Reaching across the aisle

U.S. House of Representatives chamber at the U.S. Capitol (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Having been at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and in Washington, D.C., for a few years now, I am privileged to be able to look back at what we have accomplished together and also to look forward as we continue to advance the work of the nation’s community colleges.

In so many ways, AACC has been afforded amazing opportunities to represent our community colleges at the national level. We have had a seat at the table to discuss key policy initiatives during Democratic and Republican presidential administrations and have worked across the aisle to ensure that needs of community colleges and the students they serve remain clearly in focus.

This column comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, AACC’s flagship publication since 1930.

We participate willingly, thoughtfully and without regard for political affiliation because our members deserve the best representation at the federal level. Working across the aisle is a term that is often heard and less often practiced.

Take time to listen

As a leader, it can be frustrating to work within an organization that resembles the oft-chided Washington gridlock. But, don’t your students deserve the best representation at the local level? We have all heard about gridlock that happens within organizations. It may be subtle or overt and it may be the result of a culture that has flourished for many years prior to your tenure as president.

Regardless, it can be a challenge. So, how do you reach across the aisle and find solutions to the challenges that you face? Something that works for me is to simply listen. Many times we hear talking, but instead of focusing on what is being said, we are calculating our responses and not actually listening.

It is helpful to recognize your own bias when listening. Understanding that bias is an individual frame of reference based upon our own experiences can help you to listen to all sides and reflect honestly. Often, differing factions may have more in common than not. Sometimes just by listening with intention, you can easily spot commonalities that may be helpful in bringing people together.

As a leader, you have likely developed and shared a vision for the college. Using that shared vision as the basis for communicating commonalities may be a great way to reach across the aisle. There surely will be touchpoints that your entire community can agree on, such as student access and success, mission and values. If you are communicating the big picture effectively, then seeing the common threads that are in that picture can help everyone see themselves in the tapestry.

Sharing our story

Here in Washington, we listen carefully and we are not shy about sharing the story of the community college. We develop and share how we can be a thread in their big picture to help advance the national agenda around higher education, workforce development, equity and inclusion, funding, etc.

The community college story is both universal and personal — just like our colleges. I can’t tell you enough about the positive impact of showing someone the big picture regarding our colleges and watching them discover how they are connected to a community college in some way. It’s the same realization that your team may have when they can see how their thread is woven into the tapestry of your big picture.

As the leader, your vision and leadership can help weave those threads together all the way across the aisle.

About the Author

Walter G. Bumphus
is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.