One Small Step: Courageous Conversations Across a Growing Divide In a time of polarization and political division, NPR and StoryCorps explore whether simple but courageous acts — talking and listening — can be a countervailing force to national discord.
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Courageous Conversations Across a Growing Divide: One Small Step

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Courageous Conversations Across a Growing Divide: One Small Step

Courageous Conversations Across a Growing Divide: One Small Step

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ELISE HU (HOST): When was the last time you had a back-and-forth about politics, and it went really well?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 (GENERAL PUBLIC): Is there one thing that you respect about the way that I see the world?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 (GENERAL PUBLIC): No.

HU: In these polarized times, politics can tear us apart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3 (GENERAL PUBLIC): We're together, and we're fighting about politics.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4 (GENERAL PUBLIC): Those would be the times when I hear you say, I can't even talk to you, Dad.

HU: And it can feel like our very democracy is breaking down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5 (GENERAL PUBLIC): We're caught up in this partisan quagmire like it's the Super Bowl. Which team are you on? It's not we the people.

HU: So what if taking a small step to have a conversation could remind us that there's more to all of us?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6 (GENERAL PUBLIC): None of us are simple enough to be just thrown in a bucket. Like, we're all too darn complicated for that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7 (GENERAL PUBLIC): It was important for me to meet somebody who really didn't have horns and a tail (laughter).

HU: I'm Elise Hu. From NPR and StoryCorps, this is ONE SMALL STEP - courageous conversations across a growing divide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8 (GENERAL PUBLIC): My point is that, what are we afraid of?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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 were 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 middle of the impeachment trial. And on Fox...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP (US PRES): It's been such - I use the word witch hunt. I use the word hoax. I see the hatred. I see the - they don't care about fairness. They don't care about lying. You look at the lies.

HU: And the next day, Monday, in Iowa...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT, SEN): Today marks the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.

HU: Then on Tuesday came the State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAMARA KEITH (BYLINE/NPR 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did you just see - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up the speech right behind the president.

HU: Remember that week? And we weren't even halfway through. On Wednesday...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY, SEN): The Senate is now ready to vote on the articles of impeachment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ms. Hassan - guilty. Mr. Hawley...

CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY, SEN): Evidence is going to keep coming out...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Hawley...

SCHUMER: ...With each new revelation...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Not guilty.

SCHUMER: Republicans are going to have to answer for their votes.

HU: At the end of that divisive and difficult week, it felt almost like a gift to land here...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: ...In front of a live audience in Birmingham, Ala., 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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 that now all of you are part of, let's welcome StoryCorps founder and president Dave Isay.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: Well, Dave...

DAVE ISAY (FOUNDER, STORYCORPS): Hey.

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.

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: Tell us how it's different.

ISAY: Sure. And folks here, you know StoryCorps? I need my own yes and no - OK.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: Each ride on the way into work.

ISAY: 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 at Grand Central Terminal where you bring anyone who you want to honor by listening to their story - a parent or grandparent, 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 so your great-great-great-great-grandkids can get to know your grandfather.

So it started out as a crazy idea, and, like, nobody came. But eventually, it caught on, and we've now had about 600,000 people participate.

HU: Wow.

ISAY: So it's the largest collection of...

(APPLAUSE)

ISAY: 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, you know, I think we all started to see 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. And the idea was in this - you know, the concern is that, you know, 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 StoryCorps 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, like, 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...

(APPLAUSE)

ISAY: 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 (ph) and Katie Hayes (ph). One's conservative, one's a liberal. They both disagree vehemently with their parents about politics, so we put them together in the booth.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: We don't do anything like that.

ISAY: And let's listen. Let's listen to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE HAYES (GENERAL PUBLIC): I'm curious about your experience of voting differently from your parents.

JESSICA VITTORIO (GENERAL PUBLIC): (Laughter).

HAYES: I have that same experience...

VITTORIO: Yeah.

HAYES: ...In the opposite direction.

VITTORIO: (Laughter).

HAYES: And I just want to know how that is for y'all.

VITTORIO: I always joke that I tried to raise them right, and I just don't know what happened.

HAYES: (Laughter).

VITTORIO: Unfortunately, I think the position we take towards it now generally is just not to talk about it because 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?

HAYES: 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.

VITTORIO: Yeah.

HAYES: So that made it hard all along, but the last presidential election is when it just came undone. I'm sad. My job is bringing people together...

VITTORIO: Yeah.

HAYES: ...In reconciliation in Jesus' name...

VITTORIO: Yeah.

HAYES: And I haven't managed to make that a reality in my own family of origin.

VITTORIO: Part of it is, is they'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?

HAYES: I don't know how anybody's politics doesn't feel personal.

VITTORIO: I do think it's easier to bridge the gap with a stranger/new friend...

HAYES: Sure.

VITTORIO: ...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.

HAYES: (Laughter).

VITTORIO: I'm not going to jump into them.

HAYES: Yeah, I'm probably not going to call my dad on the way home.

(LAUGHTER)

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 the conservative. She is 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.

HU: Dave, what's the goal in these conversations? Is it to find a political middle, to get to some sort of compromise?

ISAY: No. You know, we suggested people not talk about politics...

HU: OK.

ISAY: ...During the interview. So this is really about just recognizing each other's shared humanity. You know, 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's what this is about because we're sliding in the wrong direction in this country.

HU: And I know you have a friend, actually, who studies a lot of this...

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: ...John powell.

ISAY: Yeah. So john powell is a renowned attorney, civil rights attorney, and a professor at Berkeley. And he runs something called the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC, Berkeley. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN POWELL (PROFESSOR, UC BERKELEY): 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 who we are when our best selves. And some people will say, I'm not buying it. Don't buy it. But, you know, what's the alternative?

HU: I'm glad he 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?

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.

HU: Dave Isay, thank you so much for being here.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER (SINGER): (Singing) Every time I roll...

HU: That's from our live event in Birmingham, Ala., 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.

POWELL: You may 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, but we should not conflate them with people. And so we can hate white supremacy. We can hate anti-Black racism. But if that hate of white supremacy turns into hate of white people, we're in trouble.

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?

POWELL: You know, protest is another way of talking. You know, even in our personal relationship, we find ourselves sometimes shouting. Why are we 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, OK, now that you have everyone's attention, what do you want to say?

And really, what's happening in part is that we're at an inflection point. You know, there's an election coming up. Somebody's going to lose. Somebody's 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 wanted. And the question is, where do we turn? Do we turn on each other, or do we 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.

HU: That's civil rights attorney john powell there, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC, Berkeley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: When we come back...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS (PROTESTERS): Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets.

HU: ...Two people on opposite sides of a protest that threatened to turn violent on how they formed a life-changing bond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMINA AMDEEN (GENERAL PUBLIC): All my subconscious feelings and values just surfaced.

JOSEPH WEIDKNECHT (GENERAL PUBLIC): I'm genuinely not the same person I was.

HU: That's when we return with ONE SMALL STEP from NPR and StoryCorps. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: From NPR News, you're listening to ONE SMALL STEP, courageous conversations across a growing divide. It's a special broadcast about how we talk about our differences in these divided times. I'm Elise Hu, and with me from his home now is Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps and ONE SMALL STEP.

Hey, Dave.

ISAY: Hey, Elise.

HU: Well, just before the break, we heard part of that live event we recorded together in person in Birmingham. 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?

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 the 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 have seen each other as enemies or as less than human can see each other as humans again.

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.

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 geography. And people can have these conversations anywhere in the country, any time of the day.

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...

ISAY: Sure.

HU: ...That comes from another time where there were protests almost every day. It was back in November of 2016 after the last presidential election.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMDEEN: I noticed you with the hat, 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 hat off your head. And that's the point where I - something kind of snapped inside me...

WEIDKNECHT: (Laughter).

AMDEEN: ...Because I wear a Muslim hijab, and I've been in situations where people have tried to snatch it off my head.

WEIDKNECHT: Wow.

AMDEEN: And I rushed towards you, and I just started screaming, leave him alone. Give me that back.

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-OK moment. You are genuinely the only Muslim person I know.

AMDEEN: (Laughter).

WEIDKNECHT: I just - it's not that I've actively avoided. It's just...

AMDEEN: Yeah.

WEIDKNECHT: I've just never been in the position where I 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.

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.

WEIDKNECHT: (Laughter).

AMDEEN: You don't meet that Muslim.

WEIDKNECHT: Can you tell me about where you grew up? What was that part of your life like?

AMDEEN: So I was born in Baghdad, in Iraq. I moved to the U.S. when I was 10 years old.

WEIDKNECHT: OK.

AMDEEN: 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 grew up?

WEIDKNECHT: I was homeschooled. So 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 a public school one year of my life, and I got in three fights, and I lost all of them.

AMDEEN: Aww.

WEIDKNECHT: (Laughter) I've actually lost a lot of friends because of this election, because of 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.

AMDEEN: Yeah.

WEIDKNECHT: (Laughter) You know?

AMDEEN: I'd like for this to encourage other people to engage in more conversations...

WEIDKNECHT: Yeah.

AMDEEN: ...With people that you don't agree with.

WEIDKNECHT: That's what it's all about. I'm so glad I wasn't the only one who felt like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HU: That's such a lovely conversation.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: I know you've probably heard it and seen it a million times, but it's so powerful. And we are so lucky tonight because Amina Amdeen and Joe Weidknecht made the trip out here to join us tonight. Let's welcome Joe and Amina.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: There it is. There's the hat. And is it fair to say that you two formed a bond...

WEIDKNECHT: Absolutely.

HU: ...Over your hat?

WEIDKNECHT: Absolutely. We kind of, you know, had this mutual realization that, you know, four words don't define a person. And you've got to be able to, you know, break through and have a - you know, a conversation with someone.

AMDEEN: Yeah. I think it was just that moment was so powerful emotionally. It was definitely, like, a moment of vulnerability for me. And, you know, when people are vulnerable, they do form bonds, so we formed a bond after that time.

HU: It's been four years now because 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?

WEIDKNECHT: Honestly, it's been life-changing. I'm genuinely not the same person I was, you know, four years ago. I've learned to, you know, see through the veneer that people, you know, 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.

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.

AMDEEN: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I feel like whereas before, when I would hear somebody, you know, dehumanizing other people for having different beliefs, I would stay quiet. I would be, like, it's none of my business. But now it's really set in my mind a belief that I need to speak up in those moments, you know, and maybe kind of challenge people on what they take to be on the surface level of others.

WEIDKNECHT: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that I'm here having this conversation is proof enough that I've, you know, learned and grown from that situation.

HU: All right. On that note...

(APPLAUSE)

HU: ...Let's give a warm thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: That was Joe Weidknecht and Amina Amdeen live on stage in Birmingham, Ala. And I'm back in our home studios with Dave Isay of StoryCorps.

ISAY: Hi.

HU: Dave, I love listening to that. I imagine you've heard it so many more times than me. It's still so moving.

ISAY: Yeah - I mean, that image of Amina with a hijab and Joe with a Make America Great Again hat and that moment where they met at the rally - you know, there's a neurobiologist named Robert Sapolsky who has studied contact theory, and he talks about the secret sauce of contact theory being a visceral experience between the two people when they come together. And, you know, that's the very essence of a visceral experience.

HU: And then you told me about Robert Sapolsky and encouraged me to interview him, so I took you up on it.

ISAY: Yes.

HU: And he studies how our brains are wired to sort our fellow human beings into in-groups and out-groups. 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 (PROFESSOR, STANFORD UNIVERSITY): 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 and reacted.

What we also saw was right off the bat, the two of them were as unfamiliar to each other as you could imagine until Amina 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. 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...

HU: Yeah.

SAPOLSKY: ...And protected him.

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 uses and thems. It can be along gender lines. It can be around racial lines.

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 tenth of the second. We also do that sort of speed in 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 out there, we like the uses a whole lot more to the thems. And, in fact, we can be totally lousy to the thems.

HU: And the point being that we all belong to many different classifications, many different tribes, and it's always fluid and shifting.

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 who's one of them was walking towards them - and they'd be completely alarmed and unnerved. And if instead the two of them are sitting next to each other in some sports stadium and they're chanting the same thing together, like, each would kill to save the other sort of thing. Like, that's when you completely recategorize who's an us and a them.

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?

SAPOLSKY: Complexly, ubiquitously, critically.

HU: (Laughter).

SAPOLSKY: What may be the best way is - to sort of summarize that in soundbites, I think we are hardwired, like most other primates, to almost instantly divide the world into uses and thems and to not like the thems. At the same time, I think there is next to no hard-wiring - there's total malleability - as to who counts as 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.

HU: (Laughter).

SAPOLSKY: But who counts as what can change in an instant and is subject to teaching and learning and experience and all the above.

HU: That was Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. So, Dave, what we're hearing there is that we can change how we group one another.

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 an other and see them as OK, 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 who's different than you, that when you stop seeing them as an other, that it isn't just that one person who you see as OK, but that it generalizes across the entire group.

