Group Created by DA Students to Combat Political Polarization Expands to Dozens of Schools

In the fall of 2020 — when one couldn’t turn on the car radio or scroll through social media without an extended earful of political commentary ahead of the presidential election — Durham Academy Upper Schoolers Emiliano García-López ’23 and Omar Pasha ’23 noticed something worrying. Although the election was on their peers’ minds, there were few meaningful discussions about it. Most often, there was absolute avoidance of talking about politics, and occasionally, anxiety about the election bubbled to the surface through heated discussions that strained friendships.

“Emiliano and I, we would spend a lot of time talking politics on phone calls,” Pasha recalled. “We're pretty passionate about it. And while we have different points of view, we never really took it personally. … We were kind of like, we wish that people could have conversations like we were having where you can have different points of view, but it's not taken personally.”

Crossing the Divide's Emiliano Garcia-Lopez and Omar Pacha

So on election night 2020, Pasha and García-López hopped on a Microsoft Teams call with about 30 of their DA classmates for some real talk about topics ranging from gun control and climate change to taxation and abortion. The participants spoke candidly, yet maintained respect for one another and kept open minds.

The result of the presidential election wouldn’t become clear for days, but one thing was certain that night: Those diplomatic conversations about deeply divisive issues needed to continue. And with that, Crossing The Divide, a student organization that aims to combat political polarization, was born.

While that first gathering was held virtually and included six 15-minute discussions, subsequent meetings of Crossing The Divide (CTD) have been primarily in person, with each meeting typically taking a deep dive into a single topic. For each issue, one group member presents a “for” argument and another presents an “against” argument, each informed by balanced briefs that García-López, Pasha and fellow student partners in the organization have compiled. The group norms listed below keep the discussions civil: 

  • Keep a courteous tone.

  • Do not insult your interlocutor, and instead address their arguments.

  • Follow the instructions of the sitting moderator.

  • All opinions should be heard and discussed, and while one is doing so, they are entitled to time without interruptions.

  • Do not assume bad intent from your interlocutor.

Not long after Crossing the Divide was established as a DA student club, García-López told his friend Daniel Arcidiacono, a student at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill, how refreshing it was to have such candid, respectful conversations.

“And he said, ‘You know what? I want to start something like this at Trinity,’ ” García-López recalled. “And that's when Omar and I got on a phone call and were like, let's just make this a national thing. Let's just go try our best to expand to as many schools and make as big of an impact as possible and replicate what we have here at DA.”

Less than a year later, CTD branches have been established or are in the works at nearly 30 independent, traditional public and charter schools nationwide — from several here in the Triangle, to those in Pennsylvania and California — and García-López and Pasha have applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

“We wanted to make a product that had a marginal cost of replication — that is, that you could easily set up somewhere else and they wouldn't have to spend a huge time investment on getting started and getting all the materials prepared,” García-López said. “We wanted to really universalize what we had here at DA. And we did that by writing a bunch of briefs, which were basically an instruction guide on how to cover each topic, and also included a bunch of materials to send out to members of the club so that they could read them, and they wouldn't have to do hours of research just to be prepared.”

For Arcidiacono, now a junior at Trinity and a CTD partner who helps write the briefs, that early legwork made establishing the group at Trinity a cinch. 

“At Trinity, the problem was that we weren’t having conversations. People would have their opinions and then they would talk in small groups with other people who shared their opinions,” he said. “I honestly wasn’t very interested in politics before Crossing The Divide because I didn’t find it that interesting, talking with people who shared my opinions. At CTD, we have people from all over the political spectrum, which has made it much more interesting.”

In their attempts to overcome America’s ever-widening partisan divide, García-López and Pasha have encountered roadblocks. Administrators at some schools where students expressed interest in establishing branches have shut down the idea without much thought. 

“I think it's really foolish to just deny the conversation because regardless of what the administration says, students will be having these discussions anyway, right? At least some students will,” García-López said. “So trying to ban it outright has never been an effective strategy to combat polarization, if that is their goal.”

The two founders said they’re grateful for the support of the DA community, particularly Upper School math teacher Ashu Saxena, who is the faculty advisor for DA’s CTD branch, and Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner, who has served as an unofficial advisor to the group.

“We do see that sometimes there are school admins that hear the word politics, and they're like, you know what, I don't want to have to deal with parent phone calls, they just have that instinct,” Pasha said. “And I think the problem that I see with that is, at the end of the day, it's the youth who are the next generation of politicians and the voters. And I mean, the problem that we're seeing in D.C. right now, it is just that individuals can't come to an agreement. And part of that is due to these party lines, just not being willing to have that conversation and going into this Democrat or Republican mindset.”

Along the way, the CTD leaders have refined their approach. They’ve instituted a tiered topic structure: The least controversial topics, such as free college or automation, are offered up for discussion early in the year. And then after participants grow in their trust with one another and in their own diplomacy skills, moderators introduce topics of increasing controversiality, such as gun control or healthcare, and eventually the topics they have deemed most controversial, such as race and policing or abortion.

In addition, many of the briefs appearing on the Crossing The Divide website — made available for anyone to use as a resource, regardless of whether they are part of a branch — were initially written with “Democrat” and “Republican” perspectives, but the CTD leaders are in the process of revising those to reflect “for” and “against” perspectives in an effort to discourage partisan thinking.

Izzi Gershon ’22 said it’s been “really, really enlightening” to hear her DA classmates’ perspectives, particularly when they don’t align with her own. In a meeting on capitalism, the topic of universal healthcare came up.

“While I may not agree with that sentiment [opposing universal healthcare], I understand the logical reasons that people are presenting,” she said. “Whereas a lot of the more liberal media I read is more like, people who object to these policies are immoral and just don’t want poor people to get access. I don't think my view changed on that issue, but I did get to know that there are reasons that people have these beliefs that aren’t necessarily contrarian or to be immoral.”

While the subject matter tends to be heavy in CTD meetings, they can be a lot of fun, Gershon said. For her, the most memorable meeting focused on gun control. There was a bit of a gender imbalance weighted toward male students, and “that dynamic made it a bit more challenging, but at the same time I felt like I could speak and be heard. I really credit our moderators for making that happen. 

“And that discussion was really great. I have strong beliefs about that issue and other people do too, and in that meeting particularly, it did not seem that anybody was changing their stances,” she continued. “But being able to facilitate an open discussion where people feel like they can be heard is really, really important.”