Kevin: It is infinitely clear that more young people are getting involved in politics. According to Tufts University, three times as many 18- to 24-year-olds donated to a political campaign or registered others to vote in 2020 compared to 2018. It is also equally clear that as political debate in the United States has intensified, classroom debates have also become increasingly heated.
How have recent elections, along with increased interest, affected political discourse among younger demographics? Why do some students get involved while others choose not to be civically engaged? And how does the political dialogue in schools fit into the broader conversation around democracy? This is What I Want To Know. And today, I'm joined by Manu Meel to find out.
Kevin: Manu Meel is the CEO of BridgeUSA. He is currently building the largest and fastest-growing student movement to bridge political differences and change the way young people talk about politics. Manu contributes to several news outlets, works on pro-democracy efforts across the country, and advises political leaders on reducing polarization. Passionate about empowering youth to repair American democracy, he joins us today to discuss civic engagement among the next generation of leaders. Manu, welcome to the show.
Manu: Kevin, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate you.
Kevin: So we want to talk about not just politics in America but politics and civic engagements as it relates to young people, but I wanted to just hear more about your background because you graduated from school in Berkeley. You got engaged in the political process several years ago, but did you always have an interest in politics or civics even growing up, before college?
Manu: So what's interesting is I never had any interest in politics. Frankly, I actually have less of an interest in politics, having done it for the past couple of years. I actually started off as a pre-med student at Berkeley. Before that, I was born in New Jersey. I lived in India for the first five years of my life. Then I moved around every two years. So I got to see public schools, a private school. I went to a more sort of "elite public high school." Then I went to this large public university on the West Coast. And so, my experience in my life was really just about adapting and sort of figuring out where I belonged. So, I didn't actually have a very political background. Politics is about people. It's not that complex in terms of an idea and a concept. And when we think about civic engagement, let’s call it, or democracy or politics or action or education, really the story and the concept of politics, the way that I understand it, is about managing our society in a way to bridge the gap between what is ideal and what is real.
And for me, my job is to help people understand that when we think about politics in our modern conception, we often forget that if we don't get involved, if we don't get engaged, if we don't act in productive and constructive ways, then we don't have a democracy, because ultimately democracy requires all of us to participate. It's only as good as what we put into it. And my objective with our work, and for example, talking to amazing leaders like you, is to help understand better how we can help our young people, especially in high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, my generation, the rising sort of leaders of tomorrow to be more engaged, to be more invested.
Kevin: Now, you really got involved in the 2016 election. At some point your involvement in that national campaign — I know you did a campaign in Baltimore, but at some point in time it hit you that you needed to play a role in changing the discussion, and talk about that sort of lightning bolt that really led you to where you are now.
Manu: And I think that's such an important question because I think understanding our why and our purpose, especially in today's moment where everything seems so complex and so difficult and complicated is I think especially important, and I'm still figuring it out as we go day by day. But for me, my life-changing experience was in February of 2017. So actually, the 2016 election happened, and I was a little bit interested in politics, but someone like me — I'm Indian American; my parents are a doctor and an engineer. Politics is like that weird thing that you never touch. And so, really, what we did was me and some random folks that are now some of my best friends, we got together, and we just created a space for people to be able to understand and hear each other. We called it talk therapy. That was it. Turns out that people actually want to communicate and talk to each other and build understanding and empathize with different experiences. And that turned into Bridge Berkeley, along with some other amazing folks. And then that turned into BridgeUSA.
Kevin: Talk a little bit about BridgeUSA, where you are with the organization, what you're doing and its overall goals and mission.
Manu: So, quite simply put, BridgeUSA helps young people talk to each other across political lines of difference. That's it. We basically get people to talk to each other. There's nothing complex about it. And the reason why I articulate it in that manner is because I think we've gotten to a spot in our politics where we are forgetting that the most core, basic unit of our democracy is us, and if we can't communicate, understand and trust each other, if we can't recognize that there's a people, a person, a human experience behind the argument that you're so viscerally reacting to, then we don't have consensus. We don't have common ground, and importantly, we fail the next generation.
