Last month, the Greater Good Science Center started accepting applications for our new Bridging Differences in Higher Education Learning Fellowship, an eight-month virtual learning community running from Fall 2023 through Spring 2024. (Applications are due by May 22.) The community will be facilitated by Allison Briscoe-Smith, a senior fellow at the GGSC, the co-instructor of the GGSC’s Bridging Differences online course, and the diversity lead of student life at the University of Washington. Across all of these roles, Briscoe-Smith, a clinical psychologist, has focused deeply on the science of connecting across our differences and how the lessons from this science can be applied on college campuses in particular.
We talked with her about the Learning Fellowship—and why college campuses are so critical for building an alternative to political and social polarization.
Jeremy Adam Smith: What do you mean by bridging differences?
Allison Briscoe-Smith: I mean, very simply, how do we connect across our differences.
JAS: When you think “differences,” what do you think of?
ABS: Political affiliation, values, race. The “other” that we can’t stand. How do we connect across differences with people who we don’t like, don’t trust, or who we don’t know?
But as I’ve been spending a lot of time in this kind of bridging space, I’ve been learning that it can also be about connecting with people who like broccoli and don’t like broccoli.
I’m trying to get very small with it. There’s this video of British kids talking about differences, and you come into it and you think it’s going to be this big thing. You see visually different kids, kids in a wheelchair, kid not; kid that has hijab, kid doesn’t, gender and race differences. And they’re like, what do you notice is the thing that’s most different about your friend? And a kid answers, “She likes to sing, and I do not.” There’s something about that that I find really kind of sweet. I think we have this sense about differences as these big giant fault lines, but these kids who ostensibly look and experience things really differently were like, “She likes tomatoes, and I don’t.” The video shows that differences can be OK—and are present in friendships and our connections.
JAS: Are there any differences that you don’t think can be bridged?
ABS: I do think that some bridges cannot be crossed. And I think also there is some conflict that cannot be solved. As a toxically positive pathological optimist, that’s hard for me to say. But I do think there are some divides that are just too big.
JAS: Do you feel able to provide an example?
ABS: I work in the context of trauma, of serving people who’ve experienced trauma. I work with a lot of adults who are survivors of childhood trauma. Many of them have held this incredible capacity for grace and connection and have sought out a relationship with people who have harmed them. And some of them have an incredible capacity for grace and loving and connection, and have decided that that is a divide they’re not going to cross. I don’t hold any judgment about either decision. I hold awe and wonder at folks who discern what bridges they will and won’t cross. I think there are some places that people have made wise and hard decisions to not try to come together.
JAS: Let’s talk about higher education. Why focus on bridging in higher education specifically?
ABS: I think there are a number of different reasons why.
One is because higher ed campuses are a kind of crucible for divides. They’re becoming places where the divides are becoming really large and publicized through the media, and so are pretty consequential. Something like 63% of college students say that they don’t feel like their campuses have a climate where people can speak about what they really believe. There’s a great report out by Constructive Dialogue Institute that breaks down the types of divides that are showing up on campuses. We’re more and more racially divided, we’re more politically divided. We’re divided recreationally, spending our leisure time doing very different things.
So there’s that—campuses are where stuff is going down. I think the second reason is positive, though. It’s that college campuses could be an amazing place to engage in diversity, to engage in different thought, to lean in. I think higher ed could be a place where we actually support people in connecting across differences and being impactful.
JAS: Years ago, I wrote a summary of the available research about political polarization. And one thing that really surprised me is the degree to which it is structural. If you go out of our sphere of psychology, into political science and economics, it’s pretty clear that it was the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 that drove the GOP to start poaching white Democratic voters in the South, which made them much more right-wing and the Democrats much more left. Since then, Congress has become measurably more polarized, with less and less overlap in voting between the parties. At the same time, there are some really big economic forces at work—driving inequality and destroying local newspapers, for example. Given that, why do you think it’s possible to turn the tide at all? What gives you hope?
ABS: Given that we’re in a capitalistic society, somebody is making money from our polarization. Amanda Ripley talks about conflict entrepreneurs, and I really like that language, but there are a lot of people who are making money off of it, like politicians and social media. We have an emerging economy that is capitalizing off of telling parents to be afraid of everything. There’s been recent information and data that shows that new mothers on Instagram are targeted with ads and videos that show bad things happening to infants or kids that encourage the purchasing of items, like the right bassinet or the anti-choking tool. There’s somebody who’s making tons of money from that—which I think means, conversely, that we need to ask ourselves how we can support economies that don’t only capitalize off of our fear. I don’t know that that’s necessarily hopeful, but it might point to a solution.
