In response to a previous religious conflict on campus, Student Government Association (SGA) has formed Bridging Gaps, a program that aims to spur healthy and productive dialogue and discussion on campus.
Last year, the Emory Advocates for Justice in Palestine (EAJP) faced threats and vandalization of property in response to the group’s participation in the International Week Against the Apartheid Wall.
SGA President Alex Kappus said that this event prompted the need for civil communication. Originally, he said, the idea was to create a free-speech zone, but that the real value comes in when ideas are exchanged between those who disagree.
“You can stand up and make a statement, but if you don’t draw the opponent in and have them listen, you won’t be able to convince anybody,” Kappus said.
After speaking with several campus departments as well as University President James W. Wagner and Senior Vice President and Dean for Campus Life John Ford, Kappus said that SGA opted for a public forum environment that he said he hopes will prompt more open discussion amongst students.
“We’re trying to increase dialogue on campus and the visibility of dialogue on campus,” he said.
Bridging Gaps will take place on the steps by Cox Hall and the Cox Hall Bridge, from which Kappus said the name was derived. He said that the area was chosen for its high traffic, particularly during the lunch hours when the forum will be held.
The first of the public discussions will be between the Young Democrats of Emory and the College Republicans. Young Democrats President Stanton Abramson said that the two groups will be discussing health-care reform.
In addition to mainstream controversies, the program will also address social justice issues and current events in the world as well as at Emory. Kappus met with the Barkley Forum for topic ideas.
“The Young Democrats and the College Republicans have joined together in the past to have debates where a professor moderates for us,” Abramson said, “but Bridging Gaps is really the first time we’ve participated in such a public forum.”
College Republicans President Scott McAfee said that he thinks the program will help more students get involved by bringing the discussion to the people rather than having the debate take place in a classroom where it may be more difficult for students across campus to participate.
“I think the best part of this is that it gets in touch with students who maybe aren’t as obsessed with politics as we are,” McAfee said. “I like these open-air discussions. It’s like the free-speech zone in Hyde Park in London. It’s a great idea to bring to Emory.”
He said that students can jump in with questions as they’re walking past and have both sides there to explain.
The spirit of the program, according to Kappus, is to provide academic discourse through which students can express their opinions and to see if there is any common ground between two arguments on which different people can agree.
“At the end, we hope the two groups can agree to disagree,” Kappus said. “We hope they can rise above the conflict.”
SGA will meet with the groups before the debates take place in order to educate them on the goals of the forum.
The debates will be moderated by impartial students in order to guarantee a fair discussion.
Kappus said that there will be a whiteboard in between the two groups during the event on which students will be able to write down the ideas on which they agree.
As the program continues, Kappus said that SGA will develop a website on which students may continue communication. Each group will send in main points to be posted on the website, which he hopes will generate online discussion.
Bridging Gaps will take place every other week. During the other weeks, the steps outside Cox Hall will host arts-related performances such as poetry readings and musical showcases, he said, adding that he hopes the steps will serve as a “community-gathering place.”
Over time, he said that the goal is to have both graduate and undergraduate students participate in the program.
“We want to create a tradition on campus where students can discuss controversial topics and current events,” Kappus said.
“We hope this will help students understand the value of civil communication,” he added.
— Contact Alice Chen