And so, BridgeUSA's goal is to respond to that problem. It's to help students, faculty, staff, administrators, colleges and high schools engage in civic dialogue in productive and constructive ways. Not necessarily to achieve common ground or to build compromise, but to understand. It's to advocate for a temperament, not an ideology, a temperament that focuses on open-mindedness as opposed to closed-mindedness, a temperament that's about empathy as opposed to exclusion, a mindset that focuses on creating spaces that bring people in as opposed to creating spaces that push people out. And given that problem set and that purpose, we've become the largest and fastest-growing student movement in the country trying to change how we talk about our politics.
Kevin: So, how do you facilitate these conversations? Talk to me a little bit about the process because we live in such a polarized world, and it's exacerbated by the litmus tests that political peer groups put on those that so-called subscribe to their politics. So, for instance, if you are a Republican, there's a checklist of things you are supposed to be for. If you're a Democrat, there's a similar checklist. And if you don't check all those boxes, you can be ridiculed through friendly fire inside your tribe, if you will. So how do you engage at the student level? Because that's often where some of the passion falls in place relating to those checklists.
Manu: Our work rests on one assumption and then two sorts of structural things that we actually do in those discussions. The assumption that our work rests on is that people are fundamentally social beings that want to talk to other people, and people like relationships, and people want to meet and understand and, importantly, feel heard. That's it. And so, given that assumption that we as humans want to live in a society that both respects us and where we can also respect others, our objective is that when it comes to classrooms and college classrooms and high school environments, that given that goal, we have to simply build that space that is constructive, productive, and safe enough for students to be able to realize that desire, and that desire is especially strong right now. I mean, Kevin, you understand this better than I do, given the higher education space with how much social media has taken over, with how much our lives live in the digital realm as opposed to the physical realm.
We as people are losing our basic core competency of communication. So what we have to do is articulate and present that communication in a way that works. Two very tactical things that we actually do when it comes to a college discussion or a high school discussion: The first is we train student moderators. Importantly, these conversations are not facilitated by some random person like myself that's living in San Francisco. It's facilitated by students themselves that live in that community, our chapter leaders, and we'll train them on basic skills of how you navigate, manage conflict, how you ask questions in a productive way, essentially the roles of our amazing teachers. The second thing that we do is we have our norms of discussions. There are four norms of discussions. The first is you have to listen to listen rather than to respond. The second is simple: don't interrupt or have side conversations. The third is that we as people represent only ourselves and not large social groups. And the fourth is that we have to listen to understand the argument and only respond to the argument, not the person.
The only other thing I'll say to this is all of those checklists that you described, this notion that we're so polarized, it's true in the media. It's true when you're reading the newspaper. It's true when we're on a podcast, but it's not true when people are actually one-on-one engaging in our actual classrooms, in our actual lives. When you're walking down the street and you're talking to somebody, they exist as a human. So we're getting people when they are open and engaged, and our job is to help them realize that most people in this country want them to operate in that way.
Kevin: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. In fact, my belief, which hasn't changed in over 20, 30 years, is that people basically want the same thing out of life. We are social creatures, if you will, and they do want to get along. But there are ways to fuel the fire of discontent and sow the seeds of division, and oftentimes our leaders and those media outlets that are driving ratings and other things — they fuel that fire. I'm mindful of this book that was written by a couple guys I know, good friends, Rick Hess and Pedro Noguera, and they wrote this book “A Search for Common Ground,” where they both are focused on education issues, and they wrote letters back and forth to each other to discuss issues like school choice, principal autonomy, testing, accountability. And they both had different views, but they took the time to not discuss it in a heated way.
One thing that Rick says, and Pedro agrees, is that it allowed them both to be active listeners while reading through some of these things. And it also created a situation where they couldn't engage in a knee-jerk reaction. Even though they didn't convince each other to change their point of view on all these things, they had a better understanding, one, of where the other was coming from, and more importantly, they realized there weren't bad intentions from the other. And I sense that that's some of what happens when you bring people together with those rules you laid out.
