This is an article from the fall 2018 issue of 
LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

On October 1, 2017, a 64-year-old man named Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, injuring 851 people and killing 58. It was the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in the United States.

The next day, the executive board of the student group WeListen met to figure out what to do about their upcoming bipartisan discussion event.

The topic for the event: gun control.

“We had a really intense discussion within our board about whether we should keep that as the topic for our discussion,” says Gabriel Lerner (Ford A.B. 2018), co-founder of WeListen. “We wondered if the conservative students, some of whom had grown up around guns, might feel like they couldn’t share their thoughts. On the other hand, we wondered if people who had experience with violence themselves maybe wouldn’t be comfortable sharing their views.”

After discussing it, the group decided to stick with the topic and move forward. Around 80 students showed up and spent 40 minutes talking about gun control, working through ideas about bump stocks and the Second Amendment and
addressing personal experiences and public outrage. To the organizers’ surprise, some students with opposing viewpoints wanted to keep talking with each other after the evening was over.

After the 2016 election, it was clear to Lerner and co-founder Sonia Thosar (B.S.E.I.O. 2018) that there was a need for more civil dialogue around the country — and on their own college campus. They hoped that a student-founded, student-run group might be able to help the people around them come together even when it felt like the country was splitting apart.

“That night really set a precedent for us,” says Thosar. “From then on, we really leaned into topics that were uncomfortable or that people were wary of talking about, and that’s made such a difference.”

Building Bridges

Here’s how a night at WeListen works. After students walk in, they fill out a form on which they self-identify their political ideology on a 1–7 scale, one being very liberal and seven being very conservative. Then they rate themselves on the specific topic at hand.

After a short presentation, the students are sorted into groups and begin their discussion. They spend 10 minutes getting to know each other — that is to say, talking about anything other than politics — and then spend 40 minutes on that night’s topic. Then, after the conversation is over, everyone comes together to review and debrief.

Since the group began in the fall of 2017, they have asked for feedback at every event and have used that information to seriously iterate, tweaking their content and reshaping their format to better serve the events and students.

Some of the changes included moving from randomly selected discussion groups to groups intentionally created with an eye toward political balance. Another change was an effort to provide more information at the beginning of each discussion, with thorough presentations and fact sheets to give the participants a set of reliable information to work off of in their conversations. 

This summer, WeListen ran workshops with interns working for politicians, government offices, or think tanks. The hope is that connecting like-minded young people from a range of political backgrounds can help WeListen start doing good work all over the country. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Lerner

“We want to ensure that any student can participate,” says Jacob Chludzinski, WeListen’s vice president of content. “You can be very well-versed in the research and legislation on a given topic or you can come in with no prior background at all. We give students enough so that they have all of the basic facts and definitions that they need to jump in.”

WeListen also changed and expanded their internal structure. The group moved from a smaller core team to one that will include 15 to 20 people this fall term, including seven LSA students in leadership positions: Jacob Chludzinski, vice president of content; Chase Howell, vice president of internal; Patrick McLinden, head moderator; Elijah Rachlin, vice president of external collaborations and relations; Taylor Smith, vice president of outreach; Katelyn Westa, vice president of finance; and Evon Yao, vice president of communications.

Alongside students and alumni from the Ford School of Public Policy, the College of Engineering, and other schools and colleges, these LSA students are working to improve campus climate by practicing what they preach — working and collaborating closely with people from across the aisle.

“It’s so important when you’re making decisions to hear everyone’s point of view,” says Smith. “We’re so used to seeing real legislation fall apart because people can’t seem to get past the political divide. But our leadership team is a 50-50 split between self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals, and we still manage to get things done. And a big part of that is because we can all see that there is common ground underlying the different beliefs that people have.”

Learning on the Job

All of the LSA students involved in WeListen leadership see direct ties between the group’s efforts and their own studies. Many are studying political science, with some hoping to go into politics in Washington, D.C., after graduation, and others planning to attend law school. For Eli Rachlin, a cognitive science major, WeListen has made him curious about connecting what’s happening inside the Capitol Building with what’s happening inside of our heads.

“From my perspective, everything that is either a success or a difficulty in our society only comes to be that way as a result of the ways that the human brain can work,” Rachlin says. “WeListen has made me think a lot about what it does to and for our brains when we have these strongly held beliefs that we then reflect on and talk about with other people sitting right next to us who are doing the same thing.”

“Being in WeListen has really helped me think more deeply about where other people are coming from,” Westa says. “It seems like something we should already know how to do, but we get so used to our own echo chambers on Twitter and hanging out with friends who already agree with us. I think sometimes the hardest thing about WeListen is showing up, because once you’re there, you see how easy it is to meet other people where they are.”


Top photo by Liz DeCamp