Open for discussion
STUDENTS FOSTER CIVIL CONVERSATIONS ON HOT-BUTTON TOPICS
Politically, Symantha Clough, ’18 B.A., describes herself as “very liberal.” But before you embrace or dismiss her point of view, she wants you to wait a minute. Why? Because she’d like to hear what you have to say.
“I feel like it’s important to understand where people are coming from,” says Clough, who majored in history and political science. “You have to listen and see people as people before you can really understand their opinions.”
That thoughtful approach led Clough, whose studies were supported by the Barbara Newsome Liberal Arts Internship Scholarship and the Norman W. Moen Scholarship, to join the University of Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group (BIG), a student organization that fosters open discussion on contentious topics such as trade tariffs, environmental policy, gun control, and the legalization of marijuana.
The idea behind the group’s formation is that healthy, respectful discussions about these and other topics are essential to society’s future. In an increasingly polarized political environment, where people are often more interested in party preference than actual opinions, BIG members believe bridging differences and finding solutions to society’s biggest problems begins with civil conversation. “I like talking with people,” Clough says. “But I don’t like yelling.”
A BIG IDEA
BIG got its start in 2011 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when a group of students banded together with a mission to “prove that realistic solutions to America’s . . . toughest problems do indeed exist.” Additional chapters were eventually formed at the University of Illinois and the U of M.
Matt Banker, ’17 B.S., a self-described conservative who joined the U of M group early on and served as its treasurer for four years, says BIG was launched partly out of frustration: “It seemed like people on campus were good at getting themselves siloed into a place where they just heard versions of their own voice talking,” says the Dave Larson Scholarship recipient. “We wanted to form a group where we could have as many different ideas and perspectives as possible.”
Initially, BIG’s weekly meetings drew around four or five members. Depending on the discussion topic, 15 to 25 people now show up for the hour-long chats in Coffman Memorial Union.
The topic for each week’s meeting is selected by consensus during the previous meeting. The group’s leaders research the subject and prepare a presentation that outlines some history and facts related to it, providing a foundation for the conversation. Surprisingly, the group has no specific rules regarding discussion. “Sometimes people get passionate, but the conversation almost never gets out of hand,” says BIG’s president-elect, Nick Zumwalde, an economics and political science major from Hudson, Wisconsin. “Most people come because they want to hear what other people have to say. They want to listen.”
BIG’s members also strive to keep arguments from getting too personal. Clough, who recently served as the group’s president, recalls one conversation about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the Middle East that became particularly heated—with Clough taking the brunt of the blow-back. “Even though I felt attacked, everyone remembered at the end to calm down,” she says. “We didn’t have to change our opinions. We could let our emotions come out, but at the end of the day we were still friends.”
ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
BIG’s officers promote the group at the annual activities fair for first-year students, held at the start of the academic year. BIG also hosts an annual ideology debate, where a panel of student Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians take on topics like health care reform, free speech vs. hate speech, and immigration. The event usually draws about 150 people, but many of the group’s regulars say they gain as much from BIG’s weekly meet-ups as they do from more formal presentations.
The group’s leaders say the views presented by pundits in the media don’t always match up with the conversations at BIG meetings. “I go into meetings expecting people to say one thing, but they say another,” Zumwalde says.
“I’m often surprised.”
Clough recalls a BIG discussion about current gun laws where a member of the group expressed his passion for the design and mechanics of firearms, causing her to rethink her stereotypical characterization of gun owners.
BIG’s current treasurer, Jake Holicky, ’20, is an applied economics and math major and recipient of the Dale Engan Scholarship. He says the group’s weekly discussions rarely cause a complete flip in his thinking about any particular issue. But hearing other people’s opinions and ideas often moderates his views. “I’ve become much more humble about how I present my arguments,” he says. “I have views, but they are tempered by the views of others.”
Holicky says the most important lesson people can learn from BIG and similar groups is that people on different sides of the ideological spectrum have a lot more in common than the media and politicians would have them believe. “At the end of the day, we’re all Americans,” he says.
Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis writer.