NEW YORK – A few years ago, Dave Isay started worrying about America as he saw the middle ground between the political parties vanish into what he calls “disconnection and a vast void.”
“I am not ever concerned about people arguing with each other, because that’s healthy,” Isay said. “But I was concerned with people treating one another with contempt.”
Isay, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, the winner of six Peabody awards and the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps, hatched an idea: The surest way to start rebuilding common ground, he decided, was to gather people of differing views and backgrounds to sit down and simply talk to each other.
It wouldn’t solve everything. But he felt it was a start, and he named his initiative accordingly: One Small Step.
One Small Step, which Isay established in 2018, is among a growing number of nonprofit initiatives whose aim is to narrow America's increasingly toxic political divide. Philanthropic groups, which by law must remain non-political, may be ideally suited to serve that goal. Foundations last year donated $57 million to such civic education and leadership programs, according to the research group Candid.
“One Small Step is all about this idea that we don’t have to treat each other with contempt — that you can look across the political divide and see each other as human beings,” Isay said.
Which is what Gail Robinson and Kate Gareau found themselves doing late last month in a discussion organized by One Small Step that will eventually be heard in a StoryCorps podcast.
Robinson is a 74-year-old retiree who served in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Gareau is a 42-year-old real estate agent.
The two women live in Richmond, about 20 minutes apart. Yet they'd never met and probably never would have, if not for their joint involvement in One Small Step. During an hour-long conversation, Robinson and Kate Gareau reflected on their families and their spirituality. For both women, though, the most powerful experience was recognizing their commonalities.
“I’ve been involved in racial reconciliation efforts going back to high school, when I was in the NAACP Youth Council,” Robinson said. “So this is something that’s very dear to my heart.”
“Our values are very similar,” she added. “I’ve never made judgments about people based on their political affiliation. That has nothing to do with your character — unless you act like an idiot. How we deal with each other — civility — matters. Dignity matters.”
Gareau, a political independent, arrived at a similar discovery.
“There is so much focus on people’s differences, especially where politics is concerned, that many forget how similar they are,” she said. “Between COVID and the election, we feel very insular, and we feel very separate. Showing we’re not is really important."
That hardly means the two agree on political or other issues.
“While we talked about politics — and I can guess where she stands and she may guess where I stand — we didn’t really talk about politics in finite terms,” Gareau said. “I really appreciate her and her perspective, and I feel like she really appreciates me and my perspective.”
After their conversation, Gareau and Robinson each reached out to StoryCorps to provide their contact information to the other. They plan to stay in touch and hope to meet in person once COVID-19 restrictions have eased.
As Isay describes it, One Small Step is predicated on the theories of Gordon Allport, a Harvard professor who studied the roots of prejudice and discrimination in the 1950s.
“When you put enemies face to face, and they have a visceral experience with one another, that sense of hate and fear can melt away and you can see the person in a new way,” Isay said.
Yet, he cautioned, "if you do it wrong, you can make things actually much worse.”
For that reason, StoryCorps began its new initiative gradually. But as One Small Step has developed, expansion has followed, with roughly 800 people meeting in pairs in about 40 cities. In Austin, Texas, for example, Amina Amdeen and Joseph Weidknecht discussed being on opposite sides at a rally protesting Donald Trump and yet still finding common ground. On the StoryCorps Connect app, a father and son strengthened their bond after decades of feeling distant from each other.
Some recorded conversations became part of the StoryCorps podcast or broadcast on NPR. Like all StoryCorps conversations, they were entered into the Library of Congress to be preserved as history. And this month, boosted by a national advertising campaign from The Ad Council, One Small Step is ready to grow even larger.
“The dream with One Small Step is that we convince the country it’s our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree, which is a complete moon shot,” Isay said.
In the interest of fostering evenhandedness, StoryCorps has engaged both liberal and conservative donors. One Small Step's donors include the Hearthland Foundation, funded by Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, well-known as progressive Hollywood donors, and the Charles Koch Institute, funded by the billionaire philanthropist known for his support of Republican candidates and conservative issues.
“We’ve long held a vision of a world where people collaborate to solve problems and respect each other as different,” said Sarah Ruger, director of free speech initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute. "What actually helps people connect across differences and builds those bridges? It turns out stories are one of the most powerful ways.”
Rachel Levin, executive director of The Hearthland Foundation, noted that as storytellers themselves, Spielberg and Capshaw recognize the potency of storytelling and have supported Isay’s work in StoryCorps for two decades. The USC Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg established in 1994, has worked to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
“Storytelling is key because you’re helping to humanize the other,” Levin said. “We live in such silos in our country. There’s something about hearing somebody else’s story, especially in audio. There’s something so intimate about that.”
"People need to know each other,” Levin added. “They need to understand each other’s experiences, their perspectives and One Small Step is helping that happen.”
Likewise, Ruger said it’s important for philanthropic groups to model the kind of partnerships they want to see in society.
“Innovation is the bottom line,” she said. “And innovations require intellectual challenges and diversity.”
Heidi Arthur, The Ad Council’s chief campaign development officer, said One Small Step matches her group’s Love Has No Labels campaign, which manages to “take the most divisive moments in our country and bring people messages of unity and hope around inclusion.” That campaign, launched in 2015, has included recent commercials addressing the rising number of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Arthur said. “But, you know, a lot of meaningful actions can add up to a real seismic shift in how people relate to each other.”
One Small Step was initially meant to be done face-to-face, with plans to take it online in 2023. But Isay said the pandemic changed that. Last April, with the help of communications platform Vonage, which donated $1 million in bandwidth to the project, One Small Step was up-and-running digitally.
“Remote interviews in some ways are more effective than face-to-face interviews because you don’t have to worry about geography,” Isay said. “These are still strangers coming together, and people just feel a little bit safer digitally.”
That feeling of safety may be a key to its success.
“There’s a place for shouting, but there’s also a place for whispering in people’s ears,” Isay said. “Change can happen that way, too. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to help the country take one small step back from this abyss that we’re standing at right now.”
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