Episode 18 - Wichita State and One Small Step

Episode 18 October 09, 2023 00:26:53
Episode 18 - Wichita State and One Small Step
Forward Together
Episode 18 - Wichita State and One Small Step

Oct 09 2023 | 00:26:53

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Show Notes

Join Wichita State President Rick Muma when he talks with Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and One Small Step. Designed to “remind the country of the humanity in all of us,” One Small Step brings people with different political views together to record a facilitated 50-minute conversation. The moderator asks questions to keep the conversation moving. The focus is on the lives of the participants, not politics. Wichita is one of four anchor communities working closely with One Small Step and StoryCorps. The “Forward Together” podcast celebrates the vision and mission of Wichita State University. In each episode, President Rick […]
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Episode Transcript

[00:00:06] Speaker A: Hello, and welcome to the Ford Together podcast. I'm Wichita State University President Rick Newman. My guest today is Dave ISAE, founder of StoryCore, a project with a mission to preserve and share humanity's stories and build connections among people and create a more just and compassionate world. As an offshoot of Corps, Dave created One Small Step, which brings together strangers with different political views to record a 50 minutes conversation, not to debate politics, but to learn more about who they are as people. Wichita is one of four anchor communities working closely with One Small Step and Dave to address what he calls a toxic polarization enveloping the country. The project started with 25 virtual conversations between Wichita area residents in 2020, facilitated through KMUW, Wichita Public Radio, and continues to expand. So, Dave, good to see you. I was at the Chamber event a couple of years ago where you spoke to the community members here in Wichita, and I always thought it'd be great to have an additional conversation since we're working with you as a university and your organization and KMUW, which is our NPR station. So we wanted to connect with you again and give people another opportunity to hear from you. So sound good? [00:01:26] Speaker B: That sounds great. Thanks. [00:01:27] Speaker A: Yeah. So, I know that you've been on several national media programs, but just for our listeners, could you give us a quick understanding of why you started this One Small Step? [00:01:46] Speaker B: And I'm thrilled to be on here. We're huge fans of KMUW. It's a big part of why we're in Wichita and Wichita State University as well. And it's a privilege to speak with you. So I'll take you back before the creation of one small step. I founded an organization called StoryCore 20 years ago. And are you familiar with that President? Yeah, it's a very simple idea. I was a radio documentary producer for decades before starting StoryCore and was always interested in the public service use of audio, as opposed to kind of entertainment or at the best, tying those together. But how can we use audio to make people's lives better? And had this kind of crazy idea. We are based in New York, and we put a booth in Grand Central Terminal, which is the big train station here, where you can bring anyone who you want to honor by listening to their story. Your grandma, your mom friend, your kid. You come to this booth. You're met by a facilitator who works for Story Corps who brings you inside. The door shuts, you're in Grand Central Terminal, but you're in complete silence. The lights are low. It's kind of a sacred space. Facilitator in the corner, you and your grandma, two mics. And for 40 minutes, you ask questions and you listen. And from the very beginning of StoryCore, people thought of this as if I had their 40 minutes sessions. If I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to this person? Who's so important to me. So very intense conversations. At the end of the 40 minutes you get a copy and another stays with us and goes to the Library of Congress so your great great great great grandkids can get to know your grandmother through her voice and story. And over the years it got extremely popular. We launched special airstream trailers to travel the country and now we've had about 700,000 people participate. The largest collection of human voices ever gathered, single collection. And essentially what's happening is we're collecting the wisdom of humanity. People say the important things to the people who are the most important to them and ask those important questions and feel safe to have conversation. It reminds me in some ways of this is not like great promotion and my communications, people don't like when I say it, but it's got some similarity in some ways with hospice care. That what they say in hospice is when you're dying or you have a loved one who's dying, there's four things that you want to say to them or you want to say to your loved one if you're dying. Thank you. I love you, forgive me. I forgive you. And in many ways that's what happens in StoryCore booths. People aren't actively dying for the most part whenever they're having these conversations, but they're having the most important conversations, the deepest, most profound conversations, saying the things that need to be said to the people who are most important to them. And then we do excerpts of these stories that air on KMUW and we do animations that have been seen by hundreds of millions or a billion people. And these stories are just who we are, the opposite of reality TV. No one comes to StoryCore to get rich, no one comes to get famous. It's an act of generosity and love and really who we really are as Americans, I think, which kind of ties into what one small step is all about. I, as founder of StoryCore Again, a nonprofit that started out with just a few people, were now quite large and really in the experts in how human beings connect with one another. And up until very recently, all of the many hundreds of thousands of people who've participated in StoryCore and growing have known and loved each other. And I became concerned around 