UW students get intentional about tackling taboo topics

MADISON, Wis. — Politics, race, and religion are topics most people stay away from during polite conversation, but students at UW-Madison are signing up to take them on, approaching taboo subjects with purpose.

On Thursday, dozens of Badgers took part in “It’s Just Coffee,” a student-led initiative to encourage conversation between people with different perspectives on campus, the last of its kind for the semester.

“We know the world is a really polarized place so a lot of the goal is about building bridges and building connections,” said UW Sophomore and program founder Yonah Davis. “It’s also just a great way to meet new people.”

In the Fall of 2021, Davis shared his proposal with a committee in the Letters and Science Honors Program as a way for students to discuss difficult but important topics in a low-stakes environment.

After securing funding for a series of pop-up cafes, Davis used the fall semester to structure his idea, with the help of the UW’s Director of Religious Studies Program, Professor Susan Ridgley.

“I was really excited about the project,” Ridgely said. “These are conversations that we are not practiced in, usually the topics we’re asked to stay away from, we’re told to stay away from.”

Since the beginning of the spring semester, when the first pop-up café was held, hundreds of students participated in conversations typically considered taboo after filling out a brief interest survey to be paired with other students for discussion.

“I think this is like another step on my journey in getting to know a broader range of ideas and people,” said UW freshman and program participant Rowan Hildebrant. “Deliberately going out and seeking out different opinions like this.”

At the event, students like Hilderbrant were eager to step outside their comfort zone, even finding it refreshing. It’s something Davis is encouraging others to do, too.

“Put yourself out there and be vulnerable,” he said. “Humanize someone you may disagree with, because so often we get stuck in echo chambers and all you see is this group of people does this and it’s so easy to vilify them.”

Davis also said though he has plans to study abroad next school year he hopes the cafes or something like them continues on the UW campus, a sentiment Ridgley shares.