Dave Isay: Hi I’m Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps…
As we head into the final weeks of the 2020 Presidential Election… we wanted to share a special program with you about One Small Step… our effort to bring strangers together across the political divide.
Over the next two episodes, you’ll hear a special we produced in partnership with NPR…that will introduce you to the ideas behind the project and what we’re aiming to achieve… and you’ll meet many of the StoryCorps participants who have courageously stepped up to help us start One Small Step… which feels more important now than ever before.
Elise Hu: When was the last time you had a back and forth about politics and it went really well?
Guest: Is there one thing that you respect about the way that I see the world?
Elise Hu: In these polarized times, politics can tear us apart.
Guest: We’re together and we’re fighting about politics.
Guest: It also would be the times when I hear you say, I can’t even talk to you, Dad.
Elise Hu: And it can feel like our very democracy is breaking down.
Guest: We’re caught up in this partisan quagmire.
Guest: We are.
Guest: Like it’s the super bowl, which team are you on? And it’s not we the people.
Elise Hu: So what if taking a small step to have a conversation could remind us that there’s more to all of us.
Guest: None of us are simple enough to be just thrown in a bucket and work out. We’re all too darn complicated for that.
Guest: It was important for me to meet somebody who really didn’t have horns and a tail.
Elise Hu: I’m Elise Hu from NPR and StoryCorps. This is One Small Step courageous conversations across a growing divide.
Guest: My point is that, what are we afraid of?
Elise Hu: We’re talking about the courageous step of conversation that crosses our political divides, talking and listening. Even when we disagree something we’ve been struggling with for a long time, but these days it can seem almost impossible. I mean, the Coronavirus, the economy, George Floyd, and the protests, each of these crises has given Americans even more reason to distrust even to despise people with different views. But this show is about people who are at least willing to listen to the other side. And it’s based around a live stage event that took place during a divisive week. That seems almost like ancient history, given everything we’ve been through lately, it was back when Americans were still gathering in stadiums, Super Bowl Sunday, the middl e of the impeachment trial and on Fox:
News Clip: Its been… such. I use the word witchhunt. I use the word hoax. I see the hatred. I see the dilemma. They don’t care about fairness. They don’t care about lying. You look at the lies, right?
Elise Hu: And the next day, Monday in Iowa.
News Clip: Today marks the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.
Elise Hu: That on Tuesday came the state of the union address.
News Clip: One of the most partisan rooms that the president has addressed. We even saw some democratic lawmakers walk out of the state of the union.
News Clip: Did you just see how speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up the speech rubbed behind the president?
Elise Hu: Remember that week? And we weren’t even halfway through on Wednesday:
News Clip: The Senate is now ready to vote on the articles of impeachment.
News Clip: Ms. Hansen guilty. Mr. Hall.
News Clip: Evidence is going to keep coming out
News Clip: Mr. Hall
News Clip: with each new revelation.
News Clip: Not guilty.
News Clip: Republicans are going to have to answer for their votes.
Elise Hu: At the end of that divisive and difficult week, it felt almost like a gift to land here.
In front of a live audience in Birmingham, Alabama, where I teamed up with member station WBHM, and StoryCorps, and also the band you’re hearing Jimmy Hall with Southern Culture Revival. We all got together to explore the idea of a less divided America.
Elise Hu: So a lot of us worry that if we can’t remember how to just talk to one another and to listen, especially to listen, then our very democracy is at risk. Well, luckily for us, we have friends at StoryCorps who are experts in the craft of conversation, and they had this idea. What if the solution isn’t trying to debate more or to wrestle our political opposites to the ground, but to do something that’s harder than fighting, which is to listen. And to tell us more about this possibility, this project that we call One Small Step, but now all of you are part of let’s welcome StoryCorps, founder and president Dave Isay. Well, Dave.
Dave Isay: Hey.
Elise Hu: A lot of us, especially those of us who are listening to public radio know StoryCorps very well. One Small Step is a twist on it, tell us how it’s different.
Dave Isay: Sure. And folks here, you know, StoryCorps, I need my own. Yes. I know some people don’t And actually StoryCorps started 16 years ago. As most people know, it’s a real simple idea. We set up a booth first to Grand Central Terminal, where you bring anyone who you want to honor by listening to their story, a parent or grandparents, someone you love. And you sit in this booth for 40 minutes and you ask them about their life. And people think of it as if I had 40 minutes left to live. What would I say to this person who means so much to me. At the end of the 40 minutes, you get a copy and another one stays with us and goes to the library of Congress or your great, great, great, great grandkids can get, can get to know your grandfather. So it started out as a crazy idea, like nobody came, but eventually it caught on and we’ve now had about 600,000 people participate.
