Student organization is ‘Closing the Gap’ through civil discussion on controversial topics
It was an ambitious and audacious idea: create a space for candid, meaningful, and productive conversations that include people of differing backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives.
In a time of political polarization and social upheaval, Closing the Gap (CTG), the student organization founded by Amaan Raheem and Haseb Alim, is just what is needed.
“Everyone has the right to have their voice heard,” said Alim, a senior majoring in Marketing Management in the Pamplin College of Business. “We live in a society where people shut each other out because of the differences between them. This leads to acts of discrimination, alienation, and prejudice, which continues the cycle of hate. Bringing these varying groups together to have meaningful conversations and find a common ground will allow for a new perspective. This space can allow people to safely speak about their beliefs and experiences with other groups.”
In its first year, Closing the Gap has tackled controversial social issues such as peaceful protest and riots, the death penalty, the 2020 presidential election, and pro-life and pro-choice debate. This year’s topics will include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gun control, and more.
The organization’s most significant success so far was a session on policing in America. Included in the discussion CTG facilitated were students profoundly skeptical of the police, several Virginia Tech police officers, and a host of students representing a continuum of perspectives. By the end of the session, tears were shed, participants were heard, and the gap in understanding in the room was closed.
“By bringing individuals who have opposing or different views on the topics together, we set the stage for an attempt at finding common ground, creating solutions, and learning new information,” said Raheem, a junior majoring in Business Information Technology in the Pamplin College of Business with a Peace Studies minor. “I’ve learned that much of the divide between people comes from a lack of understanding which then turns into fear. This fear of the unknown is what causes so much of the tension we have now. I believe that if we can get rid of that fear through conversations then we can end that tension between people.”
The 17-member CTG board meets once a week to set the agenda for open discussions, which are held monthly. The forums follow a set structure. Rules are shared prior to the discussion via email. A discussion facilitator calls on people to speak. Fact-checkers share information when a fact or statistic comes up in the conversation.
“Usually, we keep meetings pretty calm and stable by making sure participants remember that the point of the discussion is to understand different perspectives and hear people out,” said Raheem. “Meetings have gotten charged, but we’ve combated this by having our discussion facilitator take control and de-escalate the situation.”
“What surprised me the most was the amount of support we received from students, faculty, and other student organizations,” said Alim. “With close to 600 followers on our Instagram @ClosingtheGap_vt, hundreds of likes on our posts, and thousands of views on our videos, we never expected to grow at this rate in our first couple of months. The continuous engagements, whether it be commenting on our posts, messaging notes of support, voting on our polls, and sharing our posts to their page, has brought us closer together. We have built an online community of individuals who are passionate about our mission and want to be a part of the change in the campus culture we want to promote.”
“If I’m being honest, I’m surprised that CTG has become what it is today,” said Raheem. “When COVID hit, the idea was almost completely abandoned, but with the help of Haseb and others we were able to make it grow immensely.”
Closing the Gap has two advisors: Ashley Reichelmann, assistant professor of sociology and an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and the Race and Social Policy Research Center, and Frank Shushok, vice president for Student Affairs.
“I’ve been deeply humbled from watching them work,” said Shushok. “These students trust and respect each other, despite big differences. Their commitment to model what ‘closing the gap’ can look like is nothing short of amazing. In a time when our world and country are deeply divided, and when too many people are compelled to keep their distance, Closing the Gap offers a deeply hopeful perspective, one built on the belief that the world can and will find peace through intentional efforts at listening and learning.”
Leading Closing the Gap has had a profound effect on both Raheem and Alim.
During Student Engagement and Campus Life’s annual celebration of the contribution of student organizations to campus life, the Student Organization Leadership Awards, Raheem and Alim were recognized for their efforts in Closing the Gap. Raheem received the Undergraduate Student Leader of the Year Award, while Alim received the Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion Award.
“For the longest time, I didn’t feel like I fit into Virginia Tech,” said Raheem, who is a first-generation student. “I was really close to going to VCU because I love the city atmosphere and my close friends go there. However, after I found a group of friends and CTG became more than an idea, I really started to enjoy VT. It felt like I finally had a purpose for going here. I am glad I go here because I’m always being pushed out of my comfort zone.”
“During my time with Closing the Gap, I have learned just how diverse our student population is,” said Alim, who transferred to Virginia Tech. “Not just in race, religion, and culture, but also diverse in thought and way of life. The point is to be aware of other people’s unique circumstances and show them the same respect that I would expect to receive. This organization has made me feel included and heard on campus, and I hope other students who join can have a similar experience."
Those who are interested in Closing the Gap conversations can follow them on Instagram @ClosingtheGap_vt for topics and meeting times, to watch videos, read comments, and browse posts to gain more insight into their work. Contact Raheem at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the group’s email list.
“If you are someone who enjoys bringing people together to learn and grow, this is the perfect organization to get involved with,” said Raheem.
“Even if they don’t have anything to say, just listening in on the conversation will help expose them to so many perspectives,” added Alim. “They will be able to learn more about their peers and be more knowledgeable about their feelings. Ultimately, by getting involved, people will gain empathy and respect for others, which is something that our society needs right now. I’m most proud of the Hokies who have been courageous enough to participate in our discussions. In this day and age, where cancel culture has hindered our ability to express our views and opinions, I appreciate those who are willing to take the first step in creating a more inclusive community built around civility. These individuals are the change makers that the world needs, and we hope to inspire many more to follow their lead.”