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We’re building a student movement to bring the country together. We cannot coexist if we cannot talk to each other – it’s that simple.

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Brings together college students from across the ideological spectrum for constructive dialogue on topics happening across the nation.

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Equips high school students with skills for constructive dialogue on campuses across the nation.

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Students around the world are changing the discussion.

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“Our chapters empower young people to champion constructive dialogue and ideological diversity in their colleges and high schools. ”

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Everyday, BridgeUSA students are hosting discussions, challenging polarization, and bringing young people together to improve their communities.

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Blog

‘TAP Into Summer’ Review

Taha Vahanvaty (Originally published in 2021) Disclaimer: BridgeUSA acquired The Acceptance Project (TAP) in April 2022 as part of its initiative to engage high school students in constructive discussion. This blog post was previously written by TAP’s Founder Taha Vahanvaty to review TAP’s summer camp and highlight the students’ involvement in the program. Well, we did it! After months of planning, years of fundraising, and countless hours of marketing, we pulled off a summer camp experience like no other. TAP started out in 2016 as a club at Stroudsburg Junior High School. It was designed simply as a means to give students the space and opportunity to engage in dialogue with one another about the issues facing our community and nation. After 4 years of dialogue sessions, our team realized that TAP’s model of facilitating conversation was incredibly effective. We wanted to spread our model to other schools that needed more facilitators, and we needed to make sure that students were willing and eager to continue the conversation long after I was gone. Our solution was “TAP Into Summer”: a one-week, all expenses paid, a dialogue-intensive summer camp hosted at the Kirkridge Retreat Center. And here was the result: Day One: July 28, 2021 As campers emerged from their parents’ cars, they were led to their rooms before all gathering at the dining hall. The campers immediately hit it off. You would have never guessed that they were all complete strangers. Following lunch and some icebreakers, we oriented students to our mission, explained the purpose of civil discourse, and introduced them to the guidelines that would help them keep discussions in their schools respectful and inclusive. To keep the campers active, we traveled to Kirkridge’s soccer field to prepare for “Knocker Knocker” and “Caterpillar Wars.” Students were split into teams played competitive games through which they could rack up points. In the first event, “Knocker Knocker,” students from each team had to charge towards each other in an inflatable bubble to knock the opposing team over. The second game was “Caterpillar Wars.” Four students from each team had to race and tag the other team, all while synchronizing their walking in a giant rug. (Take a look at the photo…it’ll be easier to understand.) After dinner, students broke off into groups of three to play their first round of We’re Not Really Strangers (WRNRS), a card game designed to help students to ask introspective questions about one another. Everyone then gathered around the campfire, played Uno, and finally went to bed. Even during their first day, campers were already finding ways to come together as a community. Day 2: July 29, 2021 Campers (with a few yawns and complaints) woke up at 8 am for breakfast. After breakfast, we dove back into facilitator training. Day Two’s lessons taught students how to develop a TAP Talk, how to balance questions that lean left or right, the art of the follow-up, and how to transition from question to question. Following a delicious taco lunch, we launched our first TAP-style dialogue. The topic – Police Accountability. After we spent 90 minutes facilitating dialogue amongst the campers, two guest speakers arrived to share their perspectives on the issue. Christa Caceres, the chairperson of our county’s NAACP chapter, and Chief Bill Parrish, head of security at ESU and formerChief of Stroudsburg Area Regional Police. Christa provided insight into the trauma people of color have experienced as a result of police brutality and the recent tragic death of Christian Hall at the hands of Pennsylvania State Troopers. Bill spoke about his work mediating conversations between police and the general public at assemblies for local public high schools. Both Christa and Bill emphasized that people of color and police must continue to work together if we are to solve this problem. Both have participated in widely seen Zoom forums on this issue. At the end of their presentation, the kids were free to ask any questions, and most came away understanding that there is more grey area regarding the topic than they had thought. We closed up the night with another round of WRNRS and an awe-inspiring collective karaoke performance. There were sing-alongs, solo shows, duets, and all-around good vibes. Day 3: July 30, 2021 Breakfast this morning was accompanied by team-building activities to help campers wake up following their late-night karaoke fest. On day three, we demonstrated to the campers the importance of balancing questions when speaking to a group. While student facilitators might be liberal, they must frame some questions that will appeal to the values of the more conservative students or conversations will be one-sided and ineffective. An exercise on writing such questions turned out to be challenging for students, but with some coaching, the results were promising. In the afternoon, we discussed the topic of privilege. We played some interactive games that helped us see the ways that students are privileged as a result of their identities: male vs female, wealthy vs poor, white vs. BIPOC, LGBTQ+ vs. straight, etc. They shared their personal experiences on these issues, and in turn bonded as a group. After our opening discussion, three guest speakers came from Street to Feet, a Stroudsburg-based organization that partners with local churches to provide front-line assistance to our homeless population. The stories of their work were both startling and eye-opening. Scores of people have been helped off the streets to find housing and even employment through their intervention. It was humbling for us to understand the role of a social worker and to imagine the struggles of a homeless person living under the inter-borough bridge even in the winter. We realized these social workers are heroes. After debriefing for an hour we had dinner, played a lengthy round of WRNRS, and called it a night. Day 4: July 31, 2021 After breakfast, we opened up the day with a hike to Columcille, a megalith park that blends spirituality with nature. Invigorated by the morning outdoors, students were ready to begin their camp “capstone project”. Students broke off into teams of 2-3 and were assigned to develop a TAP Talk on a topic of their choice and facilitate a dialogue for 30 min. These were the topics chosen: Patriotism, Freedom of Speech, Legalization of Marijuana, Gender Equality, LGBTQ+ Rights, and Cultural Appropriation. Our team was really impressed with all of the dialogue sessions the students organized. Each discussion was prefaced by a spectrum exercise. The facilitator would read a statement aloud and the participants would move to the left of the room if they disagreed and to the right if they agreed. After testing the waters, the group would sit in a circle. and the facilitator teams would go through the same questions one at a time to open up discussion. Throughout this process, student facilitators utilized the following suggestions as guidelines for an effective conversation: 👀 Ask for elaboration: You want them to provide further details on their initial idea.🎭 Ask in a different way: You want them to approach their idea from a different perspective.🕸️ Ask about a related topic: You think there’s a connection to be made💪🏽 Ask them to challenge assumptions: You want to surface what’s unsaid. After each team completed their 30-minute facilitation with the larger group, they received feedback from the participants. In spite of this scrutiny, the students seemed to appreciate all critiques. Afterward, the staff met individually with each student team that would be working as TAP leaders in their own schools this fall. We asked if they felt they could develop and lead a TAP chapter in their respective schools. Every single student said yes! To destress from the weeks activities and projects we headed down to the soccer field to engage in the most intense water balloon fight we’ve ever seen. After drying off we played a round of WRNRS and let the campers stay up late for their last night together. Day 5: August 1, 2021 After breakfast, we headed down to the Labyrinth, a path at Columncile meant to invoke spirituality and hope. Each camper picked up a small stone and walked in silence along the windy path to its center. They were to hold in their mind and heart a specific social issue they care deeply about. Once in the center they laid their stone on the large center stone and named their concern: gun control, climate change, inequality, broken families, etc. On the way back out of the Labyrinth, I asked them to think about what they might be able to do to address their issue. Then, while on our final hike, a thunderstorm broke out. We quickly ran for shelter under a wooden structure designed to give Appalachian backpackers some relief from the elements. For the next hour, we kept our spirits high by singing campfire songs before realizing that we had no choice but to walk back to the campus through the torrential downpour. After drying off and eating lunch, we began our closing ceremony. Campers and their parents joined us in the main meeting room overlooking the Appalachian landscape. Our team gave out certificates and handwritten notes to each student congratulating them on a specific strength they exhibited during our week together. The students were thrilled and the parents were understandably very proud. Our TAP Officers will no doubt continue to be in touch with one another as they formed a strong bond during their week together. Our impact will not be measured solely on the number of TAP chapters students create after going back to their respective schools. It will be apparent in the memories, lessons, and stories these students take with them throughout their lives. These are the facilitators of tomorrow, ready to continue the conversations of today.
25
Apr

