Let's Listen to One Another
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News
November 28, 2008

Today, Friday, Nov. 28, is the first annual "National Day of Listening." The concept for this day originates with David Isay, who in 2003 founded Storycorps, the non-profit project to honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening.

At its founding, Storycorps set up a booth in Grand Central Station for people to come into to interview a person for 40 minutes. At the end of the interview they were given a CD with a copy sent to the Library of Congress for posterity.

Last week, Isay, who grew up in New Haven, spoke before a large gathering at the Westport Library. He discussed his project and the thousands of interviews that have been recorded since the project began. Isay compiled many of these interviews into a book, "Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the Storycorps Project." The book is divided into sections: Home and Family, Work and Dedication, Journeys, History and Struggles and Fire and Water. There is also a CD of the interviews collected in the book.

On this "National Day of Listening," Storycorps invites people to ask others around them about their lives. It could be a grandparent, a neighbor, a teacher or close friend. By listening to them and recording or writing down the interview, you will be telling them that they matter and they won't ever be forgotten.

In his talk, Isay said the experience in interviewing someone close to you, gives you, the interviewer, "license to talk to someone about something you never have talked about in the past." To illustrate, he played a recording from the Home and Family interviews of a father and daughter talking about the father's depression during the daughter's childhood.

In talking about the History and Struggles section, Isay said, often, history is told from the top down. However, when told from the average person, the moment in history brings a different perspective. For example, he played a recording of a former sanitation worker recalling 40 years ago when Martin Luther King went to Memphis to address the working conditions of the sanitation workers in the city. This gentleman recalled April 3, 1968 when he was in the Memphis church listening to King give his "I've Been to the Mountain" speech in which King said he had looked over the top of the mountain and had seen the promise land. He told the gathering that he might never get there with them. The next day King was assassinated.

In recalling his witnessing King's speech, Taylor Rogers said King's death was "like you lost part of your family. They were terrible days back then, but we came through it. It meant something that you were part of it."

Storycorps is also collecting oral history from people personally impacted by 9/11, including one man who spoke of losing his fiancé on Sept. 11 and his witnessing the burning World Trade Center, where his fiancé worked, from his office in Brooklyn. Another record of history will come from people who lived through Hurricane Katrina.

Isay described the recordings of more than 17,000 as "beautiful, memorable and poetic." The people who talk about their lives are "ordinary people who are more important than celebrities."

The project gives people a chance to connect, Isay said. It is an opportunity to turn off the cell phones, the computer and the Blackberry. He said the interview process gives people "a chance to connect and for just one minute walk in someone's footsteps, which shows you have something in common.

"We're just beginning; we want to start a national revolution of listening - an adrenaline shot to the heart," Isay said.

Having a National Day of Listening is an interesting concept, especially for the holidays. So often we approach the holidays with trepidation as we come to the table with our family and friends who bring their own history of relationships. Storycorps brings a new perspective with the suggestion to take a moment to sit down with someone to interview.

I have spent 35 years interviewing people; yet, when it came to my own family, I never did. Those memories are lost forever. I know that my mother, one of five children, had to leave school to go to work, but I never really asked her about it. I know that when she was in her 70s, she decided to study for her high school diploma, a feat she was very proud to have finally achieved.

I know nothing about my father's early years, the youngest of eight children, mostly immigrants from Italy. I know nothing of the years he spent playing the piano in big bands and for silent films. I know nothing of why he moved so many times during World War II.

In recent years, I've been teaching memoir writing workshops, an outgrowth of my experience interviewing people. In these workshops, I encourage people to stimulate their memories to reach back in their minds to recall people, places and events that have had an influence in molding who they are as individuals.

People want to tell their stories. It is an urge that we have to have our say and to be recognized for who we are.

I happened to be walking through Grand Central Station the morning that Storycorps set up its booth to begin its project in 2003. That morning, Studs Terkel was being interviewed. Terkel, an author, actor, historian and broadcaster died at the age of 96 this past Halloween. He would often say, "I came up the year the Titanic went down."

Since Terkel broadcast a radio show for more than 40 years for a Chicago radio station and has written numerous books, we will not be at a loss when it comes to his life.

He is a role model for us to look to our own family this holiday season to begin our own family history of record. I hope my four-year-old grandson Cameron has his pencil sharpened.


© Copyright 2009 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.