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TED2015

Dave Isay: Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear

March 17, 2015

Dave Isay opened the first StoryCorps booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2003 with the intention of creating a quiet place where a person could honor someone who mattered to them by listening to their story. Since then, StoryCorps has evolved into the single largest collection of human voices ever recorded. His TED Prize wish: to grow this digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity. Hear his vision to take StoryCorps global — and how you can be a part of it by interviewing someone with the StoryCorps app.

Dave Isay - Story collector
Over thousands of archived and broadcast interviews, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay -- winner of the 2015 TED Prize -- has created an unprecedented document of the dreams and fears that touch us all. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Tonight, I'm going to try to make the case
00:12
that inviting a loved one, a friend
or even a stranger
00:14
to record a meaningful interview with you
00:19
just might turn out to be one of the most
important moments in that person's life,
00:21
and in yours.
00:26
When I was 22 years old,
I was lucky enough to find my calling
00:29
when I fell into making radio stories.
00:32
At almost the exact same time,
00:35
I found out that my dad,
who I was very, very close to, was gay.
00:37
I was taken completely by surprise.
00:42
We were a very tight-knit family,
00:44
and I was crushed.
00:47
At some point, in one
of our strained conversations,
00:49
my dad mentioned the Stonewall riots.
00:52
He told me that one night in 1969,
00:54
a group of young black
and Latino drag queens
00:57
fought back against the police
at a gay bar in Manhattan
01:00
called the Stonewall Inn,
01:04
and how this sparked
the modern gay rights movement.
01:06
It was an amazing story,
and it piqued my interest.
01:09
So I decided to pick up my tape
recorder and find out more.
01:13
With the help of a young archivist
named Michael Shirker,
01:17
we tracked down all
of the people we could find
01:21
who had been at
the Stonewall Inn that night.
01:24
Recording these interviews,
01:27
I saw how the microphone
gave me the license
01:29
to go places I otherwise
never would have gone
01:31
and talk to people I might not
otherwise ever have spoken to.
01:34
I had the privilege of getting to know
01:38
some of the most amazing,
fierce and courageous human beings
01:40
I had ever met.
01:44
It was the first time
the story of Stonewall
01:46
had been told to a national audience.
01:48
I dedicated the program to my dad,
01:50
it changed my relationship with him,
and it changed my life.
01:53
Over the next 15 years,
I made many more radio documentaries,
02:00
working to shine a light on people
who are rarely heard from in the media.
02:03
Over and over again,
02:07
I'd see how this simple act
of being interviewed
02:09
could mean so much to people,
02:11
particularly those who had been told
that their stories didn't matter.
02:13
I could literally see
people's back straighten
02:17
as they started to speak
into the microphone.
02:19
In 1998, I made a documentary
about the last flophouse hotels
02:22
on the Bowery in Manhattan.
02:27
Guys stayed up in these
cheap hotels for decades.
02:29
They lived in cubicles
the size of prison cells
02:32
covered with chicken wire
02:34
so you couldn't jump
from one room into the next.
02:35
Later, I wrote a book on the men
with the photographer Harvey Wang.
02:38
I remember walking into a flophouse
with an early version of the book
02:42
and showing one of the guys his page.
02:47
He stood there staring at it in silence,
02:49
then he grabbed the book out of my hand
02:52
and started running down
the long, narrow hallway
02:54
holding it over his head
02:57
shouting, "I exist! I exist."
02:59
(Applause)
03:03
In many ways, "I exist" became
the clarion call for StoryCorps,
03:08
this crazy idea that I had
a dozen years ago.
03:12
The thought was to take
documentary work
03:16
and turn it on its head.
03:18
Traditionally, broadcast documentary
03:20
has been about recording interviews
to create a work of art or entertainment
03:22
or education that is seen or heard
by a whole lot of people,
03:26
but I wanted to try something
03:30
where the interview itself
was the purpose of this work,
03:32
and see if we could give many,
many, many people the chance
03:35
to be listened to in this way.
03:38
So in Grand Central Terminal 11 years ago,
03:40
we built a booth where anyone
can come to honor someone else
03:43
by interviewing them about their life.
03:48
You come to this booth and you're met
by a facilitator who brings you inside.
03:51
You sit across from, say, your grandfather
03:55
for close to an hour
and you listen and you talk.
03:57
