Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Caroline Mehl of The Constructive Dialogue Institute Is Helping To Change Our World
Build an advisory board. When tackling a hard challenge, it’s always a good idea to surround yourself with smart people who have more expertise than you. Especially in the social impact space, people interested in your mission will gladly offer their time to assist you in your cause. Formalizing this through an advisory board is a great way to acknowledge their contributions and build sustained relationships.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Mehl.
Caroline Mehl is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI), a non-profit that builds educational tools to equip Americans with the skills to engage in dialogue across differences. Caroline founded CDI in 2017, with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, to help heal our country’s divisions. Since launching, more than 50,000 learners across hundreds of universities, high schools, and organizations have used CDI’s tools.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path and point in your life?
My first job out of college was working in private equity, and I quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for me. I recognized that I wanted to dedicate my life to a career that would have a positive social impact. The only problem was — I had no idea what that would be. I decided to explore my interests as much as I could and see where that would lead me.
Along the way, I became fascinated by a field of research called moral psychology. Moral psychology seemed like magic to me. It can help us make sense of how two people can look at the same set of facts and reach different conclusions, and why people can become so divided over politics and religion. Moral psychology also helps us understand why societies have a tendency to engage in “us versus them” thinking.
As the granddaughter of three Holocaust survivors, I was acutely aware of the dark side of human nature. Research shows us that there’s a direct path from contempt for others to dehumanization, and then ultimately, violence. Around 2015, I noticed that these ugly trends were becoming more widespread across Western democracies. I started to think that the principles of moral psychology could play a powerful role in helping us live alongside people with differing backgrounds, beliefs, and values.
The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election was the final push for me to dedicate my career to this issue. It highlighted how deeply divided we had become as a country. We had lost the ability to communicate with and understand one another. This led me to co-found the Constructive Dialogue Institute with the leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt. We decided to translate the latest behavioral science research into educational tools that were evidence-based, scalable, and practical to give people the understanding and skills to live, learn, and work with others who are different from them. We believe this is an essential part of healing our social fabric and strengthening our democracy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most surprising thing that’s happened is in 2019, my co-founder, Jonathan Haidt, was on Russel Brand’s podcast. I never expected the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be talking about my work!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I have a story about a very silly mistake I made. As I mentioned, when I was 21, I was working at a private equity firm that was very formal. I wore skirt suits and heels to work each day. In the mornings before work, I would go to the gym, and then change into my formal clothes and head to the office. During my commute, I would wear my sneakers and change into my heels right outside of my office building. One day, I arrived at work, and I realized I had left my heels at home! I was wearing a formal black suit, pearls, and bright neon blue sneakers. I looked — and felt — ridiculous! Luckily, one of my colleagues kept an extra set of formal shoes stashed away under her desk. I spent the day walking around in heels two sizes too big. From that day on, I always made sure to leave a spare set of shoes at the office. Luckily, these days, I work remotely and rarely even wear shoes.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) is a national non-profit dedicated to reducing the divisions in our country so that Americans can overcome their differences and work together to solve our collective challenges. We do so by providing Americans — in schools, universities, and workplaces — with the skills to communicate across divides.
While we serve many communities, our primary focus is higher education. We build educational tools — including e-learning, live workshops, and instructional strategies for educators — that are evidence-based, scalable, and practical. Professors can embed our tools into their courses, and we partner with college campuses to roll out our suite of products campus-wide.
Since launching CDI in 2017, more than 50,000 Americans across hundreds of universities, high schools, and organizations have used our tools. And research shows that it works. Last year, we completed two randomized controlled trials — the gold standard in research — that demonstrated that our online learning program, Perspectives, reduces polarization. We are now the only organization in the field that uses proven tools to reduce polarization.
