North Idaho takes 'One Small Step' toward improving its civic conversations
As human beings, we engage in conversations all the time, sometimes hundreds in a day. Most we never remember. But sometimes we have an exchange that sticks with us awhile.
“I’m Lindsey Lewis. I’m 36 years old. I am a part-time carpenter and currently live in Idaho.”
“I’m Jim Faucher. I’m 79 years old. I’ve lived in Coeur d’Alene for 30+ years and I do fundraising consulting work throughout the Northwest, but more in the north Idaho area.”
Lindsey and Jim live in the same city, but they had never met. And it’s possible that, unless someone hadn’t intervened, they never would have. But, recently, they got together in a cramped radio studio on the second floor of the Coeur d’Alene Press.
They volunteered to participate in a project called "One Small Step." It’s north Idaho’s version of the long-time public radio classic, “Story Corps,” in which people gather in front of microphones and talk. Their conversations are recorded and archived at the Library of Congress.
“What this was is not an idea of bringing some two people together to persuade or convince them of their particular view, but to be inquisitive and say what was the life experience that you had that brought you to whatever this viewpoint that you have and through that you actually find, we do have a lot of things in common," said Luke Russell, one of the two co-founders of "One Small Step."
His partner in the project is Barbara Mueller.
“Luke and I are really different in the way that we think about things. But as we've talked, we really realized that there was so much that we overlapped on that we became good co-conspirators," Mueller said.
The co-conspirators landed a grant from the Idaho Community Foundation, which was looking to fund projects that promote neighbors getting to know neighbors. Mueller and Russell then leveraged their vast connections in Coeur d’Alene and spread the word, Russell through his Rotary Club. Jim Faucher heard his pitch at a Rotary meeting.
“And I thought, you know, I'd really like to do that. I like to broaden my perspective and get to know other people. I'm a people person and get to know more about other people, but didn't have a clue what I was going to end up doing or what was gonna happen," Faucher said.
The project also appealed to Lindsey Lewis.
“I'm a big believer of learning about people that you may not agree with and gaining new perspectives," she said.
They each applied to the program and Russell and Mueller paired them.
“First time I found out, you know, about Lindsay was when I got back an email that had her background stuff and I thought, you know, this could really be kind of a fun challenge," Faucher said.
“We talked about cultural, not cultural, generational differences and how each generation kind of has a different rule book and playing a different game and how we shouldn't compare one generation to the next. And how to see things from multiple levels," Lewis said. "We talked about his time in Rotary. We talked about my family a bit. We talked about our faith. We covered a spectrum of things.”
“The thing I liked about it is that you have to be open and I mean, that's what you're there for. And that's what I like about her and what she likes about me is that, you know, we're very, very open," Faucher said.
"I still remember saying to her, in her bio she used the word how she's queer and uses that term quite often. When we were doing the podcast, I said, time out. I said, when I was growing up or our generation was growing up, was a very derogative term and yet you use it. Why do you use the word? And she says, well, we're trying to mainstream that term. And I says, well, that's different, you know, than my generation. I can guarantee you that," he said.
“He was a lot more open to new ideas and a lot less challenging of mine than I thought [he would be]," Lewis said. "I thought that conversation was going to go a different way. And it was just a beautiful conversation of two people connecting and hearing each other's stories.”
"I learned more about the gay community and, quite frankly, some of their fears, their concerns about their safety is maybe the best way to put it," Faucher said. "I think that their concerns in living in a very obviously conservative environment in north Idaho is concerning for them.”
“I learned that that having a conversation with a stranger is pretty fun, if you're both open to it. I learned that people who may not be exposed to the gay or queer community still have stories of interacting with queer people in their past and interested in how that plays out in their life," Lewis said.
“My wife and I were talking, we have quite a communication about it. She said, would you do it again? Would you do it with somebody else? I said, in a heartbeat," Faucher said. "A human being's a human being, and if they're willing to be open and honest with me, I certainly can be open and honest with them.”
"One Small Step" is full of open and honest conversations. They’re archived at the project website.
Barbara Mueller says the project is showcasing genuine discussions and conveying the message that people with different viewpoints can have respectful and substantive talks, even in a city where the civic dialogue is strained.
“They're hearing people saying, ‘I was really frightened to come. I really didn't know what you were gonna be like. And it turned out you have a kind heart.’ I mean, we hear that over and over and over again," she said.
Some project volunteers, including Amy Voeller, are not the people behind the microphones, but the third parties in the studios who are there to ensure the talks go smoothly.
“It's really to set an atmosphere of safety for two people who may have very different backgrounds, different experiences, maybe even very different opinions about things in our community and to create an atmosphere where they feel safe to engage in conversation with one another and then also feel brave to be able to talk about difficult things and find commonalities with one another," Voeller said.
She says she may, someday, move from facilitator to participant in a "One Small Steps" conversation. At the very least, she hopes the project will grow to have a larger presence in the community.
“I think there's a huge need for this in Coeur d'Alene and I think anywhere there is a lot of polarity. This is significant for diminishing that polarity and actually modeling for other community members, our younger generation, how to not let your differences get in the way of relationship and community," she said.
Barbara Mueller and Luke Russell are working to raise the program’s profile. They recently sponsored public events in Post Falls and Hayden for people who want to learn more.
“We did a survey afterwards, or we are still in the process of continuing that survey, and asking people what they thought of their experience," Mueller said.
"A couple of the people said exactly what I've experienced since I've been doing this is that sometimes they would be in a long line at a grocery store and they would see somebody there and they would not normally start a conversation because a person might have looked a little different than they look. But now they're kind of curious and they're asking that person some question, and maybe it's not a political question or a point of view question, but they're taking that step to looking somebody in the eye and saying more than, how was your day?"
At the end of recorded discussions, Mueller says facilitators give the conversants coupons to go have coffee.
"That has proven to be an amazing thing to do because some people have found a mentoring person that way. Other people are finding a new friend and being able to have conversations about things that are troubling to them or what they're seeing happening," she said.
For Lindsey Lewis and Jim Faucher, their initial conversation blossomed into a friendship.
“This is a little bit deeper than I anticipated, but Jim is kind of taking the role of my non-affirming father in some ways and asking the type of questions I wish my father would ask and be interested in my life and the way Jim has been interested in my life," she said.
“I hope that other people, take the opportunity to do the same thing. And maybe eventually it will change some people's philosophies. I think it certainly has mine," he said.
You can hear conversations or sign up to participate in one yourself at One Small Step dash North Idaho dot org.