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. 

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