The Way Out of Toxic Polarization
By Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University
The combination of COVID, political polarization, racial injustice, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol have all contributed to a majority of Americans being miserable. But, it’s not just about two people who have different opinions and are unable to talk to each other. It goes way beyond this. The media, the internet, our political leaders, and our political structures also contribute to this miserable divide.
In an environment like we’re currently in, change can be difficult. But, it’s possible when you take small steps.
My work focuses on violent, long-term conflicts that go on for 30 years or more. We find that they change under two conditions. First, the population begins to get exhausted, fed up, and really miserable. Studies show that a majority of Americans are at this point. Second, they need to see a way out, that there is a clear way forward that is hopeful, feasible and not too costly.
How do we do this?
Don’t launch first into a political debate. Try to begin by learning about others through dialogue, by sharing your personal stories and hearing theirs in a way that opens you up to each other and to discovering more about them, yourself and the problems you are facing together. This is fundamental to overcoming the oversimplification, hate and polarization that we’re experiencing. It starts by listening and hearing one another speak about things not related to politics, such as life stories and things we share in common.
This can offer a first step toward a way out of our current misery. By experiencing this, we begin to gain a sense of what it means to move beyond our current climate of contempt. Modeling this for others is also critical. Hearing stories of people connecting across our divisions can move people and change their sense of what is possible.
One Small Step introduces the opportunity for people to have that experience, and also shows them how to have that experience. When others see and hear people with opposite opinions have meaningful conversations without descending into tense political debate, they begin to recognize that these kinds of encounters are possible, valuable and meaningful, and that they can have these experiences too.
Beyond participating in One Small Step, you can engage with others with whom you disagree politically by simply doing a couple things:
- Clarify your intentions. You likely are not going to change someone’s mind about a deeply-held political belief in a single encounter. But you might be able to learn more about them or about a complicated issue and grow from your experience. Knowing your intentions going in is key to having a fruitful encounter.
- Start local. In most of our lives, there are people and groups who are natural peacemakers who can help us get started. Some are individuals who are inclined to fairness and trustworthiness, who we tend to seek out when we are trying to repair our damaged relationships. Others are groups that spring up in response to tense divisions in our communities, who develop techniques for bringing people together safely and helpfully. Seeking them out should be one of your first moves when looking for a way out.
- Complicate your life. When you find yourself feeling completely disdainful of them – the members of the other tribe – and absolutely certain they are dead wrong on most issues, then it might be time to complicate your life. That is, to seek out people who hold opposing views from you on important issues, but whom you feel are smart, decent and well-informed. Thinking with them can help you see things anew.
- Take a hike. Research shows that when you move, physically, your mind opens up. Being active and doing something together – and ideally outside – with others that you disagree with has been found to help build cooperation and understanding. It can free up your thinking, change your perspective, and help you get in sync with others.
There is a way out of the polarization we’re currently trapped in. You’re taking positive steps to help overcome it by learning and participating in One Small Step.
As we continue to develop One Small Step, experts across a number of fields are advising StoryCorps on how to create respectful environments conducive to meaningful connection. Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, is one of our advisors.
On the Front Lines: Stories Recorded with the Association of American Medical Colleges
In 2020 the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) partnered with StoryCorps to highlight health care professionals’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, and persistent inequities in America. Over the course of this partnership we were able to record with 17 individuals who shared their personal struggles and triumphs throughout their life working in the American healthcare system. The stories were recorded through StoryCorps for Hire, and premiered at the 2020 AAMC annual meeting from November 18 — 20. Listen to the incredible stories we recorded below:
John Vickers, MD, Adrienne Vickers, and Selwyn Vickers, MD
Dr. John Vickers, Jr. talks with his son, Dr. Selwyn Vickers, and granddaughter, Adrienne Vickers, about his journey to become one of the first Black people to graduate from the University of Alabama with a PhD, and the legacy he wants to leave for his family.
Aviad Haramati, PhD and Carrie Chen, PhD
Medical school educator Dr. Aviad “Adi” Haramati talks with his colleague, Dr. Huiju “Carrie” Chen, about his influences, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the midst of it all, what gives him hope.
LaShyra Nolen and Elizabeth Gaufberg, MD
Harvard medical student LaShyra “Lash” Nolen tells her former professor Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg about how COVID-19 has changed the way she advocates for her patients and the role she’s playing during the pandemic as the first Black woman to serve as student council president.
