Victoria was sitting on the hood of a parked car looking down at the number she had been given by a staffer at the Planned Parenthood clinic where she’d had her abortion a few days earlier. She felt sure she had made the right decision by terminating the pregnancy. She was just 20 years old, holding down three jobs and on the cusp of finishing college. 

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had let her Catholic, pro-life family down. “It felt to me to be very shameful,” she says. She called the number and, before she knew it, she was telling the woman, a peer counselor for an organization called Exhale, about a recurring dream she had been having. “I would be speaking to my sister, but she would not turn to face me when we talked — no matter how I walked around her or asked her to.” 

The counselor listened intently and helped Victoria — who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy — to reflect on her experience. “It was really good for me to put everything on pause and be like, ‘Oh, this is actually a little bit confusing what I’m feeling,” she says. She called the talk line a few more times and each conversation was the same. “Nobody said anything except things like, ‘You deserve to heal’ or ‘You deserve peace.’”

At a time when attitudes toward abortion are deeply divided along ideological lines, organizations like Exhale — whose clients include both feminists from California and churchgoers from the Bible Belt — are a rarity. 

Most abortion counseling organizations are either pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-life organizations believe abortion is morally wrong and often see counseling as an opportunity to “save” women who have committed what they view as a grave sin, sometimes through shame or coercion. Pro-choice organizations seek to normalize abortion and often downplay or dismiss women’s feelings of loss, confusion, or regret after having one. 

“There’s really no space to wrestle with it because we’re just screaming over one another,” says Susan Chorley, a Baptist minister and president and co-founder of Exhale. Chorley got pregnant for the second time when her son was two and her marriage was on the rocks. The thought of having another child overwhelmed her and she chose to have an abortion. After the procedure, she didn’t dare talk about it with people at her church for fear of being ostracized. At the same time, pro-choice groups didn’t acknowledge the full range of emotions she felt about her abortion, which included intense sadness.

Both sides made her feel judged. “It was like, ‘Just do it and who cares’ or, ‘If you do that, you’re forever damned,’” Chorley says. “It’s so much more complex.” 

The isolation she felt led Chorley, who is still a minister, to co-found Exhale, a non-profit that helps people process their experiences around abortion without any preconceived notions about what that should look like. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum,” says Chorley. “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation. And there’s no space to have that conversation if we’re just talking about whether it’s right or wrong.”

exhale staff
Staff and volunteers at Exhale. Photos courtesy of Exhale

Founded in 2000, Exhale is staffed by 40 volunteers from across the country trained to act as non-partisan, non-judgmental sounding boards for women (and sometimes men) who have experienced abortion. It has staunchly resisted pressure from donors and others to plant its flag in either the pro-life or pro-choice camps. Instead, it has tried to carve out a space, which it calls “pro-voice,” in the sparsely occupied territory between the two extremes. 

“I think that some of the division and isolation that we’re experiencing in this country has been because there haven’t been enough opportunities for people across those quote-unquote divides to find one another, to know one another, to listen to one another,” says Chorley. “Ultimately, that’s what we want to create in this space.” 

The organization recently hosted a series of virtual healing circles for people who have had an abortion and have also been victims of violence (many women make the decision to abort because they have been victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse). The circles consisted of three activities per week, including journaling, yoga and weekly group discussions, for a period of six weeks. At any time, people can connect with a counselor via the organization’s text line (this year, Exhale transitioned management of the talk line to another organization, Connect and Breathe).

Most people reach out because they have nobody else to talk to or are afraid of what people will say. “You need to sit there and hold a safe space for them so they can talk about their feelings,” says Jenna Sprague, a peer counselor for Exhale who also sits on the organization’s board. “It’s giving people the chance to actually use their voice.”

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    Clients set the agenda for the conversation with peer counselors following their cues, right down to what language they use. “If they say baby, we reflect that back and talk about their baby,” Sprague says. 

    Text line counselors attend eight hours of virtual training over two weekends, where they role play situations they may encounter with clients — a college student grappling with the decision, a father wanting to support his teenage daughter, a grandmother coming to terms with an abortion she had years ago.

    One of the goals of the training is to unpack participants’ assumptions about abortion.