Manu: So I think one is: try and understand why someone that's 15, 16, 17 is so particularly vulnerable to that heat. And second is: articulate why the work that we're talking about of civic dialogue, discourse, listening, especially in our classrooms, in our curriculum, is especially important to helping realize ambition. I think there are a couple of things there. The first, when it comes to why people my age and younger than me I think are so either dissatisfied or very apathetic is because someone my age was born around 9/11, grew up and went to middle school around the great recession, graduated high school in the year that was 2016 in that election, and then graduated college in the year that was 2020 with the pandemic and the capital riots and the Black Lives Matter protests. That's not a great sample size of democracy in progress. And if that's our lived political memory, then what that inevitably means is that we're starting from a standpoint that is inherently critical.
It is inherently skeptical. It is inherently mistrusting. So given that mindset, you are especially susceptible to division and hate and fear that those people are the problem. What we have to now articulate, and this is step number two, is why the bridge mindset, what you're talking about, of exchanging letters and having conversations and solving problems, is not only necessary, but it is a theory of change. Because if people, whether they're conservative or liberal, want some sort of disruption of the status quo, they are looking for things to disrupt the status quo.
So I think, really, the battle in my generation, and this is now really getting in the weeds, so I'll stop here, is — I don't think the battle in my generation is going to be an ideological battle. I think it's going to be a theory of change battle. It's going to be a question of how we try to realize our ambitions. Are we going to utilize a politics of exclusion and fear and hate, hate and fear and exclusion that exists both on the left and the right, or a politics of empathy, inclusion, and a politics that actually builds consensus to create sustainable change?
Kevin: And I think that makes a lot of sense, Manu. But recognizing that, how important do you think is this idea of critical and analytical thinking, which I think because of the challenges in our education system, obviously, you don't fall prey to that. You had parents who were nurturing you; you went to great schools, but the vast majority of American school-aged children, upwards of 60%, are not reading at grade level when they graduate. They don't have the skills to acquire a job. And I believe that because they haven't developed those skills in terms of understanding and being able to appreciate the notion of critical and analytical thinking, they're more subject to political whims that pull them closer to the tribe. How do we deal with that?
Manu: I think when you're a young person, you're incredibly impressionable, and you're looking to just fit in, and you're looking for some affirmation. And whether you're focused on critical thinking or math or science or literacy or not being in school and spending more time outside of school, I think what our education environments have to really focus on and do, especially in this new environment that is so incredibly fragmented by digital media and social media, is we have to create spaces of belonging in the education environment.
Students need to come to school thinking that they will find a community there. Because once you find community and once you find purpose, then the question becomes, well, what tools do I need to achieve that purpose? And so you absolutely need critical thinking, and you absolutely need math, and you absolutely need education in different forms, whether it's civics- or non-civics-related. But that's, I think, the goal that our schools need to especially focus on right now, and Bridge chapters are one of those spaces that help create cultures of belonging. But the more and more society fragments, Kevin, and the more and more students feel isolated and alienated, I think the more susceptible they're going to be to paths that don't lead them to critical thinking, but instead lead them to fear and isolation and purposelessness.
Kevin: And I totally agree, and I think this idea of a school being a place that fulfills that need to belong is well said. The challenge is that with far too many of our school environments, kids don't have good options unto which they can look to be a part of that tribe or that community in order to belong. I also think that when I talk about critical thinking, for instance, I don't think that you lead a class of 14- and 15-year-olds and talk about “you need to engage in critical thinking to understand what's going on in society.” I think that one of the best ways to have that engagement and conversations, as I've seen when I've talked with young people, is through, for instance, old-fashioned storytelling.
Manu: I want to emphasize that point of storytelling. I think that is incredibly smart, Kevin. I think that is absolutely right. I mean, if you noticed a lot of my conversation in this podcast has been laced with stories. We as people connect with experience.
Kevin: That's right.
