Transcript

555:

The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind
Transcript

Originally aired 04.24.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/555

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. Take a second right now and just think about this. When it comes to the big hot button issues-- I mean climate change, and gun control, and abortion rights, and school vouchers, and affirmative action, and Obamacare-- OK. Do you know anybody who has changed their minds? Who firmly was on one side of the issue, and then they read a story in The New York Times or they heard something on Rush Limbaugh, and now they are firmly on the other side? I'm just going to guess. Probably not, right?

In fact, the opposite happens. There's this thing called the backfire effect. It's been documented in all kinds of studies. It shows that when we're confronted with evidence disapproving what we believe, generally we just dig in and we believe it more. And the rare times that people do change, it's slow. You don't just have an argument with your uncle over the invasion of Iraq over dinner, and then at the end of dinner, one of you goes, OK, I no longer believe what I did, you're right. People just don't flip like that, which is why this video is so incredible.

Voter

Hello.

Richard Joludow

Hello, sir.

Ira Glass

OK. So there are two men standing in a driveway. There's a canvasser with a clipboard. And he's talking to a California voter about gay marriage and it's 2013. And the voter leans against his truck for a lot of the conversation. He tells the canvasser that on a scale of zero to 10, where 10 is definitely vote for gay marriage and zero is definitely vote against, he's a five.

Voter

You know-- you know what bothers me is gays that are flaming. Flaming are the ones that are just so damn goofy and all that.

Ira Glass

He sort of flips his wrist as he says this.

Voter

I worked with one for probably like five or 10 years. He was my father's wife's brother. And I didn't even know he was gay. But he was just really-- he had five sisters. And I just thought he was feminine. And finally he came out and he said he was gay. When they act like that-- to me, I don't care if they do it to other people-- but don't do it to me. Because I don't-- you know.

Ira Glass

At the same time, this guy says, he thinks it's only fair that gay people get the benefits of marriage, and they can get on their partner's insurance. And he knows other people who are gay that are perfectly nice, even that flaming guy. Perfectly nice. They're just regular people, he says. They talk for 18 minutes.

And the guy with the clipboard-- he's not a pollster. He's been sent out specifically to change people's minds on this issue. To try to flip them into voting for gay marriage. And so part of the conversation is just about the issue itself, like the pros and cons of gay marriage. Does the voter think it'll have a bad effect on children? What are his concerns about it? The voter explains.

Voter

The religious thing would hold me back a little bit. Just because.

Richard Joludow

OK.

Voter

I believe in God strongly. And I believe in his ways.

Ira Glass

But a lot of the conversation is just them talking in this totally honest way about themselves, and their attitudes about homosexuality, and the voter's experiences with homosexuals. The canvasser-- his name is Richard Joludow-- is gay himself. Not flamboyant gay, by the way. Silver hair, goatee, a contractor in the construction business. And here's just how real and free-floating this conversation is. At one point, the voter feels comfortable enough to ask him--

Voter

At what point did you realize you were gay? How does a child realize they're gay?

Richard Joludow

You know, that's a hard-- I could think back to third grade. And I had a crush on a boy in the class. And it wasn't sexual. I didn't know what that was. But I can still remember kind of what he looks like. I'm pretty sure I remember his name still. And I remember being heartbroken when he left early in the first part of the semester there.

And some people think that being gay is a choice. I was talking with a voter and was telling me he thought it was a choice. And I said my choice was to accept being gay. And of course, I tried to be straight. And that just wasn't working.

Voter

Well, yeah. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

And then at that point, the canvasser, Richard, very skillfully brings them back to the topic at hand.

Richard Joludow

So your vote has a lot of influence on how my life goes. I'm with somebody now that I'm hoping to get engaged or go and have a full-out marriage. So your vote would be very important to-- it would affect my life.

Voter

Your life and a lot of other people, too.

Richard Joludow

That's correct, that's correct.

Voter

That's a lot to think about, too. Cause after meeting you, you're a hell of a nice guy.

Richard Joludow

Thanks.

Ira Glass

Then Richard asked the voter for a second time, OK, on a scale of zero to 10, what's the chance that he would vote for gay marriage? His answer the first time was five. Now it's eight. Barely 14 minutes have passed.

Voter

You make a really good presentation.

Richard Joludow

Thank you, sir.

Ira Glass

And even more amazing than the fact that this actually worked is that it lasted. Richard was part of an army of hundreds of volunteers around Los Angeles who were sent out to change people's minds. And a study by researchers at UCLA and Columbia University found that a year later, not only did these voters stay convinced, they also convinced others in their own households to switch. Apparently neither of those things ever happens.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our radio program, in this world where it is incredibly rare for anyone to change their minds, we have three stories about the very infrequent instances where that does happen, where people change their minds over fundamental things that they believe. Why does it happen in these particular unusual circumstances? We explain. Stay with us.

Act One. Do Ask, Do Tell.

Ira Glass

And let's just keep going with this story. This story is Act One, which we're calling Do Ask, Do Tell.

Where that video you just heard came from was a very unusual campaign to change voters' minds in California. And the campaign came about because of desperation. It was created in the wake of the 2008 election. And you may remember one of things on the ballot in that election was California's Proposition 8, Prop 8. At the time, gay marriage was officially legal in California-- had been legal for half a year. Then opponents of gay marriage gathered signatures, put the issue on the ballot. Not the gay organizers were worried-- in fact, anything but. Polls had them solidly ahead.

Steve Deline

Hey, liberal, progressive California. This is a no-brainer. And we lost.

Ira Glass

Steve Deline is a field organizer with the Leadership LAB at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which is a very large multimillion-dollar nonprofit, the biggest LGBT organization in the world.

Steve Deline

We lost by a decent margin. And it was devastating. Because everyone in California and beyond expected us to win that election.

Dave Fleischer

People were shocked and angry and despairing.

Ira Glass

That's Dave Fleischer. He's a political operative that the Los Angeles LGBT Center flew in to figure out what in the world they were going to do after this defeat. It was his idea to go out and do something that apparently is just never done.

