With the election fast approaching, the country is at an inflection point.
"And the question is where do we turn," says civil rights attorney and professor John A. Powell. "Do we turn on each other or do we turn towards each other?"
Bitter political divisions were already plainly on display even before the added stresses of 2020 – the pandemic, nationwide protests against racial injustice, the contentious election campaign and rising threats of political violence.
Could it help if more people took the time to talk with someone on the other side?
This special program, One Small Step: Courageous Conversations Across A Growing Divide, explores the idea that intentional conversations between partisans could be a catalyst for national healing.
StoryCorps and NPR Member stations, such as WBHM in Birmingham, have been putting that idea to the test in a project called One Small Step, pairing people of opposite political views to have a conversation. Participants talk, listen, and get to know each other for 40 minutes, not to change each other's minds, but to respect each other as people.
"We're sliding in the wrong direction in this country," says StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. "We're going to try to convince the country that it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people that we disagree with."
The effort is based in a theory of psychology known as the contact hypothesis, which suggests that contact between people of different backgrounds, under certain conditions, can melt away conflict.
In a February week when the nation's political tensions were on full display, host Elise Hu and Isay took to the stage for a live event featuring One Small Step conversations from Member station WBHM in Birmingham, AL. They were joined by political thinkers such as LaTosha Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund and conservative talk show host Erick Erickson, to explore the idea of a less divided America.
Hu also talked with Joseph Weidnecht and Amina Amdeen, who met when they took opposite sides in a political protest in 2016. Weidnecht and Amdeen told of a "life-changing" moment when that protest in Austin, Texas, was threatening to turn violent. Amdeen, who wears a hijab, retrieved Weidnecht's Make America Great Again hat, which had been snatched from his head by Amdeen's fellow anti-Trump protestors. A fight was avoided and the two formed an unusual bond. Both became proponents of conversation to bridge differences.
To be sure, talking is not a panacea. Americans' disagreements are quantifiably intense and getting more so. On issues from race and gender, to policing, to the coronavirus pandemic, partisans often have trouble finding agreement on basic facts as a starting point for dialogue.
And while both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly reject violence as a tactic, a small but growing number (one in five, according to one survey) now say it's justified, especially if the opposing party wins the election.
It is this "culture of contempt," along with the threat of political violence, that convinces Isay, Powell and others that there is no alternative to dialogue.
Says Powell: "If we don't learn to share the planet with each other... we don't survive."
This audio program weaves new studio interviews together with stage conversations and music by Jimmy Hall with Southern Culture Revival, recorded live at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham.
Click the LISTEN button at the top of the page to hear this NPR Special.