Bridging America's political divide with conversations, "One Small Step" at a time
This past Thursday marked the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, when an angry mob tried and failed to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. The insurrection's only success was to further polarize a country already divided. Tonight we'll introduce you to someone attempting to bridge that divide. Dave Isay has created a program called "One Small Step" to get Americans from across the political spectrum to stop demonizing one another and start communicating -- face to face, one conversation at a time. "One Small Step" grew out of "StoryCorps'-- the oral history project Dave Isay founded 18 years ago. It has taped more than half a million Americans telling their stories – to become the largest single collection of human voices ever recorded, with one aim at its core.
Dave Isay: What if we just give the entire country the chance to be listened to and have a chance to talk about, you know, who they are?
Norah O'Donnell: Do you think part of the problem we're having in America is that people are so angry because they don't feel like anybody's listening to them?
Dave Isay: Yeah. I think people feel-- people feel misunderstood and judged and heard. You know, nobody has ever, in the-- in the history of humanity no-- nobody's ever changed their mind because-- by being called an idiot or a moron or a snowflake.
But, you know, many minds have been changed by being listened to, by conversation, being told that they're loved.
Norah O'Donnell: Something that we would all consider maybe so simple is so powerful.
Dave Isay: Yeah, being told that, all of our stories matter equally and infinitely, is-- you know, is-- is something everyone needs to hear.
Dave Isay seems to always be listening, always taking notes, even during our interview.
He told us journalism should be a public service and now hopes that "One Small Step" can help end what he calls the "culture of contempt" that is tearing apart the country.
Dave Isay: The situation is so bad that, you know, if-- if the culture of contempt wins-- things are just not gonna end well for the United States.
Norah O'Donnell: What's fueling the culture of contempt?
Dave Isay: It's media. It's social media. I mean, there's a multi-multi-multi-billion dollar hate industrial complex, where people-- you know, can make money by making us hate and fear each other. It's a little bit of a David and Goliath fight here.
Long before he started StoryCorps and "One Small Step," Dave Isay fought to tell stories of the forgotten by making radio documentaries in flophouses, coal mines, and public housing projects.
He first appeared on 60 Minutes nearly 25 years ago, in a story with Lesley Stahl about two teenagers from Chicago who made their own documentary with his help. The pair won a Peabody Award, one of the highest honors in broadcasting.
In 2003, he got the idea for StoryCorps.
Dave Isay: Everybody, my family, everybody thought it was absolutely insane. You know, we (LAUGHTER) started-- we started with a booth in Grand Central Terminal. And it's a very simple idea. You come to the booth with your grandmother, with anyone who you wanna honor by listening to them. So 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?"
To attract people, he reached out to the people's library, specifically the director of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center.
Dave Isay: And I said, "I'm gonna try and record the whole country. Will you accept the material?" And she said those magical three letters, "Yes." (LAUGH) And that was it. And here we are.
The StoryCorps archive is in good company at what is the largest library in the world. Other treasures here include a rare Gutenberg Bible, as well as a draft of the Declaration of Independence handwritten by Thomas Jefferson and a preliminary draft of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Dr. Carla Hayden serves as the librarian of Congress. Until recently it was a lifetime appointment, so only 14 people have held the job since 1802.
Norah O'Donnell: How does having StoryCorps here fit into your vision for the Library of Congress?
Dr. Carla Hayden: StoryCorps is an important part of adding history and context and the individuals who make history. Not just the ones that we see on the news, but the people who are part of the fabric of our American life. The everyday people, what did they feel, what do they believe?
To try to find out, StoryCorps rolled out a mobile booth in 2005 to travel the country. They also launched partnerships and story collection programs in multiple American cities.
When the pandemic hit, they created a new way for people to submit stories online.
Every Friday, for the last 16 years, National Public Radio sends one story into the homes, headphones, and cars of 6 million people.
We were recently at NPR's Washington studio to hear "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep introduce the story of Miguel Encinias, a decorated fighter pilot who passed away in 2016 at the age of 92.
Steve Inskeep: He served as a U.S. military pilot in World War II and Korea and Vietnam… Two of his children, Isabel and Juan Pablo Encinias, came to StoryCorps to remember him.
Isabel Encinias: When I was little, I remember him flying in-- in his fighter jet and us waiting for him on the tarmac and thinking, 'Oh my God, what a hero my father is.'
Juan-Pablo Encinias: As he got older, he was diagnosed with dementia. But even at the end, when he cognitively wasn't all there, he would hear a plane and just look up and stare at it in the sky. And you could tell that he just wanted to be up in that plane with every ounce of his being.
Isabel Encinias: Maybe he's listening to us somewhere up there. [laughs]
Juan-Pablo Encinias: I hope so.
Dave Isay: Sometimes-- in an interview you can almost see sparks flying out of someone's mouth. There's-- there's just this kind of magnificence and grace to the story. And those are the ones where you just-- it-- it almost demands to be shared with a larger audience.
In 2010, StoryCorps began to animate conversations to be viewed by new audiences online, like one recorded in Mississippi between Albert Sykes and his 9-year-old son Aidan.
Aidan Sykes: Are you proud of me?
Albert Sykes: Of course. You my man. I-- I just love everything about you, period.
Aidan Sykes: The thing I love about you, you never give up on me. That's one of the things I will always remember about my dad.