Dave Fleischer

Let's go to the neighborhoods where we got crushed and talk to the people who voted against us and ask them why they did that. And when I suggested the idea, Ira, to be totally honest, I didn't know if those voters would talk with us. I'd never done anything like this.

Ira Glass

Not only had he never done anything like this, he'd never heard of anybody else doing it, either. And he'd been in politics for over 40 years-- the campaign manager for candidates in New York City, organizing minority voters in Ohio, organizing for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Dave Fleischer

I've been doing political work my whole adult life. I've been doing organizing since I was a boy. And conventional wisdom among political practitioners is you don't talk to the people who are against you.

Ira Glass

OK, note what he's saying here. It's not just that you don't try to swing them over to your side. You don't talk to them at all.

Dave Fleischer

You spend your time and energy talking first to people who completely agree with you to make sure they vote. And then you go to this tiny, tiny, tiny-- and I mean tiny-- universe of people who you've detected as quote-unquote "undecided," which itself is a very misleading term. And that's it.

Ira Glass

Until he said this to me, it had never occurred to me that all the billions of dollars spent on politics in this country is mostly making messages that say, you already love this or you already fear that. So here's how you should vote. There's not much effort to change anybody's underlying political beliefs, to get your opponents to agree with you.

So now Dave was going to send dozens of volunteers into Los Angeles neighborhoods that had overwhelmingly voted against them to talk. And because nobody ever does this, field organizer Steve Deline says the first question was--

Steve Deline

First-- I mean, I'll be honest. At first, it was just seeing if we could even have a conversation with someone who didn't agree with us. If they would even talk to us. That was literally the first part of the experiment.

Ira Glass

The organizers had assumed that these voters were against gay marriage because they didn't know any gay people. And the first surprise was most of them did. But they'd never sat down and had a real conversation about homosexuality in their lives.

And figuring out what to say to these voters to change their minds about gay marriage? It took them a really long time to figure that out. It was not obvious at all how to do it. And they tried lots of stuff that just fizzled. And the missteps are actually kind of interesting, because they point to what does not work and what does work to get any of us to change our minds.

Like for instance, the first thing that they tried was an appeal to idealism, to principles. Stuff we all agree with.

Steve Deline

Like this is about equality. It's about the golden rule and treating each other the way we want to be treated.

Ira Glass

The problem with that, they found, is that it kept the conversation at this very rational, reasonable, intellectual level.

Steve Deline

And that's not where people make their decisions about issues like this. People make their decisions about how they're going to vote on this at a gut level. And at a visceral level. And at an emotional level.

Ira Glass

If anything, talking to people about ideals like equality and what marriage means actually made canvassers miss opportunities to talk about stuff that would be way more effective. Like with this voter, who voted against gay marriage for religious reasons.

Voter

I have two very good male friends that want to get married.

Canvasser

What are their names?

Voter

[BLEEP] and [BLEEP].

Ira Glass

We're beeping their names to protect their privacy.

Canvasser

And do [BLEEP] and [BLEEP] know how you feel about this issue?

Voter

No.

Canvasser

They don't. How do you think they would feel if they were aware of--

Voter

[BLEEP] is a very good friend of mine. Extremely good friend of mine. And I think he would be disappointed. But he's never asked me how I felt about it.

Canvasser

Sure. And so it sounds like you're very fair. You want people to have the same rights.

Ira Glass

A plane's coming in so it's hard to hear. But the canvasser's saying, "It sounds like you want people to have the same rights as other Americans." And right there, Steve says, by doing that, the canvasser has made a mistake. Because she's moving the conversation away from the personal and the emotional, towards these abstract ideas of equality and equal rights.

Steve Deline

It's kind of retreating from the thing that is probably on the canvasser's mind, but she's maybe a little nervous to ask, which is why don't you want [BLEEP] to get married if he means this much to you? Basically, we don't know anything about [BLEEP]. We don't know. When did she find out that he was gay? What did she feel like when she first found out that he was gay? Did it scare her? Was it no big deal? Have they been able to talk about it? Does she know his partner? All these things that would help us understand, OK, you know someone who's gay, but you're still worried what might happen if he got married. So what's that all about, you know?

Ira Glass

This is what they learned-- to stop telling people things. That they should have no road map for the conversation. Instead, the canvassers could talk personally about their own experiences. That seemed to help and connect with voters. But that, by itself, was not enough. The most important thing they could do was, they had to listen. And when the voter gave a clue about something that seemed real and emotional and important to them, find out more. See where it leads.

Steve Deline

And I think the big revelation was that our job was actually to go and give them the chance to talk about their own life. And realize that maybe that led them to conclusions that were a little different than they'd thought.

Ira Glass

The very first conversation that captured this new approach on video was this voter that they all came to call Mustang Man, because the interview happened in the guy's driveway with this beautiful vintage Mustang that he was very proud of that had been his wife's.

Mustang Man

Some people say, "When my wife died, it broke my heart." Well, no. It didn't break my heart. It put a hole in it. And it won't heal. My wife's been gone 11 years now. It feels more like 11 days. I've never gotten over my wife.

Ira Glass

The canvasser here is actually Dave Fleischer, the guy whose idea it was to originally go out and talk to voters. And he does not say anything at all to this guy about ideals. He doesn't pitch him any reasons to vote for gay marriage. Instead, he asks about the gay people in this guy's life. And mostly, he just stands there as the voter just sort of connect the dots in his own life that he had never bothered to connect before.

Dave Fleischer

And then marriage, I can even tell, just the way you talk about her--

Mustang Man

I would want these gay people to be happy, too. I've got a gay couple across the street there. She's a lesbian. And I get along just great with them. In fact, she parks her car in my yard because we got so many cars here, people have no place to park in the street. So I let her park here. And they're wonderful people. They don't bother anybody. You don't see them trying to hit on other women or whatever. They're happy. Just like I was with my wife.

Dave Fleischer

You know this issue is going to come up for a vote again in the future.

Mustang Man

I would vote for it this time.

Dave Fleischer

Vote in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry? Why does that feel right to you?