The organization More in Common has this great data that shows that most folks are in this exhausted majority, who actually agree on, or hold more complex and nuanced ideas about, big issues like gun safety or abortion. But this exhausted majority isn’t driving the political debate.
The same thing is true for parents. We’ve got study after study that shows that the majority of parents don’t want what’s happening in these really politicized debates about education. They want teachers to be able to teach, they want books. We have clear evidence that the majority or many folks have much more nuanced, complicated, less polarized views. However, there are a few very loud voices at the margins that are compelling the debate and demanding policy change. I think being able to shine a light on our complexities and nuances, and that there are many folks who fall in the middle, can certainly help. Equipping folks to actually reach out and talk to those “others” who you THOUGHT were radically different, but actually might not be, is what bridging can do.
With this Bridging Differences Initiative, I’ve had a chance to sit with lots of people who are forming organizations to address these issues of polarization, and to help people connect across their differences. It’s been really impactful and informative to find out that so many people are sharing their frustration, and perhaps more importantly are willing to do something about these divides.
Finally, I think there’s a big fear around what it means for our democracy. And so at this point, I’m really trying to be hopeful about how enough people would like to feel and do something different. That’s what’s exhausting the majority. I think there’s so many people who are tired. I’ll be honest, I’m tired of feeling righteous all the time. I mean, there was a moment where it felt really good and it was really animating, but I don’t know what it’s really necessarily gotten me personally.
JAS: Let’s talk about the program. What are the main things we try to offer participants in our learning fellowships for higher education leaders?
ABS: We offer them access to the research about how to connect across their differences. We offer them access to a community of learners and practitioners who are doing that, as well. And we offer them an opportunity for support, because this work is not easy. It’s not easy in higher ed, but I think people are looking for opportunities to connect. One of the things that we heard in the last community of practice that we had was, “Oh, I’ve been doing this, but now I actually know that it’s research-based.” Or “I’ve been doing this and I found other people who are doing it like this, too.”
I’ve experienced this in my own professional life. I’ve held academic positions with a focus on student services and diversity, equity, and inclusion and have found that these positions can be really isolating. In our communities of higher ed, I’ve heard the same issue echoed. There’s profound isolation that comes when you’re trying to push forward dialogue, or getting folks to connect when there has been previous conflict. In effect, these are folks on campus whose job it is to lean into the stickiest, most-likely-to-get-you-fired, -sued, or -hurt-somebody places. And what we’re offering them is a community of folks who are doing that, as well. I think addressing the isolation is pretty big.
JAS: What would you say to somebody who chooses explicitly not to be a bridger? And by that I mean somebody who chooses to be partisan, who decides that they’re fighting to protect their group or another group, or fighting for a specific set of values—and they’re just like, I’m not interested in building bridges.
ABS: Well, the first thing I would say is that building bridges does not require you to change your values, or who you’re fighting for. I think that’s one of the common misperceptions about building bridges. Connecting across your differences doesn’t mean that you give up on your politics, your values, your beliefs. This is not about changing minds, this is not about giving up your values, this is not about changing who you want to protect. It is about opening up a space for shared humanity, seeing another person as human. Often, it simply means that you’re willing to say hello to somebody.
Number two, I don’t think you can bridge all the time, and I don’t think everybody’s a bridger. We just had this great experience talking with thought leaders like john powell and Eboo Patel. They are amazing bridgers. They can walk into a room and get anybody to connect. And they invoked amazing people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who were amazing bridgers. But I don’t think you have to be a Gandhi or an MLK to do this.
I don’t think you have to bridge at all times either. Sometimes I have my limits and that’s fine. I think there are some circumstances where you can’t bridge. Litigation is not a time for bridging, for example.
But I don’t want people to get set up for, like, “I’m not a bridger because I’ve got a lot of values” or “I’m not a bridger because my job requires me to do a certain thing.” There are some times where you can use it, some times you can’t.
So that’s why, again, I try to get really small. Bridging is how you connect across differences. It can be boiled down to a set of concrete skills and practices that we have lots of evidence (lived and research-wise) that works to connect across our divides. I hope that folks won’t get overwhelmed or turned off by the idea, but rather think about the moments when to use these skills and when they might be helpful in helping to create a bit of shared humanity. I also hope that our community of practice helps to bring support, information, and connection to folks who are doing this on our college campuses—places that should be where we learn how to connect with those who might be different than us.