ANN ARBOR – Just as they were approaching their final year at the University of Michigan, Gabriel Lerner and Sonia Thosar had an idea: Get students to talk politics in a safe environment.
Following the 2016 election, they noticed a deep political divide on campus, but the sides weren't speaking, causing it to grow over time.
Gabe and Sonia recalled spending hours on the phone while at their respective consulting jobs in Chicago and New York over the summer.
"We were calling each other all the time talking about, 'How would we fix this if we wanted to? How would we make this work?'" explained Thosar.
That's when they came up with WeListen.
WeListen co-founders Sonia Thosar and Gabe Lerner (Credit: Ford School of Public Policy)
WeListen is a campus-based organization that facilitates political dialogue through small group discussions. They try and draw students who represent both extremes of the political spectrum to engage over hot topic political issues like gun control, abortion and free speech.
"There are a ton of people on college campuses that don’t know a lot about issues, that are scared to approach them, but those issues are really relevant to what they will be doing in their lives and in their careers," explained Thosar. "Empowering those people to join the political conversation is a really big part of why I am really passionate about (what we do)."
Thosar grew up in a suburb of Chicago in a household with both parties represented. "My dad’s pretty conservative, my mom’s pretty liberal, so it’s kind of an interesting mix," she said. "Our household is very opinionated and loud, and we were always encouraged to disagree with each other."
When she arrived to Ann Arbor, the engineering major found the political discourse lacking.
Lerner, on the other hand, grew up outside Washington D.C. in Bethesda, Maryland to two liberal parents. While politics was always an interest of his, a turning point for him was a summer internship at the White House.
"I was reading letters from people at the Correspondents’ office,," he said. "It was actually great. Because otherwise I would never have heard what people in Ohio think about gun control, or what random families across the country think about President Obama. When I was reading those letters, the two sets that we got for and against the president weren’t describing the same person. People weren’t on the same page whatsoever when it came to what was going on in the country."
Inspired to start the social experiment, they began to spread the word before the school year and held their first session in September.
"The idea was there are lots of ways to get people together, but in our minds the best way is small group conversations," explained Lerner. "So getting people offline, face to face, in groups of 5-7 people with really, really different opinions with the assumption that you don’t have to change your mind. You can come to this as the most extreme on either side and leave just as extreme, we’re not trying to convince you of, 'Your side is right, your side is wrong,' and we’re also not trying to have a debate."
WeListen has a board of students that is split 50/50 liberal and conservative.
"That helps when we’re presenting to conservative groups and they say, 'Why should I come to this event where, throughout my whole college experience – and maybe high school, too – I’ve been attacked for my views,'" explained Lerner.
Along with two more co-presidents, the team also has two VPs, one for marketing, one for content.
"The VP of content has a small team which works on a bi-weekly basis to put together a one-pager fact sheet that we provide at each meeting but also they do an incredible job of putting together presentations that we show at the beginning of each session," explained Thosar. "Basically, if you don’t have any knowledge on a topic, we’ll give you a crash course."
Students participate in small group conversations during a WeListen exercise (Credit: Ford School of Public Policy)
Their first session was on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy and attracted roughly 15 participants. By their third session, on free speech, that number rose to 60.
Following each exercise, they would ask for feedback from the participants and built their model based on their experiences and suggestions.
Sessions are typically an hour and a half long, and take place on Monday and Tuesday evening after classes end.
- Brief presentation on WeListen and its purpose
- 10-15 minute presentation on that session's topic presented by the content team (case studies, Q&A, etc.)
- Split into small groups
- Sign in on laptops and rank political affiliations and feelings on the topic on a scale of 1-7
- 10-15 minute conversation about anything except politics (try to find common ground)
- 40-45 minutes discussion about topic with a moderator present
- 5-10 minute discussion on compromise (discussion and scenario questions)
- 10-15 minutes gather back together for a debrief on the exercise
In the long conversation, the moderator is a student who doesn't necessarily present themselves as such. "They’re just there to defuse tense situations, to get people to speak up if they’re being shy," explained Lerner.
Their session on gun control was eerily timely.
"We had decided on that topic on a Sunday and the next day there was the Las Vegas shooting," explained Thosar. "We had a long conversation about whether or not we should do it. For us, it was a key turning point for WeListen as an organization because it was, 'Either we’re going to shy away from these topics and stuff that might be easier to talk about, or we're going to lean into the tough stuff, and if something goes wrong we’re going to figure it out along the way.' I’m really glad that we decided to talk about the tough stuff."
"We ended up having two people who had been at large-scale shooting events," said Lerner. "One was an intern on The Hill last summer and had been at the congressional baseball game where Steve Scalise was shot, and those people were in small groups with very conservative folks who had grown up around guns and who had really staunch conservative positions on gun rights.
"The fact that they could sit down in a small group with five or six people and not blow up, not argue, and have a productive conversation about where those views and values were coming from, that, for us, was a real signal that we should keep doing that."
Although some sessions have gotten heated, Thosar and Lerner set the tone at the beginning of each exercise by making clear that the point of the discussion is not to change opinions, but rather to understand where the other side is coming from.
Looking ahead to the future
Seeing their sessions become a success on campus made them realize WeListen could thrive elsewhere.
"One of the things that we’re thinking about is: How do we bring this model to other college campuses?" said Lerner. "We’re basically interested in getting a whole bunch of students across the country interested in this type of dialogue. But that takes a lot of infrastructure and a lot of support.
"We brought on co-presidents in December and they’ve been running the chapter since January so we have a lot of faith in them being able to run the sessions. But we also want to think about two years down the line, when the next turnover happens, how do we make sure this stays? We’re looking at ways to institutionalize this at the university, hopefully with staff and faculty support in a bigger way."
To learn more about WeListen, visit its website.