This week on the podcast, we’re announcing the launch of a new project from StoryCorps. One Small Step is an effort to get people who disagree about politics to get to know each other through a StoryCorps interview.
StoryCorps Extra: One Small Step
Michael Garofalo (MG): Hey there listeners, Michael Garofalo here with a podcast extra for you this week.
Earlier this year, we told you about an experiment we were trying out. It was a partnership with the public radio program “Indivisible,” and the idea was to find out if StoryCorps interviews could be a useful way for people who disagreed politically to be able to have a conversation. You can hear more about our collaboration with “Indivisible” in episode 499.
A lot of people wrote in to us to volunteer for our first round of pilot interviews for this project. We’ll hear one of them in just a minute. Now, we’re unveiling the next stage of this experiment. And we’re calling it “One Small Step.” It kicks off at the beginning of 2018, and we need another round of volunteers, people who want to sit down with someone who has different political beliefs and, well, just talk — not about politics — heaven knows there’s enough of that noise on social media, but to ask each other about who you are as people, what and who has shaped your beliefs, and what’s most important to you. It’s not a cure-all for what ails this country, but it could be one small step in the right direction.
Here’s an example. This was recorded using the StoryCorps app. And it comes from Thomasville, North Carolina. Cheraton Love is 34 and dean of first year students at Winston Salem State University. She says her political beliefs are liberal. And she wrote to use because she wanted to interview her father-in-law, Jim White, who is conservative. Jim is the fleet superintendent for Thomasville’s municipal vehicles like garbage and fire trucks.
When Cheraton first asked Jim to record, he was hesitant because he didn’t want to get into an argument. But he ultimately agreed, and this is what they talked about.
Jim White (JW): I think I want to be remembered first of all as a God-fearing man. Sometimes, I’ll be known as someone that might have been of a pain to get along with, but I don’t think there’s anybody that can’t say that I didn’t show them love. How about you? [laughs]
Cheraton Love (CL): I want to be remembered as a hard worker. I want to show people that I care and treat everyone with kindness and respect because we all deserve that. When you think about the future, what are you most scared of and what are you most hopeful for?
JW: Uh, I think what I’m most scared of are my grand-youngins and what they may have to deal with in the future: nuclear war, our resources being depleted — where are my grand-youngings going to breathe? Are they going to walk around with a mask on their face?
CL: What I am most afraid of is that we will keep getting divided, but all wrapped in that I’m hopeful because you and I come from maybe different backgrounds and maybe different political views and maybe different religious views, but none of that has ever stopped us from being a family.
JW: If we still lived in the circumstances from years ago, the way things were from years ago, we would probably never know each other. There were some things that I was taught when I was a young man that would have never even allowed us to have a conversation. But I think God the give me the knowledge to understand what love really means.
CL: I think we both discover very early on how different we are but we embraced it. We make fun of you a lot for being–
JW: –deep down southern
CL: I was going to say mushy!
JW: Yeah, I’m mushy. I’d shed a tear probably before anybody else because I love people. I love people that know who they are and respect who I am. That’s the way you are.
CL: Does it bother you that we don’t agree about politics?
JW: No, it doesn’t bother me. Being different shows us the different sides of things. We may differ in a lot of things, but we agree in a lot of things, and I think we listen to each other in a lot of things.
JW: You’re precious to me.
JW: You really are.
MG: That’s Cheraton Love with her father-in-law, Jim White, in Thomasville, North Carolina. They recorded that conversation on the StoryCorps app.
MG: Let’s go now to a conversation I had recently with Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, about what we’re hoping to do as we move into the next stage of this project.
So, what we are talking about with One Small Step is that two people come into a booth or they use the app, they interview each other and they get to know each other better as people. How is that any different from what we’ve been doing at StoryCorps for over a decade.
Dave Isay (DI): We’ve had half a million people participate in StoryCorps and, to a person, everyone of them has done it because they love each other and they want to thank the other person for the role they’ve played in their life by listening to them. So this is totally different. This is people who have a fundamental disagreement coming to StoryCorps to recognize their shared humanity.
MG: And as it turns out, Dave has some first-hand experience with this.
DI: After ”Indivisible,” there were a ton of emails that came in, and one got forwarded to me — I was on an airplane — by you, and it was an extremely hostile email which was full of, kind of, vile stuff [laughs], like the worst things you could possibly imagine, and first I was angry, as were you, I know, when you forwarded it to me.
MG: My feeling was, ugh, this guy, forget this guy. That’s why I was sharing it with you. I was like what a jerk.
DI: Right, right. And I looked at the email. I took a deep breath, and I was just like, you know what, I’m going to write this guy back. I just wrote him back and said I’d like to do a StoryCorps interview with you. And I hit send, and I had, you know… I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then, like literally, 30 seconds later, an email popped back into my inbox, and I didn’t think I’d get a response. And it said sure I’d love to and I want to take you to dinner.
After about a month later, after getting our schedules straight, we ended up meeting and we had a conversation. And he told me about meeting his fiance.
Paul: I met her at Dunkin’ Donuts.
DI: Just in line? what’s the story?
Paul: oh, no, no. She worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.
DI: Oh, [laughs]
Paul: And I would… I’d actually have to go out of my way to get coffee at this particular Dunkin’ Donuts, but she was there and… I… it was worth the trip. I would go there so often I eventually got her name, and one day I asked her to put her number on the coffee she was going to hand me, and she did.
DI: And then we talked about the email.
DI: Do you want to read it to me?
Paul: I’d rather not, please don’t make me.
DI: So I’ll read it.
Paul: Oh, no, go on.
DI: Love the show. I apologize for the deceiving title to this email. Everybody sounds like the biggest bunch of crybabies on this show. You’re making society weaker by the hour. Stop being a [BLEEP] and man the [BLEEP] up.
Paul: And it sounds awful and it’s not the kind of person I am.
DI: Like, what were you thinking?
Paul: I was coming home from real estate class, and I don’t even know what the topic was about, and while driving, I just voice recorded this quick email and I know it sounds bigoted but that’s really not the person I am, and I’m sorry about using the F word.
DI: Were you surprised when I wrote to you?
Paul: I still am. Were you surprised too?
DI: I was surprised you wrote back. I was surprised that you were such a nice guy. I was surprised you had the courage to do this.
Paul: yeah. Of course. It’s uncomfortable talking about this thing. You know, it’s not me.
MG: So, when you came out of this interview, did your feelings about this guy change?
DI: It was more just the shaking hands at the beginning and looking someone in the face… Part of what One Small Step is about is this idea of, you know, it’s the tribalism, and the disgust we feel toward people who are different than us, which, obviously, was…
MG: It was our reaction.
DI: It was our reaction, and obviously it was his reaction, as well. So, just like putting a human face and looking someone in the eye… it’s beautiful. That was powerful, and then sitting together and talking, it feels good.
MG: Like what… what’s the outcome of that. If we do that, then what can happen?
DI: Well, we call it One Small Step, right? And One Small Step specifically is we do not talk about politics in these interviews. The closest we get to politics in these questions are like ”Is there anything about the other side that you respect? What is it about the people on the other side say about you that is the most hurtful?” So, the best that we can do is try and make it so that we don’t fear each other as much as we did, and we don’t do things that that guy Paul did. Like, I don’t think he’s ever going to send an email again. And, that’s not the answer to everything; I know it’s not the answer to everything. It just, basically, is about taking the temperature down just a couple of degrees. And people bring their best selves into a StoryCorps interview because they know they’re talking to the future, the archive at the Library of Congress. They’re talking to their great-great-great-great-grandchildren. So, it brings out the opposite impulses of Twitter, which just unleashes you to be the biggest a-hole you can be, but at StoryCorps, you’re going to be your absolute best selves, which I think gives us a chance.
MG: Ok, so what is the next step for One Small Step?
DI: We just announced it. We were really happy to get a kickoff grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for $1 million to get this started. We are now gathering names. If you are interested in helping us continue to figure this out, you can go to StoryCorps dot org and sign up there, and we will be in touch soon. We are actually going to launch it in the winter, then it’s going to run for two or three years, and we are going to see where it goes. We’re trying all kinds of interesting things on top of the app and interviews in booths. One of the things I am most excited about is we’re going to experiment with remote StoryCorps interviews where we will set up with a remote StoryCorps booth which, as listeners probably know, is an intimate space in a soundproof room. On one side is going to be a human being. On the other side is going to be a screen that connects you with someone in another city who you don’t know who you have different politics than. We’re going to put on headphones and have good microphones and we will see what happens there. So, it’s a further expansion of the very, very simple idea of StoryCorps.
You know it feels like we are in a really bad place in this country, and I fear that the spin of the bad.
Like, it can get worse. and it can start spinning faster and faster and faster. And I feel like with One Small Step… like to actually pull this off, the odds are really against us but it’s not impossible. So, my feeling, our feeling at StoryCorps is that if we even have a sliver of a chance to really make a difference and get us, you know, to pump the breaks on the insanity in the country and take a step back from the edge of the cliff that we’re on… If there’s even a sliver of a chance that’s worth fighting with everything we’ve got to see if we can make it stick.
MG: If you’re interested in volunteering to be a part of One Small Step, go to our website StoryCorps dot org. There’s a form you can fill out and someone from StoryCorps will get back to you. It may take a little while, as we said, the project doesn’t really start in earnest until 2018, but we wanted to put the callout to you, our podcast listeners. Speaking of listening to podcasts, thank you for sticking around through this podcast extra. We’ve got a full podcast with stories coming up later this week. Until then, I’m Michael Garofalo, this is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. Thanks for listening.