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StoryCorps Founder: ‘Listen to Each Other’

Brooklyn Voices Welcomes David Isay

by Ana Maerz

ac brooklyn voices dave isay main

The October 21 kick-off of the StoryCorps book tour was truly a family celebration. When StoryCorps founder and executive director David Isay asked the crowd how many people had either worked with, or shared stories through the 10-year-old organization, almost everyone in St. Joseph’s College’s Tuohy Hall auditorium put a hand in the air. When he asked how many people had never before heard of StoryCorps, an isolated two or three raised hands could be spotted in the crowd.

The Brooklyn Voices event was the inaugural stop on Isay’s tour to promote the organization’s fourth and latest book, Ties that Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps. The evening also marked the beginning of a monthlong celebration of the 10th anniversary of the nonprofit that, as Isay said, is hoping to “get people in this country to listen to each other more and recognize the poetry and the grace and the beauty and the power in the stories of the people around us.”

“One of the reasons people do interviews in StoryCorps is to thank and honor the person who means most to them in their lives,” Isay explained, “and this is a book of those stories of gratitude and thanks.” After several warnings that crying publicly is among the risks one takes when listening to StoryCorps, several participants took the stage to share their stories, all of which are included in Ties that Bind. The first was a recording from Philip and Susan, a couple from Cody, Wyo., who met more than 20 years ago when he was a bouncer at a topless bar and she was a single mom participating in amateur night, hoping to win some money to help support her two children. Now the two — neither of whom had completed high school when they met — are biologists, having graduated college after taking every class together.

The final story of the evening was shared via animation, an additional element in the StoryCorps repertoire, and was about the experience of a couple, Hasan and Gweniviere, dealing with and overcoming Gweniviere’s short-term memory loss that resulted from a stroke she suffered during surgery to remove a brain tumor three years ago. After the animation, Hasan and Gweniviere spoke about telling their story. “It was really good for her,” Hasan said, “because she got to put together a lot of questions about what it was like for me, and our relationship, dealing with her condition. It was very therapeutic.

“The end product was something that could help her think back and reflect on our experience over the last few years.”

With a booth in Grand Central Station, Isay began recording stories, and quickly “saw that the microphone was a license to have conversations and ask questions that had never been asked before.” He continued, “StoryCorps is not about the wonderful stories that you hear; it’s about giving people the chance to have these conversations and from the very beginning it worked in really magnificent ways that I never expected.”

A year after the first story was recorded, Isay quit his job in radio and decided to dedicate his life to StoryCorps. Now, the organization boasts recordings in 54 languages, with more than 50,000 recorded interviews and 80,000 stories shared. Each recording session lasts approximately 40 minutes, during which two people sit across from each other in a booth and simply ask each other questions. At the end of the session, one copy of the recording goes home with the participants, and another copy goes to the Library of Congress, to assist future generations in unraveling their histories, and perhaps improving their futures.

“If we spent more time listening to each other and less time screaming at each other, we’d be a better, stronger country,” Isay concluded.

 

Created in collaboration with Greenlight Bookstore and The Brooklyn Rail, the aim of the Brooklyn Voices series is to promote and enhance the creative vitality of our home neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill by providing local writers, artists and intellectuals with a forum in which to discuss and present their works to our neighbors, patrons and students. Past speakers include authors Colson Whitehead, Touré, Nelson George, Junot Diaz, Sapphire and Jonathan Ames. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri was featured in October.

 

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