Elise Hu: Wow.
Dave Isay: So it’s the largest collection of, thank you. It’s the largest collection of human voices ever gathered. And what, because of the nature of what happens in these interviews, we’re kind of collecting the wisdom of humanity and leading up to the 2016 election. I think we all started to see that, that things were really going haywire in the country. And we decided it was time to try and do something a little bit different. So we’ve spent the last two to three years testing this new thing called One Small Step.
Dave Isay: And the idea was in this, the concern is that, a democracy can’t survive in a swamp of mutual contempt. You know, we just hate each other and we don’t know each other. So we decided to try something very different. All of the 600,000 people who had come to StoryCorps so far had loved each other. And what we wanted to do is put strangers across the political divide in a story core booth, not to talk about politics, but just to realize you don’t want that other person dead it’s and I have to say, Birmingham has been a test city for us and it’s been, you guys have been absolutely amazing.
This is our first major event and this is kind of One Small Step’s first city. So I have, thank you. So very different than a typical StoryCorps interview, two people don’t know each other. They share bios with each other. We match them because they have something in common. They come to the booth and sit and talk to each other for 40 minutes. So let’s listen to just a sample, very brief sample of a one small step interview. These are two people, Jessica Vittorio and Katie Hayes. One’s a conservative, one’s a liberal, they both disagree vehemently with their parents about politics. So we put them together in the booth,
Elise Hu: We don’t know anything like that.
Dave Isay: And let’s listen to them.
Jessica Vittorio: I’m curious about your experience of voting differently from your parents. I have that same experience in the opposite direction. And I just want to know how that is for y’all.
Katie Hayes: I always joke that I tried to raise them right, and I just don’t know what happened. Unfortunately, I think the position we take towards it now generally is just not to talk about it. Cause I don’t know that we can really talk about it without getting upset at each other. Do y’all have success in talking about it?
Jessica Vittorio: No, we really don’t. My relationship with my parents took a serious hit in the last election. Our sources of information are so different.
Katie Hayes: Yeah.
Jessica Vittorio: So that made it hard all along. But the last presidential election is when it just came and done. I’m sad. My job is bringing people together [crosstalk 00:07:24] and reconciliation in Jesus name. And I haven’t managed to make that a reality in my own family of origin.
Katie Hayes: It is, is there’ll be like this group of people is ignorant or uneducated. That’s really where it breaks down and where inevitably it gets a little too emotional. It’s not even about the issue. It’s about like, who are you saying I am as a person?
Jessica Vittorio: I don’t know how anybody’s politics doesn’t feel personal.
Katie Hayes: I do think it’s easier to bridge the gap with a stranger /
Jessica Vittorio: Sure.
Katie Hayes: New friend than it is with someone that you have a really intense, emotional connection with already. So I’m thankful that I can hopefully take some of this stuff and bring it to those conversations slowly. I’m not going to jump into them.
Jessica Vittorio: Yeah. I’m probably not going to call my dad on the way home.
Dave Isay: One of the weird things about these conversations is that sometimes it’s impossible to tell if you just like, listen in, who’s the conservative and who’s the liberal. So Jessica who is on the left with the striped shirt, she’s a conservative, she’s a lawyer. And Katie Hayes on the right is a liberal pastor with conservative parents. So that’s just a little snippet of what happens in a One Small Step conversation.
Elise Hu: All of these conversations is it to find a political middle, to get to some sort of compromise.
Dave Isay: No, we suggest that people not talk about politics during the interview. So this is really about just recognizing each other’s shared humanity. One of the things we’re seeing is that we’re dehumanizing each other and we know what happens in history when we start to dehumanize one another, we go in very, very dangerous places. And that what this is about because we’re sliding in the wrong direction. In this story,
Elise Hu: Do you have a friend actually who studies a lot of this? John Powell,
Dave Isay: The power is a renowned attorney, civil rights attorney and a professor at Berkeley. And he runs something called the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. Let’s listen to him.
John Powell: It’s easier to maintain a sense of disconnectedness when we tell stories about the other that we never see in person. And sometimes when we talk to each other, we’re not willing to hear each other’s pain. We can see the other side as being bad, but we don’t see them in pain. And so we have to have empathy for everyone. That’s who we are. That’s we are when our best selves. And some people will say, I’m not buying it. Don’t buy it. But what’s the alternative.