TAP: A 5-Year Check In

TAP: A 5-Year Check In

Taha Vahanvaty (Originally published on April 21, 2021) Disclaimer: BridgeUSA acquired The Acceptance Project (TAP) in April 2022 as part of its initiative to engage high school students in constructive discussion. This blog post was previously written by Taha Vahanvaty, Founder of TAP, to review the organization’s growth over five years. A conversation between TAP Founder, Taha Vahanvaty, and former TAP advisor Tim Herb. https://youtu.be/OEochH_pfbg The Acceptance Project (TAP) was founded as a club at Stroudsburg Junior High School (SJHS) by then eighth-grader, Taha Vahanvaty. The goal of TAP was to give students the opportunity and space to engage in civil discourse about their communities and the nation’s most pressing issues. Taha recognized that TAP’s model of facilitating dialogue could benefit schools across Pennsylvania and as a result started TAP’s summer program; TAP Into Summer. TAP Into Summer is a one-week, overnight, all expenses paid, dialogue intensive summer camp hosted at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Poconos. Through the summer camp, students learn how to start, lead, and run a TAP chapter at their high school. In order to take TAP’s conversations to the next level Taha began piloting TAP’s new focus group program; the first of which is titled “TAP Into Race”. TAP has recruited graduate student facilitators from East Stroudsburg University’s (ESU) Diversity Dialogue Project (DDP) to mediate the focus group and to collect qualitative data on how SASD students engage in conversations centered around TAP’s foundational belief is that strengthening our democracy begins with inculcating values of empathy, dialogue, and deliberation in young people. “We are the future,” said Taha and the conversations start with us, the conversation starts at TAP.”
21
Apr

