WeListen​ ​at​ ​the​ ​University​ ​of​ ​Michigan

After the 2016 presidential election, deep divisions appeared on campus down ideological lines. American politics had split our country, and the University of Michigan. A common national narrative began to appear about students who were unwilling to engage with their political foes in a constructive way. But those weren’t the Ann Arbor students we knew.

We founded WeListen to create a place at Michigan for the curious and engaged students we had met — studying humanities, music, engineering, public policy, and business — to discuss and learn about politics in a non-debate setting. The goal of WeListen is to bring students from across the political spectrum — liberal, conservative, and everywhere in between — together to engage in discussions about difficult political topics.

Thanks to a BLI Small Project Grant, we were able to host eleven discussion sessions over the 2017-2018 academic year on topics including immigration, gun control, abortion, and free speech. Our first session, on Refugees in America, attracted just fifteen participants. As we improved our methodology and word spread, WeListen grew. Our first session of second semester brought 93 students together to discuss Free Speech, while maintaining strong conservative presence, and keeping discussion civil. Soon after, a group of University of Michigan staff members formed a committee to start the WeListen Staff Series — a monthly, staff-only set of WeListen sessions.

In 2016, there was no place to go after the election to find out why someone voted for the ‘other side.’ After the midterm elections this year — thanks to BLI’s generous support — students can attend a WeListen- and CSG-led discussion to get to know students who don’t think (or vote) like they do.

By: Gabriel Lerner

Challenging Narratives and Conflict Resolution

Our dialogue event, Challenging Narratives and Conflict Resolution, took place on the
night of December 1st , 2017. A group of students from that summer’s GIEU: Israel-Palestine trip was inspired by our experiences there, the people we met and the stories we heard. We decided to share this new knowledge with the university community by creating a space for our Israeli and Palestinian guides to speak on the topic of the conflict and their personal experiences of it.

Along the process of planning, organizing, and executing this event, the biggest challenge we faced was that we had some of our main sources of support, through advertising, back out. They perceived the event as too controversial and polarizing considering the campus climate regarding divestment. There were moments when we really felt alone in the process, but luckily our team had very strong planning and organizational skills, and we were able to reach out to other sources for advertising support.

Through this event, our goals were to expose students from various backgrounds at the University of Michigan to global issues that they may not be familiar with. We hoped to educate them on the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict by emphasizing the importance of nuanced perspectives and multiple narratives.

By: Lisa Garcia

Project Lazarus – New Orleans, LA

We want to thank BLI for the grant support that allowed us to significantly subsidize travel expenses for Alpha Epsilon Delta’s ASB trip to New Orleans! We spent the majority of our trip volunteering at Project Lazarus, the oldest and largest residential facility that supports people living with HIV/AIDS in the Gulf Coast region. In addition to housing, Project Lazarus provides services not covered by Medicaid or Medicare, and cultivates a close-knit community among residents. Further, many residents utilize the facility’s serene outdoor spaces in beautiful New Orleans weather.

Justin Pawloski and Emily Lerner work on fixing a bike

During our mornings at Project Lazarus, we played Uno and basketball with the residents. Occasionally, we participated in some of the classes and excursions set up for residents including a photography class, acupuncture, and a walk through the Margeny area to Crescent park. In the afternoons, we primarily helped the ground technician, Carol, with weeding and planting flowers, but also helped with other miscellaneous tasks including fixing the tires on a couple of the residents’ bikes and cleaning up common areas.


Emily Lerner and Carissa Bartkowiak take a break from gardening

The night before our last day of service, one of our group members got sick. Through discussion with Project Lazarus, we came to the conclusion that it would be best if we found somewhere else to work for our last day. We spent Friday morning contacting numerous non-profits in New Orleans and ultimately found two great organizations: HandsOn New Orleans and Green Light New Orleans. HandsOn New Orleans connects volunteers with service opportunities in their community. Green Light New Orleans empowers individuals to addresses climate change through use of energy efficient light bulbs, rain barrels, and vegetable gardens in their backyard.

Group members huddle in for a selfie with a resident after a game of UNO

On Friday afternoon, half of our group helped HandsOn New Orleans with demolition on a home owned by the executive director who could not afford to finish his repairs. His work is centered on providing volunteers to help other people, therefore it was rewarding to serve as volunteers to return the favor. The other half of our group split their time between painting rain barrels and gardening at the Green Light community garden.

Megan McKenzie paints a rain barrel for Green Light New Orleans

Out of all the BLI habits, the ones we used the most were ‘Pause and Reflect’, and ‘Expect Challenges’. ‘Pause and Reflect’ was a central habit of our trip given that reflection is one of the essential aspects of a successful alternative spring break trip. Every night after dinner we sat down, discussed our highs/lows of the day and reflected on service and our social identities. Specifically, we had discussions about what motivates our service, how our definition of service has changed or stayed the same, and how, if so, our awareness of different social identities has changed throughout this experience. On our final night, all ASB members wrote a letter to themselves about their experiences on the trip, which we will be meeting to reflect on again in the coming month.

