Bridge Builders is a thirty-year-old leadership program that trains youth to be leaders “who can lay aside individual, social, economic and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.” It is operated by BRIDGES USA in Memphis and reaches more than 6000 local youth per year. Bridge Builders includes three program levels: CONNECT which offers introductory short-term workshops for student groups of up to 100 and CHANGE in which a smaller group of highly engaged and dedicated high school students are trained and work together to lead a year-long community action project around an issue of their choice.

We visited Bridge Builders’ COLLABORATE program level which starts with a week-long summer conference and continues with events throughout the school year. This year’s class unites over 1100 7th-12th grade students from more than 50 zip codes.

Alex Middleton, coordinator of curriculum and training at BRIDGES, explains that through experiential activities, participants build community, understanding, and friendship. They start out in small, diverse groups with people they do not know. They get to know one another then sit down to have important conversations, not shying away from talking about and acting on their beliefs. Building bridges develops compassion, empathy, and connection and helps the students figure out how they can come together to participate as changemakers in the larger community.

Zahra, a rising 7th grader, says she had fun meeting people from different backgrounds, people that she might never have met before Bridge Builders. She describes how we often have misconceptions of each other that can be broken down during discussions and wisely explains how understanding results from relationship. Anthony, also entering 7th grade, shares that participating in COLLABORATE has taught him to consider and respect the culture of others.

These students are learning how to build bridges and establish connections between each other at an early age. They are changed by those connections; our world will be too. Thank you, BRIDGES USA, for helping raise up our youth to be leaders that build bridges across differences and changemakers that make our community better.