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

Posted on March 25, 2015



0:11 Tonight, I’m going to try to make the case that inviting a loved one, a friend or even a stranger to record a meaningful interview with you just might turn out to be one of the most important moments in that person’s life, and in yours.

0:28 When I was 22 years old, I was lucky enough to find my calling when I fell into making radio stories. At almost the exact same time, I found out that my dad, who I was very, very close to, was gay. I was taken completely by surprise. We were a very tight-knit family, and I was crushed. At some point, in one of our strained conversations, my dad mentioned the Stonewall riots. He told me that one night in 1969, a group of young black and Latino drag queens fought back against the police at a gay bar in Manhattan called the Stonewall Inn, and how this sparked the modern gay rights movement.

1:09 It was an amazing story, and it piqued my interest. So I decided to pick up my tape recorder and find out more. With the help of a young archivist named Michael Shirker, we tracked down all of the people we could find who had been at the Stonewall Inn that night. Recording these interviews, I saw how the microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talk to people I might not otherwise ever have spoken to. I had the privilege of getting to know some of the most amazing, fierce and courageous human beings I had ever met. It was the first time the story of Stonewall had been told to a national audience. I dedicated the program to my dad, it changed my relationship with him, and it changed my life.

1:59 Over the next 15 years, I made many more radio documentaries, working to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Over and over again, I’d see how this simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people, particularly those who had been told that their stories didn’t matter. I could literally see people’s back straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.

2:21 In 1998, I made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels on the Bowery in Manhattan. Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades. They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells covered with chicken wire so you couldn’t jump from one room into the next. Later, I wrote a book on the men with the photographer Harvey Wang. I remember walking into a flophouse with an early version of the book and showing one of the guys his page. He stood there staring at it in silence, then he grabbed the book out of my hand and started running down the long, narrow hallway holding it over his head shouting, “I exist! I exist.” (Applause)

3:07 In many ways, “I exist” became the clarion call for StoryCorps, this crazy idea that I had a dozen years ago. The thought was to take documentary work and turn it on its head. Traditionally, broadcast documentary has been about recording interviews to create a work of art or entertainment or education that is seen or heard by a whole lot of people, but I wanted to try something where the interview itself was the purpose of this work, and see if we could give many, many, many people the chance to be listened to in this way. So in Grand Central Terminal 11 years ago, we built a booth where anyone can come to honor someone else by interviewing them about their life. You come to this booth and you’re met by a facilitator who brings you inside. You sit across from, say, your grandfather for close to an hour and you listen and you talk. Many people think of it as, if this was to be our last conversation, what would I want to ask of and say to this person who means so much to me? At the end of the session, you walk away with a copy of the interview and another copy goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress so that your great-great-great-grandkids can someday get to know your grandfather through his voice and story.

4:24 So we open this booth in one of the busiest places in the world and invite people to have this incredibly intimate conversation with another human being. I had no idea if it would work, but from the very beginning, it did. People treated the experience with incredible respect, and amazing conversations happened inside.

4:43 I want to play just one animated excerpt from an interview recorded at that original Grand Central Booth. This is 12-year-old Joshua Littman interviewing his mother, Sarah. Josh has Asperger’s syndrome. As you may know, kids with Asperger’s are incredibly smart but have a tough time socially. They usually have obsessions. In Josh’s case, it’s with animals, so this is Josh talking with his mom Sarah at Grand Central nine years ago.

5:11 (Video) Josh Littman: From a scale of one to 10, do you think your life would be different without animals? Sarah Littman: I think it would be an eight without animals, because they add so much pleasure to life.

5:21 JL: How else do you think your life would be different without them?

5:24 SL: I could do without things like cockroaches and snakes.

5:27 JL: Well, I’m okay with snakes as long as they’re not venomous or constrict you or anything.

5:31 SL: Yeah, I’m not a big snake person —

5:33 JL: But cockroach is just the insect we love to hate.

5:36 SL: Yeah, it really is.

5:37 JL: Have you ever thought you couldn’t cope with having a child?

5:40 SL: I remember when you were a baby, you had really bad colic, so you would just cry and cry.

5:45 JL: What’s colic? SL: It’s when you get this stomach ache and all you do is scream for, like, four hours.

5:51 JL: Even louder than Amy does?

5:53 SL: You were pretty loud, but Amy’s was more high-pitched.

5:56 JL: I think it feels like everyone seems to like Amy more, like she’s the perfect little angel.

6:02 SL: Well, I can understand why you think that people like Amy more, and I’m not saying it’s because of your Asperger’s syndrome, but being friendly comes easily to Amy, whereas I think for you it’s more difficult, but the people who take the time to get to know you love you so much.

6:18 JL: Like Ben or Eric or Carlos? SL: Yeah —

6:21 JL: Like I have better quality friends but less quantity? (Laughter)

6:25 SL: I wouldn’t judge the quality, but I think — JL: I mean, first it was like, Amy loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia, she loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia.

