Thursday, April 29, 2010

Listening and Leaving a Legacy

> See all posts tagged "Listening."

Wednesday night I went downtown to hear David Isay speak. He's the founder of StoryCorps. If you're an NPR fan you may have heard their stories on the radio or read their first book, Listening as an Act of Love. Isn't that a great title?

Since their start in 2003 StoryCorps facilitators have recorded some 30,000 40-minute interviews, most actually led by someone who brings in a friend or relative to interview themselves, with a bit of coaching and encouragement from the facilitator. Nearly all are available in the Library of Congress. "We thought we'd have maybe 60-70% sign the releases to let us preserve and use their stories," he said, "There is no pressure, but more than 99% have agreed. Everyone wants to leave a legacy."

"And we've seen interviews done in dozens of languages. At one point the Cantonese community in New York heard about StoryCorps and for weeks we had days and days of interviews in Cantonese."

"People want to know that they matter and won't be forgotten, which is all we really want to know... Our facilitators - we have 100 of them who go out on the road - they are collecting the wisdom of humanity."

The new book that was just released is all stories from or about mothers. Questions or stories about one's mother or about being a mom have come up in just about every interview. Some of them are pretty gritty, or heartwrenching, or touching. He played us the audio versions of several of them. "Great, I'm crying already!" I heard a woman behind me say. "Why did I think it was OK to wear mascara?" said another. Most but not all of the facilitators are young people, and after a day of those kind of interviews, David said, their usual reaction was to lock up the recording booth and go call their moms.

He also said that StoryCorps wants to "start a revolution of listening." Hmmm. I wanted to know more about that. They are getting ready to introduce a StoryCorps program in schools to help equip kids with the StoryCorps techniques. (Would love to see that curriculum!) They do have some questions and suggestions on their website. Take a look if you are interested.

From Listening into Learning

Like many of the things I've been doing these last couple months, I went to this event expecting it would be a "teachable moment." I'm seeking those out... situations that will help me think through what's important, what's not, what's refreshing, what's stressful.

I'll tell you what's stressful: trying to find parking in downtown Denver! That and walking around there, as a woman, by yourself, at night. And finding your way back to the freeway to come home (it's a bit of a mess down there, all one-way streets and the like).

But here's another thing. David is right, that people want to know that they matter and won't be forgotten. And lacking children, grandchildren, etc. I have what feels to me like a foolish fear, that I don't matter and will be quickly forgotten. I know this is probably borrowing trouble to think this way, though; it's pretty unlikely that I'm going to die tomorrow. And if I did, well, how much am I going to still care about that? Nevertheless, if I can really find some partial resolution about that question now, and not still be bothered by it when I'm old, that would be good.

Anyway, I was poking at that place in my mind and looking through my copy of Listening as an Act of Love and realized that even if this is the end of the line for my family, leaving a legacy like David Isay's would not be a sad ending to my own life, at all. I wouldn't mind being forgotten if I had given my life to helping others listen, learn, remember, be remembered. It's such a good thing.

Could be like when I wrote Through Her Eyes, which is mostly about missionary moms. I wondered how I could possibly be the one to write that book, not being a long-term missionary, not being a mom at all. But I came into the project with a level of freedom and flexibility and a breadth of experience that I wouldn't have had if I were actually in their shoes. It really helped. I could go and sit in their kitchens and ask smart questions and document all that they had to say, and then go see other women and do the same thing, and get the whole mess organized and edited and published. I don't know if any one of them could have done it.

You know, though, what I'd like to pursue is not quite the same thing as what David Isay and his StoryCorps facilitators do, noble and fascinating as it may be. I wouldn't want to give myself to a project like that when there are opportunities that are like that but with a greater strategic focus. Listening is a start, and a good one, one we often miss.

But to our listening I want to see us all add learning. Responding to what we hear. Seeking to really understand those stories, and doing something about them. This is why I equip people to do ethnographies, not just stand-alone ethnographic interviews; why we sit for hours, not just 40 minutes; why we go back and interview people again and again and try to talk to their neighbors, relatives, and others throughout their cities. Let's learn from people, from whole communities, especially those who are part of misunderstood, oppressed, minority - and yes, unreached - cultures. Let's learn how to understand and love and serve and empower them, better. Yeah, I may love a good story and believe that every person's story matters, but more than that, I realize, I really want to change the world.

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