Elise Hu: I’m glad you brought that up because a lot of us might not buy this. Right? A lot of us might say the stakes are too high right now. And this is not the time to try and do or take one small step, but rather to hunker down or to fight. And so Dave, how difficult is it to try and get people to do this?
Dave Isay: It’s hard. It takes a lot of courage. I mean, this is it’s really, it’s going against the cultural grain, but the dream with One Small Step is that we’re going to try and convince the country that it’s our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people that we disagree with. Nobody has ever changed someone’s mind by calling them an idiot or a Nazi or a fool. It just hardens people’s beliefs. And it’s time for us to just take one small step towards each other. And I hope that everyone here will do that and it’s controversial. And as a lot of people said, it takes courage. But I mean, I think it’s time to say we’ve had enough.
Elise Hu: Dave. I say, thank you so much for being here.
Elise Hu: That’s from our live event in Birmingham, Alabama, where we’re talking about a nationwide initiative called One Small Step. So we recorded that back in February. And if anything, things have only gotten more angry and more urgent in this country. Protests have erupted in the streets over racism and police brutality and black lives. So I asked John Powell, the civil rights expert who spoke in that short clip on stage, how he thinks Americans should be engaging with each other. Now,
John Powell: You may, you might have to engage in protest. You may have to defend yourself, but you should always be open to talking. And what I say is that we’re focused on anti-black racism and white supremacy, or we should not conflate them with people. And so we can hate white supremacy. We can hate anti-black racism, but it’s that hate of white supremacy turns into hate of white people we’re in trouble.
Elise Hu: Can you understand though why? Especially now people might not feel like talking because talking feels passive while this resistance and anger, and sometimes even violence can bring about change?
John Powell: Protest is another way of talking. Even in our personal relationship, we find there some sometimes shouting why was shouting because we feel like we’re not heard. So we turn up the volume. So the question, so we have everyone’s attention. It’s like, okay, now that you have everyone’s attention or do you want to say, and really what’s happening in part is we’re an inflection point. There’s an election coming up, somebody’s going to lose. Somebody is going to win. What happens to the losers? We’re going to have millions of Americans who are going to be upset that they didn’t get things that they want it. And the question is, where do we turn?
Do we turn on each other or do turn toward each other? It is clear to me that if we turn on each other, we don’t survive. I don’t even mean America. I mean, people don’t survive, that if we don’t learn to turn toward each other and we don’t learn to share the planet with each other and with itself, we don’t survive.
Elise Hu: That civil rights’ attorney, John Powell there, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. When we come back, two people on opposite sides of a protest that threatened to turn violent, and how they formed a life-changing bond.
Amina Amdeen: All my subconscious feelings and values just surfaced.
Joseph Weidknecht: I’m genuinely not the same person I was.
Elise Hu: That’s when we return with One Small Step from NPR and StoryCorps, stay with us.
Elise Hu: From NPR news, you’re listening to One Small Step I’m Elise Hu, and with me from his home now is Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps and One Small Step. Hey Dave.
Dave Isay: Hey Elise.
Elise Hu: Well, just before the break we heard part of that live event we recorded together in person in Birmingham.
Dave Isay: Mm-hmm.
Elise Hu: And we’re going to go back to the stage in just a moment, but Dave One Small Step is essentially an initiative where two people sit down together, but they’re strangers with different opinions on issues. And the idea is they find ways to connect, right?
Dave Isay: That’s right. One Small Step is based on contact theory, which is one of the most studied theories in the history of psychology. It was developed by a psychologist named Gordon Allport in 1950s. And it basically says that under very specific conditions, if people in conflict come together face to face that conflict can melt away and people who might’ve seen each other as enemies, or as less than human can see each other as humans again.
Elise Hu: It’s actually funny to be talking about contact theory in a time of COVID when we’re all kind of obsessed with not having contact. So I assume these face-to-face conversations are now happening online.
Dave Isay: That’s right. So we have a digital platform now that makes it possible to record One Small Step interviews and upload it to the library of Congress. And you know, for One Small Step, that’s a game changer because it allows us to remove the barrier of, of geography and people can have these conversations anywhere in the country, anytime of the day.
Elise Hu: Well, fortunately, when we met on stage in Birmingham, a while back, Dave, you had already gathered a bunch of audio from people who were able to sit down in person and have these one small step conversations. I want you to tell us about one really powerful conversation that you shared with us.
