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Introducing One Small Step

A blue and white graphic image of the United States with the words "Listen. Honor. Share." written in white lettering.
VPR and StoryCorps present One Small Step, a national project that aims to bridge the political divide and bring people closer together.

If you listen to VPR every Friday morning, you may be familiar with StoryCorps. The project features compelling, personal stories between individuals that have a connection or an existing relationship. One Small Step is an offshoot of StoryCorps, with a focus on connecting strangers who fall on opposite sides of a political divide. VPR is one of six stations nationally that have been selected to conduct One Small Step conversations in communities across Vermont. Vermont Edition Managing Editor Lydia Brown recently spoke with the project's local producers and facilitators, VPR's Betty Smith and Karen Anderson. Find transcript highlights of their conversation below or listen to the full audio in the player above.

Lydia Brown: Karen, I want to start with you. First, I'd love to have you explain to us, to our listeners, the difference between One Small Step and the StoryCorps conversations that we're accustomed to hearing here on VPR?

Karen Anderson: After the 2016 election, StoryCorps founder David Isay saw a growing need for a project that could bring Americans together to help counter the increasing political polarization. In his words, he believes it's our “patriotic duty to see the humanity in each other”. So he developed One Small Step in 2018. The first cohort was selected in 2019, to conduct conversations between two people who don't know each other that come from different political perspectives. The goal was to find common ground, to find value in each other and to understand one another better. As we get to know each other as humans, the hope is that we can remove some of that divisiveness and break down stereotypes. VPR was chosen as one of six public radio stations across the country this year, along with Alaska Public Media, Valley Public Radio, High Plains Public Radio, KOSU and KUNR. So the goal is really to bring people together who don't know each other and to find common ground.

Brown: Can you talk more about how VPR was selected to partake in this project? Why Vermont specifically?

Anderson: We had to apply to be considered for this project. And thankfully, we have a good relationship with StoryCorps and with our national partners.And so they took a serious look at Vermont, and they thought that Vermont would be a great place to do this kind of engagement work. This really is first and foremost an oral history project, a community archive, and it's a great opportunity to hear from listeners and to capture a snapshot in time.

Brown: Betty, I want to bring you into the conversation to tell us more walk us through the process. Explain to our listeners how you went about gathering these voices, these stories?

Betty Smith: Well, we put a notice up in a number of different places on our website. And we also placed ads, and we contacted community partners who we thought would put out the notice in their newsletters, and so forth. It was a really intensive effort of community outreach. We read the little bios that they put in place, and we tried to come up with good, what they call matches to people that look like they would have an interesting conversation. And there are a lot of different ways of going about deciding how they would interact. You have to have an essential difference in political or social views. But then you have to also look for things that are likely to allow them to come together to have shared interests of some sort or another.

Brown: What have you heard from Vermonters about their reasons for wanting to participate? What inspired them to sign up, and what do they hope to gain from participating?

Smith: Mostly, what we've heard is that people are concerned that we're losing the ability to talk to each other to resolve problems. The idea being that, if you retreat into a silo, the old echo chamber, you're only going to be considering things that you already know, and only going to be looking at opinions and views that you already hold. In order to move things along in a collaborative, democratic way, you've got to be able to listen to people that you wouldn't automatically agree with. In other words, work your way through the problem in a way that's going to satisfy or at least meet the needs of more and more people, a more equitable solution.

Anderson: One thing we've noticed is that Vermonters are really hungry for these conversations. We've had nearly 500 people sign up to participate in this program. If you look at the numbers across the country from other public radio stations participating, they're averaging about 75 to 100. So Vermonters want this kind of engagement, they want to have these conversations, which is really encouraging. One thing that we're hearing a lot in the pre-interview is that they desire connection, and they want to get outside of their bubbles. I think a lot of Vermonters are realizing that they tend to talk to people that are very like-minded, and they want to challenge themselves to talk to somebody different from themselves.

Brown: Can you talk us through your process — how you’re facilitating these conversations?

Anderson: One of the steps that we take is a pre-interview where we call up folks who have signed-up and we try to find out a little bit more about them - what inspired them to sign up, and what they hope to gain from participating in a program like this. And we want to know where they're coming from politically, what they're passionate about, and what is important to them. In the process, we're discovering a little bit about them: their personality, their hobbies, the things that they enjoy. That really helps us in the matching process, to be able to pair them with somebody who has different political viewpoints but they may have some similarities in other ways.

Brown: How many conversations have you recorded thus far? And tell me about some of the standout moments.

Anderson: We've recorded about 15 conversations and we have another 10 slated before the end of the year. The goal of the project is at least 25. We're hearing wonderful feedback from participants. The conversations really have been so positive, really beautiful connections are being made. We've had several conversations where participants have asked each other to get together for coffee. We had one where somebody invited his conversation participant to his Halloween party.

Smith: My favorite moments so far are the two fellows, one invited the other to come and visit him at his house and walk through the backfield to go see his waterfall. I thought that was very Vermont. We also have had a conversation between two people who are very serious about political views and very active in some very serious pursuits. They discovered in the course of things that they are both oil painters, and that they had taken an online course, and that they actually had the same teacher not at the same time, so they hadn't known one another. But, that was a moment of great discovery and surprise, at the end of their conversation.

Anderson: One other moment that stood out to me was two participants who were coming from very different political perspectives, but both love Star Wars. They even talked about getting together for a Star Wars marathon. That was just kind of a fun little moment of connection.

Brown: What's next for this for this One Small Step initiative?

Smith: Well, we need to finish the requirements for the grant. That's where the first focus goes. But we're in the process of trying to decide how to really meet this great interest that we've discovered is there. We have a special event coming up. That's on November 18, at 7pm. And I hope everybody is going to sign up to be part of that. And then beyond that. We know that there's an interest, there may be some initiative that we can think of beyond the end of the year, but we don't know what that might be yet.

Brown: Karen Anderson, Betty Smith, thank you so much for being here and for giving us your time to tell us more about One Small Step.

StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.