Mustang Man

Let's see. [SIGHS] How would I say that? I would hope that they would find the happiness that I had with [? mine. ?] If you could have that kind of relationship with your partner or the other sex, I would say you're a very lucky person. Because I know I had it. But yeah, that's what I would wish on them. That they'd be as happy as I was with mine. Irrelevant by getting with the other sex.

Ira Glass

It did occur to the organizers that as sincere as these conversations seemed, maybe the voters were just being polite at the end. And when they said they would vote for gay marriage, they were just saying what they thought the canvassers wanted to hear-- hadn't really changed their minds. Which is why they invited in two political scientists-- one from UCLA named Michael LaCour, another from Columbia University named Donald Green-- who designed a case controlled study that was eventually published in the journal Science. Green told me that he expected the results would show--

Donald Green

Short-term effects. I thought that those effects would subside in a few days' time.

Ira Glass

He thought that because pretty much, that's what always happens. It's rare for people to change your opinions. And it's temporary.

Donald Green

Because very often in public opinion research, which you tend to see in the wake of political events, is a short-term bump followed by a kind of re-equilibration to a pre-existing baseline.

Ira Glass

In other words, people go back to believing what they used to. And the big surprise was six months, nine months, a year after the canvassers visited, the voters stayed changed. The researchers were so skeptical that this could be real that they did the entire study a second time-- a huge cost, by the way. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. And again, the same result. Professor Green says he and his colleagues have read 900 papers. And they haven't seen anything like this result-- anyone who's changed people's views and it lasted like this.

But there's an important details in their findings. The voters who talked to straight canvassers-- they changed their opinions. But it lasted just for a couple weeks. Then they went back to their original opinions. It was only the voters who talked to gay canvassers whose opinions changed and stayed changed a year later. For those voters, the numbers are impressive. Before talking to the canvassers, 47% of these voters supported gay marriage. Immediately after the canvas, it jumped six points higher. And then a year later, it was even higher than that. It was 62%. A total growth of 15%, which Steve Deline points out is--

Steve Deline

More than enough added support to go from losing an election to winning one.

Ira Glass

By the way, the control group-- voters who were not canvassed about gay marriage at all-- they also increased support for gay marriage that year. Because we live in a country where attitudes are changing on this issue everywhere. But the control group only rose by three percentage points, much less than 15%.

It seemed like they'd invented something new, a new tool to use to change people's opinions. But they wondered if it only applied to this one issue. And maybe they picked an easy target, after all-- trying to flip people on an issue that the whole country was changing on anyway.

So they decided to try the new technique with an issue where public opinion has been deadlocked for years. Abortion. These canvassers, no surprise, were pro-choice. And they teamed up with Planned Parenthood to do the canvassing.

Canvasser

Hi. We're talking to registered voters in your neighborhood today about their views on abortion.

Ira Glass

A canvasser with a clipboard talks to a California voter through a screen door. The canvasser's young with tattoos and a halter top. The voter's older and heavy-set with wire-rimmed glasses. She's a nurse. And when asked where she is on a scale of zero to 10, where zero means women should have no access to abortion and 10 means they should have full access, she says zero. She's Catholic, from Mexico.

And then they start this conversation. And here's how the canvasser tries to kick things off in a way that's going to get the voter talking about her real experiences and her real feelings on this very delicate issue.

Canvasser

So abortion isn't something that a lot of people talk about, which is why we're out here today talking to people about abortion. Have you ever had a conversation with someone about your thoughts on abortion?

Voter

My daughters.

Canvasser

Your daughters?

Voter

Yes.

Ira Glass

She says it was when they were teenagers, when each first got her period.

Canvasser

How did that feel for you to talk to your daughters?

Voter

It's not easy. Especially because in my country, they have taboos. A lot of taboos. My mother is one of the person, never talking about sexual relations or conceptions. That's why I try to be very open with my daughters.

Canvasser

My mother's from the Philippines. And my mother went through the same feeling. It's not something that you talk about.

Voter

No. It's not. And my family is the same.

Canvasser

My mother never talked to me about abortion. In fact, it was a really scary thing to talk about. When I got my period, I was 12 years old.

Ira Glass

What follows is just an intensely real conversation about their lives. The voter says that when she was six, her mother miscarried a baby. But nobody explained what was going on to her. When she was 11 and got her period, nobody explained what was happening and how scary that was. And so she tried to be different with her daughters. That's why she became a nurse, to help women. Now and then the canvasser points out things and underlines things in the voter's life story, nudging her to kind of connect the dots. Like when the voter talks about her daughters, the canvasser says--

Canvasser

It sounds like you are very supportive of their choices, even if you may not agree with them.

Voter

I try to do.

Ira Glass

But mostly they just swap stories. And 15 minutes into this 22-minute conversation, the canvasser reveals this.

Canvasser

I had an abortion in November this past year.

Voter

I'm so sorry.

Canvasser

It wasn't the wrong choice for me, because that's what felt right for me. But I was alone. And it was scary. It was because I don't know how to talk about it with people. Like my family, my mother loves me. And so does my papa and my sister.

Voter

I know. But it's hard. And you carry it for the rest of your life. It's your decision. But you carry it for the rest of your life.

Canvasser

One of the things that I struggled with in telling my family is this idea that my family is going to love me less.

Voter

No. Never.

Canvasser

Would you ever love your daughters less?

Voter

No. Never.

Ira Glass

It's a moment that's simultaneously intimate and manipulative and honest. All at once. And it works. After this, the canvasser asked the voter again to rate on a scale of zero to 10 where she stands on access to abortion. Remember, she was a zero before.

Canvasser

We have that same zero to 10 scale where zero means no access and 10 means full access.

Voter

10.

Canvasser

A 10?

Voter

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

Researcher Michael LaCour is running a study about the abortion canvassing. This one hasn't been published yet. He's only been tracking the voters for 200 days so far. But preliminary data indicates that the canvassers did change people's minds. The number of voters who favored abortion to be legal in all cases grows five percentage points after talking to the canvassers. And the 5% stayed that way. They haven't changed back 200 days later. But-- and this is the important but-- that change only happens when the canvassers are women who've had abortions who reveal that fact to voters. Other canvassers don't get the long-term change. So in a sense, it's very similar to what happens with gay canvassers talking about gay marriage. When the people most affected by an issue show up at your door and talk to you, that's the thing that can change your mind.

Of course, it was liberals doing this canvassing. So they pushed a liberal agenda. But researcher Donald Green says conservatives could probably use this technique just as productively.

Donald Green

Probably so. I think it's a matter of, again, changing the face that people associate with a given issue. So you can imagine, for example, a conservative group doing this on something like school choice.

Ira Glass

So in other words, parents, or maybe even high school kids who had been in a certain kind of school would go out and go door to door and just talk in a heartfelt way about their experiences in school.

Donald Green

That's right.

Ira Glass

Do you think it could work for abortion for the other side? Women who regretted having an abortion would go door to door and just talk about that in a real way.

Donald Green

It could be. I think what's kind of interesting about this is that when I talk to professionals about this technique, this does not inspire a lot of interest on their part. Because of course, it can't be done on a large scale at low cost. And they don't want to invest the kinds of resources and training and supervision necessary to generate an army of canvassers that can actually change minds.

Ira Glass

It is expensive. The Los Angeles LGBT Center spent nearly $2.5 million over four years and reached just 12,000 voters. That is not many voters when you consider they last Prop 8 by 600,000 votes. In a state like California with 17 million voters, they'd have to spend a real fortune to have an impact on any election. Cheaper, by far, to make a scare ad and run it on local TV around the state-- you know, the way politics usually works.

Coming up, getting criminals to change by giving them exactly what they want-- or one of the things they want, anyway. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Crime Pays.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, the incredible rarity of anyone changing their minds. We have stories today about why it happens in the rare instances that it does happen. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Crime Pays.

So Richmond, California is right across the bay from San Francisco. And it has been a pretty violent place. Quick illustration of that. The city's police chief, Chris Magnus-- at a press conference, he holds up a cellphone to play a recording made at 11:00 at night there.

[GUNSHOTS]

He starts to put the cell phone down, then realizes it's not over.

[GUNSHOTS]

Back in 2006, Richmond was named the ninth most dangerous city in the country, with 42 murders for a population of about 100,000. Then they brought in a new police chief and started doing all kinds of things differently. And it worked. Homicides are now a third of what they were. Crime has dropped in a way that is dramatic and impressive. And police say that one of the things that helped is a program called the Office of Neighborhood Safety, or ONS. Bland name for what is actually a very unusual program with one particular tactic that you do not hear about people trying very often. Joe Richman explains.

Joe Richmond

The big aha moment for the head of ONS, DeVone Boggan, came when he was in a meeting with police officers. They told him a number-- that Richmond police believed that 70% of the shootings in the city involved just 17 guys.

Devone Boggan

17 people. And I'll tell you, I almost flipped out of my chair. Cause I was like, 17 people? That's nothing.

Joe Richmond

Boggan realized that if they could reach just those 17 guys and get them to change, they could really make a dent in the problem. He asked the police for a list of those 17 names. He did his own research and added more names. To get on that list, Boggan said, you basically had to have shot someone.

Next, he put together a team of street outreach workers. All of them were from Richmond. Most had served time in prison themselves. And he sent them out to get to know the guys on the list and deliver this message-- come to a meeting and we will provide you with a lifestyle alternative that could change your life for the good. Boggan had no idea if any of them would come.

The meeting was scheduled three months later. By that time, a couple of guys on the list were dead. One was in jail. Four others weren't interested. But the rest of the guys agreed. 21 guys.

Boggan has a sense of theater. And rather than hold the meeting in one of the neighborhood community centers, he had the men come to City Hall. The meeting took place in a fancy conference room with views of San Francisco across the bay.

Devone Boggan

It's a square table. Great wood. It's a good room. They come in and they have name placards-- their full names, not their street names. Information packets. Things to sign. We wanted them to walk into the room and go, what the heck is this?

Joe Richmond

But it was what Boggan did at the end of that meeting that really got everyone's attention, both inside and outside of that room.

Devone Boggan

I go into my pocket. And I pull out envelopes. And I handed each of the young men envelopes. And I told them to open the envelope. And they did. And they each had $1,000 check. And they didn't believe that it was real.

Joe Richmond

$21,000 in $1,000 checks were given out that day. The message was that changing their lives should be treated like a job. But the money was also a type of marketing strategy, because Boggan wanted the news to spread through the neighborhoods of Richmond. And it did.

That first meeting was five years ago. And since then, they've done it every 18 months with a new group.

Sam Vaughn

Everybody do me a favor. If you have not signed the sign-in, sign the sign-in after you've signed your paperwork. Date your paperwork.

Joe Richmond

All of the guys in the meeting are African American. They're spread out evenly around the conference table, behind name plates with Mr. in front of their names. But these guys look really young. Some of them are just 15 or 16. They definitely don't look like a city's worst criminals. It's different from the meeting five years ago, because they've had so much success with the older guys. Now, they say, they're fishing upstream. Taking younger guys who have gotten in less trouble. This is the youngest group they've ever had.

Today's meeting is led by Sam Vaughn, one of the program's outreach workers. Everyone who shows up knows what's coming, that they're going to get paid. Sam Vaughn tells them straight up.

Sam Vaughn

The problem is, folk don't believe. They don't feel like you deserve it. Folk don't feel like-- that's a waste of money. Might as well save that money for the jail cell.

We don't believe that that's the case. We're doing this because this community and this city cannot be safe without partnering with you. And you deserve it.

Joe Richmond

So what would these guys actually do to deserve their money? They'll put together a life map with specific benchmarks. And they'll get checks as rewards-- for getting a GED, a driver's license, parenting and finance classes, job training, a job. For now, the first step is to agree, in writing, to an 18-month process of change. And no gunfire.

Sam Vaughn

So if y'all don't got a problem with that, y'all can sign the first sheet.

Man

[INAUDIBLE] law school.

Sam Vaughn

So you can sign this again. So you sign both of them.

Joe Richmond

As the guys sign their contracts, Sam Vaughn passes out their first reward. It's not $1,000 checks anymore. Just $100 Visa gift card. But they find it works just as well.

Sam Vaughn

That is $100 Visa gift card. All right? Pay your phone bill. Buy some kicks. Whatever it is you're trying to do.

Man

Thank you.

Sam Vaughn

You're more than welcome. Thank you. Thank you for making us a priority today. We appreciate you.

[DOOR SLAMMING]

Joe Richmond

A few days later, Sam Vaughn is driving around the neighborhoods of Richmond, which is how he spends most of his work day.

Sam Vaughn

Across the railroad tracks into north Richmond. And we'll ride around. We'll see folks we know. We'll hop out. And we'll talk with them. Sometimes we're looking for folks. I'm sorry, hold on.

(ON THE PHONE) Bro. I'm all right.

Joe Richmond

Sam Vaughn is an agent of change in the city of Richmond. That's his actual job title. Neighborhood change agent. And this is what changing someone's life often looks like. Tiny fixes. Being there to remove obstacles, however small, to keep the person on track.

Sam Vaughn

(ON THE PHONE) You just go up there and let them know you're trying to start a payment plan on a citation that you've got. You've got to give them 10% down and then you can pay monthly. So if you ain't got the whole $400--

Joe Richmond

Sam's on the phone with a guy named Cardell who just joined the program. Cardell was stopped in Sacramento a while back and given a ticket for driving without a license. He never paid the fine. And today is his court date. Sam convinced Cardell to deal with it. So Cardell drove without a license to the courthouse in Sacramento to start paying his ticket for driving without a license.

Sam Vaughn

(ON THE PHONE) You have to make the minimum payment. All right, bro. All right.

Sorry. That happens a lot. Because most young people out here, they never get their license because they've gotten tickets before they've gotten their license. And then they never pay their tickets, because the cost of those tickets are insane, especially after you failed to go to court. So now the seat belt ticket that was $92, now you owe $2,200 a year later, because you haven't done anything. And you don't live at the address that they sent the ticket to. It's just chaos.

And now I'm ready to go to work. But I don't have a license. I've gotten to a place in my life where I want to do right. But there's so much holding me back. You kind of give up. So you just stuck in this life, trying to find any kind of way to make a buck. And it definitely deflates them. It gets them to a place where, why am I trying?

And I'm sorry, this young man is at the desk calling me.

(ON THE PHONE) Hey, bro.

Joe Richmond

Cardell calls back.

Sam Vaughn

(ON THE PHONE) Hold on. Hold on one second.

Joe Richmond

He doesn't have his state ID number.

Sam Vaughn

I'm so glad I brought this bag.

Joe Richmond

But Sam does. Sam pulls the car over at a 7-Eleven, digs out a manila folder, and reads the number into the phone.

Sam Vaughn

(ON THE PHONE) Hello? It's F as in Frank.

Joe Richmond

Driving around with Sam, it feels as close to being with change expert as I can imagine. He's thought a lot about how people change. So I kept peppering him with questions with the word change in them. 24 questions. I listened back later and counted. I was looking for some theory about what it takes for people to transform themselves. And he tried to play along.

Sam Vaughn

So yes, I know you're trying to get that little plug and that little one-liner. I just don't know how you're going to make it work. [LAUGHS] I just don't. But changing your mind is the easiest part in the world. Saying, "This is something that I want to do. I believe that I can do this. I believe I can be a different man. I believe I can be successful. I believe I can be a good father. I believe I can stop using drugs. I believe I can get a job." And believing all these things is fantastic. But if I don't have the tools and the mechanisms to do something different, I revert back to my old ways.

Like if I want to be a vegetarian, but then there ain't no vegetarian food, I'm just eating apples. That's the only thing they got. I'm back on meat in a week for sure. That's just what it is.

Joe Richmond

Giving people these tools takes time. Sam and the other change agents check in with the guys in the program pretty much every day. Sam is here to meet with a guy who signed up four days ago.

Sam Vaughn

You ain't got no gun?

Deandre

It's in the house.

Sam Vaughn

Why it ain't on your waist?

Joe Richmond

This is Deandre.

Sam Vaughn

First of all, I, don't really like you. No, I'm joking, dog. [LAUGHS]

Joe Richmond

He's 20 years old, although he looks 16. They're standing next to Sam's car parked in Deandre's mother's driveway.

Sam Vaughn

Real talk. I'm glad you decided to do this. For me, what it's showing is that you're trying to do something different with your life. And you possibly think that's that baby coming. So I'd ask you, why don't you tell me how that happened, though, bro? And not the specifics, because I know how it happens. But how did you let that happen? How would you get to a place where you feel like you're ready to be responsible for another life, when you can't even figure out your own right now?

Deandre

I think that's probably what it took for me to realize what I got to do, to maybe better myself so I can make a better situation for my child.

Sam Vaughn

I mean, congratulations, but damn at the same time.

Joe Richmond

All through this conversation, Sam doesn't miss a chance to nudge, to clarify, to keep things realistic.

Sam Vaughn

When's she due?

Deandre

June 3.

Sam Vaughn

You've got four months. What are you trying to accomplish in four months before your baby get here?

Deandre

A lot. I need a job.

Sam Vaughn

Let's be realistic. I want you to say that list, but then we're going to have to be realistic about it, too. So four months. What are you trying to accomplish?

Deandre

I want to accomplish my GED, a job, and be wealthy.

Sam Vaughn

Who?

Deandre

Wealthy.

Sam Vaughn

You're trying to be wealthy in four months? Like, emotionally wealthy? Or financially wealthy?

Deandre

Financially, emotionally.

Sam Vaughn

What's your definition of wealthy? What amount of money is that?

Deandre

Couple thousand.

Sam Vaughn

A couple thousand? Oh, you can have that saved for sure. But if you think, four months, you're just going to have a hundred stacks in the bank, that's just unrealistic. I'm glad you said GED before job. Because that's being realistic. License.