Dave Isay: Sure.
Elise Hu: That comes from another time where there were protests almost every day. It was back in November 2016 after the last presidential election.
Dave Isay: Right, so this takes place in Austin, Texas, there was an anti-Trump rally and a young Muslim woman named Amina Amdeen showed up at the rally as did Joe Weidknecht, who was pro-Trump with a small group of pro-Trump people. He was wearing his red, Make America Great Again hat and things at the rally got kind of hot.
Amina Amdeen: I noticed you, with the hat.
Joe Weidknecht: Mm-hmm.
Amina Amdeen: And I noticed that you were surrounded by some people. And I noticed that they were being kind of threatening and then somebody snatched your head off your head. And that’s the point where I, something kind of snapped inside me because I wear a hijab and I’ve been in situations where people have tried to snatch it off my head.
Joe Weidknecht: Wow.
Amina Amdeen: And I rushed towards you. And I just started screaming, leave him alone. Give me that back.
Joe Weidknecht: I don’t think we could be any further apart as people. And yet it was just kind of like this common, ”That’s not Okay” moment. You are genuinely the only Muslim person I know. I just, it’s not that I’ve actively avoided. It’s just, I’ve just never been in the position where he can interact for an extended period of time. So I guess my views on the Muslim community have been influenced by a lot of the news articles and things of that nature.
Amina Amdeen: I feel like a lot of times in the media, you don’t see the normal Muslim, the one that listens to classic rock like I do. You don’t, you don’t meet that Muslim.
Joe Weidknecht: Can you tell Me about where you grew up? What was that part of your life? Like?
Amina Amdeen: So I was born in Baghdad, in Iraq. I moved to the US when I was 10 years old, being a Muslim girl, I stood out in almost every single way that you can in middle school, the worst time to stand out. What about you? How was it like when you grow up?
Joe Weidknecht: I was homeschooled. So it was, it was a vastly different experience socially. It was, I didn’t have, I guess as many friends as most people would, I only went to public school one year of my life and I got in three fights and I lost all of them. I actually lost a lot of friends because of the selection, because my political stance. So I hope that I can be the reason that someone decides to talk to someone as opposed to just cutting them out of their life or blocking them on Twitter.
Amina Amdeen: Well, I’d like for this to encourage other people to engage in more conversations with people that you don’t agree with.
Joe Weidknecht: It’s what’s all about. I’m so glad it wasn’t. The only felt like that.
Elise Hu: Such a lovely conversation. I know you’ve probably heard it a million times, but it’s so powerful and we are so lucky tonight because Amina Amdeen & Joe Weidknecht made the trip out here to join us tonight. Let’s welcome, Joe and Amina.
Elise Hu: There it is, there’s the hat. And is it fair to say that you two formed a bond?
Joe Weidknecht: Absolutely. We kind of, had this mutual realization that, four words don’t define a person and you got to be able to, break through and have a conversation with someone.
Amina Amdeen: Yeah, I think it was just that moment was so powerful emotionally. It was definitely like a moment of vulnerability for me, and when people are vulnerable, they do form bonds. So we’ve warmed up on after that time.
Elise Hu: It’s been four years now, cause that was the last presidential election year. And now four years later, what have you learned and what has happened in the time in between?
Joe Weidknecht: Honestly, it’s been, it’s been life-changing, I’m genuinely not the same person I was four years ago. I’ve learned to, see through the veneer that people, post online or what you assume about people and really try to get beneath the skin and see why do people believe the values that they hold.
Elise Hu: After what you’ve been through? Are you trying to encourage others, maybe other folks in your family or other friends to try and connect in the way that you have, obviously you can’t engineer a situation as dramatic as yours.
Amina Amdeen: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I feel like, whereas before, when I would hear somebody, dehumanizing other people for having different beliefs, I would stay quiet. I would be like, it’s none of my business, but now it really set in my mind. I believe that I need to speak up in those moments, and maybe kind of challenge people on what they take to be on the surface level of others.
Joe Weidknecht: Absolutely, I mean the fact I’m here having this conversation is proof enough that I’ve learned and grown from that situation.
Elise Hu: All right, on that note, let’s give a warm thank you. That was Joe Weidknecht and Amina Amdeen live on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. And I’m back in our home studios with Dave Isay of StoryCorps.
Dave Isay: Right.
