Turning down the temperature: StoryCorps picks Richmond as a ‘One Small Step’ city

October 28, 2020 12:01 am

Protesters argue during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

David Isay knows StoryCorps’ latest move won’t go over well with everyone.

Getting strangers to talk to each other despite political differences — an attempt to bridge our deep divisions and recognize our common humanity that it calls One Small Step — isn’t exactly de rigueur.

“We know from polling that there are people on either end who have no interest in hearing the stories of other people,” he said.

Combat, both of the virtual and actual varieties, feels more of the moment than conversation.

In its promotional materials, One Small Step cites a 2019 study by Louisiana State University and University of Maryland professors that found “40 percent of people view the other party as ‘downright evil’; one in five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries ‘lack the traits to be considered fully human’; and about 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans think the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition were dead.”

But Isay is banking on research that suggests there’s an “exhausted majority” that’s ready to try find a way past perilous political polarization.

“We think that the people of Richmond have the courage to do this,” he told me in an interview Monday. Based on polling, research and a pilot with VPM, Richmond became one of four cities StoryCorps has picked in which to anchor One Small Step, which “invites two people who don’t know each other — and may not think they have a single thing in common — to take a moment to reflect upon and share what we care about and the dreams we have for our future generations.”

It builds on the venerable StoryCorps model, now about 17 years old, which has recorded interviews with more than 650,000 participants to store the wit, wisdom, heartbreak and humor of a huge variety of people at the Library of Congress.

Isay knows One Small Step is up against a multi-billion dollar social media and media complex invested in fomenting hate and division and a toxic political climate in which many brook no criticism, real or perceived, of their tribe.  “It’s a David and Goliath kind of insane moonshot effort,” he said.

But he also thinks it’s a crucial moment to try to stem the tide. Because when we start seeing political opponents as dangerous “others”  who need to be destroyed, rather than fellow Americans with whom we disagree, we’re on a slippery slope to horrific things.

“I became concerned about the dehumanization,” he said. “A democracy can’t survive in a swamp of mutual contempt.”

One Small Step, he says, is based on contact theory, which holds that under certain conditions, such as equal status and common goals, contact between groups can promote tolerance and acceptance.

“It’s not the answer to everything,” he said. “It’s a small attempt to help take down the temperature.”

While StoryCorps interviews have traditionally been face-to-face, these will be virtual as a result of the pandemic. To participate, you sign up here, after which you’ll answer some questions, get matched up with someone from across the political divide with whom you’ve got something in common, agree to ground rules and sit for a virtual meeting that will be recorded for posterity.

“The dream with this is we convince the country it’s our patriotic duty to see the humanity of people with which we disagree,” Isay said. “I hope people will have the courage to take this small step and listen to someone different than them and I promise they won’t regret it.”

Participants talk about their parents, their faiths and their life experiences, among other personal details. But, like many a family around the Thanksgiving table, there’s one thing they’re encouraged to steer clear of.

“We suggest that you don’t talk about politics,” Isay said. 

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]