Bridging the Divide: 2017-2018


The election of 2016 exposed deep fault lines in our country. Now more than ever, communities nationwide have become islands of red and blue, with little dialogue or interaction between them. Bridging the Divide, a new program at the IOP in partnership with Eureka College, launched in January 2018 as an attempt to address this growing chasm and promote a deeper understanding of and between urban and rural communities.

The immersive program brought together 20 freshman and sophomore students to address urban (Chicago, IL) and rural (Eureka, IL) divisions around three issues: education, the opioid crisis, and employment. During visits to each city, students spoke with elected officials and stakeholders about how each issue impacts their community. Below is a summary of each meeting of the program, which took place in January (Chicago), February (Eureka) and April (Springfield).


As the first meeting of the program, the Chicago visit served as an opportunity to build relationships between the students. To gain context on the three focus issues, students met with leaders from employment programs such as the Chicago Housing Authority and Year Up; Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart provided insight on the opioid crisis; and a visit to Olive-Harvey College highlighted trends in education as they relate to job training and employment outcomes. Later, students met participants in the Chicago CRED program who provided context on how all three issues combine to impact the lives of individuals. Students also had the opportunity to observe a focus group with Democratic voters.


In Eureka, students learned how the size of a community and its connection to a centralized government may change perspectives. Compared to Chicago, the Eureka visit focused more on the distribution of state resources. In addition to a focus group with Republican voters from central Illinois, students attended panel discussions with stakeholders such as the Superintendent of Peoria Public Schools and a Lead Research Analyst from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The opioid crisis panel, including Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood, left a lasting impression on students; Harwood, in particular, painted a vivid picture of just how big the problem is. Students also had an in-depth conversation with Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and IOP Advisory Board member, who spoke about building bi-partisan support.


As the last meeting of the program, Springfield focused on applying the lessons learned from the Chicago and Eureka visits to government policymaking. Students were challenged to think about how comprehensive statewide decision-making can incorporate the values of these different communities. Students learned from elected officials, lobbyists and each other to develop their skills in articulating personal values, active listening, and incorporating feedback.


Feedback from the students who participated was extremely positive. Students said they now feel more knowledgeable about the three issues they explored as well as about politics and the role of elected officials. Perhaps most importantly, students said they feel they better understand why and how urban and rural attitudes may differ, as well as more empowered to speak up in conversations about controversial issues like immigration, gun control, and opioid use. The most encouraging feedback was that 100 percent of the students who participated would recommend the program to their peers. The IOP is now looking to build off the program’s success next year and beyond.

Learn more about the inaugural Bridging the Divide student cohort here.


Please contact Jenny Huang, Program Coordinator of Civic Engagement, at, if you have any questions.