HU: Dave, and 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?

ISAY: Sure. So 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.

HU: Well, let's hear an excerpt from another one of those conversations.

ISAY: Sure.

HU: We'll go back to the stage in Birmingham where two locals, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HU: Can you get around there OK? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: Thank you for taking part in ONE SMALL STEP, but also in this follow-up conversation tonight.

DAVID WILSON (BYLINE): Thank you.

CASSANDRA ADAMS (GENERAL PUBLIC): Thank you.

HU: And when you all do this, as Dave mentioned, you kind of 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 yourselves? How did you describe yourself?

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...

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: ...That's pretty much it.

HU: David, what did you say?

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.

ADAMS: It was - you're from Boston.

WILSON: I am from Boston, which...

ADAMS: Yes.

WILSON: ...I don't like to say that down South because I get the damn Yankee thing...

HU: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: ...Which is worse than being a conservative, I think, down South. Am I right?

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Let's listen to your conversation.

WILSON: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAMS: Let me ask you this - when you read my bio, what did you think? And please be as honest as you feel comfortable 'cause nothing would bother me.

WILSON: So the first part - my mind kicked into stereotype. She's probably dyed-in-the-wool Democrat - end of story.

ADAMS: (Laughter).

WILSON: Second part was intriguing because you said something along the lines of an open mind. I thought, well, this will be interesting.

ADAMS: When I read your bio, I just thought you were a white man.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: I was going to come in here and just be like, OK...

WILSON: I don't even know what it was. I don't even remember what it was.

ADAMS: And that's what's so interesting to me is that I'm just like...

WILSON: (Laughter) Stereotype.

ADAMS: That's exactly right. So I have to admit it. And I appreciate you receiving that...

WILSON: Yeah.

ADAMS: ...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.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: I don't feel threatened. I hope you don't feel threatened. What - once we leave this conversation, I hope, I believe we'll have other conversations with others, maybe visit, maybe your wife and my husband, the four of us, can get together...

WILSON: Yeah.

ADAMS: ...And continue our conversation. But my point is that - what are we afraid of?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: I love that conversation, and I saw you cracking up with the rest of us.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: You did not have to share with David that you made the wrong assumption, but you chose to. Why?

ADAMS: Personal accountability.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: I could not live with myself...

HU: Yeah.

ADAMS: ...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 (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

HU: David, what about you? Is it fair to say that you made some assumptions, too?

WILSON: Just a little bit.

HU: OK.

WILSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Yes, I did. But I think we probably hit it off right at the beginning, and so we had a very fun conversation.

HU: That's David Wilson and Cassandra Adams, two participants in ONE SMALL STEP live on stage in Birmingham, Ala. 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.

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 - you know, there's 5%, 6%, 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.

HU: Thanks, Dave Isay of StoryCorps.

ISAY: Thanks, Elise.

HU: When we come back, two political junkies from either side of the aisle find a place to meet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICK ERICKSON (RADIO HOST): I don't know what either political party stands for anymore other...

LATOSHA BROWN (CO-FOUNDER, BLACK VOTERS MATTER FUND): I agree.

ERICKSON: ...Than the acquisition of power and rewarding their friends...

BROWN: Without question.

ERICKSON: ...And punishing the other side.

BROWN: It's like we're dealing with, like, it's the Super Bowl.

ERICKSON: Right.

BROWN: Which team are you on? And it's not we the people.

HU: I'm Elise Hu. That's when we return with ONE SMALL STEP.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: Welcome back. It's ONE SMALL STEP. I'm Elise Hu from NPR with Dave Isay from StoryCorps. Hey, Dave.

ISAY: Hi, Elise.

HU: So we've been listening to conversations from a live stage event that we recorded in Birmingham, Ala., all about creating space for conversation between people who might normally prefer to shout at each other. And, Dave, in these ONE SMALL STEP conversations that StoryCorps has been recording, you encourage people to avoid talking about politics.

ISAY: Right.

HU: But, inevitably, politics do come up, right?

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.

HU: We actually wanted to see how a ONE SMALL STEP conversation might go with two people who talk about politics for a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICKSON: You know, voter suppression really isn't a thing in the 21st century. Neither is voter fraud.

HU: The first is conservative commentator Erick Erickson. You may recognize that name from CNN or FOX.