Deandre

[? There. ?]

Sam Vaughn

All right. Well then, that's what we [? own here. ?]

Deandre

All right. See you later.

Sam Vaughn

For sure, dog.

Joe Richmond

Back in the car, Sam gives a recap.

Sam Vaughn

I believe he can do it. I do. I believe he has everything it takes to do it. But then he also has to get lucky. Let's not live in a fairy tale land. He's about to have a child in four months. So what happens when that baby needs diapers and food? He's going to provide for his child the best he knows how. And that could possibly lead him to jail or prison. So he's going to have to get lucky. He's going to have to be able to do some things that he probably shouldn't do and get away with them until he gets to a place to where he ain't gotta do them no more.

Joe Richmond

That's just being realistic.

Sam Vaughn

That's the reality of it.

Joe Richmond

This surprised me, the pragmatism of it. They don't expect the guys to change all at once. They know it's going to take a while before they stop committing crimes. And they don't give up on them when they screw up. I met a graduate of the program named D'vondre Woodard. He's 25 now, has a great paying job. He's a big success in the program. And he told me this story.

Four years ago, he was doing well enough in the fellowship that he was given a special reward. ONS has found that even more attractive than the financial stipend is the chance to travel. He'd been to Mexico, South Africa. And in 2011, D'vondre was invited to represent the program in Washington, DC, at President Obama's State of the Union address.

D'vondre Woodard

I just remember Obama speaking.

President Obama

You're a part of the American family.

D'vondre Woodard

And I just remember as he spoke, he always paused. He never "um," you know. Professional with it.

Joe Richmond

There was D'vondre in the audience, in a suit and tie, on national television, a representative for the ONS program. The thing was, at this point, D'vondre was still selling drugs. He had made changes, for sure. And D'vondre says they were important changes.

D'vondre Woodard

It wasn't the same drugs, like cocaine, riding around with guns, looking for people. No. My life was totally changed. I'm not doing that no more. What I'm doing is marijuana. A bag here. Bag here. Get pulled over with that, they're not going to take you to jail for that. They're looking for guns and cocaine. That's all the police is looking for.

Joe Richmond

Before he'd make the jump and stop selling drugs completely, D'vondre first wanted a job, a well-paying one. The guys in the program can make as much as $300 to $1000 a month, depending on how well they're meeting their goals. Real money, but not enough to replace with some of them could make selling drugs.

D'vondre figured out a job he wanted, doing maintenance in an oil refinery, like the Chevron plant nearby. He did a six-month training course, only to find out afterwards that he would need a special credential from Homeland Security for this sort of work. And D'vondre didn't qualify because he was a felon.

So with help from ONS, he appealed. He got letters of recommendation. He wrote an essay about his past and how he had changed. And he waited for a decision.

D'vondre Woodard

About two years.

Joe Richmond

It took you two years?

D'vondre Woodard

It took me two years.

Joe Richmond

To get those credentials.

D'vondre Woodard

It was a waiting game. It was about being patient.

Joe Richmond

And you liked the idea of that job more than selling drugs?

D'vondre Woodard

Yeah. Because it's a job. It's a job. A W-2 form. Taxes, W-2's. How the system works, society's system, the United States' system.

Joe Richmond

D'vondre got his credentials and learned he would start his new job in a month. And it was at that point-- 30 days away from a brand new job-- that's when D'vondre decided to go cold turkey on illegal activity. No more drug dealing. He said it was like giving himself a test. And he passed.

D'vondre Woodard

I let it go. I stopped doing what I was doing. I didn't have to no more. I just put it down. Got rid of it. I don't need it no more.

Joe Richmond

Over the past five years, 68 guys have gone through the ONS fellowship program. How did they do? Four are dead. A few others are in prison. But of the 68, 43 have completed their goals and graduated. But even more important than those numbers, the overwhelming majority of the guys who have gone through the program-- whether they graduated or not-- have had no new arrests or charges for gun-related activities. And by majority, I mean 80%, according to a report that's about to be released by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that studied the ONS program. Criminologists I talked to said anything over 50% would be considered exceptional. You'd expect most of them to fail.

But the numbers that have received the most attention are the ones with dollar signs in front of them. There have been headlines like "paying people not to kill" or just "crime pays." And internet comments like, "So all I have to do is threaten to kill someone and I get free money from the government? How do I sign up for this gravy train?"

In Richmond, there are plenty of straight-A students or valedictorians from poor families who aren't selling drugs, aren't committing crimes, aren't picking up guns. And they're not getting a stipend from the city for reaching their goals. And Sam Vaughn, who's been with the program, working with these guys for years, he understands the criticism.

Sam Vaughn

I get it. I get it. I understand it 100%. I was in prison. Society didn't think I deserved anything. I got a college education in prison. Folks had an issue with that. "I work my ass off and I can't afford to pay for my kids' college, this dude breaks the law and goes in here and gets a free education." I understand. I understand that balance. But once again-- and if you want to call it pragmatism, yeah, that's what it is-- I'm coming home. Who do you want to live next door to you? The dude who got the college education and who was able to get in those classes and was able to get a domestic violence certificate or substance abuse certificate? Folk who are really in there working on themselves? Or the dude who's sitting out on the yard playing dominoes all day and working out? Who do you want coming next door to you?

Joe Richmond

There's no other city in America right now that's doing what Richmond is doing-- giving criminals money to turn their lives around. In most places, it would be a tough sell. But the city was desperate. And sometimes that's what it takes for things to change.

Ira Glass

Joe Richmond. He runs the Radio Diaries podcast, which this week has a story about a different guy who was in the ONS program. A guy who was shot 22 times. That's at radiodiaries.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Act Three. Glacial Change

Ira Glass

Act Three, Glacial Change. So far today on our show we've had opinion. We've had criminal behavior. And now we move to a third thing that can be notoriously difficult to change. And that is the mood of an unhappy teenager. Miki Meek explains.