    “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation.”

    When Sprague trained with Exhale in 2016, the organization was doing in-person sessions at their now shuttered office in Oakland, California. In one session, the trainer asked participants questions like, “Do you believe abortion is a form of killing?” and “Is abortion a form of birth control?” “We had a ‘Yes’ section and a ‘No’ section and you could stand anywhere along that wall,” Sprague recalls. After hearing why other participants felt the way they did, several people shifted from their original positions along the wall.

    For Sprague, this simple exercise was revealing. “It was a great way to tangibly see that it’s not a black-and-white issue. There are different layers to this.”

    That approach reflects a level of empathy and complexity that is arguably missing from the abortion debate — but it hasn’t been an easy sell. 

    “The middle ground isn’t flashy,” says Sprague. “Being on the extremes…it brings in more money, it brings in more followers, it generates more conversation.” In recent years, the organization has struggled to attract donors and funding constraints have forced it to scale down, including divesting the talk line.

    Despite these challenges, Chorley isn’t budging. “I’ve given up on trying to fight to belong,” she says. “I am committed to creating space for people who want a nuanced conversation.”

    As the pace of change in our world accelerates, humanity is confronting unprecedented challenges: the climate crisis, economic inequality, endemic military conflict, the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality and systemic racism. At a deep, primal level, this degree of transformation triggers anxiety both about the future and about who we are. We often wonder, will we even have a future? 

    But as we approach uncertain futures, there are many paths we can take. Some incite more fear and polarization, while others encourage cooperation, collaboration and solidarity. One makes the “other” a source of that fear and anxiety. A more hopeful approach sees each other as a source of connection and possibility.

    This is the time to discern the difference between them — between actions that can instigate what we call breaking, and those that can lead to what we call bridging. Breaking causes fractures; bridging fosters cohesion. When we break, we propagate a fabricated notion of separateness. When we bridge, we soften our identities. We discover multiple identities.

    But bridging is not same-ing. Colorblindness, assimilation and smoothing over difference as though it does not matter bypasses much needed repairs we need to make.

    Credit: Neil Moralee / Flickr

    Bridging is about increasing acceptance of diverse peoples, values and beliefs while giving us greater access to different parts of ourselves. Building bridges can help expand our social networks, revitalize our communities and establish a more fair and equitable society. It can help us build a large “we” that does not demand assimilation.

    So we have a choice. We can either turn on each other, or toward each other.

    We can turn our attention to the version of our current reality that says that our common bond is wearing away. Or, we can pivot toward ever-present examples of hope, and find that solidarity is the modality that enables us to thrive.

    We find hope in stories of the Jewish and Arab women in Israel driving hundreds of Bedouin women from their remote villages to polling stations to protect their right to vote. We find it in the youth soccer program in Lewiston, Maine, where Somali refugees play side by side with their American teammates to set an example for the rest of their community. We find it in the NFL’s reversal of its position on players taking a knee during the national anthem, and the league’s eventual support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

    We also find hope in the fact that BLM is widely embraced by Americans: two-thirds of U.S. adults support the movement, including majorities of white (60%), Hispanic (77%), and Asian (75%) Americans. The growing diversity within the movement is illustrative and informative.

    These examples and statistics signal a sea change. Both individuals and institutions are dislodging entrenched belief systems and rebuking pressure to “stick with the party line.” While there’s still much work to be done, these are important representations of bridging in this historic moment as we work to abolish long-standing oppression.

    Stories of bridging not only offer a salve in a fractured world, they provide tangible frameworks and replicable strategies. They teach us that oneness is not sameness, and that we can overcome the false illusion of separateness by honoring our differences to weave toward common purpose with many tributaries. We can transcend the notion that difference divides us, and instead see that it makes us stronger.

    This moment finds us at an inflection point. We can choose to continue the well-worn path of exclusion, supremacy and othering, fueled by narratives of fear and threats. Or we can elevate stories and practices of mutuality and interdependence. We can interrogate the stories we have and identify what might be the most productive and life-affirming story we can inhabit. We can co-create stories where we care about each other. We don’t yet know how our story will end, but this is a great place to start.

