Peacemaking initiative seeks to build a culture of dialogue

St. Norbert College introduces Olive Branch Initiative

DE PERE — A peacemaking initiative at St. Norbert College is promoting dialogue to address the divides between people. The Cassandra Voss Center (CVC) at St. Norbert is piloting the Olive Branch Initiative during the 2017-18 academic year through the support of a grant from Campus Compact’s Fund for Positive Engagement.

Jaime Gonzalez, assistant director at the Cassandra Voss Center at St. Norbert College, is helping to implement the Olive Branch Initiative during the college’s 2017-18 academic year. The peacemaking initiative seeks to build a culture of dialogue in the community. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“We are trying to combat the way the divisive rhetoric today in our culture or in our society forces someone to see a person according to political view or a stance on a particular topic,” said Jaime Gonzalez, assistant director at the CVC. “Too often people assume, ‘You come from this background, so you must believe x, y or z.’ We want to help people see the humanity of others first and make that human connection. This is my friend or this is someone I am in community with; keep that as the framework of how they communicate in conversation.

“Whether it’s differences in political view, religious background or demographic background, we can use stories or dialogue to influence people,” he added.

The story sharing component of the initiative is underway. St. Norbert has partnered with StoryCorps to gather personal stories from the college community. Students, faculty and staff are invited to use the StoryCorps app. The individual sits down with someone for a conversation. Suggested questions are provided or interviewers can choose their own. Once the conversation is completed, the interviewer can opt to share the person’s story by uploading the recording to an online platform (www.story

“Hearing a person’s story you get to learn more about why they have their beliefs, where they come from,” said Gonzalez. “It gives people a better understanding and, hopefully, it builds empathy. We can build a culture of dialogue. People are often put into one category or the other. You are either Republican or Democrat or from a rural area or from an urban area. When people are put into two different groups they often feel they need to debate it out, to win.”

While the StoryCorps component suggests interviews with friends, colleagues or mentors, the Olive Branch Initiative is also tackling conversations with people who possibly have opposing views. “Chat and Chow” is scheduled for Nov. 29 at the CVC. Gonzalez hopes to have 35 students participate. He will be joined by Bridget Burke Ravizza, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and religious studies, and Ben Chan, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, as presenters.

The workshop will provide tools to students about how to ask open-ended questions and how to practice attentive listening.

“We sent out the call for student nominations for change-makers — students who are passionate about connecting people; students who are very involved in campus ministry, in the dorms, the Emerging Leaders program, students from study abroad,” explained Gonzalez. “We are trying to break those barriers. Even if we come from all these different places, we are here in community with one another.”

Follow-up gatherings for the story-sharing/conversation components are scheduled, including a “SNC Stories Showcase” in April.

Speakers are also part of the initiative. Shawn Copeland, Ph.D., a Catholic ethicist and professor of theology at Boston College, will speak at the CVC in March. Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister will visit in April. Jesuit Fr. James Martin, author of the book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” will join the CVC via Skype on Dec. 4.

A group of guests will share their stories and the prejudices they have encountered at the “SNC Human Library” on Feb. 15 in the Mulva Library. Norbertine Frater Anh Tran of Vietnam will be among the speakers.

The CVC was built in 2013 to honor Cassandra Voss, who died in an automobile accident in 2007 at age 21 during her senior year at St. Norbert. The center provides a collaborative learning environment for innovative programming about issues of identity. The initiative grew out of the relationship between Cassandra and her father, Kurt Voss, said Gonzalez.

“We tell people about their relationship, Kurt being a conservative Republican father and Cassandra being a feminist in college,” he said. “They were able to sit together and ask each other questions, learn from each other and challenge each other. Cassandra would bring up things she was learning in class and ideas she had about the world, justice or feminism. We wanted to figure out the best way to embody that as much as possible.”

St. Norbert of Xanten, the namesake of the college and the founding order, is also an inspiration for uniting people, added Gonzalez.

“St. Norbert was a person who brought people together through reconciliation, people who were at war,” he said. “He wanted to be a peacemaker. We are called to listen to one another. Pope Francis has talked about the importance of dialogue.”

For more information about the initiative and the Cassandra Voss Center, visit