Students participate in political challenge

Art piece of people sitting at tables drinking coffee and talking.
(Nora Miller | Daily Trojan)

The USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future took part in the second installment of the Unify America Challenge from Feb. 7 to Feb. 10. About 30 USC students and more than 900 participants nationwide accepted the challenge, which consists of an hour-long guided discussion between college students that hold different views regarding politics and policy. 

Prior to the event, students completed a questionnaire describing their political views and location. Students later matched with someone with different views and a different location and met with them via video call. Participants took turns discussing a set of around 25 questions about social issues, including healthcare, women’s rights, immigration and climate change. According to the CPF website, the event intends to “bridge partisan divides” and help participants to realize they share more ideas in common than those that divide them. 

“They’re here to learn. They’re here to have an open mind. They’re here to be curious,” said CPF Executive Director Kamy Akhavan. “They’re here to step out of their bubble and connect with somebody who is different from them,”

If participants share the same ideas or are from the same location, organizers match participants with someone with similar ideas and provide previously recorded answers of someone with diverging ideas. Unify America Director of Partnerships Abby Ferguson said both modalities of the challenge have had overwhelmingly positive feedback.

“The point is not for participants to break down and say, ‘We agree on every issue.’ The point is to create some consensus to say, ‘Out of 24 questions about very serious issues our country faces, we actually agree on probably 18 of them,’” Ferguson said. “Eighty five percent or so of the time, [participants] say they would recommend this exercise to someone else.” 

Although Akhavan said it does not happen often, the procedure for rising tensions during a conversation is to leave. Although students go into the challenge with good intentions, the conversations may turn awkward and no one is judged for choosing to leave.

“It’s not easy to have conversations with political opposites sometimes, but like anything in life, the skill we’re building cannot be built in a single session,” Akhavan said. “We’re not as polarized as the media sometimes leads us to believe and that there is a lot of goodness in other people, even if we disagree on policy issues.”

Thirty USC students engaged in political discussion with more than 900 peers nationwide from Feb. 7 to Feb. 10. (Charlie McCollum | Daily Trojan file photo)

What sets Unify America apart from other organizations with a similar conversational style, such as Living Room Conversations, is that by using video calls, they are able to connect students on opposite sides of the country. As a self-paced activity without moderators, students are encouraged to adhere to guidelines set in advance and listen with an open mind, according to Akhavan. Additionally, aided by “funky illustrations” and “quirky characters,” the organization appeals specifically to college students, Ferguson said.

Zain Khan, a freshman majoring in international relations, said his experience participating in the challenge was different from his expectations. The algorithm matched Khan with a student who shared similar ideologies as him. However, he said the event still provided him an educational opportunity. 

“We definitely learned how this helps our perspective on things,” Khan said.

Khan said the challenge was a success, partially because his partner heard his opinions. However, it was not so successful in that he did not get to interact with someone with opposing ideologies. Nonetheless, he found it “interesting and stimulating” and recommends the experience to other students.

“I feel like everyone has to be politically involved, especially in today’s world,” Khan said. “Those who say that they don’t want to are just either lazy or don’t want to partake in today’s world. I would encourage everyone, because it helps you understand why someone thinks the way they do.”

CPF promotes similar events throughout the year to help create pathways that combine multiple ideologies to create solutions for today’s problems. It held more than 75 events last year with over 50 partners and encouraged students to participate whenever an event interests them, Akhavan said. 

“Our goal as an organization is not to get people to disagree less; disagreement is fine. The problem is that we need to disagree better, so that our conflict does not become a fight, where we are opponents but not enemies,” Akhavan said. “These kinds of workshops, seminars, activities, events and programs are really designed to help us connect with each other as humans.”