Not everyone agrees on politics or religion, but the majority of college students can unite in support of one particular caffeinated beverage: coffee.
That’s what Yonah Davis thought to himself when he started It’s Just Coffee, an initiative looking to connect University of Wisconsin-Madison students with different perspectives to meet for low-stakes conversations over coffee and baked goods. Since January, over 120 students across different grade levels have signed up to take part in one of the program’s three pop-up cafés.
“Our country today is polarized. It's easy to get stuck in echo chambers online and in real life that support ideas we already believe,” Davis said. “College is the perfect time to listen, learn new perspectives and have conversations with people you may disagree with.”
Part of the initiative’s success lies in its simplicity. After filling out a brief survey asking about existing attitudes and topics of interest to discuss, students are paired with partners for a conversation. The list of interests to choose from on the form includes politics, education, social media and religion, but Davis said conversations often converge on multiple subjects or something entirely different from the sample discussion topics.
“It's Just Coffee is designed to be informal and low-stakes,” Davis emphasized. “The goal is not to get people to change their opinions, rather I realized the immense value of having conversations and building relationships with people who have different perspectives.”
UW-Madison sophomore Charlie Fahey said he was drawn to the initiative by free coffee, but also a desire to “interact with as many perspectives as possible.”
Fahey signed up for a conversation about politics but told The Daily Cardinal that his group ended up discussing religion, gun violence prevention and market economics as well.
“It's a breath of fresh air to have honest, low-pressure conversations about deeply-rooted and contentious issues,” he said. “It's Just Coffee certainly opened my mind to different attitudes and perspectives. I think self-censorship is a plague in many environments — events like these are an antidote.”
Though the pop-up cafes started this semester, the planning process for It’s Just Coffee began at the beginning of last summer, when Davis reached out to Religious Studies Director Susan Ridgely to design the framework for the conversations.
The initiative is supported by the Letters & Science Honors program. Davis receives funding for the program through the Cyrena Pondrom Leadership award, which supports students in developing projects dedicated to improving the UW-Madison community and student body.
Part of Ridgely and Davis’ brainstorming covered how to reduce participants’ anxieties about discussing sensitive subjects. Ridgely said Davis has “a kind of patience to his approach” that helped make students feel more comfortable approaching conversations that might initially make someone nervous.
“He really figured out ways to lower the bar and say, ‘Hey, I'm interested in getting to know you, you're interested in getting to know me, we have this in common, although we might see it from different perspectives. Let's sit down and talk about it,’” Ridgely said.
Coming off of a year where campus events were largely online due to the pandemic, Davis and Ridgely reiterated the importance of connecting with other students in person.
“Isolation is a huge issue on campus,” Ridgely said. “It's harder when you're online to make those connections across these perceived barriers. The initiative really helps to push people to make different kinds of connections, so I think it did come at a great time.”
Fahey told several of his friends to sign up for the initiative after the pop-up he attended and appreciated the opportunity to meet more students in person.
“It was a little off-putting at first, considering we've been cooped up for two years, but I quickly left my shell and engaged,” Fahey said. “After 10 minutes of discussion, there was incredible agreement between everyone across the political spectrum. I know it's a bit of a cliché, but there really is more that unites us than divides us. It's Just Coffee reminded me of that.”
Moving forward, Davis hopes the initiative encourages people to find opportunities to have conversations and engage with new perspectives outside of the pop-ups. He would like to continue the program in future years on campus.
It’s Just Coffee is hosting its final pop-up of the semester on May 5 at Memorial Union from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Students can sign up by visiting go.wisc.edu/freecoffee.