StoryCorps: Listening is an Act of Love.

“Thanks for teaching us to talk. Thanks for teaching us to be of the world and in the world and to make our way. Thanks for teaching us to be alive! And thanks for staying inside of us.”

― Dave Isay, Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

The Listening Tunnel

Listening is an Act of Love, is the title of one of my favourite books of stories compiled by StoryCorps. I was lucky enough to spend Thursday and Friday learning about StoryCorps and their programme for young people called StoryCorpU.

StoryCorp is a not for profit, that has built itself on the power of listening. Their mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. This mission reminds me of another activity that we did at my CREW training on Wednesday, which was a listening tunnel. All the training participants stood in two lines facing each other and we were asked questions. Instead of having a conversation about the questions, we each were given a minute to answer and while one person answered the other had to actively listen. They couldn’t interrupt or comment, they just had to listen. It was quite intense being listened to in that way and one of the other participants commented that listening makes people fall in love. When we really listen to people and when we really feel heard that is the start of love. I found this comment very interesting and it helped prepare me for this theme of listening as an act of love being the wonderful message of my next few days in New York.

Listening at StoryCorps

StoryCorps achieves it's mission by providing people with the space and equipment to tell their stories, through their StoryCorps booths. These are static or travelling booths filled with recording equipment and manned by trained interview facilitators. People can book an appointment, alone or with friends/ family members, at the booths in order to tell their story. The stories are then recorded onto CDs, which are given to the story tellers to take home and a copy is kept for public records to create an invaluable archive for future generations. Some of the stories are also made into short animations, which can be seen on their website, and some of their stories have been published into books.

When you read these stories or watch the animations, you can’t help but fall in love with the tellers. Despite not knowing any of the people who have told the stories, it is the realness and honesty that means you can’t help but connect with the tellers, and you begin to understand that every life is extraordinary and every person does have an interesting story.

Facilitating StoryCorps Interviews

On Thursday, I met with Erika Romero, who has spent the last 15 months working as a facilitator on a travelling StoryCorps booth. She visited numerous places around the U.S. spending 4-5 weeks in each place, helping with the facilitation of up to 7 interviews a day. As you can imagine, this was a very intense and powerful experience. She informed me of the powerful effects that telling their story had on the interviewees. In particular, she remembers a mother suffering from ALS visiting the booth with her daughters, where they used the booth as a place to process her illness and terminal prognosis. Despite the difficulty of the situation, Erika remembers that Pat the mother and her family were extremely grateful for the experience. Erika facilitated hundreds of funny, sad, strange and simple stories, but what they all had in common was they all gave an insight into a life and they all helped to create a better understanding of the world for it’s tellers and listeners.

Adapting StoryCorps for Young People

It is this opportunity for understanding, that led the creators of StoryCorps to develop StoryCorpsU, a year-long, cross-disciplinary (language arts, media, history), youth development program designed for 9th and 10th graders to help students develop:

• Self and social awareness—social and emotional learning competencies;

• Academic skills—speaking, listening, and analytical and critical thinking; and

• Strengthened school relationships.

SCU uses StoryCorps’ tested interviewing techniques—combined with outstanding radio broadcasts and animated shorts—to support high school students in the development of identity and in drawing connections between their unique strengths and the college application process.

On Friday, I had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with Melvin Reeves, the Director of Education at StoryCorpsU. Melvin helped me to understand that the programme involves training teachers to deliver a 29 lesson curriculum that involves watching carefully chosen StoryCorps' animations, that are chosen to be relevant to the students lives. The students discuss these animations and then have the opportunity to tell their own stories.They use recording equipment and gain opportunities to improve their own speaking and listening skills. These are skills that are important for the students tests as they are related to the U.S. common core standards, but of course the real benefit as Melvin was adamant to explain is in the social and emotional skills that the young people gain from the programme.

The Power of Telling a Story

Melvin informed me that for many of the young participants, the StoryCorpsU programme is the first time they will have told their story and have been listened to within their community. This is an immense confidence boost for students and helps to foster understanding between teachers and students to create a better environment for learning. There are three areas within the curriculum for the young people to focus on: Where they are from, who they are and where they are going. Through exploring and telling their stories related to these areas of their identity, the young people are given a new sense of pride. As they are encouraged to see more positively areas of their identity that for a number of reasons they may have previously perceived as negative. For example, the young people watch animated stories related to topics such as immigration that change their perceptions of these topics. They are encouraged to see the strength and beauty in areas that they may have previously been made to feel ashamed of.

I found this approach extremely inspiring and the effects of this type of learning can be seen in the positive results from their impact reports.

•A majority of students said that as a result of their SCU experience, their beliefs, feelings, or behaviors had changed in ways that correlate with increased engagement in learning and an improved class climate, thinking more about the future, and a positive relationship with the teacher.

•A majority of students also reported that they were better able to express who they are, and that recording their stories was meaningful.

•91% of teachers reported a greater understanding of and stronger relationships with their students.

Despite these positive results, what really impressed me about Melvin and StoryCorpsU was it’s commitment to promoting understanding between students and a true belief in the necessity of listening. Melvin explained that listening and understanding aren't things that are simple to achieve. Instead they require a lifelong commitment​. One of the principles of StoryCorpsU is that it is built on cultural humility, the belief that learning about culture is an ongoing lifelong process and accepting the need to be constantly willing to improve your limited knowledge of people different to you.

Falling in Love through Listening

After listening to these principles and Melvin’s commitment to StoryCorpsU, it was impossible not to fall in love with this programme. And if you haven’t fallen in love with the programme yet, then here is part of a story by Ronald Ruiz, from Listening is an Act of Love. You will definitely fall in love with Ronald and you may even finish the story with a new perception of your own approach to work.

“I love my passengers. I remember one woman in particular--a senior who had gotten on my bus. She seemed completely lost. She said she was going to a restaurant on City Island Avenue. I could see she was confused. There was just something about her. She looked so elegant, but with a fur coat on a hot summer day, so I said, 'Are you okay?' and she said, 'I'm fine, but I don't know what restaurant I'm meeting my friends at.' I said, 'Get on. Sit in the front.' I asked a gentleman to get up so she could sit near me, and I said, 'I'll run in and I'll check each restaurant for you.'

So I checked the restaurants and no luck, but at the very, very last restaurant on the left, I said, 'It's got to be this one. Let me swing the bus around,' and I swung it around. I said, 'Don't move. Let me make sure this is the place before you get out.'It was a hot day, and she's got fur on. She could pass out. So I said, 'Stay here, sweetie. It's nice and cool in here.' I went in and I said 'There's a lady in the bus and she's not sure of the restaurant,' and I saw a whole bunch of seniors there and they said, 'Oh, that's her!'

I ran back to the bus and I said, 'sweetie, your restaurant is right here.' I said, 'Let me kneel the bus.' Kneeling the bus means I bring it closer to the ground so she gets off easier. And I said, 'Don't move.' I remember my right hand grabbed her right hand. I wanted to make her feel special, like it was a limousine. It was a bus, but I wanted to make her feel like it was a limousine. And she said, 'I have been diagnosed with cancer--but today is the best day of my life.'

And I've never forgotten that woman (Weeping). She's diagnosed with cancer and just because I helped her off the bus, she said she felt like Cinderella. Can't get better than that. And doing your job and getting paid to do a job where you can do something special like that? It's pretty awesome.”

― Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

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