One Small Step: Students in Government and Politics class host political discussions


Ashley Yen

Two students were paired up to discuss their political views.

Picture this: two strangers sitting fewer than three feet away from each other, yet on opposite sides of a gaping political divide. Although they each have a strong belief in their political party, they talk about anything but politics: their jobs, their families, their childhood, until, after 50 minutes, they end their conversation, understanding more about the other person, the other party and the relationship between the two political parties in the United States. There was not any conflict or debating; they were simply talking.

This project, called “One Small Step,” was created to bridge the political divisions in America one conversation at a time. Students in the senior Government and Politics elective have repurposed the activity for the St. John’s community.

“The activity was not two people trying to have a debate and one person realizing that they’re wrong. That’s not the goal,” History Department Chair Russell Hardin said. “It was more about whether they have an appreciation for what it is about that person’s life that makes them have that view so that there is an understanding going forward.”

While their goal is largely the same, they made a few changes to the execution. Participants in the original One Small Step program avoid speaking about politics, but the students replicating the activity only talk about politics and the background behind their opinions. 

“One of the things that they’re going to be trying to do is understand where people come from,” Hardin said. “What the things that shape their political views are, what informs them and to what extent does the person sitting across from them have something similar to their life.”

Thirty-two students across the Upper School signed up for the activity; the 16 seniors in Hardin’s class paired up the students and then themselves, with each pair of seniors facilitating two pairs of participants. Discussion topics ranged from taxes to marijuana to climate change, and, while the students’ respective political parties usually hold widely conflicting views, the students realized that their views are not completely different.

When we talk about politics, it’s very uncivil.

— Maria Cheng

“We all want and believe in the same things, like freedom and equality and justice. It’s just the ways that we get there are different,” senior participant Maria Cheng said. “There are some fundamental disagreements I don’t think we’ll ever get around, but for the most part, we agree on what we should value and what we should try to achieve.”

Despite the innate controversial nature of politics, senior facilitator Maddie Mossman was surprised at the comfortable atmosphere between her participants. 

“The whole purpose of the projects was that everyone has their reasons,” Mossman said. “You just sometimes need to talk to people.” 

Politics has become a landmine for disagreements and violence, with the Jan. 6 capitol capital riots, abortion protests and other demonstrations happening around the country.

“When we talk about politics, it’s very uncivil,” Cheng said. “We don’t approach it with the empathy we should be approaching it with.” 

Through One Small Step, Hardin hopes that his seniors, who will be graduating soon, will get to know people and their individual stories before forming decisions or taking actions. While St. John’s is a very small, tight-knit community, most colleges are not. With thousands of differing opinions, beliefs, and backgrounds, there is bound to be some tension between members of different factions. 

“It’s a lot harder to go and be violent against someone if you actually know who they are,” Hardin said. “When you don’t know them, they’re just an opposing being, but once I know your name, once I know your story and where you come from, you become human. It’s a lot harder to be violent towards another real human.” 

Additional reporting by Johnathon Li.