How To Lead The Push For Diversity In The Workplace

A year ago, as the 2016 presidential election approached, our phone at Ask Big Questions was ringing off the hook. “What do we do?” our campus colleagues asked. “How can we help students talk about this really divisive election?”

In response, we partnered with the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge to create a new booklet of questions, Ask Big Questions: Civics Edition. Professionals on 26 campuses ordered over 1,200 of them.

And then the election happened. The phones rang again. “What do we do now?” our colleagues asked another time.

Working quickly and strategically, we took the idea of the Civics Edition booklets and made them into something more—the Campus Conversation Challenge, which challenges campuses to start 1,000 new conversations between people who might never have talked otherwise.

Since the Challenge launched in February, 12 campuses have signed up, ranging from West Virginia to Eastern Michigan, from Yale to Butte Community College in northern California.

Hungry for Conversation

Why are students so hungry for conversation? And why is conversation across difference so important for civic engagement and participation?

Because students are human beings, and human beings innately want to connect. From the moment we are born, and throughout our lives, we are hardwired to want connection, to experience belonging.  

But we’ve made connecting a lot harder. While our world is more connected than ever before, it also seems more fragmented than it has ever been. Increasingly, students enter college lacking basic skills of living in community—talking and listening without a device in the middle and presuming goodwill and a shared identity with shared language. Technological shifts and changes in social practices lead students to stay in their own social groups and avoid the serendipitous encounters that can lead to unexpected and profound connections.

These same patterns create headwinds against civic participation. Politics becomes viewed as a battle between competing groups, rather than the way govern ourselves in order to live together. We reduce our opponents to enemies, and, as we’ve seen too much in recent months and years, we begin a dangerous process of dehumanization. And all that makes civic engagement uninviting.

Showing Up is Not Enough

Like our partners at the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, we at Ask Big Questions believe that civic participation involves not just showing up to vote but also engaging one another as citizens. We envision stronger, healthier civic communities—communities where we educate our youth in the habits of listening, understanding, trust, and empathy that are essential to the future of our cities and states. And that work begins, ends, and is sustained by humanization—encountering one another as human beings.

Our institutions of higher education must be places where civic engagement and participation are nurtured and developed. Colleges and universities are the places in American society we most associate with values and practices like diversity, open discussion, critical inquiry, liberal education, and meritocracy. And they engage our young adults at precisely the moment when they are first entrusted with the vote, when they can engage in society as full citizens.

Using a toolkit that includes, among other things, specially-designed booklets with seven Big Questions, training for conversation leaders, and ongoing campaign and assessment support, Campus Conversation Challenge schools help their students build a foundation for democratic engagement and a lifelong commitment to active citizenship. Through Big Questions, students connect with, build, and strengthen community and make measurable gains in key domains, including: socially responsible leadership, critical thinking, inter- and intra-personal skills, and working with others.

Having a conversation about a Big Question might be a small thing. But we know from over 300,000 people who have participated in conversations using our resources that these conversations are transformative. A conversation that builds understanding and trust is an essential building block on a path toward humanizing the other, nurturing diversity and inclusion, and ultimately fostering greater respect and civility.

Students need spaces to engage in meaningful, respectful, and productive civil discourse, and they need a process and method to do that. The Campus Conversation Challenge, like our other training programs and resources, is an opportunity for colleges and universities to help students see and hear each other more deeply, move conversations from entrenchment to engagement, and do the essential work of humanizing that our society needs and that our students crave.



Post written by: Monica Thakrar


President of MTI, a leadership training, coaching and consulting firm based in Washington DC with clients in the public and private sectors.