Rachel Pearson, MD, and Benjamin Laussade
Dr. Rachel Pearson tells her husband, Ben Laussade, what it was like being pregnant and working in a hospital in San Antonio, Texas as COVID-19 spread throughout the United States. The couple welcomed their baby, Sam, at the height of the pandemic.
Sadé Frazier, DO, MS and David Kountz, MD, MBA, FACP
Colleagues Dr. David Kountz and Dr. Sadé Frazier discuss how the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have affected them both in and out of the workplace. The two also consider what needs to happen to increase the number of Black physicians in the field.
Kimberly Manning, MD, and Shanta Zimmer, MD
Dr. Kimberly Manning tells her friend and colleague, Dr. Shanta Zimmer, about her path to medicine, her experience at Tuskegee and Meharry Universities, and some of the lessons she has learned in her journey as a Black physician.
Cecil Webster, MD, and Dowin Boatright, MD
Physicians and close friends Dr. Cecil Webster and Dr. Dowin Boatright discuss racism in medical education and how difficult it can be to talk about the realities of racism with children.
Jayna Gardner-Gray, MD, and Geneva Tatem, MD
Dr. Jayna Gardner-Gray has a conversation with her colleague, Dr. Geneva Tatem, about the underrepresentation of Black doctors, advocating for the underserved communities, their experiences during the pandemic, and their hopes for the future.
At StoryCorps, we promote the power of storytelling to teach, celebrate, heal, and amplify your community or institution in partnerships tailored to your needs. If your organization is interested in partnering with StoryCorps to record and share the stories of your community, please visit our website to learn more, or reach out to [email protected]
Remarkable Friends Share Their Stories
Since the beginning of StoryCorps, countless friends have sat down, one-on-one, to share the things that matter to them through the StoryCorps interview process. In honor of International Friendship Day, we’re celebrating stories of those people who matter to each other. Explore the collection to hear lifelong companions offer enduring support, new friends meet for the first time, and old acquaintances reconnect after years apart.
Celebrate one of your friends by inviting them to a StoryCorps interview! Just download the StoryCorps App to record your conversation and upload it directly to the Archive, housed at the Library of Congress. Or, if an in-person interview isn’t possible, use StoryCorps Connect to conduct it remotely.
“I’ve been very lucky because he’s been the best partner I ever had.” Angelo Bruno and Eddie Nieves remember a decade of working together as sanitation workers in New York City.
After being released from prison following a 15-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, Robert Sanchez met minister Fred Davie. They discuss the support that Fred offered Robert as he navigated re-entry.
Yennie Neal-Achigbu and Jamie Olivieri celebrate three decades of being there for each other, from dealing with grief to organizing Christmas sleepovers for their kids.
Joe Galloway and Vince Cantu lost touch after graduating high school together. Years later, Joe took a photograph of a soldier in Vietnam — and quickly realized it was Vince.
Beau McCall and Julaina Glass didn’t get off on the right foot. 30 years later, they look back on the friendship of a lifetime.
Sue McConnell and Kristyn Weed were disowned by their families after coming out. Then they found each other through a transgender veterans’ group.
Sean Lloyd was one of Raymond Blanks’s only Black teachers. After graduating college, Raymond became an educator himself. The two reflect on the impact they had on each other.
“I don’t know where I would be if you and I didn’t run into each other at the shelter.” Barbara Parham and Jeanne Satterfield discuss the support they offered each other after experiencing homelessness.
After coming out, 90-year-old Kenneth Felts talked with his trainer, David Smith, who is also gay, about Ken’s journey and the inspiration David provided.
John Nordeen and Kay Lee served in the same platoon during the Vietnam War, but they lost touch when they returned to the U.S. Then, nearly 50 years later, John gave Kay a call.
Want to listen to more StoryCorps stories? Sign up for our Story of the Week newsletter to discover a new voice every week.
Your support helps StoryCorps elevate the unique voices that are the stories of our shared humanity — at a time when we need it most. Please give today.
We the People: Voices of the United States
As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, let’s reflect on the history of our country.
Patriotism evokes different things for different people — often, it evokes different things for just one person. The U.S. is complicated, its history marked by both awesome beauty and profound injustice. And so its people are complicated too: their backgrounds, experiences, and values are diverse and nuanced. Let’s celebrate that. This Independence Day, hear what it means to be an American right from the source. Listen to these extraordinary stories from remarkable people, all of whom make up this complicated, beautiful, and diverse country.
The following stories were drawn from across the various StoryCorps initiatives, each of which highlights voices from a particular group of people living in the U.S. As you listen, click the links at the bottom of the descriptions to explore the corresponding initiative.
