In an era of record political polarization, it’s hard to have a constructive conversation with a person who holds different views.
And with many of us sorting ourselves into like-minded groups —in our neighborhoods, churches and social circles — sometimes our only interaction with people who think differently is online, or with aggressive Uncle Jake over Thanksgiving dinner. St. Edward’s is breaking the impasse by building graduates’ ability to hold peaceful, respectful conversations with those who disagree. In this article, we spotlight five members of the university community who are helping Americans replace toxic conflict with constructive disagreement.
Four days after the 2016 presidential election, Chris Collins ’04 (illustrated) stood on a San Francisco sidewalk, stunned at the result. He had lived in the Bay Area for five years, and nearly everyone he knew shared his shock. A stranger approached, and Collins instinctively smiled at the woman. When she reached Collins, she said, “I dare not say anything in this city, but I’m happy about the election. Trump’s election was about economics. It wasn’t about race. Racism isn’t as bad as it was in the 1960s and ’70s.”
Collins took a breath. They were both white. “As white people, we can’t just decide if racism is or is not as bad as it used to be,” he said. “We need to listen to people who actually experience it.”
“Well,” the woman responded, “these days in San Francisco, if you open your mouth about anything that isn’t in line with the left, you’ll get run out of town.”
The woman wished him well and went on her way, leaving Collins to wonder why she had chosen to confide in him. But a bigger question gnawed at him: Why couldn’t more Americans have direct conversations about their disagreements?
Collins, who works in federal government, had been attending Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, which focuses on helping people living on the street and attracts a racially and socioeconomically diverse congregation. He pitched his idea to a pastor, and a few weeks later, Glide hosted the first meeting of Collins’ new project, Different Together.
Different Together meetings draw between 10 and 40 people, ideally from across the political spectrum. After participants agree to basic ground rules — speak about your own experience; avoid generalizing about people — they divide into small groups to discuss the night’s topic, such as healthcare, policing or Jan. 6, by answering a series of questions or prompts. For instance, a discussion of policing after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 included the prompt, “Tell me about your experiences with law enforcement growing up.”
Each person in each small group has two minutes of uninterrupted time to share. Everyone else’s job is to listen. If time permits, people can ask one another questions or respond to points made earlier. The process continues through four or five questions.
Different Together leaders don’t publicize topics in advance because they don’t want participants to arrive armed with research. “We want people to come in fresh and speak based on their experiences, versus having all the stats to support their argument,” Collins says. “We’re trying to see what happens when we don’t focus on debating the facts and just focus on getting curious and trying to understand one another.”
The goal is not to change people’s minds or to feign consensus where none exists. The Different Together process exposes participants to different perspectives. It lets them hear from real people — not strangers quoted in news stories, not bots on Twitter — face to face.
In a world of increasing polarization, Collins says the work of Different Together has helped him be a more reasonable person, one who is committed to discovering the flaws in his own arguments and seeking even a grain of truth in the other side’s perspective. “I don’t want to subscribe to dogma; I want to subscribe to solutions to problems,” he says. “And if I am not making myself uncomfortable by having some of these conversations, then I am more likely to subscribe to dogma.”
Collins shares what he has learned from Different Together in his 2021 book, Mending Our Union: Healing Our Communities Through Courageous Conversations. The project was only possible because of his St. Edward’s education, he says. Collins had never been a strong student until he came to the hilltop, but there he found professors who encouraged him as a thinker and helped him sharpen his writing. Outside of class, Collins was on the Student Leadership Team, where he learned facilitation skills that he later used to direct Different Together conversations. His senior year, he won a Presidential Award.
Mending Our Union includes a guide for people who want to replicate Different Together in their own communities. Collins is honest with readers that the work is challenging. But he says the reward is having faith in humanity restored — at least for an evening.
“Connecting in a community of well-meaning people to talk intimately about our different backgrounds and experiences — it just does wonders for my outlook on humanity,” he says. “To be reminded that while there’s a lot of valid reasons to be cynical, this world also has a lot of really good people, that restores my hope.”
