Have you ever felt you were standing on the wrong side of a river? I suspect most of us have at one time or another. In universities we say we create silos, but whatever the metaphor we choose, we mean there is something keeping us apart or keeping us from doing our work in the best way possible. These spaces between us mean that we need to build bridges. We build bridges to get across difficulties whether those are rivers or ravines or organizational divides.
“Meaningful and lasting change starts first in your imagination and then works its way out. Imagination is more important than knowledge.” -Albert Einstein
Before we can build a bridge we have to be able to imagine a way across the difficulty. And we have to acknowledge that even the simplest bridge takes time and effort to create. “You do not see bridges going up overnight…. It takes a skilled engineer to master this craft…. Bridges can take months, possibly even years to build.”* This is true for physical bridges and the bridges we need to build in organizations.
To build any kind of bridge takes planning, preparation, sometimes excavation to create level ground, or in our work, listening deeply to find common ground. But if you come across a bridge, it means that someone was willing to do the hard work before us. The connections others build and share with us shouldn’t be taken lightly or harmed in anyway.
“I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed. Sojourner Truth was a bridge, Harriet Tubman was a bridge, Ida B. Wells was a bridge, Madame C.J. Walker was a bridge, Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge.” -Oprah Winfrey
“The bridge will need a deck…”to make it easy to use this bridge and then, “(o)ne of the last steps, probably the most important would be to pave the bridge.” We need to cement the relationships and make sure that others can cross as well. Bridge building is not meant to be a one-shot effort. We need to make sure our bridges/relationships are sustainable.
“When this is all finished, call a [big] meeting and roll out the red carpet.” We should always celebrate our successes. And we need to remember always how important bridges are to our work. As we have learned in Central Texas the past few months, it only takes a little bit of ice and sleet to shut down our bridges and our city. In the same way, we are dependent on our relationships with everyone in the Division of Student Affairs and across this campus. Each of us depends on everyone else to develop and maintain good relationships. Each bridge that we build makes our work, and the work of everyone else in our university, easier. After all, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “Education is all a matter of building bridges.”
This essay is based on a presentation I gave several years ago and I was asked to give it two more times at different conferences. Last month the Graduate Student Assembly, the Black Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate Engineering Council held their first Graduate Student Banquet with the theme Building Bridges so I used this again and thought the ideas worth sharing with you.
* If you Google, “how to build a bridge,” you will find instructions in varying levels of detail, complexity and materials. (My favorite is how to build a bridge out of spaghetti.) The bridge-building quotes here are from Monster Guide.