A look inside Vermont's One Small Step
It’s a safe assumption that you’ve probably been in a disagreement in the recent past. It could have been a divisive argument with family over politics, or with a stranger at the grocery store over pandemic regulations. Maybe it was something small, with your partner on whether or not to turn the thermostat up in November, or if ice cream that is pumped through a machine is called “soft-serve” or a creemee with someone who just moved to Vermont from another state.
StoryCorps One Small Step brings two strangers, who knowingly have opposing views, and facilitates the environment for them to have a civil discourse. My colleagues took many steps behind the scenes. We witnessed leaps of faith from participants. And with hundreds of Vermonters who jumped at the chance to be involved, we thought you might be a little curious about how it all went down.
Bethany Conner: Yeah, I don't know. Like, I weirdly, like, I have faith in this program. Like I have faith that the ground rules that we set up, and our own open mindedness will just lead the conversation to be interesting.
Alex Amsden: It's funny, when you were talking I was, like, oh, this is so interesting…I'm kind of the exact opposite from you.
We get sort of siloed in our adult lives, and we aren't exposed to people with different beliefs than our own very often.
One Small Step is a project of StoryCorps, a non-profit that seeks to preserve and share the stories of everyday Americans. You might recognize the name, as they actually came to Vermont in the fall of 2016 on their Mobile Booth tour. They parked a trailer with a recording studio inside at Burlington’s waterfront, where they recorded pairs of Vermonters who knew each other.
But with One Small Step, the people who get matched are unknown to each other.
Stacey Todd: In order for the idea to work, we need equal numbers of people who are left-leaning and right-leaning, and that's hard.
That was Stacey Todd, the national director for One Small Step. And she’s right. It is a hard ask; it’s not an everyday social interaction for most people.
Stacey: We get sort of siloed in our adult lives, and we aren't exposed to people with different beliefs than our own very often.
But Vermonters were up for the task. In just one month, from June to July, more than 300 Vermonters signed up online to take One Small Step.
We were surprised by the sheer volume of interest, but Stacey, who actually came back to live in Burlington briefly after the bus tour, thought it made sense.
Stacey: Vermont to me, it's really community-oriented, there's all these little pockets around Vermont, and everybody is really invested in the experience of what it means to live there.
So with all the volunteers, we were then facing a new issue: How do we decide who gets chosen for these conversations?
Five-hundred-twelve people wanted to participate in a project that was designed to accommodate 25 conversations. How do you choose?
Karen Anderson: Hi. I'm Karen Anderson, one of the One Small Step facilitators.
Betty Smith: And I'm Betty Smith, and I've been Karen's partner facilitator in the One Small Step project for VPR.
I asked Betty and Karen what they thought of the huge response from our listeners.
Betty: Mostly what surprised me was that the list kept growing. It didn't stop at 300. We ended up with something like 500.
There were many commonalities in the people who signed up, so we focused our attention on those who stood out, and finding them a match. We had a low number of sign-ups from conservatives, people below age 35, as well as people of color. VPR reached out to organizations and members of underrepresented communities, but that only went so far.
Betty: We made lists of people that we thought did in fact represent a group that we might not hear from that often. But it wasn't very successful to go outside of the list and try and invite people to come in who hadn't already decided that they were willing to have this sort of conversation.
We also had to consider the fact that there’s a heightened sensitivity in the world, where saying the “wrong thing” can draw unwanted attention or consequences from those who hear it, which was a reason for reluctance from some we reached out to.
Betty: In one case, one gentleman said he thought it would hurt his business, that he had lost business because he had taken a stand on conservative politics, so he didn't want to do it again.
Karen: We had a few people that had signed up initially, and when it came down to the pre-interview and then to scheduling them, they backed out for similar reasons. Their fear was that their words might be taken out of context.
One Small Step is a project that depends on mutual agreement and trust. Participants are given the opportunity to release their conversation to StoryCorps and the Library of Congress, but there’s no pressure for participants to do so if they feel uncomfortable sharing their conversation.
Most of our participants were brave enough to go through with having the conversation, especially the two young women we heard from earlier.
Bethany: Hi. So my name is Bethany, I’m 23. Today is Oct.18. I'm in Essex, Vermont. I'm talking to Alex. And we're here for One Small Step conversation.
Alex: And hi, I'm Alex Amdsen. I'm 19 years old. I'm currently in Burlington, Vermont, at the University of Vermont. And my conversation partner today is Bethany. And we're here for a One Small Step conversation.