Over the next few years, we hope to scale our work to reach one million college students a year and prepare the next generation of Americans for democratic citizenship.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A few years ago, we were working with a group of government finance officers who were struggling with political division. The finance officers completed our online learning program, Perspectives, which explores the innerworkings of the mind and equips people with skills for constructive dialogue. As part of the program, the finance officers were randomly paired up, and pairs would meet virtually four times to go through guided conversations. The aim of these conversations was to provide participants with the opportunity to put their new skills into practice.
One pair included a government finance officer from a self-described “blue city” in Washington state and a government officer from a “deep red city” in Oklahoma. When the pair first met, they were very nervous. They worried they wouldn’t have anything in common and would have nothing to say to each other.
But through these conversations, they quickly bonded about their lives and their experiences as grandmothers. They didn’t stop there, though. They talked about some really tough issues. The pair enjoyed their new friendship so much, they began having weekly coffee together over Zoom, even after the program ended.
We’ve had so many stories like this over the years. It’s a good reminder that we have more in common with people than we think and taking the time to thoughtfully discuss the challenging issues of our time can be an enlightening and rewarding experience.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The root problem I’m working on is reducing polarization and strengthening American democracy. This problem is incredibly complex, and it requires major structural reform across three main areas: (1) electoral reform, (2) media reform, and (3) educational reform.
- Electoral reform: Public opinion research shows that our current politicians are far more extreme than the American people. How does that happen? To a large extent, it’s due to how our electoral systems are designed. One of these issues is the fact that we have a single-member plurality system, meaning that most districts are represented by a single elected official, and the winning candidate does not need to win a majority of the votes, they just need to win the most votes. As a result, if a candidate wins 37% of the vote, they will represent the entire district, even though the majority of the constituents didn’t vote for them. Moving to a multi-member system, where each district is represented by two or more elected officials, will provide more proportional representation — meaning the views of different constituents will be better represented.
- Media reform: Our media and social media landscape has played a significant role in diving our country. Our news outlets have become incredibly polarized over the past two decades. Republicans and Democrats rarely consume news from the same sources, and news outlets cater to the beliefs of their readers — often demonizing the opposition. Between 1949 and 1987, there was a law in the U.S. called the fairness doctrine that required news outlets to report on multiple sides of controversial issues. I think reinstituting this policy would lead to more balanced news coverage and reduce the “us versus them” narrative in a lot of today’s media. Relatedly, social media has been driving polarization in democracies around the world by creating an echo chamber that amplifies the most extreme voices. The reason for this is that social media algorithms are designed to promote “engagement,” and posts that are the most extreme generate the most reactions — both positive and negative. There should be more regulation of social media companies to address these issues.
- Educational reform: As history has shown us, you can have strong democratic institutions, but if you don’t have a strong civic culture to accompany it, those structures can quickly crumble. Young Americans are not gaining the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to sustain a democracy. According to a 2019 report by Red & Blue Works, 85% of K-12 students receive only 1 semester of civics education over their 13 years of schooling. It is essential that our educational systems — at the secondary and postsecondary levels — incorporate curricula to prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think this might help people?
Over the past few years, our main offering at CDI has been an online learning program, called Perspectives, which teaches students skills to engage in dialogue across differences. Perspectives was primarily used by professors in their college classrooms. We’ve recognized that in order to have true, lasting impact, we needed to be working with college campuses as a whole and finding ways to embed the principles of constructive dialogue across different touch points.
Towards that end, we’re embarking on two major initiatives this year. The first is that we’re building out a holistic suite of products and services to support campus-wide engagement with our tools. Our tools are designed to promote inclusion and dialogue through the whole campus experience, including e-learning during new student orientation, training for staff, faculty, and student leaders, and teaching strategies and resources for faculty. Our hope is that rather than our learning being a one-off experience, the principles of openness, inclusion, and dialogue become woven into the fabric of a campus’s culture.
