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Bridging the Divide

On April 10 - 12th, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics convened students, policy experts, elected officials, and practitioners from across the nation to explore the root causes of and develop solutions to urban-rural polarization.

Conference Livestreams | Conference Agenda | Speaker Resources | Photo Gallery

About the Conference

Urban and rural communities nationwide perpetuate alarming caricatures of the other that poison our discourse and weaken our democracy.

Bridging the Divide was a three-day conference exploring practical ways to find common ground as a country and defeat the deeply held biases that have stunted our cultural growth and paralyzed our politics.

The conference was organized around panel discussions and breakout discussions exploring why urban and rural communities have a vested interest in each others’ prosperity. Among them:

We Need Each Other

Institute of Politics Director and former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp will moderate a panel emphasizing how urban and rural communities need each other, particularly regarding energy policy, infrastructure, and agriculture.

Journalism’s Slow Death

Experts will examine the impact of local news deserts, its corrosive effect on communities and the resulting rise of disinformation in a discussion moderated by political analyst and Institute of Politics founder David Axelrod.

Legislative Wins in Polarized Times

Leaders from both sides of the aisle will talk through finding common ground that benefits both urban and rural communities.

The Great American Loneliness

Community leaders, health professionals and cultural analysts will delve into health disparities including the loneliness and opioid epidemics that are often concentrated in urban and rural centers.

Featured Speakers

The conference brought together government leaders, policymakers, academics, practitioners, philanthropists and journalists as well as students from twenty colleges and universities.

Sarah Smarsh, Journalist & Author of Heartland

Robert Portman, Former United States Senator from Ohio

Xochitl Torres Small, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture

Joe Manchin, United States Senator from West Virginia

Tim Alberta, Author and Journalist at The Atlantic

Mary Louise Kelly, Host of NPR’s All Things Considered

Janie Hipp, CEO of Native Agriculture Financial Services

Ertharin Cousin, Former Executive Director of the World Food Programme

Eboo Patel, Founder of Interfaith America

Beth Macy, Author of Dopesick

Manu Raju, Anchor of Inside Politics Sunday and CNN’s Chief Congressional Correspondent

Bonita Robertson-Hardy, Co-Executive Director of Community Strategies Group at the Aspen Institute

Michael Strautmanis, Executive Vice President for Public Engagement at the Obama Foundation

After the Conference

Bridging the Divide is offering post-conference opportunities for students to serve the places that most need their talent, playing our part as a Midwest institution in tackling the brain drain that plagues so many of our rural communities across the region.

Interconnected Leaders Network

The Bridging the Divide conference will establish the Interconnected Leaders Network, convening student leaders from 20 universities to explore how young people can bring our communities together. This cohort will visit nonprofits in Chicago's southside and hear from a variety of people representing rural perspectives.

Hometown Internship Program

As an extension of the conference, a cohort of students will participate in public service internships within their rural communities.

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