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Bridging the partisan divide at Cal

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FEBRUARY 19, 2017

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

After the protests and riots that led to the cancellation of the Milo Yiannopoulos talk Feb. 1, tensions between the two ends of the political spectrum have reached an all-time high on campus. Angry liberals and conservatives alike have posted furious rants on Facebook, Tomi Lahren accused UC Berkeley students of being a “militant herd of triggered crybabies,” several passionate op-eds supporting violence have appeared in The Daily Californian and President Donald Trump threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley on his infamous Twitter account, among other things.

In response to this partisan fury, a student group called BridgeCal took on the courageous task of easing tensions by creating a space where all voices are welcomed. Earlier this month, the club hosted an open discussion between liberals and conservatives centered around the Milo  Yiannopoulos protests, and more generally, the role of hate speech and the line between protected and unprotected speech. To better understand the organization’s goals, future plans and role on campus, I sat down with BridgeCal President Pranav Jandhyala.

The Daily Californian: What is BridgeCal’s mission in a few sentences?

BridgeCal President Pranav Jandhyala: Basically, our mission is to fix the political divide around our campus, and hopefully we can expand to focusing on our country as a whole. We want to do that by engaging different sides of an issue in respectful discourse and debate. The political divide quickens and increases when you don’t have people talking to each other.

When we distance ourselves, only read news that we agree with and only talk to people we agree with, our views get cemented and there’s never really any challenge. So, in the long term, having people that you disagree with talking to you about different issues and challenging your own beliefs in dialogue like that — that’s what fixes the political divide.

DC: How are you hoping to achieve this goal on the UC Berkeley campus specifically?

PJ: So Berkeley has a very, very large liberal majority, but there are a lot of people I’ve talked to, like the Berkeley College Republicans, who have some influence on campus as well — an influence that’s actually pretty underestimated. A lot of people on our campus actually are very conservative and hold conservative beliefs, like BCR and the Cal (Libertarians), as well as (a) Republican senator in the ASUC.

There are (also) many people who are very moderate who don’t really speak out — people, for example, who hold the belief that Milo (Yiannopoulos) should’ve been able to speak and free speech should be protected, but they wouldn’t really consider themselves conservative or Republican. They’re not in BCR but they’re still very moderate, and their voices aren’t really being heard because they don’t have a platform for that yet. Because you’re either (Cal Berkeley Democrats) and CALPIRG or BCR, you know, the far left and far right clubs. But there’re a lot of people (in the middle).

So I think that at Berkeley specifically, by engaging the people in the middle in dialogue as well, we can essentially have those voices represented, have our campus represented as a (well-rounded) political entity, and I think fostering discourse between all sides and not just the far right and far left is important.

DC: What inspired you, personally, to take on this leadership role in BridgeCal?

PJ: After the Milo (Yiannopoulos) event and the election, I saw that our campus was so divided. There’s a lot of tension in many different places. People were like “I can’t even imagine how anyone could vote for Trump, like it’s just crazy to me.” And that just symbolizes the need for talking to the other side, understanding their beliefs and why they believe them if we ever want to change people’s minds in the future. Conservatives were also saying things like, “I can’t even imagine how people can begin to like someone like Hillary Clinton.” So, you know, it’s on both sides, people just not really understanding the other side.

Social media has played into that (too), creating echo chambers where people just talk and talk and their own beliefs come back to them but then they really don’t have the space for their own views to be challenged. And I think that’s actually the cause of what we saw in the election, ‘cause a lot of people voted for Trump simply because of this PC culture backlash. So, I just  think that the impetus for starting the club was, I really think that for a nation to exist despite its political differences, for us to exists as Democratic or Republican, the only way forward is through this type of discourse.

So that’s what made me realize the importance of what this thing was. I’m very passionate about the mission so I really wanted to take on the leadership role and after the Milo (Yiannopoulos) event, we saw the same need for this kind of club.

DC: Just to clarify, did you found the club?

PJ: It was essentially me and Alexandra Tran at first who founded the organization. She couldn’t take on the role of president. We voted, once we had a large enough team, that I should become president. That’s how I essentially took on that role. I think I took on the role as well through my actions of creating the team and my actions of forming this specific vision on our campus. And after the Milo (Yiannopoulos) event, it was actually interesting, we made our Facebook page, we made our event, all of that stuff. So, really, a lot of things happened in the week after the Milo event when we got everything together. It’s been like several months in terms of planning so far, and after the Milo (Yiannopoulos) event, we just kicked into high gear.

