For LSA junior Taylor Smith, working as a moderator for the student group WeListen came naturally because, she says, she’s actually been a moderator her whole life.
“Where I grew up was very conservative,” Smith says, “and my family is split half conservatives and half liberals. We’re all very political and we’re all very involved in talking and thinking about these kinds of issues. So for me it was a very familiar feeling when I sat down at my first WeListen meeting and saw how active and intelligent people were and how willing they were to take time out of their day to talk through important issues with people they didn’t know.”
Founded by U-M students in 2017, WeListen is committed to creating opportunities for dialogue across the political divide. The majority of these dialogues happen between students on Central Campus, although the group has also recently held sessions for U-M staff and students from across the country who were interning last summer in Washington, D.C.
Smith worked last year as a moderator for WeListen’s student dialogue sessions, but this year she has moved into a more senior leadership position as the group’s vice president of outreach. The group is still relatively new, so there’s a lot of work to do to get the word out.
“A lot of people still haven’t heard of us,” Smith says, “so we do things like marketing our events on social media and putting up flyers all over campus. We partner with a lot of groups on campus, such as the College Republicans, the College Democrats, and the Young Americans for Freedom. Because we’re bipartisan, we also ask them for feedback on how we can improve our events to make sure we’re hearing voices from both sides of the aisle.”
In addition to increasing attendance at their student events—their first event drew 30 people, which tripled to more than 90 attendees at their most-attended session—WeListen is also hoping to use their model to help foster productive cross-group conversations with other groups on campus. They're working with Professor John Kuwada, director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and American culture to hold an event to coincide with a campus visit by the Slants, a band that fought all the way to the Supreme Court for their right to use a name that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had ruled as disparaging.
“All of these are ways that we’re collaborating with groups that are looking to have these important free speech-based conversations,” says Eli Rachlin, WeListen’s vice president of external relations and collaborations. “We want to make it so that anyone can come and have a space to share what they believe, using our guidelines for discussion. We want to help people reflect on the experiences in their life that have led them to their beliefs and to share all of that with members of their community.”
On September 30, the group will hold its first conference that will bring together almost 200 student leaders and Michigan government officials from a variety of backgrounds and political ideologies for a day-long dialogue event. The conference will include a keynote address, WeListen sessions, and a policy creation workshop focused on bridging differences and creating substantive bipartisan solutions.
Smith, who plans to go on to law school, hopes that all of WeListen’s events—from this first major conference to their workshops and bi-weekly community discussions—encourage people to think more broadly and be more intentional about meeting other people as human beings first and as members of a political party second.
“Working with WeListen has given me different strengths,” Smith says. “I’m usually very quick to speak and quick to respond to people, but I’ve started weighing what I say about certain topics much more carefully because I’m so much more in tune with the fact that what you say can really have an effect on someone else. Words can have consequences. So I know, now, how incredibly important it is to think about what I’m going to say before I say it.”