Two strangers walk into a room, selected for their opposing views, and start talking. Get ready for sparks to fly, right?

But what if instead of butting heads, those two strangers find common ground?

That’s the hope of StoryCorps and its One Small Step project, which will head to the Virginia Tech Richmond Center in February to record participants’ conversations.

The initiative is the brainchild of Dave Isay, the founder and president of StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that for more than 20 years has recorded and collected oral histories. According to Isay, One Small Step aims to tackle political polarization, not by talking politics, but by getting Americans from across the political spectrum to stop bashing one another and start talking, face to face, one conversation at a time.

Audio recordings of each interview will be archived at the Library of Congress and may also air on the StoryCorps website or NPR, with participants’ permission.

The Richmond Center, part of Virginia Tech’s network of Commonwealth Campus Centers, will host recordings for the project from Feb. 14-17, adding to the more than 4,500 people across 40 states who have participated so far.

Anyone can apply to be part of the program and through this online questionnaire will receive priority to be matched for the Richmond Center recordings. Those who live near Richmond will be paired with a local conversation partner and recorded in person, but those who don’t live nearby may also take part virtually.

Richmond is one of four cities — along with Wichita, Kansas; Columbus, Georgia; and Fresno, California — chosen as One Small Step model communities. The Virginia capital was selected, in part, because it is “a place with its own unique history and a legacy of confronting our diverse heritage,” Isay said.

A New York Times bestselling author, the recipient of numerous Peabody Awards, and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow, Isay has spent his life’s work tapping into the heart and soul of the human experience.

Since 2007, StoryCorps has recorded more than 640,000 people telling stories from their lives. Radio listeners can hear some of those stories each Friday morning during “Morning Edition” on WVTF’s Radio IQ and other NPR affiliates.

But while a regular StoryCorps interview includes the voices of two people who know each other, One Small Step pairs strangers who politically disagree.

“Our dream with One Small Step is that we convince the country that it’s our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree,” Isay said in a 2022 “60 Minutes” interview.

Jim Morgan, a StoryCorps field manager for the One Small Step project, said the face-to-face conversations help reconnect communities.

“Many conversations wander through personal backgrounds and life experiences, and participants often find that powerful moment of connection because they see themselves in the other person,” he said. “At times, these conversations can drift into differences in politics, beliefs, and values, but because they have found the humanity in each other, they are empowered to say, ‘I may not agree with you, but I see how you arrived at this place.’”

The February event will combine StoryCorps’ extensive experience in helping people have meaningful conversations about their lives and the expertise of the Richmond Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, and its deep connections within the community and the university.

Susan Johnstad, director of the Richmond Center, said building bridges and engaging with members of the greater Richmond community to find solutions is central to her work. “Our newly renovated space is the perfect place for the community to come together and share their stories,” she said.

Get involved

  • Apply to be matched! Virginia Tech has partnered with One Small Step in hopes that Hokies will apply and spread the word. Use this special link that will prioritize applicants for the virtual or in-person event. Please use and send this link to friends and family. Anyone can apply, and the program is seeking participants from all walks of life — young to old, liberal to conservative, and all things in between.
  • The questionnaire takes five to seven minutes to complete, and the answers help to match partners for a satisfying conversation.
  • Hear from others about their experience by joining the One Small Step Facebook group.
  • After you are matched with a conversation partner, One Small Step facilitators will help you prepare by sending a list of questions to review and think through. So  when you show up, you’re ready to go!
  • Recording sessions will begin with each participant reading their discussion partner’s biography aloud. Trained facilitators will then guide the participants through their discussion.
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