THE POWER OF STORIES
Walter C. Long MAC ’14 (illustrated) started the Texas After Violence Project in 2007 after years serving as an appellate attorney on death penalty cases. Working on behalf of the defendant, he reexamines cases to find factors that might change the outcome, such as missteps by either counsel; new evidence that could be introduced; and junk science that should not have been considered. Some of his clients ultimately have been executed. The work exposes him to the death penalty’s effects on families of the defendant and victim, prison staff, other lawyers, judges, jurors and even chaplains. With the founding of the Texas After Violence Project, he aimed to encourage more thoughtful, nuanced conversations about capital punishment and the criminal justice system. TAVP has recorded dozens of hours of oral history interviews with people affected by the death penalty. They reveal stories far more complex than the usual political sound bites.
“A while back, the death penalty abolition movement decided it was going to take a multipronged approach to the issue. Recognizing that different people cared about different things, organizers decided they would argue all those issues at the same time. So: There’s no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. Innocent people have been executed. It’s expensive for the state. It’s disproportionally applied across racial groups.
But all these arguments just invite arguments on the other side. What I wanted when I founded TAVP was to open another space where we can just become aware of what the system we’ve built is doing to us. And then come together in a discussion around, well, ‘How do we create a system that doesn’t cause so much harm?’
We were receiving stories from all sides of the issue: pro-death penalty family members of the victim, prosecutors, defense attorneys, family members of the prisoners. The goal was just to collect that raw experience for sharing with the public.
Our society is driven by stories, and I think official stories — powerful stories — tend to get heard most of the time. They can hide the other stories, and persons who don’t have strong voices, and who don’t have a way to facilitate others hearing them. There are so many stories just around a death penalty case. And it’s really important for our society to open up space for the full diversity of voices.
There are stories from persons who support the death penalty. And some people may, in fact, feel that they benefited from an execution. And that should be heard. But at the same time, the stories of persons who were very traumatized by living for years under the threat of an execution or by an execution that went through also need to be heard. My training in family systems therapy at St. Edward’s deepened my understanding of the death penalty as a fundamentally cruel system. By empowering the state to wield the threat of death, capital punishment oppresses and traumatizes everyone within its sphere of influence while it hides its own violence from itself in the same way abusive families do.”
Our society is driven by stories, and I think official stories — powerful stories — tend to get heard most of the time.
TALKING ACROSS THE AISLE
One week after the November midterms, 20 students gathered in a Munday Library classroom to discuss Gov. Greg Abbott’s win over challenger Beto O’Rourke. The event was coordinated by leaders in the St. Edward’s chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas and BridgeHilltop, a club that focuses on cultivating constructive political dialogue.
After a quick recap of the election results, BridgeHilltop founder and president Emma Viquez ’23 (illustrated) nudged the discussion toward issues that factored into the race.
“Let’s think about gun safety and gun rights,” she began. “Guns are very prevalent in Texas, which has a lot of gun owners, a lot of hunting, and also a lot of mass shootings. Please speak from your personal experience and share your thoughts on our current gun policy.”
Pedro Galvan ’24, the chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas chapter, spoke first. “I’m a huge gun advocate, and I want to get my license when I turn 21. But I believe in background checks. A gun should be in the hands of a person who knows how to use it; there should be a process and training.”
BridgeHilltop co-vice president Hailey Green ’24 raised her hand. “I grew up hunting and going to the shooting range. I 100% agree. I don’t recommend getting a gun unless you know how to use it. And having kids in households with guns is a huge problem. It’s your responsibility to lock your weapons.”
Nic Carrillo ’23, the other co-vice president, offered another perspective. “I’m from El Paso, where a friend’s family member was killed in the Walmart mass shooting. I don’t support banning all guns, but a lot of mass shootings involve AR-15s, and maybe those should be restricted.”
Jacob Hughey ’23 raised his hand. “Why do I have to do 120 hours of training to drive, and I don’t have to do that when buying a gun?”