2015 with the growing political polarization, toxic polarization in the country. Not the fact that we disagree with each other, which is fantastic, that's what a democracy is all about. But that more and more across the political divides, we're not seeing each other as human beings. And it's gotten significantly worse since we started thinking about this. As you know, the statistics are not good. Four in five voters now describe the other side as brainwashed and hateful. Only one in ten voters regard people with different politics as theirs as reasonable. And this is extremely dangerous. Toxic polarization. Not seeing the human being across divides from us. And we started thinking about whether there was anything we could do to help. And developed a new methodology of doing story corps that Put strangers across the political divide together. Not to talk about politics, but just get to know each other as human beings under the then premise and now truth that it's hard to hate up close and are kind of furiously trying to scale this thing with multibillion dollar kind of fear and hate industrial complex telling us that we should hate each other across the divides. Trying to get this to some kind of scale in the country. And the dream which is a moonshot dream but we think we have a chance of pulling this off of convincing the country it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity and people with whom we may disagree. So Wichita was we picked a few, we were in four cities, Wichita is one of them. Ramping up every day. The work that we're doing, we've done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of one small step interviews in Wichita. We love Wichita and the dream is over the years we're going to be there for the long term and this is completely driven by the community we were asked to come in. We had hundreds of cities that we considered working with and Wichita was one where for a bunch of reasons we thought this could succeed and we think it will succeed. We have a long way to go. But the idea is that Wichita becomes known across the country as a capital of human connection in the country and can socially norm the idea show the rest of the country that when we actually talk to people across the divides we find that we share much more in common than divides us, and that this kind of toxic polarization is ripping the country apart and has the potential to do much deeper damage than it's done even to this day. [00:08:14] Speaker A: Yeah, I'm listening to you talk and this resonates with me and my role as president here. One of the issues that keeps coming up is freedom of expression and people's resistance to hear one another. And one of the things that I'm hoping for this particular project that we'll be able to get to a point where people were maybe years ago that we can all sit down and have a conversation and learn something from. I like this whole idea that what you're saying is that we're all humans. As a healthcare provider I learned that a long time ago that whoever I'm seeing, it doesn't matter what their background is, I need to be able to provide care for them. So I know it's not exactly what we're talking about here. [00:09:06] Speaker B: But I think it is actually because I think there are very serious you were a healthcare provider and you were doing public health. Yes, but I think that this polarization that we're seeing in the country and we think of this as something of a public health campaign poses health risks. When we stop believing in each other, we're scared of our neighbors. We are suspicious, we get paranoid. We're kind of in our bubbles. There are serious public health consequences. And I think that some of what we're seeing around depression in the country, depression with kids, anxiety I mean, it's extremely disturbing to live in a place where you don't trust anybody and it's an illusion. It is just not true. One of the things we learned from the larger story corps is that you know this from where you sit and the work you do at school that people are basically good and we have to be able to see each other again or there are consequences up and down the line. And I'm guessing your audience is largely students and alums, but we'd love to get alums, students, faculty involved in participating in these conversations. We need equal numbers of conservatives and liberals. But we know everywhere else in the country you have to wait there's waiting lists of months on end to participate in one small step in Wichita, you go right to the top of the list. So we want everyone to participate and then we want to share the stories back with Wichita. Eavesdrop and I wish I had some to play with you. Maybe we can do another segment at some point, play some of the stories from Wichita. But we know that people just hearing the stories anywhere in the country, it changes know, one of the weird problems that we have is that we play excerpts of these stories and people we've created a methodology that's extremely powerful. We know what we're doing and people come out of these interviews these are strangers across the political divides. They come out of the interviews almost always and really, you could almost say always as friends. And when people hear excerpts of what happens when you put people together, one of the problems we're facing is they think they're actors because they cannot believe that people in most of media people are presenting fake things and trying to convince people they're real. And we're playing real things and trying to convince people that they're not fake because we're bombarded with messages about the fact that we can't get along and people on the other side are completely nuts. And even worse, that they're not human or they're evil. And when you get down to it, there's just no truth to that and that there's no nuance in people's political views. And that gets to what you're talking about in terms of freedom of expression in the campus. We kind of box the other side into two dimensional stereotypes when there's actually usually a ton of nuance in what people believe. And it's much more complex than the flattening out of discourse that we've seen across the country. [00:12:29] Speaker