Dave Isay: Welcome back to these special podcast episodes about One Small Step, our effort to bring people together across political divides. I’m Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps.
This is part two of the special… so if you haven’t listened to part one yet… we recommend you do that before you listen to this episode.
Let’s return now to my conversation with NPR’s Elise Hu.
Elise Hu: One thing I’ve been meaning to ask you is actually about the process of matching these One Small Step participants since they do start out as strangers. Right?
Dave Isay: Sure. This has been evolving. Basically, when you volunteer to be part of One Small Step, we look for something that people have in common. And as time goes on, we’re looking for more and more kind of visceral experiences in people’s lives that they share. So maybe both participants recently lost a parent or both participants went through a divorce. And then we have the participants write brief bios of themselves. And then we actually have people read the other person’s bio, so that they’re kind of walking in the footsteps of that other person. So you would read the bio of your partner before the interview starts.
Elise Hu: Well, let’s hear an excerpt from another one of those conversations.
Dave Isay: Sure.
Elise Hu: We’ll go back to the stage in Birmingham, where two local residents took part in a One Small Step conversation with our member station WBHM. They are Cassandra Adams and
David Wilson. They’re both Black, but their politics are different.
Elise Hu: You get around there okay? Thank you for taking part in One Small Step, but also in this followup conversation tonight.
David Wilson: Thank you.
Cassandra Adams: Thank you.
Elise Hu: And when you all do this, as Dave mentioned, you give a little bit of a bio, a little bit of background about yourself. So when you filled out that part of it, what did you say about yourself? How did you describe yourself?
Cassandra Adams: I came straight out. I’m an African American woman, married with children. My faith directs everything that I do. I vote for who I think I want. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum it is. I take the lesser of the evil. And that’s pretty much it.
Elise Hu: David, what did you say?
David Wilson: So I don’t remember exactly how I put my profile, but I did not put my race. I don’t like to be defined that way. I did put, I believe, Christian constitutional conservative and then some other stuff. And I don’t remember the other – maybe father of four or something.
Cassandra Adams: It was – you’re from Boston.
David Wilson: I am from Boston which I don’t like to say that down South, because I get the damn Yankee thing. Which is worse than being a conservative I think down South. Am I right?
Elise Hu: Let’s listen to your conversation.
David Wilson: Okay.
Cassandra Adams: Let me ask you this, when you read my bio, what did you think? And please, be as honest as you feel comfortable because nothing will bother me.
David Wilson: So the first part, my mind kicked into stereotype. She’s probably dyed in wool Democrat, end of story. Second part was intriguing because you said something along the lines of an open mind. Well, this will be interesting.
Cassandra Adams: When I read your bio, I just thought you were a white man. I was going to come in here and just be like okay …
David Wilson: I don’t even know what it was. I don’t even remember what it was.
Cassandra Adams: That’s what’s so interesting to me is that I’m just like-
David Wilson: Sterotype.
Cassandra Adams: That’s exactly right. So I have to admit it. And I appreciate you receiving that and allowing me to admit my stereotype because when you walked in the door and you stood up and introduced myself, I was like, ”Oops, oops, oops.” I don’t feel threatened. I hope you don’t feel threatened. Once we leave this conversation, I hope, I believe we’ll have other conversations with others, may revisit maybe your wife and my husband and four of us can get together and continue a conversation. But my point is that, what are we afraid of?
Elise Hu: I love that conversation. And I saw you cracking up with the rest of us. You did not have to share with David that you made the wrong assumption, but you chose to. Why?
Cassandra Adams: Personal accountability. I could not live with myself with that stereotype and teaching students and others about having an open mind and all of this kind of stuff. And I’m just like uh?
Elise Hu: David, what about you? Is it fair to say that you made some assumptions too?
David Wilson: Just a little bit. Yes I did, but I think we probably hit it off right at the beginning. And so we had a very fun conversation.
Elise Hu: That’s David Wilson and Cassandra Adams, two participants in One Small Step live onstage in Birmingham, Alabama. And Dave, it’s so fun hearing them laugh about the assumptions they made when they read each other’s bios at first. But clearly, it takes a certain kind of person I imagine to volunteer to sit down for a conversation like this.