After a few more people had spoken, Viquez summarized the discussion. “It seems like, as a room, we’re leaning more toward gun safety as a way to address the violence we see in Texas right now, rather than restricting access to guns. Is that true?” The students nodded.
Viquez founded BridgeHilltop to give students a forum to discuss charged political issues in a respectful way. The organization is a chapter of national nonprofit Bridge USA, a student movement to reduce political polarization on campus. Viquez met BridgeUSA founder Manu Meel during a summer academic program in Washington, D.C. She launched the St. Edward’s chapter in Spring 2021.
Now Viquez works with four other board members whose views span the political spectrum. They plan events that focus on topics such as climate change, abortion and marijuana legalization. One popular format is “political speed dating,” in which groups of four people discuss a series of issues, each one with an allotted amount of time. At the end of the session, Viquez urges participants to think about whether they learned anything new. Other events are structured in the style of YouTube-famous Jubilee discussions, in which people physically move to a different space in the room based on whether they agree, disagree or are neutral on a particular statement.
In order to present arguments on all sides of an issue accurately, Viquez invests a lot of time researching each issue. For one meeting, she created a presentation about the border, immigration and Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
“Doing research like that, where you are forced to really dig into the conservative perspective as well as the liberal perspective and their overlap, you can see that both genuinely do care for human life,” she says. “The disagreement is with the policies. When I get into conversation with other people, I hear their experience and their stories and then try to come to a solution: Is there an area where we all can agree?
“That’s always the part that I value the most at my events,” she says. “It makes me feel like I have had some success.”
In February 1983, the Ku Klux Klan staged a march through downtown Austin. Between 50 and 70 Klansmen walked — under heavy police escort — to the State Capitol, passing more than 1,500 protestors who’d turned out to counter the group’s hateful message.
At the conclusion of the group’s rally, something went terribly wrong, and the Klansmen, counterdemonstrators and police ended up embroiled in a melee. A Houston television station captured footage of police beating Mexican American activist Paul Hernandez. The police later said that Hernandez had struck the officers first.
Greg Bourgeois ’86 (illustrated) remembers that shortly afterward, one of his professors invited representatives from the different factions to visit class — separately — and talk about their experiences. What did they see? What did they feel? What had they intended to accomplish that day? Students were asked not to offer empathy to the KKK, or justify the police, or valorize the protestors — just to listen to the same story told from different angles.
“What had been presented as a singular event actually was a bunch of different stories coming together in one place at one time,” Bourgeois says. “Delving behind the headlines and seeing what the underlying stories were lit a fire in me to keep doing that in a different context.”
Since 1995, Bourgeois has been finding the underlying stories as a professional mediator. Mediation offers a more efficient, less expensive and more personalized alternative to litigation and arbitration. Mediators are neutral parties who help the opposing parties communicate and work out a solution to their problem. The job requires active listening skills and an ability to discern the intention — or the underlying story — behind a person’s spoken words.
Bourgeois started out as an attorney. Early in his legal career, a judge ordered him and his opposing counsel into mediation. In one day, they were able to resolve multiple cases that had been in litigation for years.
Bourgeois was hooked. He trained to become a mediator and, in 2000, co-founded the Lakeside Mediation Center in Austin.
In mediations, Bourgeois urges the parties to shift from position-based arguments — “I’m right, and you’re wrong, because … ” — to interest-based negotiations. This means finding the motivations and values behind the parties’ positions, and trying to find the areas where those values overlap. He also helps each party check their assumptions about the other side’s position.
“If you can help people work through the assumptions that they’re making about the other side, then you can test those assumptions to see if they’re true,” he says. “In many cases, they’re not.”
For instance, in one divorce case Bourgeois mediated, everything was going well until the couple had to decide the fate of their coffee maker. Negotiations screeched to a halt. After asking a few questions, Bourgeois teased out that the coffee maker had been a gift from one spouse to the other and had dramatically different connotations for the two parties. “Everybody has their own story, and until you delve into those, you can’t find the answer,” he says. “But you have to be willing to listen to the other side of the story as well.”
Written By Robyn Ross
Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
Portrait illustrations by Kati Lacker