In this age of deep political division in our country, it has become increasingly difficult to talk to those who hold opposing views without resorting to attacks or questioning each other’s morality – a phenomenon only exacerbated by social media, which allows users to sit comfortably behind their screens and demonize the opposing side without any repercussions.
Seeing such problems take hold both nationally and at the University of Virginia, second-year student Jack Wilkins came up with an initiative to help bridge divisions on Grounds.
Called “Converge UVA,” the program matches pairs of students with opposing political views to meet and talk about their differences in a peaceful and constructive manner that encourages understanding and humanizing of the other side.
The program launched in November, attracting over 120 participants in its first round. The students met across Grounds throughout a two-week period.
How it Works
Participants first fill out a questionnaire that measures their political preferences on a scale of one to 10 across six categories. Thus, instead of just labeling participants as either “Democrat” or “Republican,” the questionnaire takes into account variations within political beliefs.
“There was a lot of differentiation amongst everybody who signed up,” Wilkins said. “Some people leaned left and were Hillary Clinton supporters, but leaned right in categories such as regulation or religion.”
Based on the results of the questionnaire, participants are then matched with someone whose views differ across multiple, but not all categories. The intention behind this is that participants will find some area of overlap in their beliefs.
Participants then meet in a location of their choice and begin to ask each other questions from a discussion guide provided by the program. Among the questions are:
- What are three stereotypes that you think others make about your political affiliation?
- How were politics talked about in your family growing up?
- What is one question you’ve always wanted to ask someone on the other side?
Although participants are not required to stick to the discussion guide questions, they serve as a means to help spark the conversation and get participants to talk about their differences.
Fourth-year student Will Rainy said the face-to-face interaction really helped him humanize his assigned discussion partner, rather than thinking of her as a political stereotype.
“What was great about the discussion is that it was very respectful,” he said. “There were no screaming matches or name-calling. It was more like, ‘I never thought of that before,’ or ‘Here is where I come from, and here is what happened in my background that made me feel this way.’”
Creating the Program
The idea for the program stemmed from Wilkins’ experiences growing up in the conservative town of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. As a self-identifying liberal, Wilkins often found himself unable to reconcile his political differences with those of his friends and family members.
“Part of the problem is that instead of viewing each other as people with disagreements, we viewed each other as morally deficient,” Wilkins said.
It wasn’t until he changed this mindset that he was finally able to not only have productive conversations with people of opposing viewpoints, but also realize that despite their differences, they shared common values.
Although Wilkins came up with the idea for the program, its creation and implementation resulted from a collaboration with three other friends. Second-year computer science major Alexandra Dimas, third-year philosophy and foreign affairs major Jenna Wichterman and fourth-year linguistics and political and social thought major Mary Grace Sheers all took part in research, marketing and implementation efforts.
Sheers, chair of Sustained Dialogue at UVA, tailored the discussion questions that would spark a meaningful and humanizing conversation between participants.
“One of the things I have learned in Sustained Dialogue that applies to this is the approach of humanizing someone and building a relationship in order to understand how they disagree with you,” Sheers said.
Although the program is no longer taking participants for this semester, students will be able to sign up again at the start of spring semester. Check out the program’s Facebook page for updates.
Impact on the Community
Wilkins and his friends hope that Converge UVA will provide an avenue for students at UVA to discuss their political differences in a manner that builds mutual understanding, finds common ground and seeks areas where progress can be made.
“Some might say that change doesn’t occur through mere conversations,” Wilkins said, “but if we want to make change, we’ll need to change minds, and if we want to change minds, we need to change hearts. And the only way to change hearts is to listen to each other’s stories.”