StoryCorps’ Power of Listening Bridges Today’s Great Divide

May 10, 2017





Dave Isay is bucking the trends. Unlike our current obsession with the lives of celebrities and media darlings, his new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, concerns the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Yet in the book, as in StoryCorps, the national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others’ stories in sound, those ordinary lives become extraordinary in the retelling. “The nature of a StoryCorps interview is that people talk about what’s most important in their lives, in discussions with some of the most important people in their lives — grandparents, elders or teachers, so it could well be that the voices of ordinary people are really the only ones that matter,” says StoryCorps founder, Isay.


Callings comes from the same fertile wellspring that powers the StoryCorps radio programs heard on NPR, and 14 years after the opening of the first StoryBooth in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Isay is looking for even more stories. And one of the places he’s looking is on college campuses.


Who We Are as People

Last year, Barnes & Noble College helped sponsor StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen, an initiative for educators to involve their pupils as part of the StoryCorps mission after its debut recorded 50,000 conversations, “We literally had tens of thousands of new conversations, more than at any time in our history, joining the StoryCorps vault, and all of them conversations that really demonstrated the power of listening,” Isay says. And listening, he contends, is something that is now becoming more important than ever. “StoryCorps is witness to what happens when people interview and listen to those who are most important in their lives.”


If that happens to be in direct contrast to what’s going on in the world, then Isay is an advocate for listening. “What we’re beginning to see, given the great divide that is going on in the country now, is that it’s not about the issues, it’s more about who we are, and what unites us as people,” he says. “That’s the reason why StoryCorps is such an essential partner to us,” says Cynthia Zimmer, Director of Corporate Marketing at Barnes & Noble College. “Even in our research, we’re seeing students who are looking for guidance and mentorship in their friendships, in their careers and in their lives,” she says, “and what Dave and StoryCorps are doing is so integral to that — and very much a part of our commitment to supporting student success.”


At a time when many young people are looking for meaning and direction in their lives, Callings speaks to the purpose and passion of work, from the viewpoint of people talking about doing what they love — important guidance for those just starting out in their lives as young adults. Isay points out that the college campus environment, in particular, lends itself to StoryCorps’ mission. “The campus is a safe place, and the bookstore is a safe place within that community, with that sense of higher good that cultivates the right environment to tell stories — and those kinds of civil spaces are more important than ever, even as they become harder to find.”


Both Isay and Zimmer contend that listening and telling stories are central to what an academic experience should be all about. “It’s human nature to fear those that we don’t know, and part of life on a college campus is bringing together and meeting with, and learning from, those you otherwise might not relate to or recognize.” Isay says, adding that in a new generation of StoryCorps conversations, he’s noticed a significant shift away from some of the cynicism and snarkiness of even a year ago. “I think in young people we’re beginning to see very real interest from a generation being increasingly honest and open — and not being guarded or trying to be funnier than anyone else,” he notes.






Conversations for History

In 2015, StoryCorps launched the free StoryCorps App for mobile phones and small-screen devices, which makes the experience of recording an interview with a loved one accessible everywhere, and it has encouraged a new generation of interviewers. It’s just one reason why Isay is looking to Barnes & Noble College and its campus partners to help StoryCorps become a stronger part of the fabric of our culture, with the understanding that everyone’s story matters. “The beauty of StoryCorps, and really its power, is that no one is trying to sell anything,” Isay explains. “It’s just an act of generosity and love — a way of connecting family and giving hope.” It’s also contributing to American history as the stories are collected and stored in the Library of Congress, providing a powerful recording of life in this century.


Isay sees this as a key message to students, with StoryCorps’ mission of reminding us of our shared humanity — and the ability to strengthen and build the connections between people — at a time when we’re not listening to each other. “It’s important that students don’t lose their hope, that they realize they have agency in this world — and that’s the basis of doing well in school,” Isay says. “You have to care, and this reminds you about all there is to care about.”



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