Dave Isay: Well, I think that there are people on the fringes on both sides who are not open to this. I mean, we’ve done a lot of polling and there’s five, six, 7% on either end on the left and the right who are not interested in the stories of others. Who are just dead set in their beliefs. But I think that there’s this broad swath in the middle who are open to seeing the humanity in people, who they may disagree with politically and are hungry for this and see the danger of the dehumanization that’s going on in the country right now.
Elise Hu: And Dave, in these One Small Step conversations, you encourage people to avoid talking about politics. But inevitably politics do come up, right?
Dave Isay: Sometimes it comes up. I mean, we have ground rules for participants about being respectful, not shouting, not talking over each other. So if people do want to talk about politics and it’s up to them, then they talk to one another about that in a thoughtful and respectful way.
Elise Hu: We actually wanted to see how a One Small Step conversation might go with two people who talk about politics for a living.
Erick Erickson: Voter suppression really isn’t’ a thing in the 21st century, neither is voter fraud.
Elise Hu: The first is conservative commentator, Erick Erickson. You may recognize that name from CNN or Fox, and he has his own syndicated radio show.
Erick Erickson: There has never been an election where voters were so suppressed that they could not vote. To the extent there were lines and there were problems. They happened in counties controlled by who? Not Republicans, Democrats.
Elise Hu: On the other side of the aisle, we reached out to LaTosha Brown, a name who’s been in the news a lot lately.
LaTosha Brown: I can relate to that. That I, myself, I went to the polls and it took me hours. And the last time…
Elise Hu: She is an activist and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter fund. This is LaTosha on MSNBC you’re hearing.
LaTosha Brown: Time is money. And is this proportionally impacting African-American voters and people of color. And so we have to really recognize how that structural racism is a part of the voter suppression.
Elise Hu: And LaTosha Brown and Erick Erickson are kind of the talking heads that you would expect to see arguing. But that was not the vibe when they sat down a few months ago, face-to-face for a One Small Step conversation.
Erick Erickson: So tell me a little bit about yourself, because we’re just meeting for the first time.
LaTosha Brown: We are just meeting for the first time. So great meeting you.
Erick Erickson: You too.
LaTosha Brown: I’m a native of Alabama. So while I currently live in Atlanta …
Elise Hu: As the conversation goes on, they eventually get around to talking about politics.
LaTosha Brown: You said that your parents were Democrats and now you are a conservative radio host. So I’m just interested. What was your path and what does that mean?
Elise Hu: And as Erick talks about his conservative politics, he mentioned that back in 2016, he didn’t support Donald Trump.
Erick Erickson: And we had friends turned their back on us. We had people show up at our house to threaten us because I didn’t want to vote for the guy.
LaTosha Brown: And Dave, even though Erick has since decided to support the president and LaTosha actively does not, they eventually agreed on something pretty fundamental. I feel like we’re caught up in this partisan quagmire.
Erick Erickson: Oh we are.
LaTosha Brown: And we can’t get out of it. And so, it’s like we’re dealing with the super bowl. Which team are you on? And its not we the people.
Erick Erickson: I don’t know what either political party stands for anymore, other than the acquisition of power and rewarding their friends and punishing the other side. And I resent like hell that I’ve got to pick a side right now and no side really reflects who I am or what I believe in.
LaTosha Brown: So, you know what? It’s really interesting because I feel the same exact way. I am a political junkie. That’s who I am. But like you, I am … Come on you all. When is this going to end?
Elise Hu: Dave, when you hear that, what do you think?
Dave Isay: Well, the civility almost belies belief. But when we were on stage in Birmingham, there were moments of tension.
Elise Hu: Here’s a little bit of that.
Elise Hu: I want to ask you a question that I asked the crowd earlier, which is have the two of you had meaningful lengthy conversations with folks whose politics widely differ from your own? Erick, I’ll start with you.
