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Democrat, Republican Share Personal Experiences Behind Beliefs

Headshots of two men in a split screen
Dontrese Brown (left) and Frank Surface (right)

VPM is one of six stations across the United States partnering with StoryCorps for “One Small Step,” a nationwide initiative that brings together people with opposing political beliefs to have open, respectful conversations.

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A childhood surrounded by drugs and violence led Dontrese Brown to have a passion for helping young people succeed, specifically those in black, low-income neighborhoods such as Gilpin Court, in Richmond. “I know how hard it is to get out of those areas, and I also realize some of the systemic racism that positioned us into some of those situations,” said Brown. For Frank Surface, his home life caused him to mature around the age of 10, having to cook all of his own meals and do his laundry. “I want to be...totally responsible for myself,” said Surface. “I’d appreciate a hand up, but not a handout.” Brown and Surface sat down and talked about their life experiences, political differences, and the importance of understanding where a person’s beliefs come from.

Brown had the constant support of his mother, who emphasized education as a tool to leave the negative environment he grew up in. “My mother never let me believe I had to stay and it was as simple as you don't have to stay here like there are things bigger than this,” said Brown, who works at Randolph-Macon College. His mom, a single parent, received her GED at the same time Brown graduated high school. Brown tells students at Randolph-Macon to thank their guardian(s) for their sacrifices and everything they did behind the scenes to help the students get to where they are today.

Surface, a father of four, applauds Brown and his mother, saying Brown wouldn’t be where he is right now if his mother didn’t believe he could achieve more in life. “The worst form of discrimination is the soft, tender voice of low expectations,” said Surface, shedding a tear.

Unlike Brown, Surface’s parents didn’t expect him to do anything in life. Due to having a tenuous relationship with his family, Surface moved out as soon as he graduated high school and has been on his own since. “I just went to community college..three years to get a 2-year degree because I drove a truck trying to pay the bills,” said Surface, a small business owner.

Brown appreciates Surface’s empathy and wishes more people would listen with compassion. “I feel misunderstood predominantly by people who don't look like me, by people who aren’t black,” said Brown. “They tend to not want to hear my experiences and why I am in opposition of some of the things that they support, or why I feel like there is systemic racism purposely built into our culture.”

For Brown, compassion and understanding are more important than political affiliation. He believes working to understand someone with opposing beliefs can help the nation come together. “It's okay to be at opposite ends but the most important thing is how we understand, respect, and appreciate where that other individual is coming from, more importantly, the experiences that they've had,” said Brown.

Similarly, Surface doesn’t see opposing views as combative, they’re just different. “I think the disagreement maybe is in the hows, not the whats,” said Surface. “But if we agree on the what, then we can figure out the how.”

While Surface and Brown may disagree on how to solve an issue, they understand why each other thinks the way they think and see where their beliefs come from. “If we're not empathetic to the individual that is in opposition, then we cannot get anywhere,” said Brown.


StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.