These groups are building bridges and battling polarization

Politics

Seeds of Peace campers in 2022. Photo courtesy of Seeds of Peace.

(NewsNation) — President Joe Biden’s Thursday evening address on the state of America’s democracy is likely to call attention to growing political polarization in the country.

A new Economist/YouGov poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the country’s political divisions have gotten worse since 2021. Almost the same number expect divisions to increase over the next few years.

One of the best ways to reduce these divisions between Americans is for people of different groups to get to know each other in environments where they feel like they have a sense of equal status and common goals. It also helps if those environments have the support of some kind of authority who can help facilitate dialogue.

Gordon Allport — a mid-20th century sociologist — came to this conclusion while developing what he called intergroup contact theory.

Across the country, nonprofit groups are putting contact theory into action, building bonds between Americans of different political, religious and social backgrounds. Here are some of them:

Braver angels

Founded after the contentious 2016 election, Braver Angels works to bridge partisan divides.

One of its most popular programs is its workshops, where participants learn skills related to engaging in conversations with people who hold different beliefs than them.

The Red-Blue workshop, for instance, brings together Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning citizens to participate in exercises where they work to listen to each other and learn about their political opposites without judgment.

“You’re actually exposing yourself directly to people’s complicated, sometimes contradictory, but legitimately felt positions based on their own life experiences,” Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer at Braver Angels, told NewsNation earlier this year. “If you trust somebody, you can find ways to work with them, even if you disagree on the majority of topics.” 

In 2020 and 2021, the organization hosted 443 events with nearly 6,000 participants. Research on Braver Angels’ approach has shown that the workshops do appear to reduce polarization, but the effects weaken over time.

BridgeUSA

Some of the most polarized places in America are college campuses, where young adults often experience political debates for the first time.

BridgeUSA works to teach students constructive ways to voice their opinions and listen to the views of others. More than 50 college chapters utilize a range of strategies to do this, but one of the group’s most common activities is arranging small group dialogues.

“It is student-led, peer-to-peer facilitated, whether it’s five students or 10, or 30 or 40, finding issues that matter to their specific campus community and then having conversations about it, that students can actually share stories across lines of difference,” said Manu Meel, who serves as the CEO of BridgeUSA. “And these stories and these sort of instances of engagement, the idea is that if we repeat those instances of engagement you can actually start shifting people’s attitudes and behaviors towards norms of democracy and pluralism.”

Recently, BridgeUSA also started branching out to high schools.

“One of the biggest divides we see today [is] the college-educated versus not non-college-educated divides. And so we have to start doing this work earlier, as well,” Meel said.

SEEDS OF PEACE

Founded in the 1990s, Seeds of Peace runs programs designed to build bonds between young people and encourage them to engage in peacebuilding work as adults.

One of its premier programs brings together teenagers from differing groups to get to know each other in a summer camp held every year in Maine.

Initially started to encourage dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth, the program has grown and today incorporates teens from dozens of countries including the United States.

Camp activities include both typical summer camp fare such as outdoor adventures and arts and craft. It also hosts dialogue sessions where youth from communities who rarely get a chance to talk to each other as equals are encouraged to share their life experiences.

“When you look at the day-to-day lives here, most of the experience Palestinians and Israelis have with one another are negative as hell,” one Israeli former Seeds of Peace camper told NewsNation earlier this year. “And Seeds of Peace brings you a positive conversation where you can … deconstruct the image that the other side is trying to put on one another.”

Recent research has shown the camp experience helps campers grow closer to people on the other side.

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