    This essay is adapted from On Bridging by john a. powell and Rachel Heydemann.

    Last fall, Jax Richards ducked into a coffee shop near the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis to talk about criminal justice reform at a discussion hosted by a student organization. Richards is a junior majoring in economics and public policy, so he is no stranger to discussing hot-button political issues. He considers himself politically liberal on almost every issue though he emphasizes that he doesn’t “walk the party line.” He’s been called a “baby killer” by conservatives for believing in a woman’s right to an abortion and “incompetent” and “stupid” by those to his left for not supporting Medicare for All. A lifelong Boy Scout, he was labeled a “fascist” by some for attending the national jamboree in 2017 where President Trump spoke. 

    With criminal justice reform, however, the issue is personal. Richards survived childhood abuse at the hands of his father, who is now a convicted felon. When he sat down with eight other students at the discussion, hosted by the OSU chapter of a national student group called BridgeUSA, he had a hardline view of how the U.S. should treat people convicted of crimes.

    Jax Richards
    Jax Richards

    “We should throw the book at them,” he told them. “I believed in the death penalty and that prison should not be a top priority when we start addressing social justice and social change.”

    When students started making the case for a rehabilitation rather than punishment model for addressing criminal justice, the conversation could have easily gone off the rails, with Richards drawing on his backstory to shut down dissenting views. “I did what a lot of people do with an emotional issue,” he says. “I came right off the bat and said I think rehabilitating the prison system isn’t feasible and my personal experience was what I used as my evidence.”

    But the conversation did not devolve into a shouting match. Rather than push back or retreat to their preconceived views, the other students were empathetic to Richards’ experience. They asked him questions to better understand his mindset. Some brought more empirical evidence to the conversation about the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color and offered up alternative European criminal justice models that focus on reintegrating convicted criminals into society.

    An hour and a half later, Richards had begun to soften his view. “That conversation with BridgeUSA opened up new possibilities and curiosities for me to learn more about alternatives to hardline punishment,” he says. “It also provided more objective opinions from my peers and was a supportive environment that understood why I would hold those views.

    While Richards didn’t walk away that fall day with his convictions changed, it sparked him to explore the issue more in depth in his classes, through his own research and in conversations with others. Several months later in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, he has come around to a different attitude. “At the end of the day, rehabilitating individuals is a lot more beneficial as opposed to putting them in a horrible system.”

    BridgeUSA is a national campus-based organization working to promote civil discourse in an increasingly polarized era through facilitated small group discussions. As higher education institutions struggle to balance free speech policies, safe spaces and deplatforming, BridgeUSA is one of several groups working to foster intellectual tolerance on college campuses. For Richards, the experience captures the best of what the college experience can be for young people still working through their opinions and worldviews.

    “Bridge isn’t even at the level of contentious political family dinners,” says Richards. “The closest comparison I can make to the conversations I’ve had at Bridge are the long midnight car rides I’ve had with some of my best friends — not debates, but conversations of mutual understanding.”

    That spirit of friendly, empathetic curiosity was sorely lacking at the University of California, Berkeley on February 1, 2017. That evening, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech amid a climate of rising ultra-conservative and white nationalist views just weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president. Student protesters attempted to block the event nonviolently. They were eventually joined by self-identified anti-fascists who turned the protest into a riot by launching fireworks at police, then smashing store windows on campus and in downtown Berkeley. University police put the campus on lockdown and canceled the speech.

    “The only dominant narratives are the extremes. Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

    BridgeUSA co-founder Manu Meel was a freshman at the time. He was leaving math class when he found himself caught in the melee. He later ended up in a campus building watching CNN, which was broadcasting a live feed of his own college going up in flames.

    “I was shocked at the state of democratic engagement and what this means for higher education and learning,” he says. 

    In the aftermath of the February riot and subsequent campus unrest over controversial conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter, who were met with a sometimes violent response from far-left demonstrators, the university appointed a free speech commission to examine the recent events. The commission grappled with UC Berkeley’s legacy as the bastion of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, when students protested for the right to discuss political issues like the Vietnam War on campus. In 2017, the Berkeley College Republicans and invited speakers, who ranged from political commentators to fringe alt-right activists, argued that they also had a right to free speech for their views.

