As another year of ASSU elections came and went, again I saw people campaigning with promises to reduce discrimination, build more social understanding between people, and promote positive forms of diversity.
These campaign platforms exist because we have not yet found good ways to engage everyone on community problems. It’s easy for people to stay in their own busy worlds and avoid unfamiliar perspectives. Sometimes, the people who avoid other viewpoints are precisely the ones that need to encounter them the most.
“But,” you say, “it’s ridiculous to expect everyone to engage.” Nonsense. Let’s raise our expectations and create a new normal. We need to create a routine of using better methods of engagement that involve the whole community.
We live in little micro-Stanfords, or “bubbles within the bubble.” We have a dorm, a major, a set of extracurricular activities or groups. Within these groups you might encounter people with different viewpoints, but it’s easy to just stick with your group of friends and avoid controversial ideas.
Groups attempt to raise issues through cultural events, town hall meetings, and campaigns. But attendance is always optional. As a senior, over and over again I’ve seen one community of people try to raise awareness about a topic, only to wind up talking amongst themselves. Even when an event is popular, there is still no way of knowing you’ve reached everyone you need to.
We also have several publications where people can discuss ideas. But not everyone reads every newspaper or blog, and the communication is largely one-way. Plus, there is also no way of guaranteeing that a reader will truly “listen” and empathize with the alternative perspective.
Stanford does make sure that, at least at the beginning of freshman year, students encounter a variety of perspectives. With NSO, we spend a week being inculcated into the mindset of enjoying diversity with all-frosh events like FACES followed by discussions in the dorm. But it’s only one week – we still have four more years here without a good routine of getting everyone together to discuss and work through issues.
Therefore, we need some better methods to engage people. I’m thinking of five general criteria that these new methods would include.
1. Active participation. You don’t just read about something in passing, but actively receive information and contribute your own viewpoints back.
2. In-depth participation. These are not just brief comments at the bottom of a blog post. People have the surface conversation and get into the details.
3. Participants have diverse perspectives. The whole point is to counteract factions and echo chambers and build understanding between people.
4. Full participation. All perspectives are included and everyone benefits from hearing a variety of viewpoints.
5. Routine participation. These are not one-off encounters. The same way we develop habits of voting, attending parties, or going to classes, we have a habit of participating in some method of community engagement.
So here is my brief brainstorm of what some methods might look like:
Since the hardest part would be getting people to attend, I figure you could start with the fact that many people are already members of groups. So, if you are in a community organization, a student group, a dorm, etc., you could be required (or strongly encouraged) to attend certain facilitated meetings with a completely different type of group a couple times a quarter. Or once a quarter, attendance at a popular event, like a party or a famous speaker, would be contingent upon participation in those kinds of meetings. Or if the school had big problems, the administration could make FACES-like events and post-discussions in the dorm more regular and mandatory.
I’m also not just suggesting methods akin to therapy sessions. Think of it as an experiment in participatory democracy. Maybe certain collaboration technologies could be used. For example, each quarter a different cultural community could take the stage in front of the whole school and talk about their perspectives while the audience divides into teams around laptops or smart phones and weighs in on the discussion. Or everyone is encouraged to keep tabs online of all the different activist events or campaigns they have attended while at Stanford, alongside some kind of discussion forum. Stanford is all about innovation, technological and social – I imagine we could try out all sorts of methods, online and in person.
Of course, maybe most of the student body is engaged enough that making comprehensive engagement mandatory would be more work than is necessary. But I think the controversy over Gaieties last fall and the repeated ASSU campaign platforms show that a fair number of people have real concerns about the social understanding of students in this campus community.
That is why we need methods that get everyone into the conversation. The various events, rallies, and campaigns simply don’t reach or engage all groups and students. Until we build a routine of thorough community engagement, we will continue to live in our bubbles within the bubble.