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

Turning down the temperature: StoryCorps picks Richmond as a ‘One Small Step’ city
Protesters argue during a "Reopen Virginia Rally" in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Source: 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.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.