20 Days in Norway Taught Me More About U.S. Politics Than 20 Years in the U.S.

Sophie Holtzman

In September 2022, I received an email from Julia Jackman, an Arizona State University alum familiar with the BridgeUSA movement, with the subject line “Dialogue opportunity in Norway- BridgeGW.” 

The email explained Julia’s role in Norway’s International Student Festival in Trondheim (ISFiT) and the Dialogue Project, a sub-project of the festival for which Julia was recruiting 20 students from a focus region—this year being the U.S.—to participate in a dialogue seminar on ISFiT’s theme of polarization, before traveling to the festival. “There’s no way she’s offering me three weeks in Norway,” I said to my mom on the phone. “And what can I learn about polarization in Norway that I can’t learn at GW?” 

Four months later, despite lingering skepticism, I was on a plane with no idea what to expect out of the next three weeks. Little did I know, going to Norway would challenge everything I thought I knew about American politics.

The Dialogue Project took place in a rural cabin outside of Røros with 18 American college students from across the country and across the political spectrum. The first few days in the cabin were spent getting used to an isolated Scandinavian lifestyle–ice fishing, eating reindeer for dinner, and exploring abandoned mines in -20°F temperatures–while establishing a sense of shared values and trust that would lay the groundwork for our rigorous dialogue sessions. 

Unlike the approach to political dialogue many of us had taken at home in the U.S., the Dialogue Project began by challenging us to look into ourselves and each other. Together, we chose the topics for the dialogue sessions: abortion, individual rights, gender, culture, and a variety of other topics that fell under the umbrella of polarization. I promised myself I would head into the coming week of the Dialogue Project with an open mind.

A dialogue session is neither a debate nor a conversation, rather it’s a seminar-style round-table discussion with rules enforced by a moderator. The moderator keeps a queue of those who want to speak, and speakers cannot comment directly on a previous speaker’s point or ask multiple questions in a row. All of this serves to encourage dialogue about personal experiences and vulnerabilities rather than debates about political facts. The dialogue sessions would start off with a question, such as “What is a value you have learned from your community, your culture, or your class?” From there, we unpacked our values and how they inspired our opinions. 

Discussions and debates about United States politics are generally riddled with buzz words, preconceptions based on the labels assigned to us by the two-party system, and pressure to be as factually and politically correct as possible. As someone whose identities and values tend to be discarded by one party or the other, the style of political discussions most frequently had in the United States usually leaves me feeling unheard and unsatisfied. I often feel that discussions are all about which participant can silence the other with the perfect fact and that opinions are taken at face value without consideration of the participants’ regional, educational, and social circumstances. Working under the conditions, queues, and directions of the Dialogue Project alongside 17 other politically well-versed students required me to quickly develop an intense focus and self-control in order to prevent myself from falling prey to the toxicity associated with my usual political debates. 

During the first few dialogue sessions, I developed counter-arguments in my head for every argument I disagreed with, trying to find clever ways around waiting in the queue or loopholes to the one-question rule so that I could disprove others’ arguments and prove the validity of my own. This changed in our “individual rights” dialogue. In watching my cabin roommates be the first two participants to truly accept the rules that we were given and tap into the roots of their opinions and beliefs, I realized that what I thought was an open mind was in fact not that at all.

Rather than combatting other participants’ points about vaccine passports and hate speech with medical statistics or First Amendment quotes, my roommates shared deeply personal experiences with terminal illness and discriminatory speech that were far more moving in that moment than any fact could have been.

Despite the heaviness of that dialogue session, I think of it as a turning point. From then on, we were able to focus on pinpointing exactly where our beliefs came from, why they were so personal to us, and how our backgrounds affected our biases. These developments made our discussions beautifully nuanced, just as our country is, and allowed our group to truly represent a microcosm of the diverse American experience. 