Many people think of it as,
if this was to be our last conversation,
04:00
what would I want to ask of
and say to this person
04:04
who means so much to me?
04:07
At the end of the session,
you walk away with a copy of the interview
04:09
and another copy goes
to the American Folklife Center
04:13
at the Library of Congress
04:15
so that your great-great-great-grandkids
can someday get to know your grandfather
04:17
through his voice and story.
04:21
So we open this booth
in one of the busiest places in the world
04:25
and invite people to have this
incredibly intimate conversation
04:28
with another human being.
04:32
I had no idea if it would work,
but from the very beginning, it did.
04:33
People treated the experience
with incredible respect,
04:38
and amazing conversations happened inside.
04:40
I want to play just one animated excerpt
04:44
from an interview recorded
at that original Grand Central Booth.
04:46
This is 12-year-old Joshua Littman
interviewing his mother, Sarah.
04:50
Josh has Asperger's syndrome.
04:55
As you may know, kids with Asperger's
are incredibly smart
04:57
but have a tough time socially.
05:00
They usually have obsessions.
05:02
In Josh's case, it's with animals,
05:04
so this is Josh talking with his mom Sarah
05:06
at Grand Central nine years ago.
05:09
(Video) Josh Littman:
From a scale of one to 10,
05:12
do you think your life would be
different without animals?
05:14
Sarah Littman: I think it would be
an eight without animals,
05:17
because they add so much pleasure to life.
05:20
JL: How else do you think your life
would be different without them?
05:22
SL: I could do without things
like cockroaches and snakes.
05:25
JL: Well, I'm okay with snakes
as long as they're not venomous
05:28
or constrict you or anything.
05:31
SL: Yeah, I'm not a big snake person --
05:32
JL: But cockroach is just
the insect we love to hate.
05:34
SL: Yeah, it really is.
05:37
JL: Have you ever thought
you couldn't cope with having a child?
05:38
SL: I remember when you were a baby,
you had really bad colic,
05:41
so you would just cry and cry.
05:45
JL: What's colic?
SL: It's when you get this stomach ache
05:46
and all you do is scream
for, like, four hours.
05:49
JL: Even louder than Amy does?
05:52
SL: You were pretty loud,
but Amy's was more high-pitched.
05:54
JL: I think it feels like everyone
seems to like Amy more,
05:57
like she's the perfect little angel.
06:00
SL: Well, I can understand
why you think that people like Amy more,
06:03
and I'm not saying it's because
of your Asperger's syndrome,
06:07
but being friendly comes easily to Amy,
06:10
whereas I think for you
it's more difficult,
06:13
but the people who take the time
to get to know you love you so much.
06:15
JL: Like Ben or Eric or Carlos?
SL: Yeah --
06:19
JL: Like I have better quality friends
but less quantity? (Laughter)
06:22
SL: I wouldn't judge
the quality, but I think --
06:26
JL: I mean, first it was like, Amy
loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia,
06:28
she loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia.
06:32
SL: Part of that's a girl thing, honey.
06:34
The important thing for you
is that you have a few very good friends,
06:36
and really that's what you need in life.
06:39
JL: Did I turn out to be the son
you wanted when I was born?
06:41
Did I meet your expectations?
06:46
SL: You've exceeded
my expectations, sweetie,
06:49
because, sure, you have these fantasies
of what your child's going to be like,
06:51
but you have made me grow
so much as a parent, because you think --
06:56
JL: Well, I was the one
who made you a parent.
07:00
SL: You were the one who made me a parent.
That's a good point. (Laughter)
07:02
But also because you think differently
07:06
from what they tell you
in the parenting books,
07:08
I really had to learn to think
outside of the box with you,
07:10
and it's made me much more creative
as a parent and as a person,
07:14
and I'll always thank you for that.
07:19
JL: And that helped when Amy was born?
07:20
SL: And that helped when Amy was born,
but you are so incredibly special to me
07:22
and I'm so lucky to have you as my son.
07:27
(Applause)
07:30
David Isay: After this story
ran on public radio,
07:38
Josh received hundreds of letters
07:41
telling him what an amazing kid he was.
07:42
His mom, Sarah, bound them
together in a book,
07:45
and when Josh got picked on at school,
they would read the letters together.
07:47
I just want to acknowledge
that two of my heroes
07:51
are here with us tonight.
07:53
Sarah Littman and her son Josh,
who is now an honors student in college.
07:55
(Applause)
07:59
You know, a lot of people talk about
crying when they hear StoryCorps stories,
08:03
and it's not because they're sad.
08:07
Most of them aren't.
08:09
I think it's because you're hearing
something authentic and pure
08:10
at this moment,
when sometimes it's hard to tell
08:13