Elise Hu: Dave, I love listening to that. I imagine you’ve heard it so many more times than me. It’s still so moving.
Dave Isay: Yeah. I mean that image of Amina with hijab and Joe with the Make America Great Again hat and that moment where they met at the rally, there’s a neurobiologist named Robert Sapolsky who has studied contact area. And he talks about the secret sauce of contact theory, being a visceral experience between the two people when they come together. And, that’s the very essence of a visceral experience.
Elise Hu: And then you told me about Robert Sapolsky and encouraged me to interview him. So I took you up on it.
Dave Isay: Yes.
Elise Hu: And he studies how our brains are wired to sort our fellow human beings into ingroups and outgroups. And so when I sat down with him, I asked him to respond to that conversation. We just heard from Joe and Amina.
Robert Sapolsky: Well, what we saw was Amina saying, look, I went through something like this. I wear something that is meant to be both like meaningful to me and a symbolic message to the rest of the world, and I’ve been violated for wearing it. So when I saw you experiencing the same thing, something snapped in me, interacted. What we also saw was right off the bat. The two of them were as unfamiliar to each other, as you could imagine, until a meaner brings in something as mundane as, ”Oh, she likes classic rock”, something that has so little to do with any of the big issues, but suddenly there’s a familiarity,
Elise Hu: Mm-hmm.
Robert Sapolsky: But the even more remarkable thing that has the potential for the visceral transformation for both of them was what came beforehand. When she stepped out of the crowd and protected him.
Elise Hu: But Dave, Robert Sapolsky also told me that humans, we kind of have a default setting, right. Which is to quickly divide our fellow humans into us as in them. So it can be along gender lines. It can be around racial lines.
Robert Sapolsky: Yep. The neurobiology of that supports that when you see a face of a different race, a part of the brain that’s associated with fear and aggression and anxiety, a brain region called the amygdala. It activates in under a 10th of a second. We also do that sort of speed and processing somebody’s gender in processing, seemingly somebody’s age, somebody’s socioeconomic status. We have brains that are just geared up for dividing the world into us and thems and big surprise. Like every other primate there, we like the us is a whole lot more to the them. So, and in fact, we can be totally lousy to the them’s.
Elise Hu: And the point being that we all belong to many different classifications, many different tribes, and it’s always fluid and shifting.
Robert Sapolsky: Yeah. We humans belong to multiple groups, multiple ways of categorizing and some circumstances make us more likely to stick with our deepest, most emotional, most ugly ones when we’re tired, when we’re stressed, when we’re frightened, when we’re whatever. I mean, without a doubt, there’s somebody out there who, if they were walking down a deserted street in a scary neighborhood at night and a young man whose one of them was walking towards them and they’d be completely alarmed and unnerved. And if instead, the two of them were sitting next to each other in some sports’ stadium and they’re chanting the same thing together, like each would kill for, to save the other sort of thing. Like that’s when you completely recategorize, who’s an us and them.
Elise Hu: We’re talking a lot about our emotional reactions and how they are hardwired in our brains. But you write and talk a lot about how environment nurture is just as important here as nature. So how do our genes and environment interact to change us?
Robert Sapolsky: Complexly, ubiquitously, critically, what maybe the best way is to sort of summarize that in sound bites. I think we are hardwired like most of the primates to almost instantly divide the world into us as, and them, since I’m not like them at the same time, I think there is next to no hard-wiring, there’s total malleability as to who counts as of them and who counts as an us. And some of that could have good cheery outcomes. And some of that is the world of like propagandizing people into the thems are cockroaches. The thems are vermin. We make these dichotomies. I don’t know if anyone on earth, like short of the Dalai Lama is not doing automatic categorization of people, but who counts as what can change in an instant and as subject to teaching and learning, and experience and all the above.
Elise Hu: That was Stanford neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky. So Dave, what we’re hearing there is that we can change how we group one another.
Dave Isay: Yeah. It’s so interesting. Right? Listening to Dr. Sapolsky made me think about this idea of subtyping, which is where one person can meet and other and see them as, okay. But only as an exception to the rule that every other other is still awful. And that’s that kind of generalization is something we think a lot about in these One Small Step interviews, making sure that that person you sit across from whose different than you, that when you stop seeing them as an other, that it isn’t just that one person who you see as okay. But, but that it generalizes across the entire group.
Dave Isay: Thanks for listening to part 1 of our One Small Step Special… there’s more to come in the next episode. I’m Dave Isay. Stay with us.