After recounting the Dialogue Project to my loved ones, many asked me if any groundbreaking conclusions were reached. “Honestly,” I told them, “I didn’t change any of my political opinions. The consensus that was reached during our abortion dialogue, for example, was that our group would never be able to come to a consensus on abortion policy.” 

However, what I gained from the project was the knowledge that consensus shouldn’t always be the goal. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can move forward when no consensus is reached. Yes, many could argue that I only got along with the other dialogue participants because I had to spend 10 days in a remote cabin with them; but, the way I see it, we formed deep connections out of a lack of consensus. 

I used to think I was unique in my feelings of exclusion from the two-party system. While one party loudly fights for the minority communities that myself and many of my loved ones belong to, the other actively listens to those in rural areas such as much of my home state of Kentucky. In Norway, I saw for the first time just how many Americans have intricate, contradicting identities like mine. Seeing the passion for better politics that those Americans had hidden under their disdain for our government gave me some semblance of hope for our future. Existing in these identities and being so disheartened by American politics that your passion for progress becomes a passion for argument is a phenomenon that is not specific to me. Voters who don’t quite fit into a binary, two-party system are just looking for some sort of change. What is important is not that we agree on exactly what that change should be, but that we utilize our diverse opinions to make progress. The Republican Party is not a monolith, nor is the Democratic Party. Americans are diverse, driven, and capable of political change, and the key just might be dialogue.

Taher MV

(Originally published on Mar 25, 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 Taher MV to highlight compassion fatigue among young people.

Compassion Fatigue has turned teens away from news, but they are finding ways to tune in again.

It is hard to sincerely care about the plethora of problems facing the country right now. Whether it is a mass shooting in California or an economic catastrophe in Haiti, people are constantly being bombarded with the updated calamities of the world.

What is often mistaken as apathy or woeful ignorance is something else entirely; compassion fatigue. The continuous exposure to negative media and problems with our world has stripped many of their humanity and ability to empathize. Compassion fatigue is very similar to burnout. It’s the feeling of emotional or physical exhaustion with your surroundings leading to the inability to empathize with others or feel compassion for them.

Originally, compassion fatigue was most associated with first responders and people who assist victims of trauma on daily basis. Up to 86% of Urgent Care nurses showed signs of compassion fatigue, often

causing a disconnect between patients and caregivers, hindering their ability to connect and provide adequate care to their patients.

However, recent research has proved that compassion fatigue is no longer unique to front-line workers. Its new demographic: teens. Because of the highly impressionable mind of teens and the growing reach of negative journalism, compassion fatigue has become more widespread in recent years. Social media and modern news outlets have allowed for continuous feeds filled with tragedy and hardship around the world. This constant intake of negative information takes a severe toll on the mind and its ability to empathize with those afflicted.

Single motherhood rates are at an all-time high and coupled with the fact that around 50% of marriages end in divorce, the mental strain on young minds is high. The average college debt is over $30,000 and unemployment for teens and millennials is only rising.

The hard truth is that most of the world’s calamities or disasters are just not a priority for American students. It is not a matter of them being cold and heartless, but as high schoolers, they have to deal with their own life troubles before they move on to worrying about the rest of the world.

With compassion fatigue on the rise, the major problems we face don’t seem to be going away. Thankfully, there is a solution to the emotional burnout many of us feel. Staying involved and educated about important current events without investing yourself too much is key in remaining empathic and informed.

Isolation and helplessness are key factors of compassion fatigue and compound the negative effects. Discussion and opportunities to share your feelings are some of the most vital preventative measures you can take in making sure you remain grounded and healthy.

Getting students involved in current events and the news is a process. It requires a societal effort to adapt the information to the lives of a teen. The solution to getting students more informed is not to guilt them or shove the information down their throats. It is to simply show them that their opinion matters, and that their voice no matter how small can create a change.

Jessica Carpenter

In 2022, we are living through one of the most polarizing times in modern American history. With the COVID-19 pandemic at the center of many debates, followed by topics of education, voting, climate change, and human rights, getting the public anywhere close to agreeing on something seems impossible. This division is further reflected on a community level through our relationships, classrooms and workplaces. 

