Jack Forys is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia and president of the College Republicans organization on Grounds, but until this semester he barely knew any members of the student-led Democratic group.
“That’s definitely not the optimal situation,” Forys said.
Forys may now be excused for celebrating achievement in seemingly simple social interactions, like one that occurred in the second week of October. While walking the Lawn, Forys stopped to talk with Sophia Liao, the finance chair for the University Democrats.
It was a short conversation, but it was progress.
“There was a multi-year lack of knowledge of the other side,” Forys said. “And now I feel it’s kind of been broken, which is a pretty good place to start.”
Forys’ friendly run-in with Liao was the result of a dinner he helped arrange just a few days earlier, a social event seldom seen in modern politics.
On Oct. 10, five members of the College Republicans’ executive board and five members of the University Democrats’ executive board got together for an evening at the Colonnade Club. With assistance from the Karsh Institute of Democracy, the “Talking Across Differences Student Dinner” was set up.
In the current splintered political environment, the dinner served as a bridge-building opportunity. Both Forys and Lillian Rojas, the policy chair for the University Democrats and the main driver for this event, labeled the night a success.
Rojas, a third-year student from Manassas, said both sides were able to prove stereotypes wrong. The University Democrats learned that the College Republicans weren’t full of far-right thinkers, and the College Republicans learned that the University Democrats weren’t just a bunch of extreme leftists. They found common ground in, among other areas, moderate views.
“We broke the stereotype of what we thought the other person was,” Rojas said. “That’s what made the dinner very enjoyable. It got people to relax more.”
Karsh Institute Executive Director Melody Barnes, who attended and spoke at the dinner, echoed Rojas’ satisfaction.
“In our current political environment, the polarization often feels insurmountable,” she said, “but the students I joined at the dinner table acknowledge their differences, embrace what they have in common, and understand that balancing both is central to a healthy democracy.
“Lillian, Jack, and other College Republicans and University Democrats are doing some of the hard work necessary to bridge partisan divides and engage in the challenging work required if democracy is to thrive.”
UVA President Jim Ryan, who stopped by the Colonnade Club to speak to the students ahead of the dinner, came away proud of the effort of Rojas, Forys and Co. to be part of the solution when it comes to mending political fences.
“I’m grateful to the student leaders for their willingness to reach across the aisle,” Ryan said, “and to Melody Barnes and the Karsh Institute for stepping up to serve as a facilitator of conversation that led to deeper understanding and connection.”
Shared spaces used to be commonplace among UVA’s main student political groups. Rojas, upon her election to the executive board last year, researched the history of the two organizations and found annual University Democrats vs. College Republicans kickball games and other joint events.
That all changed around the 2016 presidential election.
“Our relationship kind of fractured to the point where we weren’t really on speaking terms with each other,” Rojas said. “There was no relationship, in summary. I knew that wasn’t good and, just seeing the polarization within the club itself, I was like, ‘It would be really, really nice if we could fix this and figure out a way to bring a relationship back.’”
Her mission started in conversations with then-College Republicans President Libby Klinger and continued with Forys, Klinger’s successor.
Rojas and Forys began their first steps toward the “Talking Across Differences Student Dinner” over a Bodo’s Bagels lunch meeting at the beginning of the fall semester.
“We found out how similar we were,” Forys said. “Here was someone else who cares a lot about politics, cares a lot about campaigning issues, things like that. We also learned that our clubs face similar challenges and are mirror images in a certain [way]. So, despite maybe disagreeing on policy or something like that, our interests lined up in a fascinating way.”
The meeting reaffirmed Rojas’ passion to make a formal connection between the two organizations. With the help of Karsh Director of Programming Stefanie Georgakis Abbott, the dinner was arranged.
After some ice-breaking exercises – “We said five things about ourselves that weren’t political,” Rojas said – the evening flowed smoothly.
Sure, Democrats and Republicans were at the table, but the participants realized they were UVA students first.
“It was about getting to know the people around you,” Rojas said. “The person that you think is your enemy might not necessarily be. And you’re going to find that you agree with a lot more than you think you might.
“They’re just your fellow student. I think when you get to know somebody, you treat them a lot better. It’s a lot harder to call somebody a name or to demonize somebody when you know them.”
Rojas and Forys said they want to plan another event in the near future. They agree that positive experiences between the University Democrats and College Republicans can set an example throughout Grounds and beyond.
“There’s definitely been a big problem recently where people are willing to end social relationships over politics,” Forys said. “I think that’s making the problem worse because now, more and more, people are only encountering people of their own political persuasion. You unfollow your relative who’s saying too much stuff that you disagree with online.”
Forys said that’s not how the world works.
“You can’t shut out everything that you disagree with,” he said. “There’s a broader thing here. Of course, politics is very important to me and of course I have strongly held beliefs and things like that, but, at the end of the day, we are all Americans. And in this instance, we’re all students at the same university.
“So that’s something that has to be kept in mind as a higher-level thing. We’re all Americans. We’re in this for the country to do well.”