Our second major initiative is building partnerships with colleges and universities to pilot our tools. So far, we’ve established partnerships with ten colleges in the state of Virginia, who will be using our campus-wide model in the upcoming academic year. We plan to build upon this success by replicating this model in states across the country. Through this work, we hope to prepare the next generation of Americans to be informed and engaged citizens.
What you are doing is not easy. What inspires you to keep moving forward?
The main thing that keeps me going is the recognition that we’ve been here before and we can come out of it. During the late 1800s, there was deep division and inequality in American society. But in the early 20th century, things started to shift — American society became more egalitarian and cooperative. It was through hard work and reform that these trends shifted in the right direction, and I believe we can do that again today.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
See video of 5 things here: https://youtu.be/Xv6iQprb4W0
Video script is below:
- Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint hearted. Running a start-up sounds sexy — but trust me, a lot of the time it isn’t. Especially in the early years when you’re working to actualize your idea, secure funding, and build your team, there will be a lot of ups and downs. Only embark on this path if you’re ready for the volatility.
- Embrace imposter syndrome. Almost everyone experiences imposter syndrome at some point in their career. It’s important to normalize this. Rather than being overwhelmed by it, harness this feeling to push yourself to learn and grow. You’ll soon find that your imposter syndrome has faded away.
- Cold outreach is a game changer. There have been countless times when a cold-email opened up tremendous possibilities for me — including new advisors, funders, and partners. You’d be surprised at how effective a well-crafted cold email can be.
- Think about your progress like the stock market. Any financial advisor will tell you not to pay attention to the day-to-day fluctuations of the market. What’s important is how your investments are doing over the long run. I’ve found that this advice also applies to how your organization is doing. Social change is hard. There will be countless setbacks along the way. Rather than getting caught up in these day-to-day challenges, try to take the long view. Despite this week’s challenges, is your work trending positively over a longer time horizon?
- Build an advisory board. When tackling a hard challenge, it’s always a good idea to surround yourself with smart people who have more expertise than you. Especially in the social impact space, people interested in your mission will gladly offer their time to assist you in your cause. Formalizing this through an advisory board is a great way to acknowledge their contributions and build sustained relationships.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I often ask people, “Do you care about climate change, abortion, gun control, inequality, or any other major political issue? If so, you should care about reducing the polarization in our country.” In recent years, extreme polarization has led to tremendous political gridlock in Congress, making it nearly impossible for our elected officials to do the work of governing. If you want to see progress on any issue you care about, we need politicians who are willing to work together and compromise in order to do the most good for the American people, rather than one-upping each other through political theater to score the next headline.
It’s easy to feel hopeless about this situation. But you shouldn’t. According to a survey by the research group More In Common, two thirds of Americans fall into a group called “The Exhausted Majority” — these Americans are fed up with the divisions in our society. Although opinions vary widely within this group, they believe we should come together to find common ground, and they are willing to be flexible in their views to find the best solutions to address society’s problems.
The challenge is, because traditional media and social media present the most extreme voices, we have a distorted sense of what the average American thinks. We have the false impression that most Americans hold extreme views and that we’re the minority, so we keep quiet and feel disempowered.
If I could, I would want to inspire a movement to mobilize the Exhausted Majority to combat divisive rhetoric — in the news, on social media, in their communities, and from public figures — and demand more from our elected officials.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “Chance only favors the prepared mind,” by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist who discovered the principles of vaccination and pasteurization. I love this quote because I experienced this principle firsthand many times in the first few years of my career. By working extremely hard, I encountered fortuitous opportunities that unlocked tremendous possibilities for me. Both ingredients — hard work and luck — were essential to that success.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love the opportunity to sit down with Alexei Navalny, the leading Russian opposition activist — who was famously poisoned in 2020 — who’s been wrongly imprisoned in Russia. Navalny has put his life on the line to fight against corruption and bring true democracy to Russia.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit our website www.constructivedialogue.org and sign up for our newsletter. You can also follow us on social media:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Caroline Mehl of The Constructive Dialogue Institute Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.