2021 has been a year of tension. Disagreements seem to be higher stakes and higher volume than ever before. Will this disagreement end a friendship? Will my opinion ruin the holiday? Will I get called out on social media for asking a question? This pervasive tension and uncertainty have caused many of us to retreat inward, avoiding conflict entirely. We can’t fight if we don’t talk about our differences… right?

Two Virginia educators have refused to surrender to the tribalism and division that many across the country are experiencing. Instead of avoiding conflict for a shallow peace, Stefanie Jochman of Trinity Episcopal School and Wendy DeGroat of the Maggie L. Walker School for Government and International Studies have partnered with One Small Step, encouraging students to embrace conversations about difference. High schoolers of all backgrounds engaged in vulnerable conversations about political beliefs, anxieties, and belonging. They shared openly and listened carefully to their peers with different experiences and ideas.

The result, as Stefanie put it: “Magic.”

“​​Everyone has their own reasons for believing in a cause or having a certain opinion on an issue. I think it’s easy to forget that two opinions or ideas on solutions to problems can be correct.”

– OSS participant at Maggie L. Walker School for Government and International Studies

Using questions and training provided by One Small Step, Stefanie and Wendy taught students and even a few faculty the basic principles of civil discourse, paired the participants, and watched as the pairs began to have an immediate impact on each other.

Stefanie and Wendy each put their unique touch on the experience. Stefanie worked with faculty and staff facilitators who were present to assist and encourage productive dialogue. Wendy facilitated a series of mindfulness workshops to help students feel equipped for the conversations.

Both educators received immediate, positive feedback from participants. Wendy could hear students saying things to their conversation partners like, “I haven’t thought about that!” or “Oh, I’m already changing my mind.”

At the end of the conversation, one participant told Stefanie, “Everybody should be required to do this.”

Despite working in different schools, Stefanie and Wendy independently partnered with One Small Step for the same reasons. Both educators work at schools without a standard middle school-to-high school pipeline. Most students don’t know each other on the first day, and forging those connections with strangers was proving difficult for many students.

The educators recognized that these conversations, and the resulting experience in authentically and thoughtfully engaging with others, had value beyond practicing civil discourse skills. The skills and experience required for a successful One Small Step conversation are the same as the skills students must develop to have a rich and fulfilling social life – one in which difference is not ignored, but is thoughtfully considered and respected.

Stefanie and Wendy connected via StoryCorps staff and organized conversations between students at their schools. Even as students began to stray from the usual story format, the genuine excitement and curiosity was palpable.

Both educators are excited about the potential of the One Small Step model in high schools, where debate, dialogue, and even conversations are often about assessment, winning, or proving what you know. Their colleagues have been supportive of the model, even integrating some of the principles into future curriculum, and both Stefanie and Wendy are working to include alumni in future conversations.

Students had to take the initiative to join and were under no obligation to participate. They volunteered their time to engage with differences and to have their ideas challenged; many of them left their first conversation with a new idea, a more complicated opinion, and an increased level of empathy for people with whom they don’t immediately agree.

2021 is proving to be another challenging year. Many of us have retreated inward and chosen to avoid conflict, but the students at Maggie Walker and Trinity have shown us a better way. Educators like Stefanie and Wendy created the opportunity, while One Small Step provided the tools, but ultimately the success depends on the participants. If more of us commit to engage with difference and practice these essential skills and attitudes, perhaps the tribalism and division of 2021 can give way to a more thoughtful consideration of the humanity in all of us.

Photos: Stefanie Jochman (left) and Wendy DeGroat (right, photo by Ruby Hayes, a student at MLWGS)