StoryCorps Hopes to Reunite A Divided Richmond ‘One Small Step’ At a Time

by | Nov 11, 2020 | RICHMOND POLITICS

Have you felt misunderstood by someone with different beliefs from you? Are there life experiences of yours you want to share? “One Small Step” is looking to connect Richmonders with different perspectives and beliefs — one conversation at a time.

A new program, “One Small Step,” has launched in Richmond, in hopes of bridging deep divisions in the city with the goal of breaking boundaries and finding humanity in one another through individual, one-on-one conversations.

“One Small Step” is the newest multi-year initiative from StoryCorps, a nonprofit that has documented and conversations from more than 650,000 people across the country. It was created by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay as a way to address and try to heal the political tension that has built up over the past few years. 

“I became increasingly concerned about the culture of contempt across the political divides,” Isay said.

That “culture of contempt,” Isay said, is dangerously dividing the country, in which people of opposing viewpoints and political parties view their adversaries as “downright evil.” 

However, Isay cites the existence of the so-called exhausted majority, “people who are concerned about the future of the country, exhausted and don’t think that insulting each other… [or] seeing each other as less than human is going to lead anywhere,” as a potential path to open-mindedness and recognizing the humanity in people.

“One Small Step” aims to find common humanity and get past the political labels of  “liberal” and “conservative.” The project pairs two strangers with divergent political perspectives to sit and have a conversation, but that conversation does not necessarily have to center around politics — it can be a chance for personal connections, and to talk about their life experiences.

The premise of “One Small Step,” Isay said, is based on contact theory, which hypothesized that conflicting groups can reduce prejudice and promote tolerance through contact under certain conditions.

Richmond is one of the four cities selected to lead the “One Small Step” initiative. Other cities chosen were Wichita, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Shreveport, Louisiana. StoryCorps is partnering with VPM, a public broadcasting station based in Richmond.

“Richmond is such a culturally, historically, and demographically distinct city, that the StoryCorps team felt that it would be the perfect place to encourage listening for the rest of the country,” said Jayme Swain, VPM’s president.

Swain said public media, such as VPM, play vital roles in fostering civil discourse. She said “One Small Step” gives people the opportunity and a safe space to openly discuss their life experiences without vitriol and polarization.

One of the first conversations in Richmond for “One Small Step” was between Brenda Brown-Grooms, a descendant of enslaved people of African descent and Bucky Neal, a descendant of white slave owners.

Brown-Grooms’ mother always could see the other side of an argument, which Brown-Grooms herself said she doesn’t often do. She said it is a “constant battle” to remain open-minded to other people’s perspectives, because most people are not receptive to her opinions simply because she is Black.

However, with the current political state of the world, she thinks if people do not start to listen and speak with each other as human beings, “we’re going to blow the globe up.” 

“There are so much of us as human beings,” Brown-Grooms said. “But if you’re going to get the nuances, if we’re going to get to know each other, we have to stop and listen to each other’s stories.”

Being able to speak with Neal about race was a “sacred moment” for Brown-Grooms. “The United States of America has been putting off just such conversations for over 400 years now,” she said.

Brown-Grooms, who is a pastor, harks back to a book club discussion she had on various books about racial justice. A fellow reverend argued that racism had been fixed, and therefore it was OK for most white people to not admit any historical wrongdoings.

“It has shrunk them emotionally,” Brown-Grooms recalled. “They expected other people to carry the emotional weight to do the work.” That work includes having tough conversations about race.

Bucky Neal and Brenda Brown-Grooms. Image via VPM

Uncovering his family’s history was a gradual process of learning and unpacking, Neal said. After discovering that his ancestors were slave owners and visiting his fourth great-grandfather’s house, Neal started to reach out to Black friends and strangers. 

Neal had felt guilt and shame about his ancestry but recalls a conversation with a Black woman from Birmingham, Alabama who told him that he did not have to feel apologetic because “you didn’t own those slaves in North Carolina and you didn’t turn those dogs on me.” 

From then on, Neal moved away from guilt. But he still feels a responsibility to take on a more active role. “I didn’t feel guilty about it any longer,” he said. “I just wanted to do something about it.” 

One way Neal brought up was letters he sent to editors of Richmond and Charlotte, NC newspapers in 2019, remembering Juneteenth by honoring the memories of the enslaved people who worked on his ancestors’ plantations.

Brown-Grooms holds a similar sentiment about white guilt. She said white guilt contributes no substantial value to conversations surrounding racial issues. “I can’t use your guilt. There’s nothing more dangerous to people of color than white guilt,” Brown-Grooms said.

For Neal, his talk with Brown-Grooms gave him further encouragement to continue his effort of engaging in conversations on race. One day, he hopes to contact descendants of those enslaved by his ancestors.

Brown-Grooms sees “One Small Step” as a stepping stone for further meaningful discussions about race and ultimately social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“The movement has many aspects,” Brown-Grooms said. “One small step is exactly what the work requires — one small step. I make a small step, you make a small step. And those steps are multiplied exponentially, because we make them together.”

Those in the Richmond area interested in taking part in “One Small Step” can fill out the questionnaire on the StoryCorps website. Conversations are to take place virtually. 

Top Photo by Eric Everington, via RVA Mag Archives

David Tran

David Tran

David Tran is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying Print/Online Journalism. When he is not working on a story, he can be found trying out new vegan recipes or catching up on some readings.

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