GGSC & OBI Awarded $750,000 to Help Public Service Programs Address Polarization

June 22, 2022

By Yasmin Anwar and Ivan Natividad, UC Berkeley Media Relations

In today’s individualistic and polarized socio-political landscape, public service may not be at the top of everyone’s minds. But two research centers at UC Berkeley are hoping to turn that around, thanks to a $750,000 grant from California Volunteers, a state office tasked with recruiting young Californians to engage in public service.

The grant was awarded through the Gov. Gavin Newsom’s #CaliforniansForAll initiative, which was launched in 2020 to helpthe most vulnerable people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and to connect organizations in need of volunteers.

“As a veteran, I know the power of service to bring people together. With this new partnership, we will develop trainings and tools to study and improve these connections,” said Josh Fryday, California’s chief service officer.

Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) and Othering & Belonging Institute are receiving the financial award to develop and implement a training program for volunteers at various nonprofits to bridge differences among themselves and the communities they serve and to take on some of the state’s most pressing challenges. The project aligns with the GGSC’s Bridging Differences initiative, which offers research-based strategies for fostering dialogue, relationships, and understanding across group lines. 

“Across the United States, an orientation toward serving the greater good is in peril, undermined by self-focused digital platforms, polarizing political rhetoric and disinformation, and an epidemic of loneliness,” said Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, a faculty founder of the Greater Good Science Center and an expert on the science of emotions. “And yet, our research has consistently found that serving others promotes mental and physical health and helps cultivate a sense of purpose.”

In addition to Keltner, Berkeley faculty shaping the training program’s curriculum will include law professor john powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute and a professor of African American Studies and of ethnic studies, and psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an expert on stigma and bias.

The curriculum aims to reduce polarization, division and othering in society and will help volunteers develop key interpersonal skills, such as techniques for truly listening to other people’s viewpoints and constructively resolving conflicts. Service program leaders will identify how to bring people of different backgrounds together in ways that encourage them to develop stronger social bonds.

In order to evaluate the curriculum, researchers from the Greater Good Science Center will chart how the program benefits volunteers to develop an adaptable approach that could ultimately be used by other service programs.

“There is no greater challenge facing us today than our growing alienation from one another. That’s why I am so proud to be a part of this important new partnership,” said powell. “California Volunteers’ visionary support will no doubt change the field of public service for years to come by allowing us to produce practical, evidence-based tools and scalable solutions that can help us build a California where everyone belongs.”