There is a voice inside each of us, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told first-year Berry College students earlier this week. It is always there, sending hints and motivations. And as its message becomes clearer, it is up to each individual to listen and answer its call.
It was Isay’s own voice, emerging while a college student on his way to medical school, that changed his life trajectory, leading him into producing radio documentaries. His work became telling other people’s stories for them.
But around 15 years ago, Isay had the idea, a simple one, he says, to “take a documentary and turn it on its head” by giving anyone an opportunity to talk about their own life, rather than have it shared through someone else.
“The purpose is to give as many people a chance to be listened to,” he said of StoryCorps, now a compilation of thousands and thousands of oral histories by everyday people.
When the project first started, a recording booth was set up at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. And the basis for what they would say took on a “if I had 40 minutes left to live” style, with participants putting moments of their lives on the record for their future family members to know. The recordings are then preserved at the Library of Congress, while also being featured on NPR, and shared through the StoryCorps website and podcast.
As the stories have spread and have played through headphones, car speakers and computers, people have been able to connect with the lives and feelings and experiences of those they’ve never met. It’s about finding “the wisdom that’s all around us,” Isay said.
“It’s there for the taking,” he continued, “hiding in plain sight.”
During the lecture at the Cage Center on Thursday night, Isay played a few selections: a married couple pondering on a life of love, a man reflecting on the comfort of his father’s presence amidst the tumultuous environment of school desegregation in the South, and an elderly woman recalling the time her inflatable bra was mistaken for a bomb when it burst on an airplane heading for the Andes Mountains.
Isay teased to a new StoryCorps project, which comes from the division felt across the U.S. between Americans.
“As a country we kind of don’t love each other anymore,” he said, adding that by just listening to someone and hearing about their life, understanding can be reached.
The new project, which will launch in the coming weeks, aims to put two strangers in a booth, particularly those of different political beliefs.
“Listening to each other is our patriotic duty,” Isay said.
Isay shared that possibly Berry College would be involved, getting students from Young Democrats and Young Republicans to sit down and talk about anything but politics.
In closing his remarks, Isay once again spoke to the Berry College freshmen — who were tasked with reading his book “Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work” over the summer — seated on the floor of the gym. He told them that finding their inner voice requires taking risks and finding courage to overcome challenges. Students should not be settling their life on the notion of “working less, for more money, for a short time,” but on following their calling.