Manu: We connect not with what we do or how we do it, but we connect with why we do it, as Simon Sinek says oftentimes, and I think especially with young people. I mean the challenge that you're talking about with respect to helping middle schoolers and high schoolers and younger folks engage in critical thinking. I face a very similar challenge, just helping try to understand and get them engaged in just democracy. Talk about politics is such an abstract concept. And I think if you can articulate the human experience, their experience, whether they're 14 or 15 or 16, or even 12 or 13, and help them relate to a story, I think that helps you unpack some of those deeper truths and deeper meanings that you're trying to get at, especially if they're grounded in some sort of historical factor certainty.
Kevin: And the other thing is, in addition to the storytelling, is this idea of reminding young people of the notion of empowerment, that they are empowered to make a difference. So civics should be an engagement where you share stories, you highlight opinions from all sides, and you end with a way to make sure that young people know that they are empowered to make a difference and change within the system. And you can do all this without using the word politics.
Manu: Oh, yeah. No, and that last point of not even saying the word politics, I think, just as you said, you never talk about critical thinking. You sort of teach it, right? I think it's exactly the case, and it's why we've made starting Bridge chapters in high schools and in colleges so incredibly easy because it's not just a student activity. It's actually meant to be an educational tool that supplements what you do in the classroom. I think one of the best ways to practice democracy is to actually have conversations with people that are different from you and grapple with ideas. It's what Tocqueville talked about; it's what Jefferson talked about; it's what George Washington talked about. And so, part of our objective is: can we actually provide this as an educational tool that is student-led, student-run so the faculty doesn't have to worry about it in terms of running it, but they know that this exists as a tool to supplement that experiential learning.
Kevin: Let me ask you one final question. I've really enjoyed our conversation. This is what I really want to know, and this is really a question for those teachers and school administrators who are listening: I want them to get your insight on this. How can teachers and administrators create more constructive political dialogue in classrooms that get to this bridge building that you are so focused on?
Manu: You matter, and you are filling one of the most important jobs and responsibilities and duties that our society not only needs right now, but it'll need tomorrow. I know how difficult, and you don't need me to say this, but I know how difficult it has been to be an educator over the last two years, three years, especially through COVID and dealing with the difficulty of both online learning and the people coming back and transitions and all the things to do with COVID testing. And whether you're in an underfunded school district or a highly well-funded school district, it has been difficult.
But right now, those students need you. Whether it is in relation to civic engagement or just in general, society's fundamental core unit is people. You are helping to ensure that the next generation of Americans is ready to inherit this experiment. We all have a fundamental duty to ensure that this experiment continues and carries on and continues to help people flourish. Kevin, as you know, Thomas Jefferson said that America is humanity's best hope, not because it's perfect — it's far from perfect — but it represents humanity's best shot at trying to realize the impossible, the ideal.
I think when it comes to our classrooms, when it comes to civic education, civic dialogue, whether it is that you start a Bridge chapter or you integrate some sort of dialogue practices into your classroom, know that I think students, and I know adults want a politics that is less divisive, that is more hopeful, that rests on certain notions that drive us as people. And so all we've got to do is meet that demand, and we've got to meet that demand furiously, and we've got to meet it urgently.
Most importantly, I think across the country right now, students are being exposed to media, to knowledge, to information at a scale that humanity's never seen before. So, all we've got to do is we've got to equip them with the right skills, whether it is media literacy, critical thinking, or political dialogue skills. We've got to equip them with that so that they're ready to make sure that what we have today continues tomorrow. So please, please, please continue doing the amazing work that you're doing because I think that if it weren't for some amazing teachers in my life, I wouldn't be where I am today.
Kevin: Yeah. Manu Meel, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want to Know. We appreciate what you're doing for the young people in this country.
Manu: Kevin, I'm grateful to be here, and thank you for having me, sir. I appreciate what you're doing.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Manu Meel is the CEO of BridgeUSA. He is building the largest and fastest-growing student movement to bridge political differences and change how young people talk about politics.
Manu contributes to several news outlets, works on pro-democracy efforts nationwide, and advises political leaders on reducing polarization. Passionate about empowering youth to repair American democracy, he joins us today to discuss civic engagement among the next generation of leaders.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.