At first glance, one might assume that the 60 students divided into small groups at the University of Michigan's (U-M) Weiser Hall are studying on this cold February weeknight. Instead, they're politely discussing the history of the executive branch and how it relates to current events – specifically the recent government shutdown.
U-M student organization WeListen hosts group discussions on politics and current events like this one every other week, with the goal of building understanding between people with divergent political viewpoints.
WeListen was created by U-M students after the divisive 2016 presidential election. Organizers intended to bridge the political gap on campus by offering students a way to talk about divisive issues and learn why others might think differently.
Evon Yao, WeListen's VP of outreach, says she felt jaded by politics after the 2016 election. She joined the organization because she wanted to learn more about her fellow students' viewpoints and the experiences that shape them.
"WeListen humanizes the conversation," Yao says. "It helps to find common ground and leave with a bigger understanding of the people you might consider your ideological opponents."
How it works
WeListen emphasizes balance, starting with its leadership structure. The organization has two co-presidents – one a conservative and the other a liberal. The executive board and the content team that generates discussion points are also split evenly by political stance.
Each event starts with a presentation on the evening's focus topic, covering facts on the history of the issue and quotes from notable politicians. Fact sheets are also distributed for students to reference during the discussions.
Yao says she's found WeListen to be a great learning opportunity, especially for those who avoid talking about politics all together, because the group presents basic facts on the issues. These presentations, in addition to the peer conversations, help put issues into context for students on how the topic might impact their own lives.
"It's easy to not know a lot about a topic and ignore it," Yao says. "It's important to realize we all have a stake in these issues and what is going on."
Once the presentation is completed, students are assigned small groups based on ideological information they've provided in a sign-up survey, so each group includes a variety of political stances. A student moderator trained by U-M's Office of Student Conflict Resolution is also placed in each group to keep conversations flowing and fair.
To start the small group conversations, participants are invited to share details about themselves without mentioning politics. Hugh Collins, WeListen's VP of finance, says this is crucial for groups to have an open dialogue.
"These icebreakers are really valuable because you get to learn about people as people and really see how that transitions into their beliefs," Collins says.
Small groups then continue to discuss the theme, using provided conversation starters on the fact sheet. After about 45 minutes of conversation, co-presidents Kate Westa and Brett Zaslavsky wrap up the event by asking groups to share what they've learned from their group discussions.
Often, students say they were surprised by their peers' backgrounds and appreciated hearing how their backgrounds influence their opinions on the issue.
Collins says he was able to better understand gun rights and the people who support them during a WeListen session about the Second Amendment.
"I learned a lot more about people who owned guns recreationally for hunting or sport and the cultural connection people have with that," Collins says. "I don't think I ever really understood (the pro-gun rights viewpoint) before."
While Collins says the discussion didn't change his views on gun control, he says he now has a greater appreciation for the other side of the issue and why people are concerned about gun control legislation.
"What I've gained is the understanding that a lot of people have really similar values," Collins says. "They just express them in different ways and their backgrounds really inform how those are expressed."
These conversations also help students feel more comfortable expressing their political beliefs. Westa says WeListen has helped her be open about her opinions without feeling judged or getting into a heated debate.
"When you're able to express yourself in this setting where everyone has the chance to listen ... I think that makes people a lot more open to say their views that they have that might be misunderstood or that people might have preconceived notions about," Westa says.
Outside of its discussion events, WeListen has shared its methodology both on and off campus. The WeListen team recently facilitated a discussion about immigration at Ann Arbor's Greenhills High School, with the goal of promoting respectful political conversation. Other student groups on campus have contacted WeListen to hold discussion events for them as well.
WeListen is looking to expand to other college campuses in the future. Zaslavsky and Westa say Michigan State University is the next campus where they'd like to introduce the organization before continuing to spread it across the Midwest.
Zaslavsky believes WeListen is helping to disprove common misconceptions about college students' political knowledge (or lack thereof). He believes WeListen encourages participants to have more empathy when they meet those who disagree with them, and that the lessons learned in WeListen can translate to life outside of the organization.
"As a college student, I've always been frustrated by the notion (that) college students can't participate in debate or they're so politically sensitive that they just want to plug their ears," he says. "WeListen is the exact proof that that's not the case."
Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.