voice for democracy

Your gift. Our impact. Give through the Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign.

Democracy Initiative Embarks on 'Moon Shot,' Building Bridges Through Conversation – UVA Today

StoryCorps first began inviting people to share their stories in a recording booth in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal 18 years ago. Since those modest beginnings, StoryCorps has sent Airstream trailers across the country to invite people from all walks of life to recount important experiences in conversations with family members, friends, even former foes who have become valued confidants.
About 750,000 people have participated in the celebrated audio project, with some stories aired on National Public Radio and all of them preserved in the Library of Congress and StoryCorps’ searchable archives.
For the next chapter of its mission, StoryCorps aims to document and put a spotlight on the stories that unite rather than divide people, and is partnering with the University of Virginia and the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Democracy Initiative.
On Wednesday, UVA hosted the launch event for the Democracy Initiative’s new partnership with StoryCorps’ “One Small Step” program, making Charlottesville the project’s fifth city and UVA its first major academic partner.
Moderated by Melody Barnes, executive director of UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and the W.L. Lyons Brown Family Director for Policy and Public Engagement of the Democracy Initiative, the Carr’s Hill event featured a discussion between StoryCorps founder and president Dave Isay and UVA President Jim Ryan and a conversation with the first two UVA students to record a conversation for the program. In a departure from StoryCorps’ original format, which records conversations and stories shared by people who know each other, One Small Step invites people who may hold opposing views on a variety of topics and who aren’t in each other’s daily lives to get to know each other in conversation.
The project began three years ago in four pilot cities – Richmond; Wichita, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Shreveport, Louisiana – as a way to foster meaningful conversations across political divides. The project caught the attention of Barnes and Laurent Dubois, Bicentennial Professor and the Democracy Initiative’s director of academic affairs, as well as the UVA students who encouraged them to pursue a partnership with StoryCorps.
At a time when the political and social environments appear so deeply polarized, One Small Step offers an opportunity to find areas of common ground both on Grounds and with the surrounding community, Barnes said.
“We know that even within the bounds of basic norms, there’s frustration and anger and disappointment. Some wonder how to engage, or even whether to engage,” she said. “But we’ve also heard a strong desire to have these tough conversations, and we believe that they’re necessary alongside all the other work that we do in the Democracy Initiative.”
The Democracy Initiative and One Small Step hope to conduct more than 250 conversations with a wide range of participants at the University and from the Charlottesville community. As with StoryCorps’ original project, these conversations are scheduled to be archived in the U.S. Library of Congress. The Democracy Initiative also intends to feature “One Small Step” conversations in an upcoming podcast.
The political, racial and social tumult of recent years, which has been accompanied by violence in well-documented events both in Charlottesville and elsewhere nationally, has led to what StoryCorps founder Dave Isay called this ambitious “moon shot.”
“We’re calling it ‘One Small Step’ because it really is just one small step,” Isay said, explaining how StoryCorps and its projects are rooted in contact theory, which asserts that under very specific conditions, if you put enemies together for a one-on-one experience, and they feel like they have equal footing and they have a visceral experience together, divides can be bridged. “Hate can melt away, and people can see each other in a way that if you do it right, you can see pretty remarkable changes,” Isay said.
He went on to call One Small Step, along with many bridge-building organizations across the country, a “rip in the fabric of our perception of people who are different.”
“And those little rips in the fabric of our perception can make a big difference when push comes to shove,” he said.
The announcement of UVA’s collaboration with One Small Step coincided Wednesday with the first of the University’s scheduled “Dialogue Across Grounds” luncheons, where students are invited to join facilitators for boxed lunches and conversations about building bridges with the Charlottesville community and other consensus-building topics.
In his conversation with Isay on Wednesday, Ryan said he also believes in the power of stories and conversation to mend rifts and find common ground.
“And I think a university is an ideal place to foster conversations across lines of difference,” Ryan said. “I share your implicit view that sometimes the most powerful change happens from a one-on-one conversation instead of a large group conversation. So I see our partnership as a piece of a number of other things that we’re doing.”
One Small Step participants are asked to fill out brief bio forms that allow the project’s organizers to pair people who hold different political and social views, but who also may hold some things in common.
For the first two UVA participants, third-year student Diana Moreno, daughter of Salvadoran parents who left the Central American country in the 1980s to escape war and poverty and to become U.S. citizens, and first-year Marquis Rice, who served eight years in the Army before coming to Grounds and is chair of the Student Veterans of America at UVA’s veteran service committee, the commonality of both being first-generation students and their relationships with refugee communities helped them navigate a friendly conversation.
“We had different upbringings, so we got into shades of gray in different areas,” said Rice, who considers himself conservative in his political views while appreciating the “mind your own business” lessons his mother imparted on him concerning people’s personal lives.

