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StoryCorps program aims to bring Americans together

The United States are – increasingly – divided, with Democrats barely speaking to Republicans and progressives exchanging angry remarks with conservatives on cable TV and talk radio. The trend worries those who produce StoryCorps – among them Chris Norris who now oversees One Small Step. That program invites people with different political perspectives, people from different generations and ethnic groups to talk.

“Not to debate politics but to get to know each other as people, and in the process it’s about rediscovering our shared humanity,” he explains. “So far we’ve done about 4,500 interviews across 40 states, but we do our deepest work in what we call our anchor communities – Richmond, Virginia, Wichita, Kansas, Columbus, Georgia and Fresno, California.”

Take Cassandra and Dave, for example, two African Americans with very different political views.

“Let me ask you this: When you read my bio what did you think?” Cassandra asked.

“My mind kicked into stereotype. She’s probably a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. Your second part was intriguing, because you said something along the lines of an open mind, and I thought, ‘This will be interesting,’” Dave told her.

“When I read your bio, I just thought you were a white man,” Cassandra confessed. “When you walked in the door, and I stood up to introduce myself, I said, ‘Oops!’”

The material is archived at the Library of Congress and edited into short audio cards posted to the One Small Step website and Facebook.

At the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, director Melody Barnes says One Small Step gives her hope.

Melody Barnes is director of UVA's Karsh Institute of Democracy, which collaborates with One Small Step.
Melody Barnes is director of UVA's Karsh Institute of Democracy, which collaborates with One Small Step.

“Our social media reinforces our own opinions. We often live among people who are just like us, and the list goes on, + and this is – I think – a way to cross the threshold into a better understanding of people who aren’t like you.

She reached out to the producers, offering a campus partnership that would include students, faculty and residents of the Charlottesville area. When it launched, Barnes took the plunge, having a conversation with a man who described himself as white, Catholic and conservative.

“We started out joking that our biggest difference might be that he’s a UVA alum and I’m a University of North Carolina alum, but that led to our first One Small Step conversation. We then did a second one, and since then we’ve gotten together for coffee, and I think we both see the value in having the conversation. He told me he sees it as an opportunity and a place where he can ask questions, where he believes he hasn’t had the opportunity to do this in the past.”

So far, more than 500 people have taken part in and around campus, and Barnes has invited faculty members to use those conversations in their research.

Chris Norris says the discussions can, at times, be tense, but there’s no name-calling, no brawling or walking out. Instead, participants view the dialogue as a civic exercise – an act of patriotism.

“They are part of what we call the exhausted majority. They are tired of the polarization. They’re looking for pathways to productive cross-partisan conversations.”

And some report the experience has changed them.

“The conservatives in particular are warmer to the other side after the intervention than they were, and not just to their conversation partner but to the larger group.”

Virginia residents can sign-up byfilling out a questionnaire and preparing to do their part in making civil conversations across political lines a normal and respectful part of American life.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief