Storytime In Atlanta: Conversations That Will Go Down In History

written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photo courtesy of ADOBE STOCK; ROBB HILL

storytime-in-atlantaYour favorite tale, especially this time of year, might be filled with visions of sugar plums, a boy named Ralphie or misfit toys finding their place in the world. Maybe it’s a tradition retold or a funny story that surfaces often. It might incite tears or laughter, sentiment or even angst, but what every story has in common is a simple yearning to be told — as each should. The oral history of our existence and of the people who make up our entire nation is as important to our society’s makeup as every battle, election, discovery and adventure that occurred alongside it. As a writer, I love to tell stories — true accounts, fictional narratives, even news briefs and marketing pitches. Meeting people, listening to their stories and (almost always) finding an emotional connection is what drives me to continue pursuing new assignments. It’s also what drives StoryCorps to document as much of our verbose history as possible, archiving the voices of the people, our stories as a mankind.

StoryCorps was founded in 2003 in New York City, N.Y. as a pocket-sized interview station inside Grand Central Terminal. It was a place for people to come and record conversations. They quickly added two Mobile- Booths inside The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and began broadcasting weekly stories on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Its popularity and success also led to the publication of several books, establishment of a National Day of Listening, garnered support from celebrities and birthed several other cities’ recording booths, including Atlanta in 2009 at WABE Studios. In 2013, the Atlanta booth moved to The Atlanta History Center, where it continues to pursue its mission to preserve and share stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Lucky for us, a short drive into the city lets us in on the conversation too.

The Atlanta History Center’s StoryCorp interview room

The Atlanta History Center’s StoryCorp interview room

FAMILY TIES

The StoryCorps interview process is simple: two people reserve a time, then come in and start talking. Participants can expect about 40 minutes of uninterrupted time to have a meaningful conversation with a friend, family member or someone else of interest to them. One of the facilitators will help everyone get comfortable, explain the process and sit in during the interview. But solo stories have a place too. If you’re alone, StoryCorps will conduct the interview. The goal, after all, is to provide a platform for stories to be told.

“We’re a national media organization that helps people record and preserve their life stories,” said Regional Director Daniel Horowitz Garcia. “But we want people to look at it as more of a conversation than an interview. It’s about pairing up people who want to talk about something that’s important to them.” 

Recording up to 700 interviews a year, Garcia described a number of scenarios, but typically the recordings are conversations between generations of family, whether grandchildren asking their grandparents about what life was like for them, siblings swapping stories about family memories, children asking parents about family history and more. Like an elementary school history project with high tech possibility, StoryCorps lets anyone, any age, get intimate details about life they may never have heard otherwise — and may not get the chance to ever hear again. The gambit also includes a lot of talk between newly married or newly engaged couples and people marking milestones in their life. Garcia even remembered one couple bringing in their 6-month-old, so they could remember what it sounded like to do routine baby things.

The oldest recorder to date in Atlanta is a 101-year-old World War II veteran. His grand niece asked him how he won his medals in the war, which uncovered a story about how he had landed a bomber with a face full of shrapnel, saving the lives of those on board.

“When I asked him how he could do that,” Garcia remembered, “He said, ‘Well, I could still see.’ People come in and joke all the time, but they still take it seriously. So, while it’s not always people bawling and crying, it’s people sharing things that are really important to them.”

On that note, Garcia said the most common themes of StoryCorps interviews are candid conversations between people saying, “I love you,” “I forgive you,” or asking, “Will you forgive me?” While they may not say those particular words, it’s a motif that hints at the backbone of StoryCorps’ purpose — to bring people closer to understanding each other.

Oftentimes, the most fascinating stories come from those that don’t think they have a story to tell, but as Garcia revealed, that usually means they do. Recording at StoryCorps helps provide the opportunity those stories need to reveal themselves. Plus, there will be a record for participants and their families of things they perhaps didn’t know they wanted to say.

“I tell people, ‘If you had the chance to listen to your great grandmother at the push of a button, would you listen to it?’” Garcia said. “Well, that’s what we’re offering future generations.”

Not to mention every recording is sent to The American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress, and putting your family into the national archives is a cause for conversation that anyone can dig up.

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REGIONAL REGALING

Not all of the recordings sent to the American Folklife Center are between family members. In fact, a lot of the work that StoryCorps does is regional, and Atlanta has its share of stories to tell from the areas just outside its city limits. One of the most interesting that Garcia recounted was an interview recorded with a refugee service organization working in Clarkston. He interviewed a man who had worked in Afghanistan as a translator.

“He talked about what it was like to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan and how much hope he had after the Taliban fell,” Garcia said. “He also talked a little about that hope disappearing. It was a fascinating, but hard conversation.”

Atlanta StoryCorps also partnered with the David J. Sencer CDC Museum to record interviews with Centers for Disease Control employees who responded to the Ebola outbreak. “The StoryCorps process was able to record a different kind of information,” Garcia explained. “For example, we recorded one interview between a responder and his 12-year-old daughter. She talked about how difficult it was to have a parent deployed but not being allowed to tell anyone. These types of interviews recorded a different type of impact [the outbreak had].”

They’ve interviewed people who grew up in a textile mill town, spoken with immigrants on what their life is like now, talked with Los Ninos Primero, an organization that works with after-school children in the Latino populations, and chatted with AID Atlanta.

These conversations are made possible by donations to StoryCorps from individual patrons, sponsorships and community partnerships. Next year, they’re hoping to record inside a women’s prison and chat with both employees and students at an alternative school.

“[Donations] are what make our outreach work possible,” Garcia said. “We can get to people who couldn’t come to us and make sure their voices are heard too.”

Their longstanding partnership with The Atlanta History Center and WABE 90.1 FM also makes sure those voices are heard via broadcasts on Tuesday’s “Morning Edition” and “Closer Look” as well as Friday’s “Morning Edition.”

THE GREATEST GIFT

If you’re like me, your mind races at the thought of the conversations I could have while extended family is in town for the holidays. I could ask my grandfather what it was like on the Navy ships during World War II or his perspective as a high school football quarterback. I’d get his opinion on life’s biggest regrets or the successes that continue to motivate him now. I could interview my uncle about his experience moving from Metro Atlanta to a small fishing town in Florida to attend high school. Fascinated by change, the evolution of community and, contrastingly, the stagnation that small towns experience, I wonder what hasn’t changed in 40 years from his perspective?

“Because a lot of your family is together in one place around the holidays, you hear a lot of stories,” Garcia said. “That’s a good place to start thinking about how long you’ll be able to hear those stories.”

How long those details will be available is one thing, but the excitement of getting them told and into the Library of Congress is another, maybe even motivation to schedule an interview. Garcia told me about two sisters who came into the booth to chat with each other. They were 92 and 93 years old and talked for about 45 minutes. He described their conversation as simple, not really discussing anything emotional at all, but when he asked them to sign the release form, which would grant StoryCorps permission to send a copy of their session to The Library of Congress, one of the sisters began to cry. The idea of being a documented part of history was that impactful to her.

“There’s still this idea that history is important,” Garcia added. “It reminds people that they are a real part
of history.” That idea is catching. After nearly a decade of recording in Atlanta, StoryCorps books about a month out.

“There’s a prominent oral historian from Italy named Alessandro Portelli who wrote that ‘People already have a voice,’” Garcia said. “’The goal of the oral historian is simply to amplify those voices — the voices of the everyday people that make society function.’ Everybody has their story. Everybody’s story is important. They don’t necessarily have to record at StoryCorps, but it’s important that everyone records their story. It’s a rare chance to really listen to each other, but that listening can breathe empathy and understanding.”

We’re all ears.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
storycorps.org/atlanta