DC: Walk me through your process for planning the discussion that occurred last week in terms of recruitment, advertising and deciding who specifically to invite to frame the discussion.

PJ: So we knew that we had to get people from both sides. First, we reached out to BCR, then we reached out to CalDems. What we did was invite our friends specifically to the event, after we created it, and after we made the Facebook page and tried to advertise it. So it was social media promotion. Basically we just kept getting people to share the event, like our Facebook page and share updates.

And then we also tabled on Sproul, so we basically gave out flyers for the event. Definitely after the Milo (Yiannopoulos) event, a lot of people were really interested in a discussion about free speech and we held the only event that was open to everyone. We had the biggest turnout, I think, out of all the people who tried to organize similar things, so I’m really happy with that. So I guess it was just mostly promotion through social media and tabling on Sproul to get the word out there.

When coming up with the presentation, I guess that was the trickiest part — just how exactly we were going to frame the questions, how we were going to keep the discussion going and how we were going to moderate it. We didn’t know how many people were going to show up, it could’ve been anywhere from 30 to 300. And we didn’t have a big enough room of course, so we were kind of freaking out about that.

At one point we were thinking about getting a UCPD officer there just in case some shit might’ve gone down. But we were really happy about the way it went — the discussion was respectful and it wasn’t confrontational at all and we’re really happy with that.

DC: What were some points that stood out to you during the discussion?

PJ: I think some points that stood out to me were … well, I think it was very balanced in terms of getting liberal and conservative voices out. I remember at one point there was a dialogue between an African-American woman and a student at Cal. She was talking about where she’s coming from based on her individual life and different experiences she’s gone through, and it kind of framed the discussion. … It got a lot of the conservatives in the audience to realize, “This is where they’re coming from, this is more understandable.” BridgeCal is about those kinds of experiences, that kind of dialogue — when someone shares where they’re coming from and people understand where they’re coming from, I think that’s what’s key and we need to have more of those moments going forward.

DC: After going through the planning process, what do you think worked and what do you think didn’t work?

PJ: I think that what really worked was our questions. And the way we moderated it really worked in terms of keeping the discussion going. A lot of the time, the discussion wasn’t centered around the questions and I guess that aspect was really something we should improve on — having the discussion directly relate to the questions.

But I really thought we did a good job of keeping the discussion respectful and keeping the discussion in a place where people listened and then talked. We really tried to set up those norms and I think we did a good job. In the future, though, I think (we want to get) more people from both sides — I hope we will get more far left people, people who supported the violence. I think it’d be really interesting to engage those people in conversation with the far right BCR members who were there.

DC: What’s next for the club?

PJ: What’s really next for the club is organizing bigger discussions and debates. I guess the next big step we would take is inviting bigger-name speakers, so getting people who are experts in their fields in different topics. We’re gonna reach out to more faculty in upcoming weeks, and we’ve already started, but we’re gonna have a larger faculty base. And we’re going to promote in classrooms as well. But (having) faculty come out to our discussions and debates to contribute and provide to the discussions — I think that’s important.

We’re gonna start planning our bigger events really soon with bigger-name speakers and they’re gonna engage in debate and we’re gonna have a forum section afterwards (with) a discussion, too.

We have our discussions like we did last week and we’re going to keep having those. We’re going to also have larger events where there are going to be speakers debating in the beginning and then it turning into a discussion.

So I guess that’s what’s next. We’re going to expand our team very soon in the next week. We’re just in an expansion mode right now.

DC: What are some key takeaways you think members will gain from BridgeCal in the long run, like, after a few years?

PJ: After a few years I see it turning into the primary political organization on campus because it will have people from different organizations — like it will have members from the ASUC, CalDems, BCR and Cal Libertarians. It’ll have kind of a leadership board that’s made up of people from different clubs, working collaboratively rather than (in separate environments) where their views are spoken in isolation and really never challenged.

It’s going to become something that’s symbolically more collaborative on campus. We will work together to put on events like debates and people (will) work together to create a space where all views are welcomed but also rigorously challenged. That’s how I see it in the future and in the long run. I think I see this organization as more of a movement than an organization because different people are joining and helping in different ways. We have someone from the CalDems meeting with us tomorrow, talking about how we can combine our efforts to create this kind of thing.
And it’s not organization-specific. BridgeCal is, I’m hoping, going to lead this movement. But I think this is going to transform into a movement of free discourse (in which) you have this kind of space on campus and in our nation essentially. And I hope that we can just be the starting point, and that the same thing we’re doing is going to spread across the nation in different atmospheres like high school campuses, college campuses, different things like that.

Contact Erika Siao at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 19, 2017