Addressing the ‘echochamber’: New student group aims to close campus political divide

Media Credit: Connor Witschonke | Staff Photographer

Gavin Gondalwala, a junior and the vice president of TableTalk GW, helped launch the new student organization.

Ten students are trying to break the ice between students of different political and social beliefs.

After registering with the Center for Student Engagement in May, TableTalk GW is planning to host its first event as a student organization Sept. 20. The organization aims to promote open discussion about sensitive topics and mitigate campus polarization – bringing together students who typically would never interact with one another, members of the group said.

“Students here are so intelligent and also hold firm to their convictions, which is amazing – I know I’m definitely passionate about my issues,” Sarah Cassius, the president of TableTalk, said. “However, we see in politics today how problematic divisiveness is on both sides of the aisle.”

Cassius said TableTalk members have been in communication with other groups, like College Republicans and Democrats, to co-sponsor events and draft questions about topics like religion and politics. During the group’s first event, Campus Couches, members will place inflatable couches in Kogan Plaza from 10 a.m. to noon and “allow people to sit, chill and meet new people they normally wouldn’t talk to,” she said.

Cassius said the group will host a Campus Couch event once a week – moderated by members of the organization – on top of bimonthly TableTalk meetings.

The group tabled at the GW Hillel organization fair, Multicultural Student Services Center block party and the student organization fair Saturday, where about 80 students signed up to join the organization, she added.

TableTalk is a national nonprofit organization that oversees chapters at 32 colleges and five high schools. At other chapters, members at schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University have co-hosted events to discuss hazing on campus and political divides after the 2016 presidential election.

To jump-start GW’s chapter, the national organization sent the group’s founders start-up materials, including shirts, hats and inflatable couches over the summer, members said.

The group formed after six students met during a GW Hillel-sponsored trip to Israel and Palestine during spring break in March. When the students returned to campus, they said they realized there is no space for people with opposing viewpoints to interact.

The students then recruited four additional members through the group’s Facebook page and word of mouth over the summer.

Junior Gavin Gondalwala, the vice president of the GW chapter, said that after the trip to Israel, campus seemed like a “big, voluminous echochamber” of one-sided discussions. He said the TableTalk-facilitated discussions will include a central question written on a board, and a passersby can sit, snack and discuss the issue with others.

“Our topics aren’t solely going to be political,” he said. “We’re really working on bringing all sides of the spectrum together.”

Sophomore Yannick Omictin, the director of the chapter’s Campus Couches initiative, said group leaders are still determining exactly how the events will be moderated. He said one of the group’s main goals is “making the idea of dialogue acceptable again.”

“It’s a shift in how we think about things, it’s a shift in how we think about people,” Omictin said. “It’s a shift in how we think about people who disagree with us – but an emphasis on people.”

Sophomore Kennady Peek, a committee member of the group’s executive board, said she joined after seeing a post in the Class of 2021 Facebook page advertising the organization. Peek said she was drawn to creating a “civil, nonjudgemental space” on campus.

She said her main goal this year is “to listen and learn” from the conversations that happen during Campus Couches events. Peek added that she hopes the organization can act as a “merger” for different political groups on campus, so people with contrasting opinions can better understand each other.

“I know what I believe and why I do, but I think I need to give the opposing side of each argument a chance to explain their beliefs as well,” Peek said in an email.

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