Today, the only guidance for how to address these differences is what we see displayed by our leaders. The outline, so far, has been villainization, blaming, and divisive rhetoric, which has only exacerbated the problem. 

Born in a century characterized by influential figures, voices and changemakers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be called one of the greatest leaders in American history. His contributions to American society emboldened millions in the call for equality and welcomed long overdue societal change that we are still perfecting today. 

Despite many odds, MLK Jr. led one of the most successful movements for racial justice in American history. He did this through promotion of empathy, prospect and constructive engagement. Dr. King’s wave of peaceful protests and powerful words during the Civil Rights Movement drafted an outline for future leaders, offering examples for rallying people behind shared values and creating unity. Although his teachings remain static in history, we find that they are still applicable today. 

Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

In the face of current dissent, violence and exclusion have once again become the default response. In return, the public has been led to believe that it is through these means we must choose which conversations, which political party, which issues and solutions prevail. As long as the current approach remains unchallenged, what solutions are found in its wake will be tarnished by a foundation of baleful motivations. Remedying this starts with constructive engagement. 

Change today should come from constructive disagreement over division, and empathy over exclusion. MLK Jr. was battling centuries of racism and intolerance when he led the March on Washington. But, without his dedication to engaging those who disagreed with him, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. And it is through similar means that we will achieve a sound foundation to create change.

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

A common misconception for addressing disagreements today is to change minds and force agreement. We see this in Congress when bipartisan consensus is replaced with partisan majorities after a common solution hasn’t been found. What our current leaders should understand is that motivating those around us doesn’t start with everyone being in full agreement, but instead with having a shared goal. 

Many debates today are rung through partisan divides, and result in inaction from both sides because we believe we’re working toward different goals. In fact, the reality is much different when you actually sit down for a conversation. According to The Atlantic, Americans aren’t as extreme as they believe each other to be, and may even be able to agree on a number of the same problems. Instead of forcing consensus, we should take this opportunity of nuance to mold a better path to address disagreement.

We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Now one of his most recited quotes, this message of working together is one of the most unfathomable. Between President Joe Biden’s speeches shunning Republican lawmakers on voting reform, and turning vaccinated against unvaccinated on COVID-19, to cheers of “Let’s Go Brandon” echoed by lawmakers and public figures, to political commentators using polarizing rhetoric to stir audiences every night, animosity toward those who think differently than us has reached a new high.

Over the last few years, we have forgotten that America was built on diversity of opinion and background. It was once the backbone of our greatest advancements in technology, social and economic justice, and democracy. MLK Jr. recognized this sentiment, and utilized it at the core of his movement. As influential figures in this new age of polarization, our leaders should be following that example, and working to bring people back together.

Let’s build bridges, not walls.

The final lesson that we can borrow from history is that of building bridges. Many organizations today are working to recreate these bridges through having constructive dialogue in their communities. BridgeUSA is one of these organizations leading positive change on college campuses around the nation. Through their work, thousands of students have had discussions across the aisle and learned to utilize empathy and constructive engagement to address dissent and become better leaders on campus.

Until this same initiative is echoed by our political leaders, we will continue to fall behind in addressing pressing issues impacting our country. Incorporating the intent to work across the aisle and incorporate ideas from different perspectives ultimately creates better solutions all around and is more reflective of what our country needs. Seldom are these solutions found through obstructing those in opposition. 

The Civil Rights Movement challenged the public to reflect on their views and break barriers that kept society divided. MLK Jr. welcomed opposition in his endeavors, and strived for improvement through that. His practices of empathy, prospect and constructive engagement inspired change on a massive front, and created a movement carried by individuals who shared these ideals and were driven by their shared goal for a better future. These teachings may lend a hand in shaping the next steps for our country today, and can serve as a guide for leadership and disagreement in our time of division.