

“This project made me a better listener and a better Posse Scholar.”


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