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SAU facilitates courageous conversations through revolutionary “Bridging the Gap” program

Bridging the Gap group outside of Lansing Capital Building

Spring Arbor University will offer the “Bridging the Gap” program for the second time this January, with both Oberlin College and Cornerstone University participating. The revolutionary “Bridging the Gap” program initially ran in January 2020 and resulted in students from two institutions with significant ideological differences finding common ground with their peers.

Recently the Nantucket Project released a film highlighting the program’s success.

Polarization and demonization of the “other” are increasingly prevalent in America, and there are limited opportunities for deep and informed engagement across lines of difference, particularly on college campuses. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, almost half of the registered voters for Biden and Trump reported that they don’t have a single friend who supports the other major party candidate. Students at Oberlin College, known as a bastion of liberal thinking in Oberlin, Ohio, are sometimes labeled as elite, intolerant “snowflakes,” while SAU students are sometimes labeled as conservative, intolerant “evangelicals.” Each is supposed to view the other as the irreconcilable opposition. The goal of the “Bridging the Gap” program was to challenge that notion by facilitating conversation between students from each school.

“Bridging the Gap” was introduced to SAU through Simon Greer, a nationally recognized entrepreneur and social change leader. The program began with simple, yet profound guidelines for its participants: “The intention is to take seriously the things that others hold dear. If it matters to them, then it will matter to us; we will not try to convince anyone that they are wrong or change them; and rather than thinking we are diminished by listening carefully to ideas we might disagree with, we will trust that we are enhanced by it.” 

Students learned and practiced skills such as listening, providing feedback and telling their stories. They explored each other’s values, worldviews, political ideas, faith traditions and much more. Students were encouraged to hold to their convictions and not to blur differences or seek watered-down compromises. Elizabeth Stewart, a senior communication studies major from SAU, said, “We knew the course was a safe space to learn and a safe place to disagree. Greer designed it around hearing others’ perspectives and made sure we were set up to be curious, listen, agree, disagree and focus on intellectual humility.” 

As a result of the pilot’s success, SAU will offer the course again during the January 2021 term for credit. Greer and “Bridging the Gap” have secured funding to continue SAU’s partnership with Oberlin College and expand the program, thanks to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and Templeton Religious Trust. In addition to this, Kevin Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at SAU, is coordinating “Courageous Conversations” across campus with departments to help bridge the gap for SAU students, staff and faculty as they navigate discussions around race in America. 

“I believe that we have to be committed to breaking down barriers and eliminating harmful bias, discrimination and racism so that we can create a campus community that truly reflects the depth and breadth of God’s kingdom,” says Brown. “By participating in ‘Bridging the Gap,’ we were able to offer students the opportunity to learn from others and practicing active listening — two invaluable steps on the road to developing authentic relationships that will lead to trust, honesty and respect. We can’t wait to share future updates about this program!”