Justin Pawloski, Lauren Weinberg, Brennan Metzler, Tyler Adams, Tosin Adeyemi, Zach Hoisington, and HandsOn New Orleans Director Chris Cameron smile after a long day of demolition

‘Expect Challenges’ was a habit that we wish we had contemplated a little bit more before the trip, but was also a habit that we definitely appreciated and understood more during our last day of service. It was challenging trying to find new organizations to volunteer with last-minute on Friday, but searching through all of the non-profit organizations in New Orleans also opened our eyes to all of the incredible service going on there. Our experience serving at Project Lazarus and at two other amazing non-profits instilled an appreciation for service that many of us will reflect on and carry with us for years to come.


By: Tosin Adeyemi, Emily Lerner, and Lauren Weinberg

Pantanal Partnership Solar Team – Mato Grosso, Brazil

Pantanal’s Solar Project





Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, where Pantanal Partnership travels to implement sustainable technology.

Shift in Leadership Perspective



Many families live along the rivers in the Pantanal. We chose this family along the river to install the solar-powered refrigerator.

While in Brazil I learned that culture plays a big part on roles, especially in terms of gender. In the community where we installed the solar powered refrigerator, women were in charge of cleaning and cooking, whereas the men were responsible for protecting, constructing, and providing for the household. This did not affect who or could not be a leader but where someone could take a leadership role.

Therefore, when installing the solar-powered refrigerator system the men of the community helped construct the platform for mounting the solar panels and maintaining the technology system. Whereas, the women filled and organized the refrigerator to their liking since they were responsible for cooking all the meals.

In addition, their culture affected who they perceived as the leader of our team. Rianna was the technical leader of the team. However, when any of the community members had quest27440444215_44cdf2c27c_mions about the system, they would ask Guillermo. Guillermo could usually not answer the questions without consulting Rianna first. Rianna and Susan (another technical leader of our team) would even try to explain the system with the men of the community. However, the men tended to trust the men on our team more. This is because it is more common for men to be more technically knowledgeable than women in their culture. Thus, it is hard to be a technical as a woman in their culture without taking great leaps of earning their trust and respect.
In the future, I will keep in mind the gender roles in a community where I plan on implementing technological systems. I can strategize ways to gain members trust and maybe encourage the men on my team to encourage the community members to trust the women leaders on the team.

Leadership Growth

27406314536_c01b806a1b_mAs a leader I tend to want to help with everything. It is not because I want to do everything but because I want everything done correctly. However, micromanaging is not a quality of a great leader. Therefore, during this project I have learned to trust my team members. This not only made my job easier but encouraged others to take the lead.

When we decided to install florescent lights for the community, I let Guillermo lead the community members in the installation. He would ask the technical leaders for help when he needed but for the most part guided the community members on his own. This allowed Guillermo to grow as a leader in terms of communication and management.

Additionally, as a leader, I was able to instill confidence into my team via trust and letting them lead parts of the project by themselves. Eventually, they will not need my guidance and will able to be leaders of future Pantanal Partnership projects.

Bridge between Leadership and Teamwork


Susan Rusinowski plays with orphans at the Nazare Orphanage in Brazil after testing the solar technology system.

Leadership evolves when teams are formed. Teams naturally have members that have varying strengths that are constantly evolving. A team member will become a leader when the strength plays a key role in the accomplishment of a task.

Susan had a brilliant idea of making the solar lanterns more user-friendly. She gathered the team together along with the necessary supplies to make the adjustment. After explaining her idea, the team was able to provide further input and work together to make the technology easier to use and maintain for the communities.

Teams are useless without a leader and leaders are useless without a team. However, not one person needs to be a leader at all times. Any member should feel free to leverage their strengths or ideas to take the lead.

Michigan Health Aid – Ann Arbor, MI

Michigan Health Aid enormously benefitted from the BLI large grant given to us in the winter 2015 semester. In our proposal we outlined our plan to have a large health screening held at the beginning of this fall term. We still followed the steps in our timeline but at an expedited process and also added a new component to our health program. In our proposal we described our process of setting up a health screening, teaching members how to run a screening and compiling the data to use for research/analysis
purposes. Due to additional sources of funding from the DOW sustainability grant we were able to hold a screening on March 25th, 2015.