6:33 SL: Part of that’s a girl thing, honey. The important thing for you is that you have a few very good friends, and really that’s what you need in life.

6:41 JL: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Did I meet your expectations?

6:48 SL: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie, because, sure, you have these fantasies of what your child’s going to be like, but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you think —

6:59 JL: Well, I was the one who made you a parent.

7:01 SL: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. (Laughter) But also because you think differently from what they tell you in the parenting books, I really had to learn to think outside of the box with you, and it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person, and I’ll always thank you for that.

7:20 JL: And that helped when Amy was born?

7:21 SL: And that helped when Amy was born, but you are so incredibly special to me and I’m so lucky to have you as my son. (Applause)

7:37 David Isay: After this story ran on public radio, Josh received hundreds of letters telling him what an amazing kid he was. His mom, Sarah, bound them together in a book, and when Josh got picked on at school, they would read the letters together. I just want to acknowledge that two of my heroes are here with us tonight. Sarah Littman and her son Josh, who is now an honors student in college. (Applause)

8:02 You know, a lot of people talk about crying when they hear StoryCorps stories, and it’s not because they’re sad. Most of them aren’t. I think it’s because you’re hearing something authentic and pure at this moment, when sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s an advertisement. It’s kind of the anti-reality TV. Nobody comes to StoryCorps to get rich. Nobody comes to get famous. It’s simply an act of generosity and love. So many of these are just everyday people talking about lives lived with kindness, courage, decency and dignity, and when you hear that kind of story, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on holy ground. So this experiment in Grand Central worked,

8:44 and we expanded across the country. Today, more than 100,000 people in all 50 states in thousands of cities and towns across America have recorded StoryCorps interviews. It’s now the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. (Applause)

9:05 We’ve hired and trained hundreds of facilitators to help guide people through the experience. Most serve a year or two with StoryCorps traveling the country, gathering the wisdom of humanity. They call it bearing witness, and if you ask them, all of the facilitators will tell you that the most important thing they’ve learned from being present during these interviews is that people are basically good. And I think for the first years of StoryCorps, you could argue that there was some kind of a selection bias happening, but after tens of thousands of interviews with every kind of person in every part of the country — rich, poor, five years old to 105, 80 different languages, across the political spectrum — you have to think that maybe these guys are actually onto something.

9:52 I’ve also learned so much from these interviews. I’ve learned about the poetry and the wisdom and the grace that can be found in the words of people all around us when we simply take the time to listen, like this interview between a betting clerk in Brooklyn named Danny Perasa who brought his wife Annie to StoryCorps to talk about his love for her.

10:17 (Audio) Danny Perasa: You see, the thing of it is, I always feel guilty when I say “I love you” to you. And I say it so often. I say it to remind you that as dumpy as I am, it’s coming from me. It’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio, and it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house.

10:34 Annie Perasa: If I don’t have a note on the kitchen table, I think there’s something wrong. You write a love letter to me every morning. DP: Well, the only thing that could possibly be wrong is I couldn’t find a silly pen.

10:44 AP: To my princess: The weather outside today is extremely rainy. I’ll call you at 11:20 in the morning.

10:50 DP: It’s a romantic weather report.

10:51 AP: And I love you. I love you. I love you.

10:54 DP: When a guy is happily married, no matter what happens at work, no matter what happens in the rest of the day, there’s a shelter when you get home, there’s a knowledge knowing that you can hug somebody without them throwing you downstairs and saying, “Get your hands off me.” Being married is like having a color television set. You never want to go back to black and white. (Laughter)

11:15 DI: Danny was about five feet tall with crossed eyes and one single snaggletooth, but Danny Perasa had more romance in his little pinky than all of Hollywood’s leading men put together.

11:28 What else have I learned? I’ve learned about the almost unimaginable capacity for the human spirit to forgive. I’ve learned about resilience and I’ve learned about strength.

11:38 Like an interview with Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson. When Oshea was a teenager, he murdered Mary’s only son, Laramiun Byrd, in a gang fight. A dozen years later, Mary went to prison to meet Oshea and find out who this person was who had taken her son’s life. Slowly and remarkably, they became friends, and when he was finally released from the penitentiary, Oshea actually moved in next door to Mary. This is just a short excerpt of a conversation they had soon after Oshea was freed.

12:13 (Video) Mary Johnson: My natural son is no longer here. I didn’t see him graduate, and now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to experience that with you. Oshea Israel: Just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner in which you are is my motivation. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me, and the fact that you can do it despite how much pain I caused you, it’s amazing.

12:48 MJ: I know it’s not an easy thing to be able to share our story together, even with us sitting here looking at each other right now. I know it’s not an easy thing, so I admire that you can do this.

13:02 OI: I love you, lady. MJ: I love you too, son. (Applause)

13:17 DI: And I’ve been reminded countless times of the courage and goodness of people, and how the arc of history truly does bend towards justice.

13:27 Like the story of Alexis Martinez, who was born Arthur Martinez in the Harold Ickes projects in Chicago. In the interview, she talks with her daughter Lesley about joining a gang as a young man, and later in life transitioning into the woman she was always meant to be. This is Alexis and her daughter Lesley.

