Strengthening connections, reducing divisions through bridge building

Strengthening connections, reducing divisions through bridge building

// By Jacqueline Brennan

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, our country continues to be pulled apart by differences, rather than bound and strengthened by what connects us. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) is trying to address this issue head-on through its Bridging Differences initiative, which mixes science and storytelling to explore how people from different groups or backgrounds can better understand and get along with each other.

The GGSC has long been at the forefront of a scientific movement to explore the science of a meaningful life — the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. It will host a number of activities at Upswell Chicago to raise awareness about the importance of bridging differences among changemakers, and to gain feedback and insights to make GGSC’s bridging resources even better.

We talked with Jason Marsh, editor-in-chief and director of programs at GGSC, to learn more about their work and what changemakers can look forward to during Upswell.

Q: First, let’s set the stage. Tell us more about the GGSC, and your Bridging Differences initiative.

JM: The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley is a little different than other centers at universities, in that while we do fund some research, most of what we do is take research essentially on what we call “the science of a meaningful life” — the roots of compassion, generosity, purpose—and put that research into terms that are accessible and practical to people outside of academia. We especially focus on helping educators, community leaders, health professionals, and parents use this research to improve their relationships, personal well-being, and their communities.

And so building on that mission, our Bridging Differences initiative is especially focused on research into what helps people form stronger connections — not only among their immediate family or within their immediate community, but across group lines, with people they may see as different from themselves.

Q: You’re partnering on this initiative with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. How does the Trust’s work intersect with GGSC’s efforts to bridge differences?

JM: The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust has been a longtime partner of the Greater Good Science Center. Our missions align in that the Trust is really focused on the conditions and factors that help people get along better with one another and help them form stronger relationships. And in the wake of the 2016 election, the Trust recognized that a lot of our connections had really frayed, and our sense of alienation and polarization from one another had really grown. So they put out a call for programs that are trying to reduce polarization and bring people together across difference around the country. They wound up providing grants to 37 organizations in the U.S. that are working to bridge various differences and divides.

Then we partnered with the Trust to help share lessons learned from this and related work, particularly to tell the stories of those organizations and other organizations working to bridge differences. And we’re combining these stories with our reporting on relevant research — namely, research that has been identifying the core principles and strategies for bridging differences. So through our Bridging Differences initiative, we’ve been zeroing in on those core principles and skills for fostering more positive connections across group lines, according to the research, then looking to leading programs that provide real-world illustrations of what some of the research findings look like in practice.

Q: Upswell will feature several activities designed to help bridge divides and build “bridging” norms into civil society. Can you tell us about those?

JM: We’ll be leading several different activities at Upswell, all centering on this idea of bridging differences and really trying to elevate the importance of bridging in people’s minds. We’ll also offer a few concrete strategies to help people practice more bridging in their lives and generally recognize the importance of bridging not just at Upswell but in their day-to-day lives and in their work.

One of those activities will be a workshop, happening Thursday from 2:30 – 4pm, where we’ll share some of the key strategies for bridging differences that we’ve identified, and present them in a format we’re calling a new “Playbook” for bridging differences. We think it will be useful to anyone who is trying in their work to help bridge differences between groups, or even build bridges within their organization or community. We’ll give people in this workshop the opportunity to take the Playbook for a “test drive,” so to speak, to see how relevant and practical these bridging strategies feel to their own lives. And we’ll ask for feedback on how we can better support their work with the resources we’re producing. That will kick off a three-month fellowship period with those who participate where they’ll take the Playbook back to their communities after Upswell and test out some of the content. We’ll check in with them periodically on what’s working and what’s not, so that we can better support them and other community leaders in the future.

We’re also hosting a live recording of our popular podcast called The Science of Happiness, happening Wednesday at 3pm. We’ll record an episode live at Upswell that will also focus on bridging differences. In every episode, we have a guest try out a research-based practice intended to foster happiness, or resilience to stress, or kindness, or connection—they apply it to their own lives. And then they come on the show and talk about their experience—what they did, what impact it had on them, what was hard, what they liked—and then we talk about the research behind the practice. So we’ll be doing that with a practice specifically focused on bridging differences. Our guest will try the practice in their own community, then come to Upswell to talk about their experience on the show. We’ll tease out lessons from their experience to help other people identify things they can do to bridge differences in their own lives. And we’ll edit the conversation and distribute the episode widely after Upswell.

Then we’re hosting a couple of talks in the Public Square by leaders in the bridging differences field who will be speaking about their organization’s work. One is Steven Olikara, founder and president of the Millennial Action Project, which is focused on reducing political polarization in the U.S. and developing a new generation of leaders to transcend partisan divides and focus on nonpartisan solutions to the pressing problems confronting our country.

We’ll also have Lennon Flowers, founder of The Dinner Party and The People’s Supper – two organizations focused on using meals as a way to bring people together for constructive conversation. They’ve really scaled up their work across the country, and Lennon will be sharing lessons learned from this work.

And GGSC will have our own presence in the Public Square where we’ll share more about our work and give people a chance to engage in some of the practices we’re sharing through our Bridging Differences initiative.

Q: There’s an opportunity for attendees to remain engaged in bridge building and the supporting social science once Upswell Chicago ends. How can changemakers do that?

JM: We’ll have a structured experience with people we’re engaging with through the workshop, and hope to learn a lot when they take the material from the workshop, apply it to their lives, and help us improve our resources as a result of their own experiences. But we also hope to gain similar feedback more broadly. From our space in the Public Square at Upswell, we’ll also be sharing simple practical resources that anyone can try in their personal or professional life. And we do hope to hear back from people who use them about their own experiences and lessons learned — ways they’ve tried some of these practices for bridging differences, how well they worked, and the effect it had on them and others.

And subsequently, we’ll be sharing resources through post-Upswell communications — additional prompts and reminders to the Upswell community of other things they can try. The main focus will be offering concrete, practical practices and skills people can try in modest ways in their personal and professional lives.

Q: What is one key learning you hope changemakers take away from the bridging activities to help them perform their missions more effectively?

JM: One key lesson we hope changemakers take away from this work is that there are really modest and simple ways they can get started practicing bridging in their own lives. Not every activity needs to solve the entire crisis of polarization and partisan conflict we’re seeing in our country right now. There are even things you can start to do in your family — ways of communicating with and empathically listening to each other — that foster a greater sense of connection and inclusion, and help to reduce conflict or at least prevent it from escalating. That really sets an important tone for all of our relationships, in our private life and publicly. And if these positive approaches to dialogue and connection are practiced enough over time, by enough people — and especially by changemakers, who have a lot of influence over other people’s behavior and mindsets — they can really have a tremendous ripple effect.

Learn more about some of the activities organized by Greater Good Science Center at Upswell:

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