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      Meel volunteered on a student council advising the commission, which concluded that students are either apathetic about politics or, if they are engaged, they take radically polarized approaches like right-wing trolling or anti-fascist property damage because violence and destructive engagement is the only model of discourse.

      “The only dominant narratives are the extremes,” says Meel. “Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

      Manu Meel
      Manu Meel

      That conclusion inspired Meel to engage with what he saw as a silent majority — those who were neither rioting in black bloc nor reveling in right-wing provocateurs — in the hopes of fostering an alternative mode of political discourse. Soon after the Milo riots, students at Notre Dame, which had started a non-partisan political discussion group called BridgeND, reached out to their Berkeley counterparts. In the heat of the moment, the concept took off at Berkeley. Over 100 people showed up at the first BridgeBerkeley conversation in mid-February to debrief from the Milo riots. 

      From Berkeley, the Bridge concept spread to 24 campuses. Meel graduated in June 2020 and BridgeUSA has since become a non-profit start-up with Meel its first CEO, working out of a San Francisco apartment with a handful of Berkeley alumni.

      “Our theory of change is that you have to show young people what it means to engage with democracy,” he says. “We elevate young people who believe in empathy, respect and engaged dialogue as a prerequisite to action.”

      While BridgeUSA chapters occasionally host speakers — provided they have a history of constructive engagement — the organization generally eschews lectures. “Talks are a one-way mode of engagement. The core principle of Bridge isn’t about presenting your views, it’s about listening and engaging,” says Meel. 

      Instead, Bridge favors small group discussions like the one Jax Richards found his way to at Oregon State, where Bridge-trained moderators facilitate the discussion parliamentary-style, so that speakers address the moderator rather than someone else in the room with whom they disagree. 

      A student discussion at UC Berkeley organized by BridgeBerkeley. Photo courtesy BridgeUSA

      Not that there aren’t moments of tension. Meel recalls an immigration discussion with thirty-odd students in attendance where a DACA recipient, or “Dreamer,” made her case for why she believes Dreamers have a right to stay on campus. At the time, Trump was pushing Congress to cancel the DACA program and the university administration reacted by providing financial and legal support to undocumented students. A white student from El Paso, Texas stood up to rebut her argument. He put on a red “Make America Great Again” hat before stating his views that allowing so-called “illegal immigration” is a bad precedent that risks crime and violence, making him scared for his family.

      Rather than the Dreamer backing away and leaving, or shouting in response to his argument, she responded to his values by expressing her fear of deportation and likening it to his fear of crime. After their back-and-forth, the moderator asked if anyone else had something to add. The other students, who had quietly let the two debate, didn’t talk about immigration. They latched on to the level of understanding that the two students, who couldn’t otherwise be more different, had reached. 

      “While they had totally different policy positions, they shared the same notion of safety, security and stability,” says Meel. “The process of empathy is to get at the level of values, and at the level of values you can break down arguments and find common purposes.”

      Observing the process was at least as important as actually discussing the issue at hand. “A lot of kids have never spoken with anyone they disagree with politically,” says Meel. “The chapter builds the clout for them to do that.”

      Flying book

      Moderation is also the key to success at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, which serves a politically mixed student body of more conservative Linn County and more liberal Benton County. Communications professor Mark Urista advises the student-led Civil Discourse Club, which arose in 2017 following controversy over sexually explicit artwork displayed on campus.

      “What stood out to me right away was a clear divide between those who were enthusiastically supportive and those who thought it was completely inappropriate,” says Urista. “They were talking in their own echo chambers but not with each other.”

      Promoting a collegewide discussion is difficult for a commuter campus, as many community colleges are. One experiment the club has tried is a public whiteboard that asks controversial questions like “Should vaping be banned on campus?” so respondents can weigh in at different times of day. While comments can be made anonymously, moderators from the club erase personal or partisan attacks.

      “We have an etiquette sign,” says Urista. “This is not a free expression whiteboard — we are trying to teach people how to do civil discourse.”

