It’s easy for Benita Conde to remember the moment she learned about One Small Step (OSS). Seated in the audience in the auditorium at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Benita heard StoryCorps Founder and President Dave Isay share the news about a new initiative: OSS — a chance for folks with different political beliefs to get to know each other, not as partisan opponents based on how they vote, but as people who define themselves by their families and hobbies and interests: everything that makes us human.
Right away, Benita knew she was in. “I’m someone who likes to raise my hand,” says the Minnesota native. “And as a life coach, I’ve done a lot of my own self-development work. Whenever there’s an intersection of pushing through a discomfort — one that feels more exciting than fear based — I’m always someone who says yes. That feels intuitively right.”
At first, Benita was looking forward to the upcoming conversation with her OSS co-participant in much the same way she regarded her client conversations, noting that she had no trepidations about it at all. But as the appointed hour grew closer, a sense of unease started to creep in. In the back of her mind, she began to ponder if this match of two ostensibly polar opposites could really bridge divides. All she knew was that her fellow participant was male, about a half generation older, and lived in a part of town where her husband had several clients.
“I wondered if there might be misunderstanding and some tension that we wouldn’t connect as humans, and that it would be a hard conversation,” she remembers. “It’s the human experience that holds us back from just about everything.”
But almost immediately, the two connected. “I think we both surprised each other,” she says. “We are literally almost in the same place in terms of how we view what’s going on in our country politically, even though we had come from predominantly different experiences in our lives.”
She notes that she was raised Republican by conservative parents in the Minneapolis suburbs but that her politics — as well as those of her parents — began leaning leftward over the years.
“Something similar had happened to John, my conversation partner,” Benita says. “He was evolving and changing through the eyes of his children.”
While OSS conversations are not meant to be a forum for political debate, many OSS conversations touch on politics and Benita says that John felt compelled to share his political evolution from the outset.
“He said, ‘I have to tell you about this experience that happened to me. January 6 happened. I woke up. I don’t believe in violence as a way to create change,’” recounts Bonita.
She believes that that middle ground is where a great many Americans reside, and her OSS conversation validated that perception, at least anecdotally.
“I just get the sense that we are not more divided as the media and social media tend to make us think we are,” Benita says. “There’s a huge swath of middle, isn’t there?”
Middle ground or not, it’s simply having those conversations that can make such a difference.
“I think walking through our life experiences, which I think is such a powerful aspect of One Small Step, you’re really prompted and directed to gently move through the process in a way that promotes just talking about being a human,” Benita says.