Taking One Small Step Toward a More Civil Society

July 17, 2023

PMDMC One Small Step

CPB President and CEO Pat Harrison, left, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, and StoryCorps CEO Sandra Clark at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Atlanta.

StoryCorps, the public media organization that connects people through one-on-one conversations, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year by bringing together not just loved ones, but also strangers who don’t agree politically to find common ground.

StoryCorps Founder Dave Isay and CEO Sandra Clark spoke with Pat Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, about their efforts to build a more civil society through StoryCorps’ One Small Step program. The conversation was held last week before an audience of more than 800 people at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Atlanta, with hundreds more watching it live online. Two One Small Step participants from Wichita, Kansas, shared how they gained valuable perspective from one another.

“My hope is that perhaps by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the nation, public media through our content and engagement will have inspired millions of civic small steps resulting in a renewal of our civil society and democracy,” Harrison said.

Launched five years ago with CPB support, One Small Step pairs strangers from opposite sides of the political spectrum for civil conversation under the premise that it’s hard to hate up close.

“Five or six years ago I became very concerned about the growing toxic effect in the country,” said Isay. “This is not about arguing with each other across the political divide, it’s what happens when you start to not see each other as human beings anymore.”

One Small Step participants Precious Smith and Ben Sauceda discovered they lived only a couple of miles apart in the Wichita area and yet worlds away – she as a special education teacher and certified Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network facilitator, and he as executive director of the Kansas Aviation Museum and member of the Park City (Kansas) City Council. And yet, in a discussion moderated by CPB’s Vice President of Radio Jacquie Gales Webb, they said they discovered common ground as foster parents and as coffee lovers, already talking like old friends just a week after their One Small Step discussion that was hosted by public radio station KMUW.

Take One Small Step, Wichita

“Differences don’t make us weaker, they really do strengthen us,” Sauceda said. “Neither of us changed our ideological beliefs, but hopefully, I can say from my end I’m going to have future appreciation for where someone’s coming from, whether I agree with them or not.”

Public media can help encourage people to get out and engage with others they may not agree with, Smith said. “We have to go and be willing to play in other people’s sandbox, and if you’re not willing to do that, you’re just in an echo chamber,” she said. “You have to do different things because you’re trying to get different results.”

StoryCorps has spent years testing the premise that we can build political civility by connecting people of differing political viewpoints to share common ground. They have found that One Small Step works well. Isay and Clark now want to scale it up to help more people across the country see the humanity in each other. Isay said that StoryCorps is focused on the 2024 elections, which are likely to be a difficult time for this country. “We want to make sure that we can take on every part of the country with this force for good,” he said.

So far, 29 public radio stations across the country have served as station hubs. Station staff work to facilitate respectful conversations between local residents. “Every facilitator who comes back from working on One Small Step … if you ask for what they've learned, they give a version of the Anne Frank quote that people are basically good,” Isay said.

“People are hungry for something anything  to do in the face of the divisions in the country,” Clark said. “And they are so profoundly grateful once they find out that One Small Step exists.”

Isay and Clark have recently added a new program, One Small Step Congress, recording conversations between members of Congress from opposing parties in an effort to detoxify the political discourse in Washington.

They played a video clip of Republican Congressman Tim Burchett of Tennessee and Democrat Dean Phillips of Minnesota. “They ended their conversation by saying, ‘I love you.’ That was not something I expected was going to happen,” Isay said.

One Small Step Congress 

In its 20-year history, StoryCorps has recorded conservations between more than 640,000 loved ones, all collected at the Library of Congress as an oral history of our times. Though far less than 1% of them air on NPR’s “Morning Edition” or on PBS, there’s something about putting people in front of a microphone that frees them to say things they often don’t get to say, Isay said.

“I think that's because this is about proximity and human connection, and people have realized that we've got a serious problem in our country with that, and StoryCorps and public media is one of the answers,” he said.

Clark joined StoryCorps in 2022 from public media station WHYY in Philadelphia, drawn by a commitment to connecting people and telling their stories. The daughter of a Japanese mother and an African American father, Clark grew up in Salina, Kansas, never seeing any images in the media that reflected who her family was. “One of the lessons of StoryCorps and One Small Step is that people just want to be heard,” she said. “So much of the problem in this country is people just don't feel like anybody is listening to them and we have the ability as public broadcasters to help people feel heard.”

One Small Step
CPB Vice President Jacquie Gales Webb, left, One Small Step participant Precious Smith, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, One Small Step participant Ben Sauceda, and StoryCorps CEO Sandra Clark at the PMDMC Conference in Atlanta. 

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