Journalist Yvonne Leow created the Hello Project because she wanted to see what would happen when she invited strangers to engage in dialogue with one another. And not just any strangers — she wanted the people in dialogue to come from different backgrounds, perspectives and philosophies. She matched people according to their answers to two key questions.
“Are people fundamentally good or evil?” was one of the questions. The other: “Can one person make a difference?”
As a journalist and as a second-generation American who has struggled to understand her Cambodian mother, Leow said she believes deeply in storytelling’s power to connect different people.
“Watching this election unfurl itself in the past couple of months, it’s been a disheartening experience, because there’s been a lot of rhetoric being thrown on either side, and we tend to miss the big picture, which is, we’re all humans at the end of the day trying to understand one another,” she said.
“I recently wrote an essay about me and my mom trying to understand one another. Me growing up an American and her growing up in Cambodia — we just had very different experiences. And the experiences shaped our values, and our values shaped what we thought was true or not. So I thought conversations could be a very good first step. So the experiment really came from that: storytelling as a potential way to break into each other’s lives and confront our own humanity.”
More than 100 people responded to the form, volunteering to be paired with a conversation partner. Leow plotted their availability on her calendar, connected participants via email and sent each participant their Google Hangout invites at the scheduled time.
When I signed up to participate, I had two missed calls: one on a Wednesday, when I couldn’t quite connect to the hangout on my phone, and then another on Saturday, when my partner missed the appointment. Leow asked whether I’d be willing to try one last time — and so, at the very end of her project, I matched with Kathleen, a retired schoolteacher in Phoenix.
Kathleen had never used Google Hangouts. Her daughter Megan had to help her set up the chat on her phone (I met Megan, too).
Kathleen and I talked about our day-to-day lives (she leads visitors through a local Japanese garden, I work at The Washington Post); our backgrounds (she’s a divorcée, I live in D.C. with my girlfriend); and our hopes and fears (she wants more time for her favorite hobby, baking Bundt cakes; I worry about my career and plans for the future).
Jerrica Long, a Hello Project participant in Los Angeles, said she ended up in a similar conversation. Leow paired her with an Asian American man based in San Francisco, and in their 20-minute conversation, the two talked about everything: their families, their careers and even their dating lives.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t want to talk about politics,’” she said. “I need a break from the business of the world, but it just naturally came about. We got to know each other and got comfortable with each other. We didn’t really have differing viewpoints. It was kind of similar, what we were saying. We talked about action and what that means for us.”
Leow didn’t participate in the conversations herself. She sent the users a survey afterward to collect their thoughts.
“The goal of any type of storytelling project isn’t to convert one side to another. We can have a healthy debate, but the mission is not to make you feel more liberal or more conservative about something,” she said. “We as individuals are very complex. The world is complex. Can we still accept that about each other and respect each other for that? That’s the more important takeaway, and I often find that’s difficult to absorb that when you’re just reading a ton of headlines and not seeing people as people.”
Right now, Leow is planning a part two. While the first round focused on pairing people with philosophical differences, this time, she wants to pair liberals with conservatives in conversation, and to match Trump supporters with anti-Trump folks.
“I think they should do this for everything,” Long said. “It’s hard for me to have a conversation if you can’t find common ground … . That responsibility is on our generation to have these conversations. To stop sweeping it under the rug.”
Meanwhile, Kathleen and I have exchanged email addresses. We’ve decided to be pen pals. And she’s promised to mail me a cake pan, Bundt included.