What’s your U.S.A. experience? By uploading an interview to the StoryCorps archive at the Library of Congress, you and a loved one preserve your stories for generations. Download the StoryCorps App to record a conversation and add it directly to the collection. If an in-person interview isn’t an option, use StoryCorps Connect to conduct it remotely.
Susan Ahn Cuddy faced discrimination as the first Asian American woman in the Navy. Her children, Flip and Christine, remember her life. From the Military Voices Initiative.
Father and son Aden and Jamal Batar fled war-torn Somalia for Utah. They discuss the difficulties of adjusting to life in the U.S. and being viewed as outsiders. From the American Pathways Initiative.
Want to listen to more StoryCorps stories? Sign up for our Story of the Week newsletter to discover a new voice every week.
Growing One Small Step — When It’s Needed Most
“Recent polls demonstrate what most of us have already experienced first-hand: that there is a pervasive culture of contempt that threatens the very foundations of our democracy,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps Founder and President.
With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and in partnership with local public media stations, StoryCorps is expanding One Small Step to six additional communities in 2021.
The six stations and communities selected are:
- Alaska Public Media, Anchorage, AK
- High Plains Public Radio, Garden City, KS, and Amarillo, TX
- KOSU, Oklahoma City, OK
- KUNR, Reno, NV
- Valley Public Media, Clovis, CA
- Vermont Public Radio, Colchester, VT
We’ll provide training and production assistance to public media stations to facilitate and broadcast conversations with people in America of opposing viewpoints, sitting down to find common ground.
Watch highlights from 2020 and hear voices from across the country in this short video:
According to a CBS News poll released earlier this year, more than half of all Americans say the greatest danger to America’s way of life comes from their fellow citizens. One Small Step aims to remind people of the humanity in all of us and that it’s hard to hate up close. These communities can model this change for the rest of the country.
Two members of each participating station will take part in a training to facilitate and record conversations between community residents of differing political views, and selected interviews will be shared across each station’s media platforms.
Stations will also team up with a variety of community organizations to spread the word and collaborate with the StoryCorps team to match participants and record conversations through the end of the year. The project will include a series of public listening events that will be streamed online in the fall of 2021.
Station participation in the One Small Step Communities project is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. StoryCorps’ national One Small Step initiative is made possible by the generous support of The Hearthland Foundation, the Fetzer Institute, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Charles Koch Institute.
The Science behind One Small Step
By Jennifer A. Richeson, social psychologist at Yale University
The “contact hypothesis” is a straightforward but powerful idea. It says this: People who come from different social and cultural groups can learn to like and accept one another through repeated interactions, such as through conversations. Contact can reduce prejudice and promote peace.
We often first learn about people from different societal groups through stereotypes. The contact hypothesis posits that when we meet each other as individuals, people stop being stereotypes and become people again. The learning, familiarity, and humanization that happen when we really start to get to know another person are important to breaking down the interpersonal forms of racism, anti-semitism, and “othering” that have been part of our country’s history.
StoryCorps’ One Small Step is scaffolded on contact theory. The contact participants have in this program — one-on-one conversations between two strangers — is intentionally extra-personal. It’s not just “talk about some stuff” or “get to know one another” for instance, as most contact experiences might unfold between, say, college-dorm roommates, who might be from different backgrounds and are given a whole semester to connect. When people come together through One Small Step, they speak immediately about personal, human experiences that invite connection and open up the space for vulnerability. It is moderated through the presence of a trained StoryCorps Facilitator, who helps create ground rules and a space that is carefully managed.
What’s so brilliant about it is that it provides the opportunity for people not just to take the perspective of a person from a very different social group, but also to feel that their perspective has been “gotten.” In other words, people feel that they have been respected, seen, and heard. And that kind of perspective getting, not perspective taking — knowing that someone else now understands where you’re coming from — that’s the magic. That’s where you have a human-to-human moment, the opportunity to recognize the essence, the common humanity, that’s in all of us. It doesn’t become unimportant that you’re conservative or you’re liberal, or that you’re this race or that religion. It’s just that you aren’t flattened into those identities, and the worst stereotypes that we may hold about those identities. And, that allows just a little bit of space, some “identity safety,” for individuals to recognize that people from very different walks of life may not actually be all that threatening.
Our fears can be overwhelming when we perceive threats to be true. We hunker down and get protective: “OK, I must defend myself and people like me.” In our current political landscape, we tend to think the best way to protect our ingroup is to diminish if not obliterate our adversaries, to push them out or make them irrelevant.
