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Simon Greer is a social entrepreneur with an interesting story. One of his more recent efforts in social change involves helping students at Oberlin, a more progressive college, and students at Spring Arbor, a more conservative university, find common ground. In this first part of the discussion with Tim and Rick, Simon shares the personal and vocation origins that provide the backdrop for this project with university students and how he began to organize these efforts. In part 2, Simon will share skills and practices he has found beneficial in working with people at Oberlin and Spring Arbor. 

This is part 1 of a 2-part discussion with Simon Greer.


Simon Greer: Now I can say it with a straight face. At the time, you have to imagine this was a very rude awakening. I had this moment of thinking, "Wait, I say I'm a social change leader, or a social entrepreneur, but I somehow think that everyone else needs to change except me."

Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project and the communication professor here at Biola University. And we are so glad that you decided to join us again. My cohost is Dr. Rick Langer. Hi, Rick.

Rick Langer: Hi Tim, and I'm a professor here at Biola as well and work with Tim directing the Winsome Conviction Project. I'm a biblical studies and theology prof, and I'm also the director of our office of faith and learning. And we're really excited about our guest for the day. One of the things that we we've often done on our podcast here, is report from the front. Stories of people who are doing interesting things with a particular topic.

Tim Muehlhoff: And we've got a great guest today who had a crazy idea of bringing together people from different perspectives to come together and have some thoroughly intense conversations. When we heard about this, we were thoroughly encouraged. We've gotten a chance to meet our podcast guest. We're very impressed by him and we know that you will be as well. So, Rick, why don't you do the honors of introducing Simon?

Rick Langer: All right. So, our guest is Simon Greer and he's known as a social entrepreneur who has spent a lot of the last 30 years on the front lines of dealing with contentious social change, struggles and issues that have come up. He's been described as a serial entrepreneur. I believe that's not a felony, so that's good. And been working in the nonprofit world in a particular aptitude he has it seems for reinvigorating organizations with noble missions, but failing effectiveness. So, I was intrigued looking at some of your career history here, Simon, but the-

Simon Greer: Oh, no.

Rick Langer: Interesting thing, I won't dive into all of that, but your most recent project was the one that really captured our attention and made us really want to talk about it. So, we'd love to welcome you to the podcast here, Simon. Thanks for joining us.

Simon Greer: Happy to be here, good to be with you both.

Rick Langer: And I would love to have you begin by just telling us a little bit about this project, the Bridging The Gap Project that you did with some students from a very progressive university and far more conservative university. So, tell us just a little bit about how that project came about and what the experience of that was like for you.

Simon Greer: I guess the question, is how far back do you want me to go? The origins of the project go back, I don't know, decades really. Because, the project in a lot of ways was born out of the years I spent, as you said, in the intro on the front lines of some of the most combative social, economic, political issues facing our country. And so, it would be unfair to just say, I woke up one day and I thought, "Oh, we should try to bridge differences. Why don't we see what happens there?" The truth is that I was very good friends with a guy who worked for President Obama. And I actually had breakfast with him at the White House-

Rick Langer: Oh wow.

Simon Greer: The day after the re-election-

Rick Langer: How about that?

Simon Greer: So, 2012 President Obama gets re-elected and I'm there at the White House mess as they call the dining quarters in the White House, having breakfast with my friend. And we were talking about the moment that like, "Okay, this is not going to be a one-term president, it's a two term president." And the hopefulness that maybe, the contentiousness would fade a little-

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: "Okay, you got re-elected, right? Now, we do what you want." It isn't that the way it goes? Second time, it's like, "Okay, you're the boss, you proved it, you won twice." And whether you like him or not, that was what we thought the pattern would be. And within months of that, how completely mistaken we were became clear.

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And I started asking myself, "What is going on here? That's so much deeper than an election, right?" The polarization then, so that's almost a decade ago-

Rick Langer: Hmm, yeah.

Simon Greer: But, the polarization then, was severe. Right now, we would say, "Wow, that was nothing. That was like little league baseball. We're in the big leagues."