Erick Erickson: Yeah. I actually have a better time and enjoy the company more of friends of mine with whom I disagree politically these days. One, because it’s what I do for a living. But two, because I find that you can find other things to talk about. And it seems like more people maybe are at the point where they need to connect in their community instead of building that online community that looks and thinks exactly like them. And I hope that people will return to actually thinking about their next door neighbor instead of having their Facebook friends or their social media group, they’ll actually go out and see the person next door to them and see them as a person.
LaTosha Brown: I think it is a little nuanced. I think we also have to be honest. For me, I’m really thinking about that question because I think there are some ways that yes, there’ve been people who I’ve had political differences with, but I think there is also this piece around people who have had value differences with. And that’s been extremely difficult for me. The end of the arc of racism is genocide. And so it’s one thing to have a political belief that is just different, but that at the end of the day, if your politics say that I don’t have the right to exist, that’s a different kind of meaning for me. And so where there is a undermining of the recognition of my humanity, that’s beyond political differences.
Elise Hu: Political organizer LaTosha Brown there with talk show host, Erick Erickson. Dave, there’s so much to unpack there, but first, how would you respond to what we just heard from LaTosha?
Dave Isay: I mean, I think what Latasha says resonates so strongly, I mean even more so today than it did when we were on stage and in Birmingham. Look, this is what One Small Step is all about. It’s remembering our shared humanity by listening. And what happened here is that LaTosha and Erick recognized that and sat down and had the courage to engage with each other as people and be vulnerable and speak their truths. The important thing is that we always keep in mind the humanity of the person that we’re speaking with.
Elise Hu: The other thing I want to ask you about is that onstage, we heard Erick talking about social media silos, Facebook groups that we live in now, and I’m guessing that all types of media are arguably making your job and the bridging mission of One Small Step harder.
Dave Isay: I mean, I think that there’s a multi-billion dollar contempt, industrial complex that we’re up against. And the great paradox of our time is that we live in this age where technology has the potential to bring us closer together. But in so many ways at so many times, it ends up driving us farther apart.
Elise Hu: Welcome back. It’s One Small Step. I’m Elise Hu from NPR with Dave Isay from StoryCorps. Hey Dave.
Dave Isay: Hi Elise.
Elise Hu: So we’ve been listening to conversations from a live stage event that we recorded in Birmingham, Alabama, all about creating space for conversation between people who might normally prefer to shout at each other. Dave, I want to share another interview with you on this very subject. I talked with Amanda Ripley, an author and journalist who for several years has been studying the nature of conflict. And she’s been reporting on people who take steps to bridge differences. So we called up Amanda and talked about how we got here, how the media can play a role in exacerbating and exaggerating points of conflict like you mentioned.
Amanda Ripley: Nobody in America is like, ”Man, I just wish there was more arguing on TV. That is something I need more of.” But in all of this is an assumption that what people need is simplicity. That doesn’t work in high conflict. In high conflict, people need complexity to be revived because we’re in a time of false simplicity. And so this is why we need to design different shows and formats and journalism so that they can get to this. And people will say … I have friends who work at CNN and they say, ”Well, we don’t have time,” but the truth is it doesn’t take that much more time to ask different questions. And asking different questions, I think is a hugely important way to get underneath the conflict. And we need to do more of that.
Elise Hu: You mentioned that we’re in a period of high conflict. How do you define high conflict?
Amanda Ripley: High conflict is when regular conflict escalates to a point where both sides start to feel like the other side is crazy. They are baffled by each other. And when you make these identities really powerful and you have political leaders who play them up, who are sort of conflict entrepreneurs as the term of art, then it’s not that hard to really turn neighbor on neighbor. There’s so little trust and there’s so many distortions happening in how we perceive each other, that it gets really hard to see the options. We make big mistakes in our assumptions about each other. And there’s a ton of research on how that’s happening in the United States between partisans. We think we know each other’s heart and we don’t.
Elise Hu: You have really sort of encouraged us to not only make the narratives more complex, to find areas of nuance, but also to ask better questions of one another. So we want to know what are better questions that we could ask of one another, whether they are strangers or even our loved ones.
