We Need to Learn How to Talk to Each Other

A screenshot from the video of Spring Arbor University and Oberlin College students engaging in bridging the gap conversations.

To say that 2020 has been an emotionally charged year is an understatement. 

Not only are we in the midst of a pandemic, but racial tensions are the highest they have ever been in our lifetimes. 

My name is Alexis Lewis. Since the murder of George Floyd, I have been even more conscious of my prescribed position in this country as a black woman. I find myself more anxious, more on-edge, angrier—and when I reflect on my feelings, sadder than I have ever been. It feels as though this country is so divided that we can never come together again. It’s even harder when I think about the fact that a lot of this divide is because of people’s hatred for the color of my skin.

I’m Sarah Wong, and I agree with Alexis. As an Asian American, I have witnessed the way the 45th US President’s COVID-19 pandemic rhetoric has alienated my ethnic community. Reading the news each day has become more than a chore; it’s a burden. I have never felt more fear for my friends and family and despair at my own perceived inability to make a difference than I do at this moment. The divide that polarizes our nation often seems like an insurmountable obstacle in the way of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In light of these anxieties, it’s hard to believe that in January of this year, we participated in a program that gave us hope: the Bridging the Gap (BTG) pilot project at Spring Arbor University and Oberlin College. So much happened between January and now that reflecting on our time together with clarity is nigh impossible. Fortunately, the release of the documentary film about our experience gives us a rare opportunity to look back on the program through a literal lens. In hindsight, we recall and reflect on the lessons we learned and the relationships we forged.

No one knew what to expect when we arrived at our respective on-campus classrooms for our first meetings. Each student came with different lived experiences and intentions. In the Oberlin cohort alone, reasons for joining ranged from an interest in criminal justice reform to exasperation with polarized family arguments, and everything in between. Upon entering the room, we glanced at our lead facilitator, Simon Greer (a man we had never met before), and then at the paused video frame featuring Glenn Beck (a controversial figure that none of us recognized) behind him. Some of us thought, “Who is this guy? What in the world is he going to teach us?”

When Simon told us that we were going to spend a week learning how to listen to one another, we were confused. Listening? We already knew how to do that. We listened to class lectures every day. But we soon realized that listening is more than sitting quietly and nodding while someone speaks. 

It’s about going deeper and truly hearing a person when they speak. It’s about being curious without sacrificing or compromising your own convictions. It’s about keeping an open mind and looking for common ground, even when it seems unlikely. It’s about doing everything you can and exploring every option before walking away. The listening skills we learned that day were the keys we needed to unlock a number of life-changing encounters.

Then came the next phase of the program: bringing students from Oberlin to Spring Arbor University. On our first day together, we engaged in one-on-one conversations. Not light “what’s-your-favorite-food” conversation (although we did that too), but deep “what-are-your-views-on-abortion” conversation. We talked about all of the topics that we avoided at family dinners because we didn’t want to risk awkward silences and heated arguments. We pressed each other to go deeper into our beliefs and did not attempt to change the way anyone felt. 

Our goal was not to change someone’s views but to find out why they believe what they believe. We endeavored to understand each other as human beings. Through this practice, our perceptions of each other as Oberlin or Spring Arbor, spiritual or nonspiritual, midwestern or coastal, melted away. They gave way to nuanced understandings of each other as individuals, college students, Americans, and as friends. From conversations about grief and loss, faith, and coincidental opportunities, the connections we made amongst ourselves and with others were some of the most rewarding parts of BTG.

After an intensive week of fieldwork in which we analyzed Michigan’s criminal justice system from the ground up, we got to work synthesizing our newfound knowledge into small-group presentations. Our group took our beliefs about the importance of education and combined it with the stories we heard from various Michigan criminal justice stakeholders and elected officials. Together, we formulated a blueprint for reform that we presented to a panel of Oberlin faculty and staff. Our long January project ended that day as the entire group (no longer distinguishing between Oberlin and Spring Arbor) reflected on everything we learned and experienced. We promised that we would uphold our commitment to bridging gaps in the future.

Then March—and COVID-19—happened, and we were sent home from college. George Floyd’s tragic death in May followed soon after, accompanied by months of anguished protesting across the country and around the world. Those of us in BTG knew that we needed to do something to help alleviate the tension felt on our campuses. 

Over the summer, Spring Arbor’s BTG cohort initiated a fireside chat in which students and faculty candidly discussed race-related incidents with the entire administration. The administration opened their hearts and minds to hear black staff, faculty, and students speak about instances in which we weren’t treated fairly because of our race. Those of us present left the meeting feeling seen and heard, and one step closer to a solution. Students from Oberlin’s Asian American Alliance came together with members of BTG to facilitate a discussion about racism and intersectionality. There, we listened to each other’s stories, learned about our intertwined collective histories, and created action plans to address tensions within our own communities at home and at Oberlin. 

But it didn’t feel like enough. In such a polarized political climate, every step forward felt accompanied by a step back in our country. At times, some of us wavered in our hope for a more united people. Sometimes the conversations we engaged in, in which we did everything we could and explored every option, felt fruitless. Yet each time we despaired over finding common ground with others, we came together over and over again. We commiserated with each other, laughed about our struggles, and thought up new courses of action. It was easy to forget that the relationships we now took for granted came from our own leap of faith to bridge across perceived differences in January.

As we near the end of 2020, the contentious American presidential election looms like a specter over the nation. We are filled with unanswered questions about the fate of our country and the work we must do to mend the wounds of hate and division. But if there’s one thing that the film [insert title here] reminds us of, it is this: when we engage in courageous conversations with curiosity and humility, we allow ourselves to not only see a person’s viewpoints but see them as a person. We also might reaffirm humanity within ourselves. 

The two of us understand that what we did in January is the beginning of a long, arduous task of building bridges across differences in this nation. Just as we know that we were not the first to do this work, we are confident that we will not be the last. In BTG, we learned the skills we needed to engage with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements. We believe that it is possible—that it is necessary—for you to do the same.

 

Learn more about Bridging the Gap, and watch the full film about this program, at https://www.tnp-academy.org/bridgingthegap.

Sarah Wong is a third-year student at Oberlin College majoring in Musical Studies with an education concentration. She is a Bridging The Gap 2020-2021 research fellow.

Alexis Lewis is a senior at Spring Arbor University majoring in Criminal Justice. She participated in the Bridging The Gap program in January.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.