Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions
I grew up singing the Christian hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” This song draws on John 13:35 from the Bible, reflecting that non-Christians will know “believers” of this emerging religion because of the ways that they love one another. I’d like to believe that this phrase is true for me and my life, and it also reveals a wider truth - that interventions can be judged by their outcomes.
This academic year Interfaith America (IA), the organization where I serve as senior director of democracy Initiatives, interviewed a dozen campuses, bridgebuilding organizations, and higher education associations to develop a landscape review of bridgebuilding work in higher education. I will hold off sharing findings and recommendations until the completion of the project and will instead dig into one interesting aspect of the project, culling outcomes.
First, we did some definitional work. At IA we define bridgebuilding for this context as “Engaging across difference in ways that respect identities, foster mutual relationship, and seek a common good.” We believe bridgebuilding is a skill that should be embedded into college learning experiences. As with so many terms, what a person or organization means by bridgebuilding varies widely. As you might expect, we determined that without a shared definition of the term, it is particularly important for any campus or organization to define their own terms so that participants know what they are engaging in and can observe success when they see it.
Second, we sought to detail the impacts that interventions achieve. If in the broadest theory of change for bridgebuilding interventions “inputs” are the program itself, and “impact” is the broader change that can be measured, that middle step, the “outcomes” pinpoint what is different because of the intervention. Ultimately it is important to be able to understand and measure the impact of bridgebuilding interventions for the individual, the campus, and the broader community. The leading bridgebuilding coalition in the nation, the Bridging Movement Alignment Council (BMAC) is a community of about 100 organizations seeking to achieve more together than anyone can on their own. They have developed the SCIM (Social Cohesion Impact Measure) tool, a great plug-and-use set of questions for measuring attitudinal change on “bridging” and “polarization” around outcomes like intellectual humility, intergroup empathy, pluralistic norms, and respect/understanding with outgroup members. They developed this to empower grassroots interventions to integrate research informed pre- and post-event surveys to measure their outcomes and to be able to aggregate these outcomes across the nation.
We collected the evaluation affirmed outcomes from bridgebuilding organizations through their websites and through interviews, then sorted the outcomes into four categories: knowledge, experience, skills, and attitudes. We wondered if there would be 4-5 major outcomes that most bridging interventions cluster around. It turns out that while we could cluster the outcomes into aggregate buckets (e.g. communication), the value of having a few buckets may not be worth the nuance lost in consuming under one umbrella outcomes like constructive disagreement, listening, storytelling, open inquiry, or understanding others and being understood, to name a few.
Collecting, Defining, and Sharing Outcomes
Still, the project of collecting, defining, and sharing outcomes remains worthwhile. I am enthusiastic about the possibility that a provost, faculty member, dean, staff member, or student leader on any given campus could select the skill or attitude that they have identified needs strengthening on campus, and quickly find a range of interventions that are designed to address that need.
Do you need to strengthen “healthy relationships and social cohesion”? Reach out to Essential Partners whose curated consultation will benefit the campus in short and long term ways through increased sense of belonging or inclusion in the community; sense of cohesiveness of that community; improved trust; and new/improved relationships across difference. Or partner with Sustained Dialogue for a full workshop to gain “knowledge and skills to intentionally improve group dynamics by attention to patterns of interaction, power, identity, interests, and misperceptions.” Does your classroom or campus need to cultivate a willingness to engage across difference? Partner with Interfaith America (where I work) and our Bridging the Gap program to increase “Understanding the value of difference and being able to engage it in others even with tension.” Do you want to reduce affective polarization? Utilize the Constructive Dialogue Institute’s Perspectives e-learning program to reduce “dislike, distrust, and avoidance of those who hold different political views.” Many bridging organizations have much to offer campuses seeking to cultivate the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and experiences required for engaging across deep difference.
A Reduction of Conflict
It is so encouraging to see the remarkable research-backed interventions dozens of organizations have cultivated over the last few years and decades. One note of caution as we consider bridging interventions in higher education. If we do this right, when this goes well, it will not mean the reduction of difference (which is not the goal) or even conflict. Utah Governor Spencer Cox, currently vice chair of the National Governor’s Association, has named “healthy conflict and service” as a priority for his tenure. He’s got the right idea. When people have the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and experiences to cultivate engagement across deep differences, “success” looks like more conflict, but healthy conflict. Success looks like more people leaned into and participating in our diverse democracy. We look forward to sharing the full findings of the bridgebuilding in higher education landscape analysis, and welcome feedback, invitations, and collaborations on this sustained collaborative work.
Bridging the gap. (n.d.). Interfaith America. https://www.interfaithamerica.org/programs/bridging-the-gap/
Bridging Movement Alignment Council. (n.d.). ListenFirst Project. https://www.listenfirstproject.org/bridging-movement-alignment-council
Essential Partners’ Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning System. (n.d.). Essential Partners. whatisessential.org/sites/default/files/inline-images/What%20We%20Do/EPMELSystem_Complete.pdf
Healthy Conflict and Service. (n.d.) Utah Governor, Spencer J. Cox. https://governor.utah.gov/issues/civility-and-service/
Perspective. (n.d.) Constructive Dialogue Institute. https://constructivedialogue.org/perspectives
What does an SD program look like? (n.d.). Sustained Dialogue. https://sustaineddialogue.org/our-approach/what-does-an-sd-program-look-like/