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Let’s build a culture of encounter

| Wednesday, April 28, 2021

It’s hard for me to believe that my college career is coming to a close in less than a month. While I intend on living in the moment and making as many more memories as I can in the time that I have left, I’ve already begun the inevitable process of reflecting on the experiences that have played an outsize impact in defining my time at Notre Dame. My work in the leadership ranks of BridgeND is among them. 

In different capacities in our organization, I’ve been blessed with a variety of once unimaginable opportunities, like flying to Washington D.C. and Dallas for conferences, meeting and hosting former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice and organizing events with international advocacy organizations like the ONE Campaign. I didn’t sign up for BridgeND for these moments, though. They aren’t why the club has had a profound impact on my life. The people that I’ve encountered along the way and the conversations I’ve had during small group discussions on our Monday afternoon meetings and special events are. 

Pope Francis has spoken about the importance of building a “culture of encounter” in our world. He has said, “Faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.” Caritas Internationalis explains what this means: “reaching out, building friendships beyond our circle and meeting people on the peripheries, the most poor and vulnerable, migrants and refugees.” It says that a culture of encounter invites us to build relationships with others, to favor unity over division and reach across divides. This is the mission of BridgeND, achieved through the power of respectful conversation, enabled by students who are willing to make themselves vulnerable and share their beliefs and experiences with others. 

Everything I’ve tried to do through BridgeND has been in an attempt to build a stronger culture of encounter at Notre Dame. It has not always been easy, in part because of obvious reasons related to our University’s lackluster diversity in some respects. For example, a 2017 study by Raj Chetty and other researchers reported in the New York Times ranked Notre Dame 63rd out of 65 schools in composition of the student body by family income, drawing only 10% of its student body from the bottom 60% by family income. Some students here come from exorbitant wealth. Some come from families who have to make significant financial sacrifices to make this education thinkable. 

If BridgeND is hosting a conversation about something like the minimum wage or a wealth tax, why would a student of low socioeconomic status subject themselves to the potentially harmful or offensive opinions of a well-off student? The question is even more important for conversation topics related to intrinsic characteristics, like sexuality and race. For some students, what some might consider an echo chamber is really a safety network. It makes sense that some people might not want to put themselves in a room where they would truly feel unsafe because of someone else at the table’s opinion. 

I do believe, though, that the more “boxes” of privilege we check off, the higher the expectation should be that we do the work to help make sure no one on this campus feels unsafe because of the beliefs of another. I believe that this work starts with conversations, and that’s why conversations are at the core of BridgeND’s operations.

During the fall of 2019, we started an initiative to spark conversations in the dining hall with question boards where people could put a response on a sticky note and others could read what people were already thinking. One of the questions was whether the United States should prioritize deportation over a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Someone approached me in person about the appropriateness of this question, saying that we should be asking questions that are not as directly related to real people. My issue here, though, is that as of January 2019, a Gallup poll found that 37% of U.S. adults supported “deporting all immigrants who are living in the United States illegally back to their home country.” Refusing to speak about this topic isn’t going to make these people change their mind. I believe that encountering them — speaking with them — could. 

These conversations are rarely easy, and if you are not ready to engage in all of them because you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s okay and understandable. If you do feel comfortable and safe in this University community and in this country, though, you should participate. Caritas says that encountering another person “is to experience the grace of the living God.” If you’ve ever attended a BridgeND meeting or event, and especially if you’ve taken the time to engage in challenging conversations with me in particular, I can’t thank you enough for your encounters and the grace that has flowed from them. 

Kevin Gallagher is a senior and the former president of BridgeND. 

BridgeND is a nonpartisan political education and discussion group committed to bridging the partisan divide through honest, respectful and productive discourse. BridgeND meets weekly on Mondays at 5:30 p.m. You can contact the club at [email protected] or @bridge_ND on Twitter. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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