13:47 (Audio) Alexis Martinez: One of the most difficult things for me was I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to be in my granddaughter’s lives, and you blew that completely out of the water, you and your husband. One of the fruits of that is my relationship with my granddaughters. They fight with each other sometimes over whether I’m he or she.

14:06 Lesley Martinez: But they’re free to talk about it.

14:09 AM: They’re free to talk about it, but that, to me, is a miracle.

14:12 LM: You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to tiptoe. We’re not going to cut you off, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to just know, that you’re loved.

14:23 AM: You know, I live this every day now. I walk down the streets as a woman, and I really am at peace with who I am. I mean, I wish I had a softer voice maybe, but now I walk in love and I try to live that way every day.

14:42 DI: Now I walk in love.

14:45 I’m going to tell you a secret about StoryCorps. It takes some courage to have these conversations. StoryCorps speaks to our mortality. Participants know this recording will be heard long after they’re gone. There’s a hospice doctor named Ira Byock who has worked closely with us on recording interviews with people who are dying. He wrote a book called “The Four Things That Matter Most” about the four things you want to say to the most important people in your life before they or you die: thank you, I love you, forgive me, I forgive you. They’re just about the most powerful words we can say to one another, and often that’s what happens in a StoryCorps booth. It’s a chance to have a sense of closure with someone you care about — no regrets, nothing left unsaid. And it’s hard and it takes courage, but that’s why we’re alive, right?

15:42 So, the TED Prize. When I first heard from TED and Chris a few months ago about the possibility of the Prize, I was completely floored. They asked me to come up with a very brief wish for humanity, no more than 50 words. So I thought about it, I wrote my 50 words, and a few weeks later, Chris called and said, “Go for it.”

16:04 So here is my wish: that you will help us take everything we’ve learned through StoryCorps and bring it to the world so that anyone anywhere can easily record a meaningful interview with another human being which will then be archived for history.

16:24 How are we going to do that? With this. We’re fast moving into a future where everyone in the world will have access to one of these, and it has powers I never could have imagined 11 years ago when I started StoryCorps. It has a microphone, it can tell you how to do things, and it can send audio files. Those are the key ingredients.

16:49 So the first part of the wish is already underway. Over the past couple of months, the team at StoryCorps has been working furiously to create an app that will bring StoryCorps out of our booths so that it can be experienced by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Remember, StoryCorps has always been two people and a facilitator helping them record their conversation, which is preserved forever, but at this very moment, we’re releasing a public beta version of the StoryCorps app. The app is a digital facilitator that walks you through the StoryCorps interview process, helps you pick questions, and gives you all the tips you need to record a meaningful StoryCorps interview, and then with one tap upload it to our archive at the Library of Congress.

17:37 That’s the easy part, the technology. The real challenge is up to you: to take this tool and figure out how we can use it all across America and around the world, so that instead of recording thousands of StoryCorps interviews a year, we could potentially record tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or maybe even more.

18:00 Imagine, for example, a national homework assignment where every high school student studying U.S. history across the country records an interview with an elder over Thanksgiving, so that in one single weekend an entire generation of American lives and experiences are captured. (Applause) Or imagine mothers on opposite sides of a conflict somewhere in the world sitting down not to talk about that conflict but to find out who they are as people, and in doing so, begin to build bonds of trust; or that someday it becomes a tradition all over the world that people are honored with a StoryCorps interview on their 75th birthday; or that people in your community go into retirement homes or hospitals or homeless shelters or even prisons armed with this app to honor the people least heard in our society and ask them who they are, what they’ve learned in life, and how they want to be remembered. (Applause)

19:11 Ten years ago, I recorded a StoryCorps interview with my dad who was a psychiatrist, and became a well-known gay activist. This is the picture of us at that interview. I never thought about that recording until a couple of years ago, when my dad, who seemed to be in perfect health and was still seeing patients 40 hours a week, was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away very suddenly a few days later. It was June 28, 2012, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

19:45 I listened to that interview for the first time at three in the morning on the day that he died. I have a couple of young kids at home, and I knew that the only way they were going to get to know this person who was such a towering figure in my life would be through that session. I thought I couldn’t believe in StoryCorps any more deeply than I did, but it was at that moment that I fully and viscerally grasped the importance of making these recordings.

20:10 Every day, people come up to me and say, “I wish I had interviewed my father or my grandmother or my brother, but I waited too long. Now, no one has to wait anymore. At this moment, when so much of how we communicate is fleeting and inconsequential, join us in creating this digital archive of conversations that are enduring and important. Help us create this gift to our children, this testament to who we are as human beings. I hope you’ll help us make this wish come true. Interview a family member, a friend or even a stranger. Together, we can create an archive of the wisdom of humanity, and maybe in doing so, we’ll learn to listen a little more and shout a little less. Maybe these conversations will remind us what’s really important. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us recognize that simple truth that every life, every single life, matters equally and infinitely. Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)

Posted in: Life, TED