In October, the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Democracy Initiative hosted a launch event for a new partnership with StoryCorps’ One Small Step program, making Charlottesville the project’s fifth city targeted for recruitment and UVA its first major academic partner.

“The health of our local community and democracy is a priority of the university and the Democracy Initiative,” said Samyuktha Mahadevan, OSS Project Manager at the Democracy Initiative. “This project gives us the opportunity to bridge the divide between the university and the community at large and foster conversations across lines of difference.” 

Mahadevan and her team started recruiting One Small Step participants in mid-September and already have 200 people signed up, a combination of people from the community and associated with UVA. They’ve recorded 20 interviews so far, and are aiming to record 250 in total. Initially, she planned to record all the interviews virtually, but there was interest among participants to do the interviews in person as long as COVID-19 precautions were considered. The university radio station, WTJU, has provided a recording space, allowing for easy scheduling and recording. Given their goal of recording 250 interviews, they’re planning to record interviews virtually as well.   

“As a large academic and research institution, UVA has a vested interest in the success of this project, not just to determine the merits of contact theory, the theory that under specific conditions, repeated contact across lines of difference can lead to more positive feelings, but also because the university is intrinsically tied to the Charlottesville community,” Mahadevan said.

As people have signed up to participate in One Small Step, Mahadevan said she commonly hears things like, “I am really excited to talk to someone who doesn’t see eye to eye with me because I think it’s important to do that,” and “I’m really worried about the state of division in the country, and I want to do something about it.” She said a lot of people have told her they have wanted to have an experience like this, but haven’t had the outlet for it. 

“We don’t get a lot of locally sourced narratives these days when we are thinking about problems and conflict, and those tend to be driven by people with larger platforms. So it’s exciting to pass the mic to ‘ordinary’ people, so to speak,” Mahadevan said.

Learn more about the UVA and One Small Step partnership here

Photos by Andrew Shurtleff of the Daily Progress.