Review: The BridgeUSA Road-Trip

Review: The BridgeUSA Road-Trip

Jessica Carpenter BridgeUSA launched its “Let’s F*cking Talk” campaign in February 2022. The goal of the campaign is to encourage conversations among young people. Throughout the year, we are exploring different facets of polarization, including things that prevent us from having conversations. This campaign is in three parts, with the second being a campus road-trip from Minnesota to Washington D.C.. Here is a review of the trip from our Marketing Director Jessica Carpenter. The BridgeUSA Road-Trip When we launched our “Let’s F*cking Talk” campaign in February, it was to encourage conversations and explore factors driving polarization. When it comes to talking about division in our country, naturally the first thing to ask is, “Why can’t we talk to each other?” This is the question that prompted our BridgeUSA Road-trip this March and became the theme behind phase two of our year-long campaign.  To help us along our road-trip, nine BridgeUSA chapters hosted Braver Angels debates on topics that have further divided our country. These issues included race, healthcare, voting and COVID-19. Each of these events helped us come closer to answering our question and finding out whether it was possible for young people to constructively talk about contentious issues in our society. Spoiler alert: It is! In the month that we drove across the midwest to Washington D.C., Ross, Manu and I spoke to over a hundred students who each had different perspectives on these issues and on the state of our politics. Some said that apathy, the media or emotional arguments get in the way of having discussions. Others said that ignorance or a failure from our institutions to prioritize working together drives division. Despite the different answers to our question, students seemed to all echo the same solution: We need to talk to each other. Take a look at how this idea played a role in our campus tour: The First Debate Our first stop on the BridgeUSA Road-Trip was Minneapolis, Minnesota to visit our St. Thomas chapter. Their debate topic was on critical race theory. Since 2020, 35 states have signed into law or proposed legislation banning or restricting the teaching of critical race theory. With current discussions happening in Florida, this was the perfect topic to kick off our road-trip. In total, 51 students showed up for the discussion, including members from the St. Thomas college Republican and Democrat clubs. Speakers in the affirmative and negative of critical race theory (CRT) opened up the debate by sharing their initial thoughts. They outlined historical proponents and adversaries of CRT curriculum, highlighted stories they had heard from classrooms and shared their own understanding of how CRT may impact our perspectives of others. Then, we opened it up to other students to join in. At first, students were hesitant to speak. However, after points had been made by a few brave voices, others also began to share their thoughts, even if it was just to ask a question about the topic. By the end of the hour and a half debate, students were eager to continue discussing and even hung out afterward to meet each other and learn more about how to get involved. The most surprising part of the debate was at the end when Manu asked the group to raise their hands if they’d had a conversation like this before. Zero hands went up in response. It was hard to believe that of the entire 51 students in the room – all of whom were open to debate and disagreement – had never attempted a similar conversation outside of these four walls. And that was the reason behind our road-trip. On the first night we were reminded of the importance of these conversations, but also the reality that many young people had never experienced something like it before. And we still had eight more chapters to go. The rest of the night was spent with the chapter leaders at a local pizza restaurant. Our debate at St. Thomas was the first of two that week, the next one taking place at Bridge Notre Dame in Indiana. The first week of the tour was easy. The second would be a different story. Our Marathon Week Have you ever woken up super disoriented and didn’t know where you were? Or what time it was? Or what state you were in? (Maybe not that last part, but you get it.) That was me the entire second week of the road-trip. From Monday, March 21 to Friday, March 25, we traveled from Chicago, Illinois to Cortland, New York for a debate every night at a different school.  During that week, we visited chapters in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, and discussed issues including vaccine mandates, affirmative action and universal healthcare. What we learned is that each chapter had their own style of moderating and a different campus environment when it came to politics. Some students were eager to come and talk with us, others were skeptical that constructive discussion was possible.  At Indiana University, we unintentionally took the debate out onto campus. Our chapter leaders had written their question, “Should universities take race into account with admissions?”, on a white board to help advertise the event. While walking around campus, students began to notice the white board hanging at our side and came up to talk about it. We ended up meeting students who had never heard of BridgeUSA before, but who were excited about having a space like it on campus. In Ohio, our debate was canceled by a tornado warning followed by a thunderstorm. We instead took the opportunity to meet with our chapter leaders at Ohio University and discuss how Bridge was doing on campus and the current disconnect students had been feeling with their administrators. “Students want to engage,” said Sarah, President of BridgeOhio. “I think they have a lot to say, it’s just a matter of finding those spaces and feeling comfortable to share their frustrations.”  