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: And he has his own syndicated radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: ...That I myself, I went to the polls, and it took me hours. And the last time...

HU: She is an activist and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. This is LaTosha on MSNBC you're hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: And it's disproportionately 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. What's really...

HU: And LaTosha Brown and Erick Erickson are kind of the talking heads that you would expect to see arguing.

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: But that was not the vibe when they sat down a few months ago, face to face, for a ONE SMALL STEP conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICKSON: So tell me a little bit about yourself because we're just meeting for the first time.

BROWN: We are just meeting for the first time. So great meeting you.

ERICKSON: You, too.

BROWN: I'm a native of Alabama. So while I currently...

HU: As the conversation goes on, they eventually get around to talking about politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: You said that your parents were Democrats, and now you are a conservative radio host.

ERICKSON: Right, yeah.

BROWN: So I'm just interested - what was your path? And what does that mean?

ERICKSON: Yeah. Right.

BROWN: You know, 'cause I'm often...

HU: And as Erick talks about his conservative politics, he mentions that back in 2016, he didn't support Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICKSON: And we had friends turn 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. My...

HU: And, Dave, even though Erick has since decided to support the president and LaTosha actively does not, they eventually agreed on something pretty fundamental.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: I feel like we're caught up in this partisan quagmire.

ERICKSON: Oh, we are.

BROWN: And we can't get out of it. And so it's like we're dealing with, like, it's the Super Bowl.

ERICKSON: Right.

BROWN: Which team are you on? And it's not we the people.

ERICKSON: I just - I don't know what either political party stands for anymore other...

BROWN: I agree.

ERICKSON: ...Than the acquisition of power and...

BROWN: Without question.

ERICKSON: ...Rewarding their friends and punishing the other side. And I resent like hell that I've got to pick a side right now, when no side really reflects who I am or what I believe in.

BROWN: So, you know what? I - it's really interesting 'cause I feel the same exact way. You know, I feel - I am a political junkie. That's who I am. But like you, I am - come on, y'all. What - you know?

ERICKSON: Right.

BROWN: Like, when is this going to end?

HU: Dave, when you hear that, what do you think?

ISAY: Well, you know, the civility almost belies belief, right? But, you know, when we were on stage in Birmingham, there were moments of tension.

HU: Here's a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

ERICKSON: Yeah. You know, I actually have a better time and enjoy the company more of friends of mine with whom I disagree politically these days.

HU: OK.

ERICKSON: 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.

BROWN: You know, 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 have been people who I've had political differences with. But I think there is also this piece around people who I've had value differences with, and that's been extremely difficult for me.

You know, the end of the arc of racism is genocide. And so it's one thing to have a political belief that is just different, you know? But 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.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: Political organizer LaTosha Brown there with talk show host Erick Erickson. Dave, there's so much to unpack there.

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: But, first, how would you respond to what we just heard from LaTosha?

ISAY: I mean, I think what LaTosha says resonates so strongly, I mean, even more so today than it did when we were on stage in Birmingham. The - you know, 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.

HU: One other thing I want to ask you about is that on stage 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.

ISAY: I mean, I think that we're - you know, there's a multibillion-dollar, you know, 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.

HU: 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.

ISAY: Yeah.

HU: 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 (AUTHOR): Like, nobody in America is like, man, I just wish there was more arguing on TV.

HU: (Laughter).

RIPLEY: That is something I need more of. But in all of this is an assumption that what people need is simplicity, right? That doesn't work in high conflict. Like, 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, you know - you know, 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.

HU: You mentioned that we're in a period of high conflict. How do you define high conflict?

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 - is 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. Like, we think we know each other's heart, and we don't.

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 I want to know, what are better questions that we could ask of one another, whether they are strangers or even our loved ones?

RIPLEY: The No. 1 place to start is always with the personal. You know, where did your beliefs about abortion come from? Like, when did you first even hear about abortion? Like, do you remember? Like, how old were you? You know, start personal. And then are there words they use that surprise you? Like, 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? Like, say more about that. Where are you torn on this issue? What do you want to know about the other side? Like, 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, and she was talking about a couple who was just, like, at each other's throats about who was going to get the Legos. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Really?

RIPLEY: ...Who - you know, they're dividing their property. But what she was able to do is to get to what was underneath that, right? 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.

HU: Oh.

RIPLEY: Like, those are the favorite toy, you know? And so asking questions that kind of get to that.

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 - right? - and a time to win a battle for the soul of the country.