Rick Langer: That was back in the good old days.

Simon Greer: Right, we could still talk to each other then.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Simon Greer: But, what struck me then, and I guess it's what animates, and then I'll jump to the more direct answer to your question. What animates my work, is that at that moment I had one of those epiphanies of, "I don't think it's a political crisis. I think it's a spiritual crisis."

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And because of that, it sent me on a journey over the last almost decade, to try to understand what was at the root of how we've come to see the people we share this piece of land with, as so much the other. And what does it say about who we are, who am I, as myself? And my group that I'm so invested in you being, not my group and you being the irredeemable, other in my story. And I spent a number of years in this journey, I spent a number of years just immersing myself among people. So, it may not be clear, but from my intro and the story about the Obama White House, I've spent most of my career, let's say on the progressive side of things.

And so, that's where I learned how change happens and doesn't happen. It's where I cut my teeth as a community organizer, that's my background, and I never like to shy away from just saying, "That's the truth." I think what I did over the last decade is, I decided in this moment of epiphany that I wanted to immerse myself among the people, that my team, the progressive team, had demonized and made the other.

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And so, from about 2013/14, yeah, that's right until well into, recent years... Originally in 2013, I set out in 2013. I wanted to spend time with the two groups of people who I thought the progressive team demonized.

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And so, in my mind, that was corporate leaders and the white working class. And so, I just did everything I could to spend as much time as possible hanging around and working with and sitting alongside and learning from those two groups of people. And I figured if I did that, I would obviously learn something right about them. So, that would be good. But, most profoundly, I learned something about myself and about the state of our country. And that is what directly led me into this project you referenced, which I'm happy to say more about now if that's useful, or if you-

Tim Muehlhoff: Simon, can I ask one quick question before you get there? I found it interesting that you were wondering if the problem was political, but then you came to the idea that it was spiritual. Could you just unpack that phraseology for us? What do you mean by spiritual and how is that different from political?

Simon Greer: Yeah. Well, I think I'd spent a lot of my career on political strategy. "How do we win this election? How do we win this campaign? How do we get this entity, corporate, or government to do something different than what it's doing?" And so, I thought a lot about our world in political factions, political groupings, political strategies. Part of the epiphany, I guess, and it's like, now I can say it with a straight face. At the time, you have to imagine this was a very rude awakening for me.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hmm.

Simon Greer: I had this moment of thinking, "Wait, wait, I say I'm a social change leader, or a social entrepreneur, but I somehow think that everyone else needs to change except me." How did that happen to me? How did I end up with such hubris? That I thought, "Well, I'm for social change, it means all of you need to be different and do more of what I think. And then, won't the world be a better place?"

Rick Langer: Wow, what a great insight that is. Difficult, but great insight.

Simon Greer: Yeah. Yeah, let's call it a rupture, more than anything. Because, the question it begged for me was, "Am I sure that I fully understand the complexity of all the problems we face and I am the holder of the solutions?" Or, "Do I know that there's just a lot of stuff I can't see? I don't see the whole picture ever." And I would only be enhanced, if I could spend time with people who see it differently. Not diminished, not threatened, not unsafe, not scared, but actually enhanced. In the Jewish tradition, in my tradition, they talk about arguments that are for the sake of self and arguments that are for the sake of heaven. And I think a lot of how we do our politics is arguments for the sake of ourselves. That's how I operated.

And this deeper argument for the sake of heaven, is really to illuminate this whole thing. I have to try to understand how this whole thing is put together and where we're headed together. And so, I think, that's the spiritual dimension to it, is that I had to come to face the story I had constructed about me and my team and how right we are. I don't know what your spiritual practices are, but I remember years into meditating and doing yoga, where a teacher said to me, "It's possible that all this idea of overcoming ego and all that, that you're really just doubling down on it."

Rick Langer: I want to be the world's best meditator.

Simon Greer: Yeah. When are you going to make Ashtanga yoga, an Olympic sport? I can do a backbend. And it's like, "Oh no, oh no, I've been doing this whole thing for, it's not for the resume. I don't think that's fair to say, but there's a little bit too much of me and myself in this. And a little of the spirit of service and the spirit of humility and curiosity and love frankly, something that..." Yeah, sorry.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, no, no, no I'm sorry.

Simon Greer: Nah, you go.

Tim Muehlhoff: One phrase you said, that just stuck with me, is you asked the question, "Where are we headed together?" And I don't think we're doing that much anymore as Americans. I don't think we're like, "Hey, this is our country. And we're all moving. And we better find a way that all of us can live with." I think we are so divided today, that I don't think in terms of other groups, I'm thinking in terms of what is best for my group and how I can navigate that situation. That togetherness idea, would change how we viewed a lot of our collective problems, don't you think?

Simon Greer: Oh my gosh. I mean, this is like, "Yeah, you're speaking my language here." So, here let me say a couple of things about this. So, immediately in the complexity of my own tradition, where I mentioned arguments for the sake of heaven, what you can see quickly, is that partly it's rabbis having these debates and what did the rabbis have in common? Their tradition. And they all think they're Jewish and they're arguing, "Is this what the law says? Is this what the Hebrew Bible story teaches? Or, is it that other thing?" And they're not disputing a shared tradition-

Rick Langer: Right.

Simon Greer: They're trying to eliminate it.

Rick Langer: They're on the same boat together, but-

Simon Greer: They believe that fundamentally.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And what had struck me, in that moment of like, "I want to be part of the arguments for the sake of heaven was, "Oh, wait, I have to believe I have a tradition with you, that is common.""

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And if you think America was actually put on this planet as an exceptional gift to the world, because we are doing something unique and someone else thinks it is fatally flawed by its original sin of slavery. Well, do we have a tradition enough in common that we could solve problems together? Maybe not. So that's where we are. And so, what I see happening in our politics today, is when we think we're arguing about climate change, right? Or, we think we're arguing about racial justice. So, that's not what we're doing. If we were trying to argue about what to do about those problems, I think we'd have a lot of solutions, but what we're doing is we're arguing about whether my tradition can live here.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Simon Greer: So, if I believe in the primacy of my theology and I believe in the primacy of my science, that's the fight we're now having about climate change. Can my theological tradition be safe and sacred here, right? Can my science be safe and sacred here? And so, I'm not actually arguing with you about, "Is it getting warmer and is that dangerous? And what should we do? And what would you compromise?" No, I'm fighting about the existential question of whether I can belong. And I'm for law and order, and you're for racial justice and we're not actually fighting about how do you make policing practices better? That's a technical problem, we can solve that.

But, we're arguing about, "Is this place going to be safe for me? Is it going to be safe for me? And is there a way that it can be safe for each of us, with the very different ways we understand how this moment came to be?" And I don't think you can solve the pressing problems if it's actually, I often say it this way, "These issues are no longer issues to be solved by buy-in with my fellow Americans, they are the battlefield on which I seek to vanquish my mortal enemies."

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Wow, yeah.

Simon Greer: And as long as that's what we're doing, then, you get what you ask for. Here we are.

Tim Muehlhoff: By the way, it makes me think of Robert Bellah's Habits of The Heart, where he said, "America has lost the concept of the front porch." And that has always stayed with me. You're sitting on the front porch with other neighbors, looking at your street, your community, and there's a calmness. And I love what you're saying. That, that is what we've lost today, is this is the American struggle. This is our struggle. And we're so tribal now, that it's, "No, my tribe is what I care about. I don't care about you. I want to have my agenda, it might be theologically motivated." But, that has become what is primary, not this idea of, in my tradition, it's neighbor love. I mean, the second great commandment, my goodness is, "Love your neighbor as yourself." And I think that's what we've lost. And so, that's why we have the Winsome Conviction Project, Simon, is I think we're speaking the same language. So, let's pivot just a little bit to this. [crosstalk 00:15:16]. Oh, go ahead. Yes.