Norah O'Donnell: Have you thought about selling Kleenexes? (LAUGH) You could make a lot of money.
Dave Isay: We've always wanted to get Kleenex as a sponsor, but they've never agreed. (LAUGH)
Only a tiny fraction of StoryCorps' hundreds of thousands of stories ever make it onto the radio. They're selected by StoryCorps' facilitators, who make up the actual corps of StoryCorps.
Facilitators are trained in both the art and the technical aspects of story collection.
Jason Reynolds serves on StoryCorps' board of directors. He's also one of the most popular and celebrated young adult authors in the country. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, he was a facilitator who conducted close to 300 storycorps sessions over 18 months.
Jason Reynolds: I felt like I was privy to something special, something sacred, you know, and something that would last forever. You know, and no one would know that I'm in the room, right? But I was in the room for some of the most beautiful tales I've ever heard.
Norah O'Donnell: So it sounds like what you heard in the booth is very different than what people may hear on the radio?
Jason Reynolds: Absolutely. Sometimes you can almost hear the anxiety of it all. And other times you can hear-- the gentle tenderness of human beings.
Dave Isay: I think StoryCorps and the facilitators, they get to see, you know, who we really are as Americans. And it's not what you see on 24-hour news.
Around the time of the 2016 presidential election, Dave Isay says he got the idea for a new kind of StoryCorps that could perhaps help unite a country becoming increasingly divided. He decided to call it "One Small Step."
Norah O'Donnell: What's the difference between regular StoryCorps and One Small Step?
Dave Isay: So every regular StoryCorps interview are people who know and love each other. And every One Small Step interview are strangers. And in the case of One Small Step, it's people who are across the political divide.
Dave Isay: So we match strangers who disagree politically to put them face-to-face for 50 minutes. It's not to talk about politics, it's just to talk about your lives.
Facilitators begin by asking the participants to read one another's biography out loud, as in this recent session in Richmond, Virginia. The project tries to match people who may be from different political parties but have something else in common.
Brenda Brown-Grooms: "Hi. I grew up as an Army brat and-- and evangelical Christian surrounded by a very powerful ideology of conservatism, patriotism, and religion."
Nicole Unice: "I am a Baptist pastor and performance artist, a native Charlottesvillian, graduate of the University of Virginia, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City."
Participants are encouraged to focus on what they share.
Brenda Brown-Grooms: We're pastors, and we're-- we-- we're helping people to find their path and find their voice.
Nicole Unice: Oh, Brenda, I love what you just said about helping people find their path, because I feel such a connection there.
The format is derived from a psychological concept developed in the 1950s called contact theory.
Dave Isay: Which says that when you have-- two people who are enemies and you put them face-to-face under very, very specific conditions-- and they have a conversation and a kind of visceral, emotional experience with each other, that hate-- can melt away. And people can see each other in a new way.
Nicole Unice: I'm here because I thought, "I want to be a part of a better world for our children and our grandchildren."
Brenda Brown-Grooms: Yeah. Yeah. I can't save the whole world, but I can do my part where I am. And, dagnabbit, I'm going to. (LAUGH)
One Small Step just crossed the not so small milestone of completing 1,000 sessions and there are over 6,000 people on the waiting list.
Dave Isay: So I'm just going to give you a quick rundown on what's been going on with One Small Step since we last spoke.
Once a month, Dave Isay meets with what he calls One Small Step's braintrust. It includes social psychology professors from Yale and Columbia, former political advisers from both the right and the left and pollsters who've found data to support the idea that there is an "exhausted majority" in America.
Dave Isay: They're tired, they're scared, they're sick of the division, and they wanna figure out a way out. And we've gotta figure out-- we've gotta give them a way out.
Dave Isay makes it a point to venture outside of StoryCorps' home turf on NPR to increase the project's reach.
Tucker Carlson to Dave Isay: I have no idea what your politics are, which is one of the reasons I like you so much, because I don't think you are primarily political, you are really interested in bringing people together.
Norah O'Donnell: You actively seek out media outlets that appeal to conservatives-
Dave Isay: Yes--
Norah O'Donnell: like Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck.
Dave Isay: Yeah, you know, I think what makes One Small Step special is that all of us believe in every cell of our body that there is a flame of good in you, whether you're liberal or whether you're conservative. And our job is to fan that flame until it becomes a roaring fire.
Jason Reynolds: I take my hat off to Dave. I think-- I think once more he's proving that, like, he-- he-- he's willing to walk the walk.
Norah O'Donnell: When you heard about the One Small Step Initiative, what did you think?
Jason Reynolds: It is very, very difficult for us to hate one another when I'm looking you in the face, and we're talking about what we like to s-- cook our children for dinner. And we talking about how difficult it is to get our babies into college. It isn't an easy fix, it isn't some kind of hocus pocus wh-- or, you know, kumbaya, or it's all fine. It isn't any of that, He knows that. But somebody got to do something,
Dave Isay: Our dream with One Small Step is that we convince the country that it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree.
Norah O'Donnell: It's gonna take a lotta stories to bring this country together.
Dave Isay: We're banking on-- a bit of a miracle here. You just don't give up.
Produced by Keith Sharman. Associate producers, Kate Morris and Olivia Rinaldi. Broadcast associate, Eliza Costas. Edited by Robert Zimet.
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