A: Yeah, again, this resonates with me and probably others who are listening that the best part of life is hearing other people's stories. Yes, I can't imagine not learning more about people and what they do on just regular daily life. [00:12:49] Speaker B: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Actually, it's interesting you say that because I agree and it's hearing people's stories and also being surprised and delighted by what you learn when you meet other people. Why are we on this earth? Certainly not to live in silos and be scared and distrustful and paranoid. It's to connect with other people and see the beauty in the stories and lives of others all around us and help make this a better country. [00:13:24] Speaker A: I think I know how you might answer this, but can anyone have a conversation like this? And how can they be successful at bridging divides with their own networks of friends and family without a facilitator? And I know that part of this is that people are taught or they try to change their behavior where they can start having these conversations without a facilitator. So can you tell me a little bit more about what you think in terms of that aspect of it? [00:14:00] Speaker B: So I have a couple of things and it may surprise you. So in terms of one small step, there's a group in the country through polling from one of the organizations that we work very closely with called Warren Common that are really the global experts on reducing polarization around the world. They've segmented the American population into a series of eight categories and there are wings who are kind of the extremes. It's about 8% on either wing, extreme conservatives and extreme liberals. And one small step that is not our focus. In the middle is an exhausted majority of people who are scared of the divisions and want a better way for this country and are looking for a way out and even know a lot's changed since I spoke and I think it was probably close to the opening when we were just launching and still testing in Wichita. The gratitude that I hear for people to have something to do because people are genuinely scared about what's going on in the country is like it's like waves. The interest in one small step is something I've never seen before in the work that I've been doing for all these decades. I would suggest if you're in Wichita that you start with a one small step conversation. Again, these are conversations with strangers but we actually don't do things like family members because we are really tightly focused on toxic polarization dehumanization. And usually hopefully with family members that doesn't happen. That you don't see the person in your family as evil. You understand them a little bit better than that. I would say. What we've learned from One small step though is that if it's a stranger or a family member this may not be satisfying for people. But talking about politics actually at the beginning doesn't work so you do not talk about politics in one small step interviews. I mean, we don't tell you what to say or not to say, but we urge people to stay away from that. And sometimes people get to the point where they can talk about politics. And I think part of the secret sauce of one small step is these stories are being recorded, and they're going to the Library of Congress and people realize that their great great grandchildren are going to listen to these someday. So they bring their best angels into the conversations. But I would say if you're having a conversation with someone who you disagree with, do a lot of listening. Don't try not to talk about politics and develop a strong sense of a bond and find things you have common before you delve into politics. But no one has ever changed their mind by being screamed at or called a name. So that is not an effective strategy. And if it's someone who's kind of on the wings as we talked about the kind of 8% on either side, it may not be useful to have that conversation but there's a whole vast group of people in the middle who where it is useful. And one of the things to talk about may be what your fears are around the polarization and how you feel that your side may be misunderstood by the other side and what it is about the other side that you appreciate and take it kind of at a slant. Don't go directly at the issues and don't fight because fighting really doesn't get you anywhere. StoryCore has always been more about listening than storytelling. So I think we as a country can do a much better job of listening to people and one of the big problems we face in the country is that people just don't feel heard and that's incredibly frustrating to people. So I think we can do a better job of listening to each other. [00:18:00] Speaker A: I'm glad you brought up the whole family issue because the holidays are coming up. I appreciate what you have to say about this. Don't start talking politics right over the turkey dinner at Thanksgiving. It's probably not going to be helpful right out of the bat. [00:18:17] Speaker B: Yeah and also I think if it gets performative StoryCore, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not an expert in this topic but I would guess that if there's a group of people around, people may be more performative. So also one on one conversations are probably better than group conversations around issues, especially if someone feels like they're being backed into a corner. So yeah, I would say keep it personal, don't talk about politics until you both feel comfortable. You can also ask your partner like do they feel comfortable talking about politics and go at it as trying to understand. Like you said, what is the point of life? The joy of life is hearing people's stories. So instead of fighting, try and understand where they're coming from and the amount of ground you can make by taking that approach as opposed to fighting. There's no comparison. [00:19:19] Speaker A: So this is all very interesting and I love hearing about this work. So how will you know if there's been success utilizing this technique here in Wichita or the state of Kansas and what kind of things are you using to measure this? What kind of metrics would you be