The screening was held at Bethesda Bible Church in Ypsilanti. Our CCPS (community coordinated preventative screening) team worked together to find the location and the correct time for the screening. The first and third Wednesday of each month Bethesda Bible Church holds a food pantry for community members. We decided to partner with this event. Over the course of two hours our physician saw 15 patients. Each patient had different concerns and issues that they had the opportunity to discuss with the physician. Many of the patients came to the screening with multiple children and thanked us for the convenience of our screening, as it was difficult for them to commute to see a physician while watching their multiple children. Other patients wanted to solely check their blood pressure to make sure they were in the healthy range their physicians told them to stay within. This type of patient was hopeful to see because it showed that the message provided from their physician had resonated and they were carefully and responsibly watching their blood pressure. The physician who volunteered for the screening was an OBGYN. Physician recruitment is often the most difficult part of our screening so we ask our members to connect with the physicians they know in the area. Our member asked his mom and she was thrilled to volunteer. This allowed for a unique opportunity for a parent to be part of the philanthropy their student is involved with. Dr. Clubb was impressed with the screening and expressed interest in coming back to volunteer again.

While we intended on having another screening over the summer, we could not recruit a willing physician. Instead, for the second year in a row, we participated in the Juneteenth Event. This event honors the announcement of the abolition of slavery. It is a national day of celebration, and the Ann Arbor chapter of the NAACP holds the event at Wheeler Park. Instead of bringing a screening to this event, we adapted it into a health fair. We printed hundreds of informative pamphlets and our members taught interested community members on the basics of living a healthy sustainable lifestyle. One of our members is a phlebotomist and thus we still offered to take blood glucose and cholesterol levels. 21 people had their glucose and cholesterol levels taken and 31 had their blood pressure measured. This type of event was an experiment and the community members appreciated us being there and found it useful. Thus, as an organization, we considered it a successful event.

Our events caught the attention of local community leaders such as the president of the NAACP who thanked us for being at the event and the executive assistant to the sheriff, Kathy Wyatt, who has been supporting us for multiple years now.

These two events taught our team how to be more dynamic. In an effort to still provide an impactful event to the community, we had to pivot from our standard health screenings to adapting to an event without a physician. This is a valuable lesson that we will continue to as a growing organization with more projects

and more student members. These two events touched 46 community members and will continue to impact the community as we continue to grow and build on the foundation we have.

Dynamix Wheels/AOE Medical – Ann Arbor, MI

We have found that most of the leadership lessons that we learned were learned when we had problems. For example, we found that it was difficult to as a group co-ordinate our schedules and what needed to be done as a team. To solve this, I stepped up and had to learn how to create schedules and find ways to motivate each individual on the team to not only organize their free time but to also get their individual tasks done. On the team we have also learned huge lessons in terms of leadership when it comes to team work. We are often consulting outside people as mentors and contractors. While working with these people it is often hard to find a balance between requesting help or giving a task and being open to their criticism, feedback, or advice. One of the hardest things to learn, at least I have found, is how to take critical advice on a project that you are deeply vested in. Sometimes it is hard to truly listen to someone else’s ideas especially if they are counter to your own beliefs. These past few months have challenged everyone on the team to become a better leader by really listening to those around them. Listening has affected our leadership not only in receiving feedback for our project but also in our style of dealing with each other.

As on any team we have had some team conflict. When there are issues within the team over opinions, attitudes, or styles of teamwork we have to figure out how to listen to each other and really understand how we can compromise, explain, or change the way we are acting in order to solve the problem. Personally, this happened to me back in June. I was feeling a little down about the progress of the project and was being sarcastic at the office and making comments that could be interpreted negatively about the project and the team. I meant the comments as jokes and way to alleviate the stress I was feeling; however, these comments were taken negatively by a few members of my team. It took Darren stepping up and having a conversation with me about my attitude for me to even realize that I was doing it and accept that I needed to change the way I was behaving in the work place. Those conversations, especially when on a team with people who are your friends or that you have worked with for a long time, can be tricky, awkward, and painful, but they need to be had. I think that experience highlights one of our greatest qualities as a team and that is the ability of any team mate despite position or chain order of command to step up and be a leader when there is a problem.

Another leadership lesson we learned concerning listening was that you need to not only listen to mentors and to your team mates, but you need to be attuned and listen to the things that are unsaid. Sadly we have been through the process of having team members become less interested or unmotivated in the group. This has been something that was extremely difficult to deal with. When one of your members is having insecurities or problems that are often unrelated to the project it can be a tricky step between work and social life in terms of how to deal with that member. In our case, we learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is offer a hand, reduce the workload, and work with that member to do everything you can to make them happy first before working toward how they can help the team.

To summarize some of the main lessons in leadership we learned were that to be a real leader you need to: be open to listening to other people, especially when their view point differs from yours, be open to dealing with conflict in a constructive manner rather than a critical one, accept that you aren’t perfect and can’t control things that happen in the lives of those around you, and most of all just try. A real leader will never stop trying to improve or be better, like a startup a leader must keep plugging away trying to become better every step of the way. These are just some of the lessons we learned, I could not even fit one hundredth of the different experiences, trials, or moments that taught us different lessons about ourselves and leadership over the past 6 months, but I can say that this experience has forever changed the way I work in a team environment and even act on a daily basis. Without it, I would not be the leader I am and probably wouldn’t be capable of seeing the leader I want to be.