Building Bridges, founded as Seeking Common Ground, is a community-driven nonprofit founded in 1994 by two social workers, Melodye Feldman and Kerry Stutzman, to bring people together across identities. The founders believed that creating opportunities for people to deeply understand “the other” could break cycles of violence and inspire collaborative solutions. Our mission continues to build on this foundational belief.
Our longest running program, known as Building Bridges for Peace (BBfP) or Building Bridges Middle East/US (MEUS) was launched in 1994, just months after the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords, and brought together Israeli, Palestinian and American young women for intensive dialogue. In 2009, we published a Best Practices Report for cross-community interventions that evaluated the previous 15 years of impact, and is in use around the world. Additionally, Building Bridges led programming in other conflict and post-conflict areas, including Northern Ireland and South Africa.
After nearly two decades of Denver-based leadership for MEUS, we opened an office in Jerusalem and begin investing in staff capacity there. The office was consistently staffed and supported by alumni leaders. As a result of this strong in-country leadership, Building Bridges Jerusalem was able to become an independent Israeli nonprofit in 2015. Building Bridges Jerusalem now leads all on-going work in the Middle East, including engagement with alumni based in the region.
As Building Bridges Jerusalem built increased ownership in Middle East work, we shifted our focus to cross-community work here in Metro Denver. This evolution was driven by feedback from alumni and stakeholders, and research into the local landscape. American participants in Building Bridges MEUS consistently expressed the desire to apply their skills to address divisions in their own schools and neighborhoods.
The demand for local work became increasingly urgent as Metro Denver’s growth created dramatic demographic changes and economic displacement. In this context, cross-community conflict increased with few youth leadership programs equipped to empower youth to deeply engage across identities. We saw a niche we could fill, which drove the launch of the Transform Youth Leadership Program in 2014. Today, we are using the time-tested program model from MEUS, adapted and updated for the local context, to continue equipping young people with the tools to become change makers in their communities.
By the end of 2015, more than 2,000 people had participated in Building Bridges programs, and many continued to be involved in cross-community work in their personal and professional lives. Many more people have been impacted by partner organizations’ programs grounded in the Building Bridges model, such as Creativity for Peace in New Mexico and NewGround in Los Angeles.
Following the 2016 election, and in the years that followed, Building Bridges has become increasingly clear in the urgency and importance of addressing racism as a core component of our mission. During this period, our alumni increasingly bore witness to unrest, hatred, and interpersonal violence on a daily basis. And the staff and board were increasingly challenged to embed racial equity into the fabric of our work.
With Alumni leadership, we committed to majority BIPOC representation among youth program participants, staff, and board. We also invested in an assessment and refresh of our youth curriculum.
Continuing to lean on our alumni to guide our growth, we established Building Bridges Shift in late 2017. This program area has evolved to provide professional learning opportunities for adults looking to deepen their communication skills and understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Shift also provides customized DEI consultation for nonprofits and institutions.
Both of these program components arose from the feedback we received from youth alumni – adults don’t know how to communicate! Our youth leaders were taking their Building Bridges skills into schools, community institutions, and their families, and were being met with adults who weren’t able or willing to have tough conversations about the issues they brought up.
We launched Shift to bring our skills and tools to an adult audience.
As 2021 came to a close, we passed the 18-month milestone of living in a pandemic. Building Bridges operated almost entirely virtually throughout this prolonged period of difficulty, upheaval, and uncertainty.
Along the way, we have practiced what we teach – centering racial equity, taking the next right step, moving at the speed of trust. As we reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished during this time, we’re struck by the fact that our commitment to and work toward our mission has not only survived but has thrived.
To adapt and respond to the shifting landscape and growing needs of our community, we did the following:
- Converted Transform and Shift services to virtual or hybrid delivery, without sacrificing quality or impact
- Doubled client services to reach more nonprofit teams and generate additional earned income
- Expanded the staff team by adding 2 full-time and 3 part-time positions
- Made structural changes to staff structure to support mental wellness, such as 35-hour full-time work week, quarterly week-long office closures, and paid time off for part-time staff
- Selected and implemented a cooperative governance structure that centers racial equity
If you’d like to read more about how we are continuing the journey of adaptation, click here to see our 2021 year-in-review.