Rachel, another member of BridgeOhio, agreed with Sarah and said that there would be hesitancy to talk from students, but that the need for a space for conversation was there.  “We’ve seen a gap in how we communicate through the pandemic,” Sarah said. “I think that’ll play a role in how we have these discussions and how comfortable students are truly sharing what they’re feeling.” Both Sarah and Rachel had flirted with the idea of using Bridge as a space for students on campus to communicate with administrators following a series of potentially racially motivated attacks on campus. Of the debates that week, our largest turnout was at Bridge Pittsburgh where we discussed universal healthcare. During that event, students came together to debate whether private or public healthcare options were better, and explored the pros and cons of both. Many continued to discuss afterward as we spilled into the streets of the city for dinner.  For some students along the road-trip, the Braver Angels debates were their first experience with bridge-building. For others, it was an affirmation that conversations can change the way we think about contentious issues and each other. This sentiment was shared among students on every campus we visited, even ones who didn’t attend the debates. If we can agree on the need for having conversations, then why aren’t we doing it? That became the second question underlining our road-trip as we entered the final leg of chapter debates.  Bridge Goes Viral! To get a better idea of what was preventing students from coming to discussions, Manu and I ventured outside of the classroom and onto campus. We decided to take an approach that is very popular on social media: a “Man On the Street” series.  As we toured campuses, Manu and I asked students what they thought of our current political climate and how they thought we could improve it. Where some students were happy to share their thoughts, others were reluctant. Many said they weren’t comfortable sharing their views in public or having people know where they stood ideologically. This provided some valuable insight into the attitudes of college students when it came to politics. It also made it difficult to find content and have conversations.  One day while out on campus, we had an idea: “What if we challenged our misconceptions about each other?” We began asking students how they thought someone from the opposite side would respond to partisan topics like policing, the environment and Black Lives Matter. Our first TikTok highlight went viral. Within hours, the video of our misconceptions hit 70 thousand views, and then 90, and then surpassed 110. (Today, it has 1.1 million views). What this showed us was not only are there young people who misunderstand those on the other side, but that thousands of others also recognized the problem of our misconceptions and acknowledged the need for us to talk to each other.  Now, not every student we spoke to challenged the partisan beliefs of their parties – and that wasn’t the point! – but, what we did find was nuance in viewpoints across the ideological spectrum. Not every idea is black and white, and the loudest voices on the extremes don’t represent the majority of those who belong to the same party. We would only learn this if we began having discussions again. Do Students Want to Engage? What did we learn when we sought out across the country in March to find out Why We Can’t Talk to Each Other? First, there are multiple different answers to that question. And second, that many students are actually afraid to share their political views with others. When it came to answering the first part, students agreed that apathy, ignorance and fear played large roles in whether conversations were happening. Some also said that institutions like the media and education weren’t encouraging constructive engagement between people, and even helped aid in division. However, many of these same students also admitted that they weren’t against talking with those who thought differently from them. In our last few discussions of the road-trip, we found nuance among those of the same viewpoint and discussion between those from completely opposite perspectives. Members at BridgeTJU (Thomas Jefferson University) debated whether voting was a right or a privilege with students bringing alternate takes to the idea that voting by saying it could be currently considered a privilege for some. Our Bridge George Mason team worked with their campus’ Turning Point chapter to bring students to a discussion on masking in classrooms. There, students from different experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic shared their opinions and the discussion went from whether masks should be mandated to how we show respect to one another. Of these students, and all the other young people we asked along the trip, a majority said that conversations and spaces that allow for conversations are necessary for improving our society. It’s just a matter of reaching these individuals and bringing them into the discussion. Our biggest takeaway from the road-trip was that young people are looking for solutions to division in our country, and that they believe talking to each other is the first step. The road-trip wraps up the second phase of our “Let’s F*cking Talk” campaign. Now, we are excited to find out how we can talk to each other.