RIPLEY: Right.

HU: 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?

RIPLEY: There is a time to fight. I do think anger is important. But the biggest argument, you know, 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 each other feel heard. And there's some practical benefits of it, too. The value of having relationships across divides, particularly in communities, is like - you can prevent conflict from metastasizing.

HU: Yeah.

RIPLEY: So when you see, like, 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.

HU: Yeah.

RIPLEY: So, you know, we are in this country together. We're married to each other. Like, we cannot annihilate one another, you know? We have children together (laughter). Like, this is - you can get divorced, but you're still going to have to deal with each other.

HU: Journalist Amanda Ripley there with a reminder of the bottom line and kind of the reason you created this project, right, Dave?

ISAY: Yeah. I mean, I think so much of what Amanda said was exactly on point. You know, the questions have to be framed with respect and dignity. And since - over the summer, you know, we see it again - the danger of not having personal relationships with people in our communities and how the country can go up like a tinderbox if we don't have the right kind of communication with one another.

HU: And, you know, another thing that's come out in almost all these conversations we've had is the importance of complexity - right? - allowing people to talk about how they feel misunderstood in the first place...

ISAY: Absolutely.

HU: ...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 their prerecorded ONE SMALL STEP conversation for the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN SUELLENTROP (GENERAL PUBLIC): 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, like, somehow this radical evangelical avid Trump supporter.

NICOLE WATKINS (GENERAL PUBLIC): I see.

SUELLENTROP: And it's like, 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, like, that's not the public persona of what somebody who goes to D.C. to march for that is.

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.

SUELLENTROP: Yeah.

WATKINS: Right. And it's also worth mentioning - full disclosure, please don't run out of the room - I work for Planned Parenthood.

(LAUGHTER)

SUELLENTROP: Oh, no. I can't talk to you anymore. We have a policy against that.

(LAUGHTER)

SUELLENTROP: That gets my blood going a little bit. None of us are simple enough to be just thrown in a bucket. Like, 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.

WATKINS: Nuance I want on a bumper sticker. I...

(LAUGHTER)

WATKINS: If we can remember that when we have those conversations with each other, I think we'll get somewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: All right, let's welcome them - Nicole Watkins and Austin Suellentrop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIMMY HALL AND SOUTHERN CULTURE REVIVAL (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing, vocalizing). Doing what you want...

HU: Saved you the seats at the end.

WATKINS: Thank you.

HU: Welcome to my living room.

WATKINS: Thank you.

SUELLENTROP: This is delightful.

HU: (Laughter) Austin, what surprised you about meeting Nicole and your conversation?

(LAUGHTER)

SUELLENTROP: Oh, wow. Well, what was surprising and so pleasant was how easy it was to talk. You know, you've heard it a million times - we weren't that different in what we were - 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.

HU: And I liked how you brought up that because of your abortion stance, there's those who make other assumptions about you.

SUELLENTROP: Yeah.

HU: Can you say a little bit more about that?

SUELLENTROP: Yeah. I mean, anybody who takes a public stance on an issue that's controversial runs the risk of, well, making it easy for people to see what you stand for.

HU: Right.

SUELLENTROP: And, yeah, I check that box. I absolutely check that box. I don't check the select-all box.

HU: How is this and your experience with ONE SMALL STEP changed the way that you approach those who you might make these instant judgments about or those who you know are politically different from you?

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 I didn't - we always talk about the bubble, right? Like, you have this political bubble of people that you spend time with. But since I did ONE SMALL STEP, I'm actually - 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, right?

Like, 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, you know? 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.

HU: Austin, Nicole - thank you guys so much for participating and for coming back up here tonight.

(APPLAUSE)

SUELLENTROP: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: That's from our ONE SMALL STEP event on stage in Birmingham, Ala. And, Dave, before we go, can we talk about the future of this project?

ISAY: Sure.

HU: Especially now, after such a punishing year, what are the next steps for ONE SMALL STEP?

ISAY: So, Elise, you know, 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. You know, 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.

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.

ISAY: Thank you so much, Elise. Me, too.

HU: And to play us out, here's a little more musical inspiration from the end of our night on stage in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIMMY HALL AND SOUTHERN CULTURE REVIVAL: (Singing) Well, you say you've got the blues. You've got hold of both your shoes, yeah. Feel lonely and confused. You got to keep on smiling, just keep on smiling.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: And 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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