what's real and what's an advertisement.
08:16
It's kind of the anti-reality TV.
08:19
Nobody comes to StoryCorps to get rich.
08:21
Nobody comes to get famous.
08:23
It's simply an act of generosity and love.
08:25
So many of these are just everyday people
08:28
talking about lives lived with kindness,
courage, decency and dignity,
08:31
and when you hear that kind of story,
08:36
it can sometimes feel
like you're walking on holy ground.
08:38
So this experiment
in Grand Central worked,
08:42
and we expanded across the country.
08:45
Today, more than 100,000 people
in all 50 states
08:47
in thousands of cities
and towns across America
08:50
have recorded StoryCorps interviews.
08:53
It's now the largest single collection
of human voices ever gathered.
08:55
(Applause)
09:00
We've hired and trained
hundreds of facilitators
09:06
to help guide people
through the experience.
09:09
Most serve a year or two with StoryCorps
09:11
traveling the country,
gathering the wisdom of humanity.
09:14
They call it bearing witness,
09:17
and if you ask them,
09:19
all of the facilitators will tell you
that the most important thing
09:21
they've learned from being present
during these interviews
09:24
is that people are basically good.
09:27
And I think for the first years
of StoryCorps, you could argue
09:30
that there was some kind
of a selection bias happening,
09:33
but after tens of thousands of interviews
with every kind of person
09:36
in every part of the country --
09:39
rich, poor, five years old to 105,
09:41
80 different languages,
across the political spectrum --
09:44
you have to think that maybe these guys
are actually onto something.
09:48
I've also learned so much
from these interviews.
09:53
I've learned about the poetry
and the wisdom and the grace
09:56
that can be found in the words
of people all around us
09:59
when we simply take the time to listen,
10:02
like this interview
10:05
between a betting clerk in Brooklyn
named Danny Perasa
10:08
who brought his wife Annie to StoryCorps
to talk about his love for her.
10:12
(Audio) Danny Perasa: You see,
the thing of it is,
10:18
I always feel guilty when I say
"I love you" to you.
10:20
And I say it so often.
I say it to remind you
10:23
that as dumpy as I am,
it's coming from me.
10:26
It's like hearing a beautiful song
from a busted old radio,
10:29
and it's nice of you to keep
the radio around the house.
10:32
Annie Perasa: If I don't have a note
on the kitchen table,
10:35
I think there's something wrong.
10:37
You write a love letter
to me every morning.
10:39
DP: Well, the only thing
that could possibly be wrong
10:41
is I couldn't find a silly pen.
10:44
AP: To my princess:
10:45
The weather outside today
is extremely rainy.
10:46
I'll call you at 11:20 in the morning.
10:48
DP: It's a romantic weather report.
10:50
AP: And I love you.
I love you. I love you.
10:52
DP: When a guy is happily married,
no matter what happens at work,
10:55
no matter what happens
in the rest of the day,
10:58
there's a shelter when you get home,
11:00
there's a knowledge knowing
that you can hug somebody
11:02
without them throwing you downstairs
and saying, "Get your hands off me."
11:04
Being married is like having
a color television set.
11:08
You never want to go back
to black and white.
11:11
(Laughter)
11:13
DI: Danny was about five feet tall
11:16
with crossed eyes
and one single snaggletooth,
11:18
but Danny Perasa had
more romance in his little pinky
11:22
than all of Hollywood's
leading men put together.
11:25
What else have I learned?
11:28
I've learned about the almost
unimaginable capacity
11:30
for the human spirit to forgive.
11:33
I've learned about resilience
and I've learned about strength.
11:35
Like an interview with Oshea Israel
and Mary Johnson.
11:39
When Oshea was a teenager,
he murdered Mary's only son,
11:42
Laramiun Byrd, in a gang fight.
11:47
A dozen years later, Mary went to prison
11:50
to meet Oshea and find out
who this person was
11:52
who had taken her son's life.
11:55
Slowly and remarkably,
they became friends,
11:58
and when he was finally released
from the penitentiary,
12:01
Oshea actually moved in next door to Mary.
12:03
This is just a short excerpt
of a conversation they had
12:07
soon after Oshea was freed.
12:10
(Video) Mary Johnson: My natural son
is no longer here.
12:13
I didn't see him graduate,
and now you're going to college.
12:16
I'll have the opportunity
to see you graduate.
12:20
I didn't see him get married.
12:23
Hopefully one day, I'll be able
to experience that with you.
12:26
Oshea Israel: Just to hear you
say those things and to be
12:30
in my life in the manner
in which you are is my motivation.
12:33
It motivates me to make sure
that I stay on the right path.
12:36
You still believe in me,
12:41
and the fact that you can do it
despite how much pain I caused you,
12:43
it's amazing.
12:46
MJ: I know it's not an easy thing