Miki Meek

When Zalena Su'e was 15, this is what her life was like. Her family lived in a beach house on an island in the South Pacific. And there were these bright green trees growing in her yard. They're called breadfruit trees. It was pretty dreamy.

Zalena Su'e

It was literally my house, and then the road, and then the ocean. That was it.

Miki Meek

Really?

Zalena Su'e

Yeah. Imagine the most beautiful mountains there and the sun sinking between those mountains. That was my view every single day. Just super easy to recognize paradise.

Miki Meek

This was American Samoa, a US territory in Polynesia. Zalena had a tight-knit group of friends who all went to the same big public high school known for its champion football team, the Tafuna Warriors. They went to games and hung out in the bleachers and talked endlessly about their lives. She was also surrounded by tons of family-- aunts, uncles, and cousins. And on top of that was her church. She loved singing with them.

But then one day about two years ago, this all changed.

Zalena Su'e

My dad's just like, "I think God's calling us to go to Alaska." I'm like, where? [LAUGHS] What? That's not in my vocabulary. What? And he just said, "Whittier, Alaska."

Miki Meek

What had happened was their pastor had sent out an email looking for someone to lead a new branch of their Baptist Church-- in, yes, Alaska.

Zalena Su'e

I saw igloos. And I thought penguins were everywhere. I thought polar bears were walking down the street. I just saw frozen wasteland. That's it. No. No, no. We thought it was a joke. But apparently he'd sent in an email, he's like, "Put me on the waitlist." And our senior pastor's like, "There is no waiting list. And I think you're perfect."

Miki Meek

Not that her dad had ever started a church or been a pastor. He was a high school science teacher. And until now, no one in Zalena's family-- not her mom, not her three younger siblings-- had any idea that this was a dream of his.

Father

Oh, yes. They complained a lot. But this is something that I really want to do a long time ago. This is my chance.

Miki Meek

This is your chance?

Father

Yeah. To do God's work.

Miki Meek

For her father, this wasn't a decision to make. It was a calling. At church, they often heard the phrase, "walk by faith and not by sight." And that is quite literally what they did. They sold all their belongings and used all of their savings on the move, including what they'd put away for Zalena to go to college. Then they got on a plane with two suitcases each and headed north without knowing a thing about where they were going. No one in the family even Googled the town to take a look at what they were getting into.

21 hours later, Zalena and her family landed in Anchorage, where a senior pastor running a Samoan church there picked them up. To get to Whittier from Anchorage, you go south about 60 miles and then you hit a mountain with a 2 and 1/2 mile tunnel. It's dark and narrow and shuts down at night. Zalena felt nervous and claustrophobic. But she also tried to be optimistic.

Zalena Su'e

And then we came to the tunnel, and it was like, boom. Gloomy clouds and it's super dark. It looked like something out of one of those horror shows. Rain was just falling.

Miki Meek

Did you say out of a horror show?

Zalena Su'e

Yes. It was terrible. And I just saw this huge building. 15 stories. So our senior pastor was like, "Everybody lives in here, by the way."

Miki Meek

By that, he meant the whole town lived in that one building-- almost all of its 200 residents. Post office, stores, all in that one building.

Zalena Su'e

And I was freaking out on the inside, thinking, "This is where I'm supposed to be?" And I cried.

Miki Meek

To be technical about it, there are actually a few things outside the one big building. There's a school right behind it, which kids get to through an underground tunnel in the winter. There's one bar, an inn, and a convenience store. And there are parking lots filled with old fishing boats. But that's about it. Everything else takes place inside the building, a pink and tan relic of the Cold War.

It used to house soldiers. The US Army actually picked Whittier as a port in the 1940s because the weather sucked so badly. There's so much cloud cover there that it was good for hiding ships and ammunition from enemy planes. But when the military pulled out, civilians started moving in. And soon, the building was filled with retirees.

Zalena Su'e

That's the post office.

Miki Meek

Zalena gave me tour down a dimly lit hallway with linoleum floors and brick walls painted off-white.

Zalena Su'e

This is the Whittier city officia. So this is like, mayor--

Miki Meek

We're on the first floor, which has the police station, laundromat, a tiny grocery store called Kozy Korner, a notary. This is Whittier's version of Main Street. The rest of the floors in the building are all residential.

Miki Meek

Do different floors have different reputations?

Zalena Su'e

I think so. The sixth floor, we're pretty loud. And then certain floors are like old people floors where only old people live.

Miki Meek

I asked her to take me to the top floor of the building.

Zalena Su'e

I feel like it's mostly rich people who live up here. It has a lot of really nice apartments up here. Like you have a sauna in your living room.

Miki Meek

You wouldn't know that this was the rich floor. It's pretty standard-- carpeted floors and green doors with numbers.

We went to the 14th floor. There's no 13th floor, so straight to the 12th. They all look the same.

Miki Meek

What if I made you do this on every floor?

Zalena Su'e

It's gonna be the same view.

Miki Meek

I hope you don't mind that. [LAUGHS]

During her first few months in Alaska, Zalena tried to pretend that she wasn't really there. She only listened to Samoan music and ate Samoan food. Sometimes she even wore her old school uniform, a maroon sarong. She started shutting herself in her room and made a point of calling Samoa at least three times a day.

Zalena Su'e

I would not go to bed without Skyping somebody back home. It was pretty bad. But it's true. And so I'd go to sleep thinking I'm in Samoa. And I'd wake up be like, [SIGH] I have to go through another day of this.

Miki Meek

And this is?

Zalena Su'e

And this is like being dropped on Mars. And you're looking for water. It's like, "What? How can I survive here?"

Miki Meek

All six people in Zalena's family were crammed into a tiny apartment in Whittier. She shared a bed with her nine-year-old sister, Mona, and she could hear her neighbors' conversations through the walls.

There were a handful of families in the building from places like the Philippines and Guam. But their kids were much younger than Zalena. There was another girl her age, too, but when Zalena tried introducing herself, the girl blew her off. So Zalena did what a lot of teenagers might do. She shut down.