      Survey data and scholarly research on the political views of higher education instructors suggest that creating intentional spaces for students to share contrary views is necessary. In a 2019 survey on campus expression by Heterodox Academy, a non-profit advocating for viewpoint diversity on college campuses, 55 percent of students reported that the on-campus climate prevents them from saying something they believe, with one in three students reluctant to share political views in the classroom. Republican students were more reluctant than Democrats or Independents to talk about controversial topics like race, sexuality and gender, although not religion.

      That sensibility is backed up by the ideological tilt of professors. In a 2018 paper, Mitchell Langbert, a business professor at Brooklyn College, analyzed the political affiliations of 8,688 professors at 51 liberal arts colleges. He found the Democrat-to-Republican ratio at an overwhelming 12.7 to one. In several colleges’ humanities and social sciences departments, he found consistently there were zero registered Republicans.

      John Wood, Jr., Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and Ciaran O’Connor, a campaign staffer for Barack Obama and in 2014 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, speaking at a Respect + Rebellion event at UC Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Loren Curry / BridgeUSA

      Debra Mashek, a tenured psychology professor at Harvey Mudd College who is now Heterodox Academy’s executive director, identifies as very liberal. She knows the problem all too well. “One of our founders spoke at a psychology conference where I was in the audience,” she says. “I remember him asking if anyone who was Republican could please stand up. One person did.”

      Mashek’s field of research is close relationships, which is also where she finds the seeds of successful efforts to overcome division. “We need to cultivate the habits of heart and mind that allow you to engage constructively across lines of difference,” she says. Those habits start with relational aspects. “You need to know enough about the other person as a person, not as an avatar, to actually see where they’re coming from,” she says. “You have to take the risk of letting yourself be seen and known. When you do take that risk, it tends to resolve in more connection.”

      Finding those relational aspects is at the heart of Respect + Rebellion, which brings so-called “divergent speaker pairs” to college campuses who disagree vehemently but remain friends through a cross-cutting bond. With names like “Black & Poor + White & Privileged,” “Anti-abortion Feminist + Abortion Access Fanatic,” and several variations on “Red + Blue,” the framing of the pairs goes straight for the jugular of ideological divides. But by going to the precipice of fundamental disagreements over hot-button issues while ending in agree-to-disagree comity, the speaker pairs serve as models of successful relationships across political and ideological differences.

      Inside the Student-Led Movement to Depolarize College

      Jacob Hess, one of the organizers behind the project, is himself a participant: A politically conservative adherent to the LDS church, he pairs up with Philip Neisser, a Marxist atheist. They disagree on everything. Almost. “We’re both into uber-healthy stuff,” says Hess. “We both think Monsanto is the devil.” That connecting thread, plus their shared professional background in academic research, is enough to forge a friendship that can soften student attitudes when displayed publicly.

      “I have seen the shift firsthand with students who show up ready to fight us,” he says. “After they see that we’re just being real and human with each other, it loses the charge.”

      Respect + Rebellion brought its divergent speaker pairs to over 2,500 students during the 2018-2019 school year and conducted surveys at eight events across four campuses, drawing responses from 400 attendees. Overwhelming majorities responded that the event helped depolarize their views. 73 percent agreed with the statement, “I understand and/or like people who I disagree with at least a little bit more than before.” 78 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel like it is more possible that I could learn something from people on the other side of the aisle.” And 83 percent agreed with the statement, “I’m more optimistic about conversing with people whose political views are different than my own.”

      Shortly after the hotly contested 2018 midterm election, Linn-Benton College hosted the “Red Mom + Blue Mom” speaker pair. Several instructors brought their classes to the talk and built assignments around the presentation. “Students claim they really appreciated seeing two people model what civil discourse looks like in the flesh,” says Urista. “For a lot of people, civil discourse is this abstract term. They don’t know what it means or how to do it. Those results gave me tremendous hope about the future.”

      Meel feels that same depolarizing effect at work when students find themselves in a BridgeUSA-moderated conversation as opposed to yelling at each other across the campus quad.

      “I almost feel like I’m not a part of my generation when I talk about the need for relationships,” says Meel. “Social media has hampered our ability to engage.”

      With that uphill battle, Meel said, their work is cut out for them. “We have to figure out unique ways to market empathy to my generation, which is very pissed off and very angry.”