StoryCorps seeking to bridge political divide 1 conversation at a time

"If you do it right, something pretty extraordinary can happen."

January 19, 2021, 7:40 PM

StoryCorps was founded in 2003 to help foster conversations, and with Americans more divided politically than ever before, founder Dave Isay is working to help bridge those gaps -- one conversation at a time.

In response to the changing political climate, Isay launched a new StoryCorps Initiative called One Small Step.

"It became really evident the kind of dehumanization that was going on across the country, so we created a new way -- we put strangers together across the political divide," Isay explained.

The idea is based on contact theory, a sociological concept where person-to-person contact can reduce friction among individuals.

PHOTO: John Partipilo and Reggie Ford are pictured in a promotional image for StoryCorps' One Small Step.
John Partipilo and Reggie Ford are pictured in a promotional image for StoryCorps' One Small Step.
StoryCorps

"Under very specific conditions, if you put people who think of themselves as enemies face to face for an emotional experience, that sense of hate can melt away, and you can see that person in a new light," Isay said. "If you do it wrong, you can make things much worse, but if you do it right, something pretty extraordinary can happen."

Those participating in One Small Step are asked to write a short autobiography of themselves -- what's most important to them, what their parents are like, how they want to be remembered -- and have a partner read it back. This fosters dialogue and nudges the participants to see each other as people, not just a political party.

After the 2016 election, political division skyrocketed in the U.S., not just among the two major parties but individuals -- 40% of Americans reported increasing tension among their inner circle of friends and family.

For Elise Chavez, a Democrat, and Jennifer Szambecki, a Republican, something extraordinary did happen participating One Small Step: They became friends.

PHOTO: Jennifer Szambecki and Elise Chavez of Wichita, Kan., speak via video chat as part of the StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series, Aug. 12, 2020.
Jennifer Szambecki and Elise Chavez of Wichita, Kan., speak via video chat as part of the StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series, Aug. 12, 2020.
Courtesy StoryCorps
PHOTO: Jerry Pentecost and Hal Cato are pictured in a promotional image for StoryCorps' One Small Step.
Jerry Pentecost and Hal Cato are pictured in a promotional image for StoryCorps' One Small Step.
StoryCorps

"It was a real joy to have the conversation -- it went way too fast," Szambecki said. "I had a really lovely time, just asking each other great questions about our upbringing and how we came to our political beliefs. We spent more time in our conversation, talking about our journeys than our political beliefs."

Chavez was raised with more conservative beliefs but became more liberal as she got older.

"When Trump was elected, like a lot of people, I was really upset about it. I was kind of confused because I knew it meant that half the country had voted for this guy -- it kind of freaked me out," Chavez said. "But my response, instead of just being upset about it, was, I wanted to find out why people were voting for him so that I can understand and just be less judgmental about it."

And that's exactly what Isay said he's aiming for.

"StoryCorps is really about listening," he said. "It's just taking the time to listen to someone who is different than you and maybe learning something new, and seeing people in in a new way."

PHOTO: President and Founder, StoryCorps Dave Isay speaks at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Headquarters on Nov. 7, 2015, in New York.
President and Founder, StoryCorps Dave Isay speaks at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Headquarters on Nov. 7, 2015, in New York.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images, FILE
PHOTO: Marty Handlon of Alabama and Mel Pine of Washington, D.C., chat via video for the StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series on Dec. 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
Marty Handlon of Alabama and Mel Pine of Washington, D.C., chat via video for the StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series on Dec. 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

"It's our patriotic duty," Isay added, "to see the humanity in people who we disagree with."

Recent research by PRRI, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, showed that almost half the country and 80% of Democrats believed the Republican party had become the party for racism. On the flip side, about half overall and about 80% of Republicans said they thought the Democratic Party supported socialism.

"It's easy to look at the Twitter rage echo chamber and believe that people with opposing views can only speak with each other or relate to each other in anger or in frustration or even with vitriol," Szambecki said. "But I know that there are people who share my desire to be able to talk about these topics, with curiosity and compassion and love."

Chavez added: "I found out there were Trump supporters in my close circle, and I had assumed there weren't, and I had to reconcile to myself, 'What is a Trump supporter? Are they scary?' Because this person I know and love is a good person. I know they're a good person so they can't be terrible."

PHOTO: Al Wood of Birmingham, Ala., has a video conversation with Kristy Kaufmann of Washington, D.C., for WAMU's StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series, Dec. 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
Al Wood of Birmingham, Ala., has a video conversation with Kristy Kaufmann of Washington, D.C., for WAMU's StoryCorps "One Small Step" conversation series that connects normal "Trump Country" residents and East Coasters for conversations, Dec. 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

After a mob of Donald Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, during which five people died and which led to Trump becoming the first president to be impeached twice, an Ipsos poll still showed that nearly 1 in 5 Americans supported the rioters' actions. But there are glimmers of hope, with 78% in another poll saying that they believe the incoming administration will help lessen political divisions.

"Democracy can't survive in a swamp of mutual contempt," Isay said. "So the idea is just to be reminded that someone who you're hearing about in your media bubble is maybe more complicated and maybe more human than one would assume."

Editor's note: An earlier version of his story misspelled the name of the founder of StoryCorps. It is Dave Isay, not Dave Issay. ABC News regrets the error.