How well can you get to know someone in 40 minutes? Not very well, most would say, but anyone who’s listened to a few short interviews published by StoryCorps may have a different perspective.
StoryCorps is a public service that records brief conversations between people from all walks of life, then posts them online for the world to hear. While it may be impossible to learn everything about someone in less than an hour, it’s easy to comprehend their values, emotions and compassion within minutes. And according to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, those are the things that matter most.
“We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters,” he said. “At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”
Isay began the StoryCorps mission in 2003 in an effort to create a more compassionate world. The organization first set up a mobile recording studio in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and asked volunteer participants to have short discussions with friends or family members. Since then, they’ve continued to host mobile recording sessions in cities across the country as well as in virtual rooms, and more than half a million people have participated so far. Each story told, each voice recorded, will also never be forgotten, as each one is archived in the Library of Congress.
What kinds of stories does StoryCorps collect?
The main goal of each StoryCorps conversation is to help people understand each other and learn from their experiences. Some stories feature grandparents answering grandkids’ questions about their childhood. Some feature parents discussing sacrifices made for their children. Some discuss meeting the love of their life for the first time, and some describe heartbreaking losses. All these subjects offer incredible ways to connect and capture memories that can be passed along for years to come.
“We can learn so much about the people all around us, even about the people we already know, just by taking the time to have a conversation,” said Isay. “And if you pay just a little attention, you’ll find wisdom and poetry in their words.”
While StoryCorps accepts general everyday stories, they also solicit stories that fall into themed “collections” in hopes of building bridges of understanding about certain communities. The organization has collections featuring African Americans, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, teachers, those who have been impacted by incarceration, veterans and service members, immigrants and refugees, as well as discussions between those with opposing political views. Just hearing these recordings can motivate listeners to make an effort to get to know people better, and to always approach others with an open mind.
In one story from the Military Veterans initiative, a 90-year-old father tells his son about the day his first wife thought he died in battle. He had taken his jacket off to wrap it around an injured soldier, and in the jacket pocket were letters from his wife. As he got up to retrieve his weapon, he was captured by enemies. The soldier he had wrapped in his jacket died, and because they found his wife’s letters in the pocket, medics assumed it was him and reported him dead. Two years later after being released from his captors, he returned home to find his wife had remarried. In the interview, his son asks him if he would change any of it if he could; he answers he would do it all over again. One, because he loves his country, and two, because he ended up meeting and marrying the woman who had written his obituary—who became the mother of his three children.
In another story featured during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a mother tells her daughter about the day a man in a wheelchair came into her office. She knew right away she wanted to marry him, and she did—even though she knew they wouldn’t be able to have biological children. While applying for adoption, a social worker told them they would not be good parents, but after finally being approved by another agency, the couple was blessed with their daughter. Four years later, they saw the woman who had said they shouldn’t have kids. The father placed his child on the footrest of his wheelchair where she loved to sit, and wheeled right up to the woman and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.” The daughter goes on to say how thankful she is that someone gave her parents a chance to become her mom and dad.
There are hundreds of stories like these on StoryCorps, some of which have happy endings and others that simply spur deep thoughts. Listening to them is a great way to evaluate how we’re living our own lives, how we’re treating others, and how we might be better.
How can my loved one share their story?
If you’d like to capture the conversation of a lifetime with your parent, grandparent or senior friend, head to StoryCorps, where you’ll find a list of cities and dates where in-person mobile recording sites are scheduled. Then, create a list of questions you’d like to ask your loved one and invite them to meet up for a 40-minute chat.
If the tour isn’t coming to your city or the senior in your life isn’t able to get to a mobile site, you can download the StoryCorps app to record your conversation from anywhere. And don’t worry if your friend or family member doesn’t live nearby; the StoryCorps Connect platform enables you to interview them remotely using video conferencing technology. After all, it’s not where the conversation takes place that’s important; it’s what’s captured in a memory that will last forever.