The Unlikely Story of Courageous Pluralism

Is it possible that we are not as polarized as we have been led to believe? Recent work on college campuses aimed at bridging divides indicates a hunger for conversation across difference.

“Courageous Pluralism” is a program launched by IFYC and supported by the Charles Koch Institute and the Fetzer Institute, two funders with different ideological grounding points, to symbolically mirror the bridge-building goals of the project. We selected 14 diverse campuses from across the country and placed them in pairs. Each campus embodies an institutional identity and ideological posture that might appear at odds with their assigned pair (an evangelical Christian school paired with a progressive-leaning and non-sectarian liberal arts school, for example).  

Driven by the shared conviction that “courageous pluralism” will strengthen civic fabric if practiced and shared, campus pairs proposed initiatives that put their institutions in direct relationship and centered student engagement. The program launched in February of 2020—so it goes without saying that plans had to change. Then the murder of George Floyd occurred during the summer of 2020. Then the election, followed by the insurrection on January 6th.  

In the midst of a sense that no one is talking to one another during one of the most difficult periods of racial uprising, partisan politics and pandemic, courageous pluralism—both as a program and a value—maintained its pulse. Hopeful and confident leaders created opportunities for pluralism despite the tumultuous year and the taboo nature of the collaboration at hand, all from very different vantage points. Tara Stoppa of Eastern University reflected:  

We were paired with Lincoln University, the nation's oldest degree-granting HBCU. First, the three of us from Eastern University who have been personally involved in this project have felt very warmly connected to our colleagues from Lincoln, something that began right from the very beginning, from the time we first met in Washington, DC. Secondly, in the midst of this past year – as the entire nation reckoned with racial inequity and systemic marginalization of communities of color – it has been a profoundly moving and eye-opening experience to be in relationship and to stand in solidarity with our Lincoln colleagues. This pairing feels sacred and meaningful to us and this past year's interaction between our institutions seems as if it is only the beginning of a relationship that we are committed to continuing.  

Dr. Frederick Faison of Lincoln University reported that “amid the flood of media and the fractions in our community, there are people willing to lend themselves to the cause of justice and respecting the power of diversity.” The entire Courageous Pluralism campus cohort has been moved by Dr. Faison’s ability to speak with compassionate honesty of the particular challenges experienced by the students at his institution, as well as what that means for his personal stewardship of courageous pluralism in ways that it might not at other campuses (and perhaps, should).  

Eastern University and Lincoln University are just one example, and the audio story linked above was created to capture all the relationships that were built and the meaning those relationships held for the campuses involved. We hope it becomes a source of hope and reminder of the good of which we’re all capable.  

While there might be many possible antidotes for the disintegration of our social fabric, the intimate relationships shaped by the value courageous pluralism is one antidote that we have found effective and life-giving in this last year—and will be for years to come.

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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.