But the answer to “identity threat” doesn’t have to be taking out the other guys. It could be to reduce the threat, and to help people understand, for instance, through direct connections with people from different groups, that they don’t need to feel so threatened. One Small Step conversations allow people an opportunity to see what is possible on the other side of our current state of political acrimony.
Approaching an intensely personal, vulnerable conversation can be scary. People can benefit even from just listening to these conversations from the outside. When listeners hear how well such interactions can go, they realize making these connections is possible, and not as frightening as they might think.
Many people don’t engage in conversations across different social groups, not because they’re not interested, unwilling, or don’t care, but because they’re afraid of being rejected. Once you’ve witnessed an experience of positive conversation between two people with different backgrounds and beliefs, that barrier can come down and open the door for real — and necessary — human connection.
Jennifer A. Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Perception and Communication Laboratory at Yale University. For over 20 years, she has conducted research on the social psychology of cultural diversity. Specifically, she examines processes of mind and brain that influence the ways in which people experience diversity, with a primary focus on the dynamics that create, sustain, and sometimes challenge societal inequality. Much of her recent research considers the political consequences of the increasing racial/ethnic diversity of the United States. Read more about Professor Richeson here.
A Daily Dose of Humanity
Whether you are new to StoryCorps or have been with us since the beginning, take a few minutes to explore some of our favorite uplifting, inspiring, and laugh-out-loud stories.
Laura Greenberg grew up as part of a gregarious family in Queens, New York. Her upbringing that couldn’t be more different than that of her husband, Carl. At StoryCorps, they told their daughter about those early days — terrible first kiss and all.
Read the full transcript here.
LGBTQ+ Voices to Honor This Pride Month
June is Pride Month, and we’re celebrating by lifting up the stories of LGBTQ+ history-makers. These conversations are all about firsts: first gay marriage in the US, first kisses, and first loves. Dive into memorable and touching stories from our LGBTQ+ community.
Is there an LGBTQ+ person in your life who you want to honor with a StoryCorps conversation? Learn how you can help them feel heard and record a meaningful conversation at StoryCorps.org/OutLoud.
At the age of 63, Dee Westenhauser came out as a transgender woman. She remembers growing up in El Paso, Texas in the 1950s and the one person who made her feel like herself.
A collection of stories from trans women of color, who have often been the first to stand up for equality, and the last to be recognized for their contributions.
Kiyan Williams has a conversation with their friend Darnell Moore about growing up feeling different than other kids and grappling with his family’s expectations. Today, Kiyan works with LGBTQ youth in New York City.
In 2000, LGBTQ+ people in the military couldn’t serve openly. When Marine Mike Rudulph came back from deployment, he met and fell in love with Neil Rafferty. The couple sat down to remember the early days of their relationship and how they overcame their obstacles.
Glenda Elliott grew up in Mayfield, Georgia during the 1940s. She met the love of her life — a woman named Lauree. Glenda sat down with her friend to tell the story of a lifelong romance that never had the chance to blossom.
David Wilson and Robert Compton, one of the first same-sex couples to be married in the United States, reflect on their journey, nearly fifteen years after their historic wedding.
Many of our LGBTQ stories center the voices of elders. Let’s look to the future, and hear what the next generation has to say.
Celebrating the Stories of Chicago
Goodbyes are bittersweet. After more than eight years — and many wonderful interviews — in the region, StoryCorps is closing its operations and recording booth in Chicago in September 2021.
We’re proud to have had a booth and exhibition space at the Chicago Cultural Center and to have partnered with WBEZ 91.5 FM to preserve, share, and broadcast this city’s stories.
We want to especially thank our Chicago-based staff for their thoughtfulness, care, and excellence throughout the years.
Listen to the voices of Chicago
Since we first opened the recording booth, we’ve been bowled over by the heart of our Chicago storytellers. We’ve rounded up a few favorites below, but there are so many more to listen to in the Chicago Collection.
Jessica Valdivia and Jorge Valdivia
Jorge Valdivia and his sister Jessica Valdivia honor the memory of their older brother Mauricio Valdivia who died in Chicago of COVID-19. They reminisce about their favorite memories growing up with someone full of life who “went out of their way for their family.” They also discuss their experience with grief and loss during the pandemic. Read the full transcript here.
Our booth in Chicago may be closed, but it’s never been easier to record a StoryCorps interview with the important people in your life. Find out how to record your conversations remotely with Storycorps Connect.