Once a week, a group of students gathers at the University of Minnesota to listen — and, when it’s their turn, talk — about everything from politics to love, from happiness to humanity.
The students are part of the Round Table Discussion Groups, one of several organizations that bring together students from diverse backgrounds — be they political, racial, philosophical or religious — to share their perspectives. It’s a movement that is growing quickly across the campus and the nation.
“It’s really just discussion and kind of bouncing ideas off each other, and responding to other people’s ideas,” said Carolyn Domroese, the group’s president.
Such gatherings have proved to be a hit with students who recognize the importance of these conversations.
“It’s more relevant than ever, I think,” said Alison Oosterhuis, Strategic Alliances Coordinator of the Citizen Student Movement. The group partners with a wide variety of student groups at the U and Augsburg University to host training events and civic deliberations surrounding relevant and controversial topics.
These are conversations, Oosterhuis insisted. They are not debates.
“It’s only about learning from people who think differently than you, so maybe you can work with them on those issues that you’re talking about,” she said.
The discussions have focused on such diverse topics as the defacing of student group murals on the U’s Washington Avenue Bridge, the cultural appropriation of Halloween costumes and sexual assault on campus.
Before each discussion, the group goes over ground rules that its members have established to make sure the gathering is respectful and productive. The rules include assuming that every speaker has a positive intent and listening to understand rather than to reply, Oosterhuis said.
“It’s all about just learning from diverse perspectives, and there’s no tangible outcome that we’re moving forward to achieve,” Oosterhuis said.
Can we be friends?
The purpose of the discussion groups is to, over time, build personal relationships and trust among people with differing views.
“Once you’ve laid that groundwork, then you can start maybe moving forward, using the relationships that you build, to do work together,” Oosterhuis said. “But that’s not something that you jump into right away.”
The discussions break down the barriers created by frustrations and fears rooted in the political divide, she said. Gaining skills that help people approach these conversations with confidence can be valuable.
“I think that is very freeing to them, and makes them feel like they can actually start to build power, and make some changes,” Oosterhuis said. “Because I think we all want to see change right now. Bridging across ideological, racial, religious divides is really important for us, and something that we need to keep striving for.”
The Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group is another student group working toward a similar goal. Each week, about 20 students gather to discuss some of the most pressing bipartisan topics in the nation, said Symantha Clough, the group’s president.
“Now more than ever, politics is the most salient topic on a lot of people’s minds,” Clough said. “So to have a group specifically about politics, and specifically inviting people to come in and speak their minds without feeling like they’re going to be called a racist or a bigot or a hippie — I think it’s really nice, and it creates a really good atmosphere.”
Clough said that the students who participate are open to hearing other viewpoints. Even though the group tackles some emotionally charged issues — such as immigration, abortion and gun control — tensions typically don’t rise too much, she said. If things do get heated, the other members of the group step in to calm the situation.
Clough said that despite the difficulties of having discussions about extremely controversial issues, everyone in the group benefits from hearing the variety of perspectives.
“The most dangerous thing is to be in a bubble, and to hear no other opinions, because it gives you a false idea of what people are thinking,” Clough said. “To have a group that says, ‘I don’t care that you think something else, I still want to hear what you have to say’ … It’s really important to have that.”
For the Round Table group, Domroese introduces a topic to start things off and then steps back to see where the discussion leads.
“I’ll just come in with a discussion question or two, and the conversation usually just takes off from there,” she said.
The issues explored by these groups might make some people uncomfortable, but for Domroese that’s what makes them so important and worth exploring.
“Obviously, these are some kind of big questions that don’t have easy answers, but I think by listening to other people’s viewpoints, I feel like I kind of move closer to answers,” she said.
Lauren Otto is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.