Meanwhile, once her family got to Alaska, they found out that they'd moved halfway across the world to start a church for only three Samoan families. Zalena's dad was unfazed. He'd been a high school science teacher. But now he got a job doing manual labor in the harbor and used the money to support his family and the new church.

The church is in a windowless room in the basement of the building. On Sundays, Zalena's dad projects a pink and red sunset onto a concrete wall. Everyone in the congregation dresses in bright floral prints, sarongs, and flip flops. The best way I can describe it is that it's kind of like tropical Christian karaoke.

Church was the one thing that Zalena actually looked forward to. Other than that, she rarely left the apartment-- much less the building-- for months, despite her parents' attempts to get her out.

Zalena Su'e

I don't see the draw to leaving my house. The only place that the kids were playing in was the basement. There's no place to go.

Miki Meek

What do you mean, the basement?

Zalena Su'e

Cause it rains a lot. So they can't go outside to go play. And so they were playing tag in the basement, which is full of cages, like storage cages. But it looks like a prison down there. And they go play cops and robbers and they think it's fun, and running around. And I'm just like, this is pretty depressing.

Miki Meek

For the younger kids, living in the building was like living in one big never ending slumber party. They ran up and down the halls and sang songs in the elevator and took over the lobby after dinner to play games. And because the school's so small, just 35 students, a bunch of them were also in Zalena's classroom.

Zalena Su'e

I was really bummed out, because I was like, oh my gosh. I was looking for the whole senior shebang. Everybody talks about prom, homecoming, football teams, and all these things. And I went to schools that had those. And now I'm here, and it's just like-- I am a senior. I'm a senior. And I'm in the same classroom with a seventh grader.

Miki Meek

To make it even worse, one of those seventh graders ended up being Zalena's youngest brother, Philip, who knew exactly how to get on her nerves.

Philip

I would tap on the desk. And she would get mad. I would sing out loud and she would get mad.

Zalena Su'e

So what would she say to you?

Philip

She(SUBJE said, "Stop it." And I would say, "You're not the boss." And she hates that.

Miki Meek

Until very recently, this was Zalena's life in Whittier. And then she hit a point where she knew that if something was going to change, it wouldn't be Whittier. It had to be her. So she started forcing herself to be more social. When she had to share an elevator with a stranger, she'd smile big and say hello. But what really turned things for her in Whittier all came down to this one day.

Zalena Su'e

This is February 24. So that was like our first official "Hey, let's go walk your dog."

Miki Meek

The girl who had blown her off when she first moved in-- her name is Sofia-- actually invited Zalena out. They walked down to the ocean with Sofia's dog. Zalena showed me a picture from that day.

Zalena Su'e

So it was funny, cause it was like, "Let's take a silly picture" or something like that. "We need a senior picture." And so she jumped onto the rock next to me and she hooked her left arm over my shoulder. And I was like, "Aw." And in the middle of me exclaiming "aw," somebody took the picture. And so my mouth is open, and we're both smiling.

Miki Meek

This happened three weeks before I met Zalena. Since that day, Zalena's been outside the building more times than she had been in months. One day Sofia showed her a favorite secret spot out in the forest. They walked to where there was an old wooden plank in the ground, covered over with dirt and leaves. Sofia pulled up the plank, revealing an abandoned military tunnel. Zalena says it was awesome.

Zalena Su'e

There was like a sisterhood going on right there. Sometimes I feel like a fan girl of hers, cause I'm always just like, "Sofia!" She's my best friend. She hasn't really claimed our best friendship yet, but she knows.

Sofia

I was thinking about that, too.

Miki Meek

Here's Sofia. She moved to Whittier from the Philippines about four years ago. Before Zalena moved in, she had been the only kid in her grade.

Sofia

Sometimes I feel bad that Zalena always says that I'm her best friend. But then I never actually say that Zalena's my best friend.

Miki Meek

Why not?

Sofia

I feel like it's awkward.

Miki Meek

Is she your best friend?

Sofia

She is.

Miki Meek

Are you gonna tell her?

Sofia

Yeah. Maybe tomorrow at school.

Miki Meek

After finding this one friend, the one great friend, Zalena stopped seeing Whittier as this gloomy place she couldn't escape from and now described it as--

Zalena Su'e

Now I would say enclosed serenity.

Miki Meek

Zalena can now list off dozens of things that are great about Whittier. And a lot of them are the exact things she used to hate about the place.

Zalena Su'e

Everything's in one building. There's just that kind of intimacy where you can go to someone's house and just start cooking. And the mountains-- they're very flawlessly cut, I'd say. They're like diamonds.

Miki Meek

Before, you would have looked at them as like--

Zalena Su'e

Before, I would have looked at them as like, "Ew." Because the mountains back home have trees on everything. It's green. But Alaska's beautiful. It's rugged, raw beauty here.

It was kind of like I tripped and then, boom-- fell in love with Whittier. [LAUGHS] And I don't even know how to explain it.

Miki Meek

OK, so how would you have rated Whittier when you first got here?

Zalena Su'e

Out of niceness, I would have given it a four out of 10.

Miki Meek

And what would you give it now?

Zalena Su'e

Probably an 11. Or maybe a 10 on the bad days.

Miki Meek

It blows my mind how much you've changed since you first got here. Because I feel like it can take people a long time to get to that spot or they never get to that spot of liking something or deciding to like something.

Zalena Su'e

Yeah. I feel like I've changed so much. I'm pretty proud of myself for accepting, for getting over it. For getting over the change. I hope that my college is something like Whittier, because I would get around so well.

Miki Meek

There's a thing adults tell kids all the time, especially teenagers-- you make your own happiness. It's all about your outlook on things. It's such an irritating cliche. But sometimes it's true.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our program.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Editing help from Joel Lovell and production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show.

Research help today from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Erika Thompson, Kelly Bender, Jason Reifler, Brendan Nyhan, Robert Cialdini, Gus Levine, and Mark Phillips.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He was doing yoga for a while to relax, but it was not working.

D'vondre Woodard

I'm not doing that no more. What I'm doing is marijuana.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.