“My biggest fear at first was that I was going to say something or do something that was going to change the energy in the room,” said Rice, who has been active in fundraising efforts to help Afghan refugees settle in the United States. “But as we talked, I saw how her family was adaptable, and coming from the military, we have to adapt to new environments all the time as well. We really connected over the difference between what was privilege and what was not. Her family came from El Salvador, which was amazing, and they came over here with just the ideas of the American dream: that you can literally make your future, whatever you make it, through hard work and dedication. And her family really shows that.”
Moreno, who grew up in California before her family moved to Virginia six years ago, said she was interested to hear about Rice’s military service, a world she knew little about.
“The first few moments of the conversation were difficult, because I didn’t know what the boundaries were. I didn’t want to disrespect him,” said Moreno, who is studying public policy and media studies. “I also wanted to see what his ideals are, so balancing on that line was hard, but we got it done.”
Both students left the conversation promising to stay in touch. To hear an excerpt from their discussion, click on the audio player below.
“Hopefully in the future, we can expand this conversation further, because it’s very nice to get past the social taboos of topics like politics and get to what truly matters,” Rice said.
“We’re not just our political views,” Moreno said in agreement. “We’re so much more than that, and we can find things we agree on. We’re humans at the end of the day.”
For information about registering to participate in the UVA Democracy Initiative’s One Small Step project with StoryCorps, visit onesmallstep.virginia.edu/.
Diana Moreno and Marquis Rice, two UVA students with different political views, discuss the shared experience of being first-generation college students.
Marquis Rice: First generation student …
Diane Moreno: So that’s been a very lovely road to go down to, and it’s very interesting. But then again, I feel like it’s like almost more beneficial for me in a sense that like, it’s not easy. So I become a better … strong … I know that’s a hot take … but like I become a more stronger person in the sense that I had to be more independent, I had to go, look, I had to go knock on doors I wouldn’t have seen before, and I had to go do things by myself. That is a harder life, but it’s very much taught me to be a stronger person, a stronger woman and also go after the things I want to go after and not really think about services. I don’t know.
Marquis Rice: I get you a hundred.
Diane Moreno: Yeah, like I have to go after the things I need to go after because I don’t have anyone to push, no, I don’t have anyone to give me things. I very much have to do it by myself. Also, there’s a community, there’s support everywhere, but it’s not given to me like other people are.
Marquis Rice: I get that a hundred percent. I hate that idea that we … let’s just say this candidly, I don’t know how this is going to sound. Um, I hate the idea of being first generation and don’t have anyone to talk to about it. Um, overall, I um, I look around and I see the people around me who have always had the support of how to build upon things. It’s the things that they’re taught. It’s like we’re running the same race, but we don’t have the same tools to achieve what we want to achieve. And then we also don’t have the mindsets that are around us to help push us forward. Even with my family, your family sounds very loving and supportive. For me, that’s not the case. They’re like, “you’ve done so much with your life already. Just come home, stay home and, um, stay here in Valdosta, Georgia. Um, don’t try to get over your ailments. I can, We can just take care of you here. Everything would be fine. Um, you don’t have to put yourself through this overall stress.” And I’m just like this stress and this pressure is going to make me a better person in the future. And um, even though I’ve gone through deployments and I’ve been in the military and I’ve dealt with a lot of things that people don’t deal with on a normal on a normal everyday basis doesn’t mean that I’m not, I’m not done being turned into that diamond, if you know what I mean, like, I just feel like there’s just so much more for us to give to the world. And it shouldn’t stop after your first, um, your first experience, you know, man, but your people sound amazing, and I’m going to chalk it up to you, to your people.
Diane Moreno: Yeah, because I feel like another, I feel like another thing that’s always been instilled to me that like, I guess now I’m older, I never ask these questions to my parents. Like, what would they want to do in their lives? Like they didn’t really have a choice other than to work night shifts, or I wouldn’t really see them throughout the week when I was younger. And they really didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have a choice. “Oh, should I be accountant? Should I be a dentist? Should I be a doctor?” They didn’t have a choice. So it’s very much like I have that choice now and I’m like, wow, I know that sounds so like it’s a privilege. It’s a big privilege because it’s scary, but like, I’m like, I have to do something in my life and I want to do something in my life because my parents didn’t have the option. It’s very much like for me, like I’m doing this for me, but also like I’m looking behind and I’m like, this is also for them, too.
Lorenzo Perez
Senior Writer, Office of the Dean College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences