Meet Kate Westa, a Speech First Member pushing for balance at the University of Michigan

 

  • “I know how it felt when it seemed like I was the only conservative on campus, and finding this club that genuinely prioritized balance and fairness was incredibly comforting.”
  • “In most of my classes, I’m met with hostility from my peers and professors just for bringing up an opposing viewpoint. It’s the most frustrating part of my college experience.”
  • “As long as you have the chops to back up speaking your mind… I wouldn’t advise backing down from a healthy disagreement on your campus.”

Junior Kate Westa is co-president of WeListen, a bipartisan student discussion group at the University of Michigan. (Laura Pappano/The Hechinger Report/Laura Pappano/The Hechinger Report )

Kate Westa
University of Michigan, Class of 2020

Major: B.A. Political Science 

Q: Tell us about the group you started on campus, WeListen! How does it differ from your work with Young Americans for Freedom?

A: WeListen is a student-run organization at the University of Michigan that seeks to bridge the political divide by hosting small-group conversations on contentious political issues. Every other week, we present an objective presentation of the chosen topic, then break off into small groups to discuss the root of our differences in-depth, face-to-face. Young Americans for Freedom acts as the best source of conservative thought where there isn’t much on campus, and WeListen is a great place to flesh out those values with people who couldn’t think more differently than you.

 

Q: A Washington Post article featuring WeListen said that your group specifically strives for “rigorous balance.” How do you achieve that and why is it necessary?

A: Simply put, it’s important to practice what you preach! How could we stand in front of our members insisting that intellectual diversity is essential if our board was made up entirely of only liberals or conservatives? The balance is even more important within the content team. We pair every conservative in the team up with one liberal and they fact check each other on their area of content to make sure viewpoints aren’t left out and that sources are balanced. The University reports around 15 percent of incoming freshmen as outwardly conservative. We get around a 30-25 percent turnout of conservatives at WeListen sessions, which I’m personally very proud of. I know how it felt when it seemed like I was the only conservative on campus, and finding this club that genuinely prioritized balance and fairness was incredibly comforting.

Q: If higher education is supposed to be the pinnacle of intellectual diversity, why did you see the need to start a group that has the same mission?

A: In an ideal world, there would be no need to form a group whose sole purpose is to engage in open discourse surrounding important issues, because that would already be encouraged and facilitated in every class. The reality, however, is much different. In most of my classes, I’m met with hostility from my peers and professors just for bringing up an opposing viewpoint. It’s the most frustrating part of my college experience. I was under the impression that campuses were supposed to foster a competition of ideas!

When the founders of WeListen created this space in 2016, it allowed for conservatives who feel silenced and liberals who want to engage with differing viewpoints to finally be able to do so without being worried about their grades or peers. I’ve become close with people who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to me, but we all know that we’re operating in good faith and are well-intentioned. I think that is the key difference in engaging in this type of civil discourse.

Q: How has WeListen been received on campus at the University of Michigan? Are you changing attitudes?

A: Some people are unhappy that we give conservatives a platform at all, but we are proud that our executive board is evenly split ideologically and that our turnout is so intellectually diverse. Overall, we have been received well by the administration and students alike. Since it was formed right after the 2016 election, I think it created a much-needed space for students to articulate themselves in more than 260 characters and understand competing viewpoints.

I believe we’ve been successful because the people who come to our meetings genuinely want to learn from each other instead of demonizing the other side. It’s incredibly refreshing to see my friends from Young Americans for Freedom engage with liberals in a way that is much deeper and more fulfilling than just “owning the libs.”

Q: What would you say to college students on other campuses who are frustrated by the climate of polarization and extreme partisanship or afraid to speak their minds?

A: I started college overwhelmed that I couldn’t find any like-minded friends, then overcorrected to only having conservative friends. Because of WeListen, I have made lasting and deep friendships with people I don’t agree with on anything. When we say we’re striving to find common ground, we don’t mean that as diluting our individual core values. We mean coming to the table with the shared understanding that we generally want good things for America—safety, health, prosperity— we just have completely different methods of getting there.

It’s important to have like-minded friends, but it is equally important to have friends who sharpen your views by challenging you. I encourage you to find the people on both sides of the aisle who genuinely want to bridge the divide and engage in open discourse in good faith. As long as you have the chops to back up speaking your mind and a good group of friends who support you (which I attribute to my involvement in YAF), I wouldn’t advise backing down from a healthy disagreement on your campus.

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