Alex and Bethany were two of the younger participants we paired, They both found One Small Step in different ways: Bethany was working on an independent study at the University of Vermont that had similar goals to One Small Step, and her father referred our project as potential research for her; while Alex was recommended through an on-campus club of college Republicans, viewing it as an opportunity to develop her personality as a conservative woman.
Alex: When I came to UVM, last year, I had never identified myself openly as a conservative before.
After being here for a little over a year now, she’s become more established in that community. She’s the vice president for the chapter of the Network of Enlightened Women at UVM, and she’s expressed that her conservative beliefs are often met with passive-aggressiveness.
She describes a day where she and her group were set up on campus:
Alex: The reactions to us even tabling was very like, “Oh, there's conservatives on campus, like, what?” And some people would come up and kind of give us, like, dirty looks. And we kind of expected all of this… If they could only just sit and listen, and we could just chat, then that would be great. And I feel like this is just a great opportunity to do that. Just talk with a UVM student about that.
Before the two met, we allowed them to read their partner’s short bio. Here’s Bethany’s excited and unfiltered reaction:
Bethany: That’s so cool, oh, my gosh, I was not expecting to be paired with another college student. And honestly, my immediate reaction is to say, oh my gosh, this person should come do my study, because I am looking for Republicans at UVM. Like I never hear from Republicans at UVM. I feel like we have a really, really liberal culture.
With their own reasons for participating in One Small Step, they seemed to be a perfect match for each other.
Karen: I was a little nervous because it was two UVM students and I didn't know if maybe they had crossed paths before. But it was also exciting, too, because I knew they were coming from polar opposite perspectives, politically speaking. They were so incredibly respectful and thoughtful toward one another, and really engaged with each other on a deep level.
Is there something about my beliefs that you don't agree with but still respect?
As their conversation progressed, they had a lot of questions for each other.
Bethany: My first question, honestly was, how did you end up choosing UVM, I feel like it's known to be such a liberal college. And we were talking about how you, like actually came into your own and like, really identified as a conservative for the first time coming here. And I was just wondering if you could tell me about that journey, because I think that's really cool.
Alex: Who has been an influential person in your life, and what did they teach you?
Bethany: What does it mean to be Catholic to you?
Alex: Can you tell me a little bit more about what being progressive is to you?
Bethany: Do you believe in raising a minimum wage?
Alex: What are you thinking about today, with inflation, and when you're looking at gas prices rising, and food costs rising?
Not every moment was a snappy soundbite.
Alex: What were your other two questions?
Bethany: Oh, my gosh, I don't know if I can remember them. I'm so sorry. If they come back to me, I will ask you.
This conversation was not scripted.
Bethany: No, I lost it. I'm so sorry. We can continue. This is what it's like to talk to me. Wildly irritating.
Karen: No, it's not. This is real conversation. This is real life.
We had a feeling that they would have a good conversation, it was intentional that we matched them together. But the two girls brought it a step further, reaching out to each other to meet in person. It’s not uncommon for the participants of One Small Step to want to stay in contact.
Stacey: There were two men who went on to start a nonprofit organization together. They were strangers that were brought together by One Small Step, and they are on opposing sides of the political divide, but they're working together to make their community better. There's just little stories like that all over the country.
Alex and Bethany grabbed coffee together on UVM’s campus shortly after we facilitated their chat.
Karen: It was evident from the moment they began talking in their One Small Step conversation, that they had a connection, and I hoped that they would continue to talk, and they said that they wanted to at the end of their conversation. And so for me as a facilitator, to hear after the fact that they had indeed met up in person, that was really exciting. That’s a goal of the program, but it’s kind of like the icing on the cake.
I asked the girls if they’d be willing to do something like this again.
Alex: And it's funny, I almost emailed Karen after, and asked if I could do it again with someone, because I know that you don't have a lot of conservatives. So I would totally be up for doing this or something similar in the future.
Bethany: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. And I would do something like this again, because I had such a positive experience. And I also just want to say thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for connecting us.
As the project has come to an end, my colleagues who worked on One Small Step are hoping to continue facilitating similar moments, and we hope that Vermonters will step up and be part of it.
Karen: I'm just excited to see One Small Step move forward into the future. We don't know exactly what that will look like or what it could look like, but I think we all realize that these conversations are important.
We’d like to thank all of those who participated, those who signed up, and our listeners who’ve been following the One Small Step project. For VPR and Vermont PBS, I’m Bryant Denton.