Northern Wilds Magazine
One Small Step participants Scott Benolken [LEFT] and Steve Fernland outside WTIP after their conversation. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Finding common ground with One Small Step

It’s no secret that political polarization has increased in recent years. With more people divided along ideological lines, political tension has become a constant undercurrent. One doesn’t have to spend long on social media–or anywhere online–to find examples of this. But while this chasm seems to grow ever larger, some are building the bridges we need to cross it. One example of this is StoryCorps’ One Small Step. An initiative to bring people together across political lines, One Small Step offers the opportunity to have a conversation with someone who holds differing views. This year, WTIP in Grand Marais became a participant in One Small Step, bringing these conversations closer to home.

Barbara Jean Meyers has been managing the One Small Step initiative at WTIP. According to Meyers, the idea to get involved with StoryCorps’ One Small Step came through Matthew Brown, WTIP’s executive director; a colleague of Brown’s at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters reached out to let him know about the initiative, and that StoryCorps was looking for radio stations to participate.

“I read through the project and it sounded incredible,” Meyers said. “StoryCorps is a fantastic organization. This seemed like an amazing opportunity to make a difference in a time when our society is increasingly polarized and fractured.”

WTIP applied and was accepted, and Meyers started working on bringing One Small Step to Cook County in 2022. The process starts with community members applying to participate in a 50-minute conversation. The application includes questions about participants’ backgrounds, and Meyers works as a matchmaker to bring together conversation partners. The pairs typically hold divergent views but also have some common ground. Once the two participants find a time to meet, they begin the conversation facilitated by Meyers or by her assistant, Martha Marnocha.

“There are four touchstones that help break the ice,” Meyers said. “At the beginning, the participants start by asking each other why the other signed up. In the application process you write a short bio, and each person reads the other’s introduction out loud in first person so you step into their shoes for a moment.”

After that, each participant asks the other about the most influential people in their life, and then they ask each other to articulate their personal political values.

“And then they’re off to the races,” Meyers said. “The conversation can be free-form, otherwise as the facilitator I have back-up questions they can use if they need more structure.”

While these conversations bring up differing viewpoints, they are not a debate. Rather, One Small Step conversations are a chance to find common ground and see the humanity in someone you would never have envisioned connecting with. Often, the similarities are greater than each participant would have thought.

“Everybody is doing the best that they can and wants what’s best for their community and their loved ones. When you sit down on an even playing field and talk about your lives and the things that shaped you, people find they have a tremendous amount in common. It’s a beautiful place to start a discussion from,” Meyers said. “We recently called some past participants, and they were all so positive and had wonderful things to say. Many of the participants have become friends on Facebook or gone out to coffee with their conversation partner and have gained a new friend from a circle that they wouldn’t have before.”

So far, WTIP has done around a dozen facilitated conversations, with the goal to do 25 in total by the end of the year. That means there’s room for more participants to sign up, and participants don’t have to live in Cook County. Meyers said they’ve had a few people from Lake County and have people in the application pool from Duluth.

As far as what happens with the recordings, that’s up to the participants–the purpose of One Small Step is to be a community service project, not to gather tape. Participants are under no obligation to share their conversations with anyone, but those that are willing can have their conversation archived in the StoryCorps database and in the Library of Congress.

They say change starts small, and One Small Step is just that–a step away from polarization and toward common ground.

“I’m so grateful to everyone who has taken this step,” Meyers said. “It takes a lot of courage to do that and I believe we’re making a difference.”

Learn more about the initiative at:

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