March 25, 2019
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So radically simple: Talking—and listening—to people you disagree with

Students at the University of Michigan founded WeListen, a nonpartisan group that engages college kids—and the community at large—to talk with one another about polarizing issues.

Through WeListen, students at the University of Michigan engage in thoughtful conversations about polarizing topics like gun control and immigration. Photo by Peter Smith

After the 2016 presidential election, our campus here at the University of Michigan was divided. Whether in classrooms or on social media, students became siloed into their echo chambers, unwilling to engage in political discussion with one another. To alleviate this, former Michigan students Gabe Lerner and Sonia Thosar created WeListen, a nonpartisan student organization working to bridge the American political divide through conversations and not debate. By creating a space on campus for students to come together across the political aisle, WeListen’s aim is for students to engage in productive dialogue, find common ground, and humanize the other side.

At WeListen, we don’t stray away from tough topics. From immigration to gun control to abortion and more, we know that these are some of the most pressing issues that need to be talked about. Our algorithm sorts liberal and conservative students into small, diverse groups so participants can engage and learn from those they might normally consider their ideological opponents. Every group has a moderator, and our content team presents a bipartisan fact sheet at every session so anyone, regardless of prior political knowledge, can join the conversation.

I joined WeListen my sophomore year to fight against my own sense of political apathy. I was exhausted by mindless arguments about politics online. On social media, no one was actually being listened to, and it seemed like everyone’s goal was to win an argument. Then I heard about WeListen, a space where instead of trying to convince others that they’re wrong and you’re right, students could leave with an understanding of the backgrounds and experiences that shape others’ political perspectives. As a fairly new organization, I truly believed in WeListen’s mission and was excited by its potential to grow.

Within its first year, WeListen quickly gained traction and support. It restored my faith to see that students were receptive to our mission even during divisive times. After the Las Vegas shooting, students came to our gun control session to reflect and share their thoughts. After Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, students showed up to discuss the evolving role of the judicial branch. Instead of muting one another in these moments, students on both sides sought to be heard and understood. I’m proud of WeListen for changing the narrative that college students can’t engage in discussion with those who disagree with them. We don’t just engage, we learn.

In a time of extreme polarization, our mission isn’t just important for students but for everyone. When we come together, we can get closer to bridging the political divide.

Beyond our campus community, we have introduced WeListen’s model to other parts of Ann Arbor. We have hosted sessions with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a local high school, and more. In September of 2018, we launched our first ever WeListen Fall Conference. It was a day full of civic discourse on gun control, immigration, and free speech, followed by a policy-making workshop with Ann Arbor city council members. Our conference concluded with a conversation across the aisle between Bill Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard; and Neera Tanden, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. Students, faculty, staff, and university administration attended, including University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. They showed their support for WeListen and to building a movement of listeners on college campuses. In a time of extreme polarization, our mission isn’t just important for students but for everyone. When we come together, we can get closer to bridging the political divide.

Now involved with WeListen for over a year, the remedy seems obvious. At the end of the day, we’re really just a bunch of college students engaging in conversation. We’re doing what we as social creatures know best, talking to each other face-to-face—it’s radically simple. We always kick off our sessions with participants introducing themselves, doing some icebreakers, and talking about anything but politics. Instead of hiding behind phones and challenging opponents to cite their sources, I appreciate listening to my peers and hearing their stories. Whether it’s a story about someone’s parent who immigrated to America or another who grew up hunting with their family, I gain more insight on how their backgrounds contribute to their political views. Our goal is to build empathy through dialogue, and so, it seems unreasonable—if not, inconsiderate—to argue against my peers’ personal stories or discredit them with facts and statistics.

These experiences and memories shape us deeply as individuals, and I believe that if we truly want to understand “the other side,” we must listen to each other’s stories. We should listen intently and view each other as people, not Democrats or Republicans. Our differences can be productive instead of deepening the divide. I have hope knowing that my peers sitting next to me at WeListen discussions will lead the future, and together, we can change today’s political climate.

Keep up with WeListen on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Evon Yao

WeListen

Evon Yao is the Vice President of Outreach for WeListen, a nonpartisan student organization working to bridge the American political divide through conversations on contentious political topics. She is originally from Chicago and is a junior at the University of Michigan studying philosophy, politics, and economics.