looking at. [00:19:42] Speaker B: Now? It's just Wichita that we're focused on and as I said, we think it's going to take ten years to have the kind of impact that we're looking to have. We're measuring a lot of, we're obviously like a heart based organization, but there's a lot of science behind it. So there's a bunch of things we're measuring. One is the impact on the people who have participated in one small step conversations. And that is just one small step. It's one conversation and we're trying to figure out what the second 3rd small step is. We're measuring the impact of content, what watching a story, two stories, three stories, how that changes people. And we're also polling in cities to see how those towns where we're focused on model cities. Again, Wichita, the first of our four model cities in the country. I don't think we're going to be adding that many more model cities in the country. So it's very hard to gauge what the end game is, how long it's going to take. This is different than really anything that's been tried before and it feels like we have kind of an antidote to a venom that is coursing being poured into the veins of our country and trying to figure out how to get that antidote to scale and do some good with it. Because we do know that the methodology, both the interviews themselves and the content that people watch has an impact on people. So the end game would be that everybody in Wichita sees themselves as part of a one small step community, model community, that there's pride in Wichita, that they are part of this, that the amount of enmity, the kind of feelings that people have towards people across the political divide have changed significantly. And we're seeing that already in Wichita and that the levels of toxic polarization are going in the exact opposite direction as where they're going in the rest of the country. Now we're going to be launching a 50 state strategy as well with one small step. So hopefully if we're lucky and we work really hard and we can execute this in the right way, the country will begin moving in a different direction. But Wichita would be a city. The, the levels of polarization are way down. The political discourse is different than in the rest of the country. And know, people really see, as you said earlier, see the human being across the table from them no matter what their politics are. [00:22:29] Speaker A: Yeah. And I've lived in the city for about 27 years and more recently I've seen a willingness of people in the community to come together around particular issues that I hadn't seen before and whether that's a cause and effect of any of this work that would remain to be seen. But to your other point, this will take a while. People are impatient. Right. But to get to this point took years, so that's going to take a long time to unravel. And I'm happy to see as you. [00:23:05] Speaker B: Know, nothing good is I just there's a Nelson Mandela quote. It always seems impossible until it's you know one of the reasons that Wichita became our first model city was because we saw that there was potential in Wichita. People felt like the city was enormously divided, but a vast majority of people were curious about what people on the other side had to say. So there was an opening there. And I don't want to attribute change to anything we've done unless we can prove it. But I'm glad to hear that you're seeing some of this in Wichita. And again, we have not hit ubiquity in any way yet in wichita, and I actually think know, doing whatever we can with you and with WSU can help to get us want to. As I said at the beginning, we want to work with you in every possible way, to let every student and every alum from WSU know that you all are partners with us and that we're doing this in Wichita and get them engaged in. We can it's kind of crazy to say, but again, going back to seems it seems crazy until it's done, we can change together through the grassroots the course of this country if we can pull this off. [00:24:23] Speaker A: Yeah. So I'm looking forward to seeing this progress. We have a team here at the university and of course our partnership with KMUW and supporting that station is going to continue to do that. Dave, do you have any last words that you could offer us before we wrap this up? We really appreciate your time this morning. [00:24:46] Speaker B: No, thank you. Thanks for the work you do and thanks for creating an atmosphere on campus where hopefully the next generation will do better at this than we are. And I think we're looking at an existential threat for our country and I am not fear monger. I feel like we're kind of frogs in water that's getting hotter and hotter and we don't quite see what's happening. But I have enormous hope in the country and believe in the basic goodness of people and really believe in Wichita and we are not going anywhere and we feel honored to be working in Wichita and have this driven by folks from all over Wichita who believe in this and who believe in each other. And I really do think that if we can pull this know Wichita can know, seen as a really special place by others in the country and serve as a model for how we can behave and treat each other and learn to love each other. [00:25:50] Speaker A: Well, I appreciate that and I appreciate your work in this. This is obviously near and dear to my heart, but many other people, as you mentioned, in this community. Dave, it's good to talk with you, and we're looking forward to seeing you next time you're in town. [00:26:05] Speaker B: Same here. Thank you. Thank you, President Wilma. Really appreciate it. [00:26:07] Speaker A: Take care. If you'd like to learn more about one small step or become part of a conversation, go to storycore.org slash onesmall step. Join me when my next guest will be the honorable Stephanie Dawkins davis WSU. Alum and U. S. Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. And be sure to rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to the Ford Together podcast go shockers. [00:26:45] Speaker B: Sponsorship for the Forward Together podcast is provided by Scott Rice officeworks and the Shocker Store.

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