The One Small Step initiative has selected Wichita to help narrow the political divide. Learn how Wichita is setting an example for the rest of the country.
IT ALL STARTS WITH ONE SMALL STEP
There is a chasm in our community. And while Wichita struggles with many forms of tribalism, the political divide between residents has significantly expanded over the last few years. It’s a division that has wide-reaching consequences including our ability to attract and retain talent.
Research shows that two-thirds of Wichitans feel the city is currently more divided than at any point in their lifetimes and more than one-third have had personal relationships harmed by political disagreements in the past year. If this alarming trajectory continues, it threatens to permanently alter how we communicate, see and understand our neighbors.
This issue is not exclusive to Wichita, but rather indicative of a larger problem. According to a recent CBS News poll, more than 50% of Americans today view other people in America, not foreign adversaries, as the biggest potential threat to their way of life. It has become so severe, many across the nation wonder if it can be mended. Despite this daunting challenge, there’s a group dedicated to closing this rift little by little. And they believe Wichitans have the courage to help.
A STORYCORPS INITIATIVE
One Small Step revolves around a simple idea – to narrow the gap across the country through conversation. Two volunteers from the same community with differing political views are paired together. A facilitator then engages them in a dialogue with one another, not about politics, but about who they are. The goal of these conversations is to show people their shared humanity and remind them that they have more in common than what divides them.
The One Small Step initiative was created by StoryCorps, the non-profit organization that records, preserves and presents stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. Since its founding in Grand Central Terminal in 2003, StoryCorps has had about 650,000 participants, which makes it the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.
“The idea [for StoryCorps] was you bring anyone who you want to honor to this sacred space and you would listen to their story and ask questions of this loved one,” shared Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and recipient of numerous broadcasting honors including six Peabody Awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship. “It became ‘If I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to, or ask this person who is so important to me.’ Because of the nature of what's talked about in these interviews, we're kind of collecting the wisdom of humanity.”
The inception of One Small Step occurred while Isay was watching television. After witnessing the divides in the country come to a head during a presidential debate, it dawned on Isay that the StoryCorps model could be used to help. Over the next few years, they created and honed a methodology based on contact theory. This theory suggests that face-to-face contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance.
“It’s hard to hate up close,” said Isay. “We need to normalize these conversations to remind ourselves it’s not okay to treat people as less than human across the divides.”
After careful and successful testing, One Small Step set out to find cities ready to put their best foot forward. Local NPR affiliates from across the country applied. The criterion was politically diverse cities with culturally, historically and demographically distinct communities. In 2020, it was announced that Wichita would become an anchor location for the One Small Step initiative.
THE WICHITA EXPERIENCE
“We chose four cities where we thought that the folks in those cities have the courage to listen to each other,” said Isay. “We’re really excited about the conversations coming out of KMUW. The stakes are so high in this country and we believe in Wichita.”
KMUW is the local, public service NPR station for Wichita that provides city and regional investigations, stories and news. Since Wichita’s One Small Step selection in 2020, the station has been tasked with securing participants, organizing conversations with residents and sharing a select number of these discussions with listeners. Sarah Jane Crespo, director of community engagement at KMUW, was pivotal in bringing the initiative to the city. She’s also served as its main facilitator, conducting 26 conversations to-date.
“I've always seen the station as a community-building organization,” said Crespo. “This project is something that really jives with that whole mission. We live right here with other people who believe things differently than we do and have different opinions and values. But as humans, we need to be able to relate to one another.”
As a witness to these discussions, Crespo has marveled at the trends and insights she’s gained from her fellow Wichitans.
“There’s an incredible mirror reflection of thoughts and opinions from people on both sides,” reflected Crespo. “It was amazing how many times there were almost the exact same opinion or thought of others on the ‘other side.’ It's so easy to just jump to a conclusion when you don't actually know who it is you're making a conclusion about.”
While the data is still out on the initiative, both Crespo and Isay separately noted a trend that leaves them confident in the positive impact One Small Step is making.
“Almost every interview ends in the same way,” said Isay. “People say to each other, ‘I want to continue this conversation. Can you give me your phone number? Let's have dinner when the pandemic's over. Do you want to talk on the phone next week?’ It’s almost eerie when you listened to the endings of these interviews, how similar they all are.
“I had a couple of pairs that, after [the recording], literally got on the phone with each other and talked for another two hours. I know many are friends today and have formed relationships that are ongoing. It’s lovely to see,” added Crespo.
ON THE HORIZON
To those involved, this project is viewed as a public health initiative tackling the dangers of contempt and the effects it has on our communities and ourselves. But it’s also had to navigate through a different public health crisis. Thankfully, due to video conferencing, One Small Step has been able to continue its “face-to-face” experience of listening to a stranger.
“What was important for us was to still have the intimacy of an in-person conversation,” shared Isay. “I think it’s actually been a game changer for our ability and has opened up new opportunities to scale this thing.”
Crespo and Isay both believe that their work is now more important than ever. After the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, there’s a heavy spotlight shining across the political chasm and they hope that more people are willing to come to the table.
“We hope that people are tired of this divide and want better for their kids,” Isay stated. “I hope they're asking, ‘What can I do?’ One thing they can do to help is record one of these interviews. Let’s try to take this one small step.”
In Wichita, One Small Step is expanding its presence. KMUW is actively looking for more participants for new conversations. And they’re hoping to continue until everyone who wants to participate can – bridging the gap in our city providing a roadmap for the rest of the nation.
“[One Small Step] is about seeing your neighbor for the individual and unique person that they are. It’s allowing them to tell you something true about themselves, and then for you to do the same. It’s embracing that vulnerability,” discussed Crespo. “The conversations I have facilitated have made me very proud of Wichita. I think with what we have done in 2020, and what we're continuing to do now, we’re showing the nation it’s possible.”
DO WICHITANS HAVE THE COURAGE?
Isay, Crespo and One Small Step have put their faith in Wichita. But the question remains: Can Wichitans set aside its tribalism and come together?
Only you can answer that. Do you want to learn more about your neighbors even if they don’t agree with you? Do you want to be understood? Who’s willing to have difficult conversations to make Wichita a better place?