COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Imagine sitting two local leaders with opposing political views in a room together to converse for the first time. The goal of the discussion is not to debate political perspectives, but to get to know about each other as people. What would happen?
Story Corps’ One Small Step (OSS) initiative, which officially launched in Columbus on Sept. 13, 2023, aims to answer exactly that question. According to StoryCorps Founder and President Dave Isay, the project has power to bring people together.
“One Small Step is an effort to deal with the political polarization that is ripping our country apart,” Isay said at the initiative’s officially launch ceremony held in Columbus’ National Infantry Museum.
According to Isay, the initiative’s goal is to combat this political division. He indicated the goal is both ambitious and important for maintaining the democracy of the United States.
“I mean, it’s going to be really, really hard,” the founder said. “This [political conflict] is an existential crisis that’s threatening the future of our democracy.”
OSS kicked off its Columbus initiative by sitting down Columbus NAACP President Wane Hailes and former Muscogee County Republican Party Chairman Alton Russell for a conversation.
“I had never spoken with him before in my life. Seen him all the time, seen him on TV – mad at him for whatever,” said Hailes with a chuckle as he and Russell addressed the audience as a unit. He finished, “After that conversation, I had a whole new understanding of him.”
During the launch, guests were able to hear a few minutes of the conversation which was recorded between Russell and Hailes. Though it officially lasted an hour, the two also spent time chatting ahead of the official session as Columbus’ OSS team worked out some technical difficulties.
Though Russell admitted he was nervous going into the conversation, by the time they recorded, it felt just like any other conversation, according to Hailes.
The two stood in front the audience bantered like old friends as they answered audience questions alongside Isay. Hailes pointed out Russell’s history as a toilet paper salesman. Russell was excited to tell the audience Wane had grown up a “PK,” or preacher’s kid.
“I never knew, man,” said Russell. “It was amazing the things we discovered about each other and I think that’s what this whole effort is about and that’s the part that really made it worthwhile in my opinion.”
Hailes and Russell were not the only political adversaries to join forces for the launch. Shawna Love, Vice Chair of the Muscogee County Democratic Committee and Muscogee County Republican Committee Chair Carmen Rice also offered a joint statement in support of the OSS initiative.
“We want to encourage people on both sides to be part of One Small Step,” said Rice. “Let’s show other cities how we can come together and see kindness in everyone, even those we disagree with.”
Columbus is the fourth city in which StoryCorps’ OSS has launched. The other cities are Richmond, Viriginia; Wichita, Kansas and Fresno, California. Isay said Columbus was chosen due to its past success with other initiatives, like the On the Table program which ran locally from 2017 to 2019.
Those interested in registering to take part in the initiative may visit takeonesmallstep.org/Columbus for more information.
StoryCorps has facilitated and recorded over 700,000 interviews from people in all 50 states about their lives since 2003. OSS is its attempt to combat political divides which have caused U.S. citizens to view members of opposing political parties as less-than-human.
According to statistics gathered by Isay, four out of five voters currently view members of the opposite party as “hateful and brainwashed” and one out of 10 voters said people with political opinions different than their own as reasonable.