A Positive Space in a Polarizing World

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Jun 18, 2018
by Louise Hallman
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A Positive Space in a Polarizing World

The world is facing growing polarization not seen since the Cold War. Fissures erupt between differing political systems, cultures, religions and generations as understanding and respect for the “other” deteriorates. Bridging divides has been fundamental to Salzburg Global Seminar since our beginning and today remains central to our mission to shape a better world. DEEPLY HUMAN: Salzburg Global Vice President Clare Shine embraces LGBT Forum Fellow Negede Gezahegn from Ethiopia following his successful asylum application in Austria.

When Schloss Leopoldskron hosted the first program of the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies in the summer of 1947, the 97 Fellows from 18 countries sought to heal the deep divisions left by two world wars in just three decades. Exactly 70 years later, as they gathered in the same place, the 82 students from five continents attending the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change did not have the same virulent rifts to overcome — but they too live in an increasingly polarized world.

In the face of rising inequality, populism, anti-immigrant sentiments, religious divisions, ethnic conflicts, geopolitical rivalries and nuclear threats, finding the space and means to bridge divides has never been more important. 

The annual Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change provides a safe space for healthy debate and dialogue. It also acts as a “brave space” where students can reap the benefits of challenging their perspectives and beliefs. “Seeing how people from different parts of the world can allow their perceptions to collide rather than clash has been the highlight of my time at the Academy,” says Connor Bean from Bournemouth University, UK.

The intervening 70 years have seen unimagined expansion of global communications, but even in this age of social media and instant messaging, meeting “in real life” still holds great value. Over three weeks, Academy Fellows live, learn and create together, improving their academic understanding of media literacy and challenging their prejudices and stereotypes. Reflecting on his time at the Academy, Jack Lipei Tang from Chinese University of Hong Kong says, “Social contact with individuals is the only way we can resist vague, manipulating and stagnant macro-narratives full of hatred, misunderstanding and prejudice.”

Diverse Voices

It is not just young and rising leaders who need to bridge divides. Every Salzburg Global program is designed for impact, helping leaders at all levels understand and overcome barriers created by geographic, cultural, generational or ideological differences. 

Our Health and Health Care Innovation program series engages not only clinicians, practitioners, policymakers and academics, but also patients and their advocates. The Young Cultural Innovators Forum includes artists and cultural entrepreneurs of every art form imaginable from classical music and digital design to contemporary dance and barbering — all with a shared desire to engage and improve their local communities. Truly diverse representation at the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum ensures open exchange between activists, artists and donors from Global South and North, helping avoid unintended negative consequences for communities and enabling all stakeholders take their rightful role as equal partners in the global push for LGBT human rights. 

In the technology sector, middle-income countries, such as India, often lead the way as they “leapfrog” entire systems that richer countries are trying to reform incrementally, offering new, innovative solutions. Recognizing this, when members of Sciana — The Health Leaders Network wanted to learn more about patient-focused tech innovations, Salzburg Global chose Kanav Kahol, head of affordable health technologies at the Public Health Foundation in India, to present to the German, Swiss and British health care leaders. 

Deeply Human

All our programs actively welcome “non-standard” voices. Katrina Scotto di Carlo, who as a member of the City of Portland’s Socially Responsible Investments Committee helped lead the American city’s divestment from all corporate securities, considered herself somewhat of an outsider at the Salzburg Global Corporate Governance Forum, where most of the participants are corporate board directors and lawyers. But after the three-day program she recognized the value of Salzburg Global’s approach: “There is a small population of people that are curious about ‘them’ in the us/them paradigm… [but] endeavoring to understand ‘them’ makes us, bit-by-bit, more isolated within our own group of ‘us’… The Schloss holds sacred space where the us/them paradigm is checked at the door in favor of open curiosity and the free exchange of ideas. It’s a place of refuge where the intellect can be in unfettered service to the greater good. My gratitude runs deep.”

Salzburg Global Seminar is a “deeply human” organization that encourages all participants to shed their institutional personas at the Schloss gates and engage in personal dialogues. By bridging divides in this non-transactional setting, current and future leaders are better placed to break down silos in their own organizations and communities, respect other perspectives, find new partners for collaboration, adopt new ways of thinking and ultimately shape a better world.