to be able to share our story together,
12:49
even with us sitting here
looking at each other right now.
12:54
I know it's not an easy thing,
so I admire that you can do this.
12:57
OI: I love you, lady.
MJ: I love you too, son.
13:03
(Applause)
13:11
DI: And I've been reminded countless times
of the courage and goodness of people,
13:18
and how the arc of history
truly does bend towards justice.
13:23
Like the story of Alexis Martinez,
who was born Arthur Martinez
13:28
in the Harold Ickes projects in Chicago.
13:32
In the interview, she talks
with her daughter Lesley
13:35
about joining a gang as a young man,
13:38
and later in life transitioning
into the woman she was always meant to be.
13:40
This is Alexis and her daughter Lesley.
13:45
(Audio) Alexis Martinez: One of the most
difficult things for me was
13:48
I was always afraid that
I wouldn't be allowed
13:51
to be in my granddaughters' lives,
13:54
and you blew that completely
out of the water,
13:57
you and your husband.
13:59
One of the fruits of that is,
in my relationship with my granddaughters,
14:00
they fight with each other sometimes
over whether I'm he or she.
14:04
Lesley Martinez: But they're free
to talk about it.
14:07
AM: They're free to talk about it,
but that, to me, is a miracle.
14:10
LM: You don't have to apologize.
You don't have to tiptoe.
14:13
We're not going to cut you off,
and that's something I've always
14:16
wanted you to just know,
that you're loved.
14:21
AM: You know, I live this every day now.
14:24
I walk down the streets as a woman,
and I really am at peace with who I am.
14:26
I mean, I wish I had a softer voice maybe,
14:31
but now I walk in love
and I try to live that way every day.
14:34
DI: Now I walk in love.
14:43
I'm going to tell you
a secret about StoryCorps.
14:46
It takes some courage
to have these conversations.
14:49
StoryCorps speaks to our mortality.
14:53
Participants know this recording
will be heard long after they're gone.
14:55
There's a hospice doctor named Ira Byock
14:59
who has worked closely with us
on recording interviews
15:02
with people who are dying.
15:04
He wrote a book called
"The Four Things That Matter Most"
15:06
about the four things you want to say
to the most important people in your life
15:08
before they or you die:
15:12
thank you, I love you,
15:15
forgive me, I forgive you.
15:18
They're just about the most powerful words
we can say to one another,
15:21
and often that's what happens
in a StoryCorps booth.
15:25
It's a chance to have a sense of closure
with someone you care about --
15:28
no regrets, nothing left unsaid.
15:31
And it's hard and it takes courage,
15:34
but that's why we're alive, right?
15:38
So, the TED Prize.
15:43
When I first heard from TED
and Chris a few months ago
15:45
about the possibility of the Prize,
I was completely floored.
15:48
They asked me to come up
with a very brief wish for humanity,
15:52
no more than 50 words.
15:56
So I thought about it,
I wrote my 50 words,
15:57
and a few weeks later,
Chris called and said, "Go for it."
16:00
So here is my wish:
16:05
that you will help us
16:08
take everything we've learned
through StoryCorps
16:11
and bring it to the world
16:13
so that anyone anywhere
can easily record a meaningful interview
16:16
with another human being
which will then be archived for history.
16:20
How are we going to do that? With this.
16:25
We're fast moving into a future
where everyone in the world
16:30
will have access to one of these,
16:33
and it has powers I never
could have imagined 11 years ago
16:35
when I started StoryCorps.
16:39
It has a microphone,
16:41
it can tell you how to do things,
16:43
and it can send audio files.
16:45
Those are the key ingredients.
16:48
So the first part of the wish
is already underway.
16:50
Over the past couple of months,
16:53
the team at StoryCorps
has been working furiously
16:55
to create an app that will bring
StoryCorps out of our booths
16:58
so that it can be experienced
by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
17:01
Remember, StoryCorps has always
been two people and a facilitator
17:07
helping them record their conversation,
which is preserved forever,
17:10
but at this very moment,
17:14
we're releasing a public beta version
of the StoryCorps app.
17:16
The app is a digital facilitator
that walks you through
17:20
the StoryCorps interview process,
17:23
helps you pick questions,
17:25
and gives you all the tips you need
17:27
to record a meaningful
StoryCorps interview,
17:29
and then with one tap upload it
to our archive at the Library of Congress.
17:32
That's the easy part, the technology.
17:38
The real challenge is up to you:
17:41
to take this tool and figure out
how we can use it
17:43
all across America and around the world,
17:46
so that instead of recording
thousands of StoryCorps interviews a year,
17:49
we could potentially record
tens of thousands
17:53
or hundreds of thousands
17:56
or maybe even more.
17:58
Imagine, for example,
a national homework assignment
18:01
where every high school student
studying U.S. history across the country
18:04
records an interview
with an elder over Thanksgiving,
18:08
so that in one single weekend
18:11
an entire generation of American lives
and experiences are captured.
18:14
(Applause)
18:19
Or imagine mothers on opposite
sides of a conflict somewhere in the world
18:27
sitting down not to talk
about that conflict
18:31
but to find out who they are as people,
18:34
and in doing so,
begin to build bonds of trust;
18:36
or that someday it becomes
a tradition all over the world
18:40
that people are honored
with a StoryCorps interview
18:43
on their 75th birthday;
18:46
or that people in your community
18:48
go into retirement homes or hospitals
or homeless shelters or even prisons
18:50
armed with this app to honor the people
least heard in our society
18:56
and ask them who they are,
what they've learned in life,
18:59
and how they want to be remembered.
19:02
(Applause)
19:04
Ten years ago, I recorded
a StoryCorps interview with my dad
19:12
who was a psychiatrist,
and became a well-known gay activist.
19:16
This is the picture
of us at that interview.
19:20
I never thought about that recording
until a couple of years ago,
19:24
when my dad, who seemed
to be in perfect health
19:27
and was still seeing patients
40 hours a week,
19:30
was diagnosed with cancer.
19:33
He passed away very suddenly
a few days later.
19:35
It was June 28, 2012,
19:39
the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
19:41
I listened to that interview
for the first time at three in the morning
19:45
on the day that he died.
19:49
I have a couple of young kids at home,
19:50
and I knew that the only way
they were going to get to know this person
19:52
who was such a towering figure in my life
would be through that session.
19:56
I thought I couldn't believe in StoryCorps
any more deeply than I did,
20:01
but it was at that moment
20:04
that I fully and viscerally grasped
the importance of making these recordings.
20:06
Every day, people come up to me
20:11
and say, "I wish I had interviewed
my father or my grandmother or my brother,
20:13
but I waited too long."
20:17
Now, no one has to wait anymore.
20:20
At this moment,
20:22
when so much of how we communicate
is fleeting and inconsequential,
20:23
join us in creating this digital archive
20:27
of conversations that are
enduring and important.
20:30
Help us create this gift to our children,
20:34
this testament to who
we are as human beings.
20:37
I hope you'll help us make
this wish come true.
20:41
Interview a family member, a friend
or even a stranger.
20:45
Together, we can create an archive
of the wisdom of humanity,
20:49
and maybe in doing so,
20:55
we'll learn to listen a little more
and shout a little less.
20:57
Maybe these conversations will remind us
what's really important.
21:01
And maybe, just maybe,
21:06
it will help us recognize
that simple truth
21:08
that every life, every single life,
21:11
matters equally and infinitely.
21:15
Thank you very much.
21:18
(Applause)
21:20
Thank you. Thank you.
21:22
(Applause)
21:26
Thank you.
21:29
(Applause)
21:31

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Dave Isay - Story collector
Over thousands of archived and broadcast interviews, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay -- winner of the 2015 TED Prize -- has created an unprecedented document of the dreams and fears that touch us all.

Why you should listen

From the first interview he recorded, 2015 TED Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Dave Isay knew he’d found his calling: preserving the stories of everyday Americans. Since then, Isay has amassed hundreds of thousands of recordings, most of previously unheard or ignored voices, all speaking in their own words. The archives of StoryCorps -- which Isay founded in 2003 -- are included at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, and now constitute the largest single collection of recorded voices in history.

StoryCorps invites friends, loved ones and strangers to conduct 40-minute interviews at intimate recording booths in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, and (until 2011) New York, as well as in mobile studios nationwide. Offering moving and surprising glimpses into the hearts of often marginalized and forgotten subjects, the interviews are a familiar feature of NPR’s Morning Edition and Storycorps.org.

At TED2015, Isay shared an audacious wish for StoryCorps: to open up the format from its signature booths with a StoryCorps app that allows anyone to add to this "digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity." The vision: to take this idea global, and begin collecting stories around the world.

 

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