Amanda Ripley: The number one place to start is always with the personal. Where did your beliefs about abortion come from? When did you first even hear about abortion? Do you remember, how old were you? Start personal.
And then are there words they use that surprise you? Do they say that something made them feel sick to their stomach and you didn’t expect such a strong word, and then it’s like you dig into those. What does that mean? Say more about that. Where are you torn on this issue? What do you want to know about the other side? What is most mystifying to you and what do you want them to know about you?
Just to give you a quick example, I was talking to someone who does divorce mediation. She was talking about a couple who was just at each other’s throats about who was going to get the Legos. They’re dividing their property. But what she was able to do is to get to what was underneath that. And what it was is eventually they were able to say that they felt like wherever those Legos went is where the child’s affection went. Those were the favorite toy. And so asking questions that kind of get to that.
Elise Hu: Well, I want to kind of just challenge the premise that we’re working from, which is reaching across the divide is a worthwhile objective, because there are some who would say that they don’t think it’s right to try and reach across the divide right now. That rather it’s a time to fight and a time to win a battle for the soul of the country. So the people that you’ve observed trying to still bridge and reach across divides, what are they understanding that those of us who are taking a harder line, not understanding?
Amanda Ripley: There is a time to fight. I do think anger is important, but the biggest argument for having conversations that leave your decency intact is because it’s the only thing that works. If we want to persuade and change each other’s minds, there is no way to do that without making other feel heard. And there’s some practical benefits of it too. The value of having relationships across divides, particularly in communities is you can prevent conflict from metastasizing. So when you see what happened in Charlottesville at the rally there, it’s very important that there be relationships in a community before violence happens, because then you can contain the reaction to the violence. The biggest danger of political violence is that it causes more political violence. So, we are in this country together, we’re married to each other. We can not annihilate one another. We have children together. You can get divorced, but you’re still going to have to deal with each other.
Elise Hu: Journalist, Amanda Ripley there with a reminder of the bottom line. And kind of the reason you created this project, right Dave?
Dave Isay: Yeah. I mean, I think so much of what Amanda said was exactly on point. The questions have to be framed with respect and dignity. And since over the summer, we see it again. That the danger of not having personal relationships with people in our communities and how the country can go up like a Tinder box, if we don’t have the right kind of communication with one another.
Elise Hu: And another thing that’s come out in almost all these conversations we’ve had is the importance of complexity. Allowing people to talk about how they feel misunderstood in the first place. And to know they’re being heard when they say that. So one last time, let’s go back to the stage and hear from two people from Birmingham, Nicole Watkins and Austin Suellentrop. We’ll hear them on stage in just a moment, but first we played there prerecorded one small step conversation for the audience.
Austin Suellentrop: My wife and I for years led youth group in our church, so every year we would participate in the March for Life. And somehow, because I would be outward with this idea that I’d like to see a world where abortion is no longer an option. That because of that one stance, I’m now somehow this radical evangelical avid Trump supporter. And it’s the thing that drives my belief there is also the same thing that drives my belief that we should take care of the abandoned refugee at the border, that we should take care of the poor and sick in our own neighborhoods. But that’s not the public persona of what somebody who goes to DC to March for that is.
Nicole Watkins: That’s actually exactly why I wanted to do this. And I will fully admit in this conversation to having had that bias before. And it’s also worth mentioning full disclosure, please don’t run out of the room, I work for Planned Parenthood. [crosstalk 00:20:23].
Austin Suellentrop: Oh no. I can’t talk to you anymore. We have a policy against that. That gets my blood going a little bit. None of us are simple enough to be just throwing a bucket. We’re all too darn complicated for that. And I think we can all do a better job of realizing the nuance in people there.
Nicole Watkins: ”Nuance” I want on a bumper sticker. If we can remember that when we have those conversations with each other, I think we’ll get somewhere.
Elise Hu: All right, let’s welcome them. Nicole Watkins and Austin Suellentrop.
Elise Hu: Saved you those seats at the end.
