Students think outside rural/urban ‘bubbles’ in new UChicago program

Institute of Politics breaks down intellectual 'silos' in exchange with downstate college

Before coming to the University of Chicago, first-year Charlotte Soehner grew up in Manhattan, surrounded largely by like-minded liberals. Once at college in Chicago, not much changed since her social circle on campus held similar political views.

But earlier this year, Soehner embarked on a new program from the non-partisan Institute of Politics designed to address the growing chasm between urban and rural communities and promote a deeper understanding between the two.

The program originated during a visit by Institute of Politics founder and director David Axelrod to Eureka College, a small, central Illinois school 150 miles south of Chicago. Only a few months earlier, the 2016 presidential election had made it readily apparent that the country was fragmented into what Axelrod calls “virtual reality silos,” and that the only way to break down those walls was to promote a real exchange between communities that otherwise would rarely engage with one another.

“It was apparent to me just how siloed we were, that people on university campuses and people in cities were completely nonplussed about how Donald Trump could get elected president, and people in rural areas—I have a home in rural Michigan—a lot of my neighbors just couldn’t see how it could have ended any other way,” Axelrod said. “We were talking past each other and creating caricatures of each other, so I thought it would be important to try in some small way to tear those silos down, attack those caricatures and hear what people are saying.”

“Eureka in central Illinois was in many ways typical of those areas in the industrial Midwest where Donald Trump rolled up big votes,” he noted. “They never fully recovered from the economic downturn, and there’s an enormous sense of disruption and displacement there, so it was fertile ground for Trump. And Eureka is a small college. Ronald Reagan graduated from there. It draws a lot from the surrounding rural areas, and it’s much different in terms of the student body from the University of Chicago.”

In January, Soehner—along with nine other UChicago first- and second-year students and ten students from Eureka College—became a part of the first cohort in the Bridging the Divide program. Over the course of four months at the start of 2018, the students spent time in each community—first in Chicago and then in Eureka—focusing on three challenges facing both places: employment, education and the drug crisis. By meeting with government officials, practitioners and local residents, the students started to understand how both communities were facing these challenges. By talking with one another, the students started to understand how different contexts drive different attitudes, gaining an understanding that makes it harder to demonize and easier to relate.

“I loved being able to sit around a table with people who had the most opposite possible backgrounds that I could have imagined,” Soehner said. “We heard from the same speakers, talked about the same issues, but approached them from different perspectives. That, for me, has been the most exciting part of it. It’s been hard at times, but collaborative and engaging.”

Take the issue of taxes.

“I’ve been raised [to believe] that everyone has to pay taxes,” she said. “I’ve grown up thinking, ‘Why don’t people want to contribute to the government? Why is there this anti-government sentiment?’ And then here I am talking to this person from a 400-person town in the middle of Illinois, and he’s saying, ‘I have rarely seen any infrastructure improvement. How am I supposed to want to contribute when I have no idea where my tax money is going?’”

In Chicago, the students heard from Axelrod, former Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, among others. In Eureka, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, law enforcement officials and social service providers. In the capital of Springfield, Illinois state treasurer Mike Frerichs, Illinois director of criminal justice and public safety policy David Risley, and other state representatives. Both in Chicago and downstate, political strategist David Binder led focus groups to give students a sense of voter attitudes and the cultural divide. Through it all, students examined problems common to all, but seen through very different lenses.

“This program was really beneficial to me because it forced me to step outside of my bubble and understand these issues through many different perspectives,” said first-year Sam Venkatesh from Thousand Oaks, California.

Instead of focusing on the divisions that keep us apart, students emerged with a renewed sense of optimism moving forward.

“What made me more optimistic is knowing that people are willing to talk if you show them that you’re also willing to listen at the same time,” said first-year Jessica Vargas of Chicago. “Often I have this stigma that people are just going to stick to their sides and not going want to budge, and this is an us versus them situation, but coming off Bridging the Divide, I was able to see that people do want to talk to one another, they do want to collaborate because in the end we’re all working for something better for everyone—not just for the people in Chicago or Eureka.”

“If you don’t step out of your urban bubble or your rural bubble,” noted Soehner, “you’ll never realize that the people on the other side want to fix things just as much as you do.”

Now that the program’s first year has proven successful, the IOP will offer another version in the 2018-19 academic year, and Axelrod hopes the program can become a model for other schools around the country.

“I think every university or groups of colleges and universities should try to find ways to break the silos down and encourage their students to hear what people outside of their comfort zone are saying and thinking,” he said. “I fundamentally believe that we share a common humanity, that we share something as Americans, and we have to be able to find these things in each other and not surrender to these destructive stereotypes and caricatures that have been exploited by politicians and have come to characterize our politics too often.”