Simon Greer: I've just got to push this one step further, because I think this is where it's so complicated. You've got to imagine, if one of you was white and male and Protestant and financially well off, and one of you was black and female and financially, not so well off. And I said, I remember a time in our country when you could sit together as neighbors on the front porch. And you went to church together on Sunday, and you knew the people down the street and your kids can go play outside and pop in on the neighbor's house and have lemonade together. And I'm not against any other people. I'm not against the new people in the neighborhood. I'm not against the new people who come to our country, but I just want to know that our family, our religious tradition and our nation are safe and sacred.

One of you would say, "Yeah, amen. That's what I want." And the other one would say, "Oh, that was the time when my parents had to go to the separate water fountain."

Tim Muehlhoff: Hmm.

Simon Greer: And so, it is fundamentally like, can we honor both those truths? And build the thing we all want, which I think is for our families, our traditions and our country to thrive, but in truth and reconciliation, they often read, the first thing is truth.

Rick Langer: Right.

Simon Greer: And if you won't acknowledge in your story about what the neighborhood used to be-

Rick Langer: Right.

Simon Greer: And I won't acknowledge the truth. If I won't acknowledge the truth in how you remember that moment of the neighborhood, and you won't acknowledge the truth and how I remember that moment of the neighborhood, it's hard for us to reconcile. And I think that is, it's very much where we're stuck. I hope that made sense.

Rick Langer: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, so I'd love to dive into this more, but we've actually lost the thread of the original story of the interesting thing you did to put it into action. For example, if the students at Overland and Spring Harbor. So, tell us a little bit about how you acted on this, in that context.

Simon Greer: Yeah.

Rick Langer: I appreciate the backstory actually, is great for helping us understand the existential moment that led to this.

Simon Greer: Yeah, great. So, I have no background in higher education and I didn't do terribly well in school. So, I never thought I would do much in higher ed, that wasn't my thing. I was actively working on these crossing lines of differences, experiments. And we organized a group from a synagogue in New York City, more liberal, this is 2016/ 2017 I guess. More liberal, urban Jewish. We teamed up with a union from Michigan, a group that was more conservative, more rural, more Christian, and we brought them together. And so, the group from New York came and stayed in the homes of the Michigan folks for a few days. And then, a couple of months later, they reciprocated in the Michigan folks came to New York and we spend time walking in each other's shoes and breaking bread together and getting to know each other and talking about the hard issues.

And one of the participants in the group, he was a host actually. And he said, from the New York group, that he had was an Oberlin alumni and that his daughters were at Oberlin. And had I ever thought about doing this exchange on college campus? And I said, I hadn't thought about it, but I was curious and interested. And then, another participant from Michigan said that he actually had close friends who were connected to Spring Arbor University, which is a free Methodist evangelical school, just outside of Jackson, Michigan. And so, I thought, "Well, I follow my nose on these things." And so, we had an introduction to Oberlin and the introduction to Spring Arbor. And I went out there and visited with both schools and said, "Could we pilot this thing? Which basically, we would take over a J term. Each school, it turned out, had a winter term.

So, a January term, and this is about 18 months ago, now that we did it. And we said, "We'd give it a shot." And what we designed was a program that was built on three parts. The first part we called the skills building part. And I can say more about that if you want, but we basically teach listening skills, storytelling skills, and feedback skills. That was part one, they learned the skills. Then, part two was called The Encounter. So, at that point, we all came together at Spring Arbor, we lived in a dorm there together for that second week. And in that time, that was really time for them to get to know each other better, to talk about the heart issues, share thoughts about values and worldview, and go deeper on some of those issues and also experience life at Spring Arbor.