Nicole Watkins: Thank you.
Elise Hu: Welcome to my living room.
Nicole Watkins: Thank you.
Austin Suellentrop: This is delightful.
Elise Hu: Austin, what surprised you about meeting Nicole and your conversation?
Austin Suellentrop: Oh, wow. What was surprising and so pleasant was how easy it was to talk. You’ve heard it a million times. We weren’t that different in what was frustrating us, what we were struggling with. The topics were a little bit different, but I think what was surprising was how easy it was to get to a place of comfort so quickly.
Elise Hu: And I liked how you brought up that because of your abortion stance, there’s those who make other assumptions about you. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Austin Suellentrop: Yeah. I mean, anybody who takes a public stance on an issue that’s controversial runs the risk of it’ll make it easy for people to see what you stand for. And yeah, I check that box. I absolutely check that box. I don’t check the select all box.
Elise Hu: How is this and your experience with One Small Step changed the way that you approach those who you might make these instant judgements about or those who you know are politically different from you?
Nicole Watkins: I think the big thing that changed for me is, and part of the reason I wanted to do this, was that I kind of existed in this bubble. And we always talk about the bubble. You have this political bubble of people that you spend time with. But since I did One Small Step, I’m working now at Disability Rights and Resources in Birmingham. So I work mostly with people with disabilities in Alabama, and I go to rural counties and I spend time with people of all kinds of political persuasions because people with disabilities are every demographic. But it speaks to the nuance that we were talking about too, that I can sit down and have a conversation. And I think that what I try to do, and Austin really helped me with this is when I’m talking to someone, figure out why they believe what they believe and remember that these are people with human stories and families and trauma.
And frankly, even when they make me angry. Even when I am really frustrated with some of these people in my head, I’m just sitting there thinking they’re not trying to hurt me. And that may be a side effect of some of their political beliefs, but they’re not intentionally trying to come hurt me and harm me and the people that I care about. And I think that it feels so deeply personal to me, even though I know that’s not necessarily fair. So that’s kind of how I’ve learned to approach those conversations. And it’s made a difference,
Elise Hu: Austin, Nicole, thank you guys so much for participating and for coming back up here tonight.
Elise Hu: That’s from our One Small Step event on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. And Dave, before we go, can we talk about the future of this project?
Dave Isay: Sure.
Elise Hu: Especially now after such a punishing year, what are the next steps for One Small Step?
Dave Isay: So Elise, it’s a tough time. The pandemic, the economy, the protests over racism and policing, the incredibly contentious election. It feels like interventions like this are just critical to the future of our democracy. So we’re in the process now of a major expansion of One Small Step, which includes remote interviewing. So people can have these conversations with people across the divides from their homes, anywhere in the country. We think of One Small Step a little bit like a light that begins to seep under the door in a dark room. It may not be much, but it allows our eyes to adjust. And just maybe we can begin to see each other again.
Elise Hu: A lovely image. Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and One Small Step. Dave I’ve so enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
Dave Isay: Thank you so much, Elise. Me too.
Elise Hu: And to play us out, here’s a little more musical inspiration from the end of our night onstage in Birmingham.
Elise Hu: I want to say thanks to everyone at NPR who helped make this show happen. Franklyn Cater, Neva Grant, James Willetts, Hannah Crotty, Allie Prescott and Claire Lombardo. Also our friends at StoryCorps – Katie Brook, Stacey Todd, Joanna DuFour. At WBHM – Chuck Holmes, Audrey Atkins and Michelle Little. Extra special thanks to this fantastic band – Jimmy Hall and Southern Culture Revival, who we recorded live on stage at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham. I’m Elise Hu, and this has been One Small Step.
Guest: One Small Step. Courageous conversations across a growing divide. A special hour from NPR and StoryCorps was made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.
Dave Isay: Thanks for listening to these special podcast episodes about One Small Step. We’d love for you to participate and join the growing ranks of Americans who believe in listening to and learning from each other. Find out how to sign up at StoryCorps Dot Org. For the StoryCorps podcast from NPR, I’m Dave Isay.