So, Tuesday nights at Spring Arbor, they have a student-led group, it's called vertical. It's like a student-led Bible study. And I think it's pretty safe to say that on Tuesday nights at Oberlin, they don't have Bible study, but we all went, right? So, the Oberlin students, they were we're there, were part of the community, so we went to Bible study. And so, week two was that encounter. And then, the final week of the program is called The Public Policy, a multi-stakeholder approach. And so, criminal justice was the issue we focused on, but what we do is we take the skills from the first week, the practice of encountering the other and the second week, and we apply it to a policy issue. And so, in week three, they met with a range of stakeholders from criminal justice system, whether it was the head of the department of corrections, or corrections officers, or the corrections officer's union, or people who are currently incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated, or advocacy groups, families of formerly incarcerated.

And then, in small teams with students from each school, they had to create a policy blueprint that reflected their potential political disagreements, their understanding of what the multiple stakeholder viewpoints were. So, some policy solution that would meet all those needs. And I've heard about programs that do the skills building and some that do the dialogue and the encounter, and certainly there's policy programs that do a multi-stakeholder approach. I think there was something in putting those three pieces together, in the immersive, intensive, three-week, living together experience. It was different than what any of those students had encountered. And it really had a lasting effect.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, what a great outline, for our next segment, I would love to explore each one of those with you. But, I read it in an interview before this happened. Actually, it occurred bringing together these students, you said in the interview from the beginning, there was a leap of faith that this was going to work. What were your reservations heading into this? Of what could go wrong? Or, are we crazy for trying to do this? What was your mindset heading into it?

Simon Greer: Yeah, well, I would say the on the motivating side, was that I had gotten into social change work, decades ago, because of a faith in people.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hmm.

Simon Greer: I think that would be my most fundamental belief, is that everyday people can make history and want to. That each of us wants to do more than just, take care of our own little life and our own little cells. We want to actually connect to something bigger and make a mark, if we can. I believe that about people, if they're given the chance, most people just don't think there's an invitation to do that. So, I think that was what motivated me to try. I think the reason it was a leap was I just heard it was terrible on college campuses. I heard that there's no room for dialogue and with people, you can't voice an opinion that's-

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Simon Greer: Unpopular. Actually, in the first group I asked, "How well would I do, if I was a professor here?" And one of the students said, "Oh, you'd get fired."

Rick Langer: Oh.

Simon Greer: I was like, "Why would I get fired?" He said, "Well, because they would say, you're a racist." I was like, "Well, why? What did I do?" He said, "Well, there was a racially insensitive remark made in one of the classes and you didn't reprimand the student, you invited the group into a deeper conversation." And I was like, "Right, that's what I would still do again." And they were like, "Yeah, but that's not good enough here."

Rick Langer: Hmm.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Simon Greer: So, I had heard stories like that and they aren't just fairytales, that is what it is like on a lot of campuses. So, I think I was unsure. Why is it that way on campus? Is that what students really want? And so, am I walking into an impossible situation, culturally? So, that was a big part of the leap. And then, I haven't been in college campus in a long time. I had never spent time on an evangelical campus, but why would they listen to me? And why are they going to talk to me? So, I think there were a lot of reasons that I was skeptical. And I guess maybe honestly, this whole effort has really just been, put one foot in front of the other. I don't have a master strategic plan. I don't know exactly what success will look like.

All the things that I was trained to do, it's not that I've thrown them out. I just keep trusting my gut and saying, "All right, well, there seems to be energy there, there seems to be love. There, there seems to be light there. Let me move toward that and we'll see what happens." And so, I didn't know when I came to teach these students, if they would be like, "Oh yeah, we learned that in freshmen orientation, that's boring." Or, "Well, actually Simon, that doesn't make any sense. Here's our situation and you're totally disconnected." So, I just didn't know, I think that's the truth.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we are so glad you pushed through it. So, Simon and we'd love to come back and talk about these skills that you taught, that's intriguing to us. And then, also this immersive experience, I think is what's often lacking in some ways. So, thank you so much for listening to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We're here to resource you, so please check out our website and we've been having a great conversation that we'll continue in our next podcast.

Rick Langer: If you'd like to subscribe, we'd encourage you to just go to Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts and just become a regular listener. Thanks so much for joining us.