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Everyone Has A Story To Tell

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What a unique idea! Thanks to our friends at “Florida Weekly” for the article, written by Nancy Stetson, and photos.

Think of it as a kitchen table that’s traveled all over the country, or a moveable campfire.

The Airstream trailer tucked in the corner of the downtown Fort Myers Regional Library parking lot has been the site of thousands of conversations — touching, funny, sad, profound.

“It’s a very intimate space, it’s our sacred space,” Stacey Todd says about the StoryCorps recording studio on wheels that goes around the country collecting and preserving conversations. Snippets of these conversations can be heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” as well as at www.storycorps.org.

Ms. Todd, 34, is the site manager for the StoryCorps mobile tour. Her business card reads: “Our mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.” On last year’s tour, 1,403 stories were recorded.

The mobile studio visits 10 cities a year, recording in each place for four or five weeks. It will be in Fort Myers through Feb. 3, hosted by WGCU Public Media in partnership with the downtown library.

Even though it’s called “Story”Corps, the recordings made there are more conversations between two people than they are polished presentations.

“It’s not a traditional oral history model or a formal interview by any means,” Ms. Todd explains. “It’s meant to be an uninterrupted conversation between you and someone you care about, or would like to learn more about. I tell people it’s an opportunity to sit down and ask questions you maybe wouldn’t ever have thought to ask, an opportunity to get to know somebody in a different way, or in a way you didn’t know before.”

A facilitator is always in the room, as a silent witness to the conversation and also to ensure the equipment runs properly and to take notes as a summary of the conversation. Afterward, the participants decide if they want their conversation to be archived at the American Folklife Center, where anyone can go and listen to it.

It’s very seldom that people don’t want their conversation to be archived, Ms. Todd says. “They feel it’s leaving a mark and a legacy.

“We hope it empowers people, gives them the power to believe in their own voice. Putting a microphone in front of someone and asking them to talk about their lives tells them their story matters. And giving them the opportunity to archive it, to preserve it in this institution, goes one step further.”

Some history

David Isay founded StoryCorps in 2003 with the first listening booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. (There are now listening booths in Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago.)

As a kid, he interviewed his grandparents and two great aunts after Thanksgiving dinner one year. It sparked his belief that everyone has a story, that that these stories must be collected.

As Mr. Isay explained in his TED talk, “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.”

The StoryCorps archive is “the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered,” he says.

“Every life, every single life, matters equally and infinitely,” he believes.

Amy Tardif, station manager and news director at WGCU-FM, is delighted to have the recording studio here this month.

“It’s real people telling their real stories,” she says. “(It’s refreshing) when you’re used to hearing sound bites from politician and officials. This isn’t necessarily news. These are the things that tug at your heart. They’re the human tales in life. It could be happy, it could be sad. But it gets you. It’s a lesson of some sort — love, hate, memories. And we want to hear from real people. We all do, these days.”

An informed conversation

The soundproof recording space is cozy, almost like being in a womb. The lights are low, the outside world shut out completely. People sit face to face across a small, white table.

“You can talk about whatever you want,” says Ms. Todd. “We have no agenda … You don’t even have to know what you’re going to talk about, though it’s good to have a rough idea.”

On its website, StoryCorps offers pages of suggested questions people might want to use: Who has been the most important person in your life? What was the happiest moment in your life? The saddest? What are you proudest of? How has your life been different from what you’d imagined? What do you want to be remembered for?

“It’s an informal conversation. It’s not meant to be scripted,” Ms. Todd says. “There’s no way to do this wrong.”

When StoryCorps visited her hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., Ms. Todd flew back there to interview her mother.

She was surprised to discover something new about her mother from the very first question.

She asked her: “What’s your earliest memory?”

“I always thought of my mother as a Goody Two-Shoes, someone who never got in trouble,” she says. “And without skipping a beat, my mother said, ‘Lighting my brother’s archery set on fire.’

“We talked about things we’d probably talked about before, and the conversation went on in that manner,” she says. “But I have a new appreciation for her personality and who she is.”

“I’ve heard participants that will stay with me forever,” she says. “I learn something from every single person I sit in on. People often have very profound experiences, because a lot of times they’re talking to a loved one about things they’ve never talked about before … When people exit, there really is a glow about them. They shared something meaningful, hopefully.”

And while StoryCorps isn’t traditional oral history, it pays tribute to the late oral historian Studs Terkel, known for interviewing everyday Americans about work, race and their experiences during The Great Depression and WWII. A small portrait of Studs hangs by the front door of the StoryCorps Airstream. Painted by Beverly Finster, daughter of outsider artist Howard Finster, the portrait reads: “Dedicated to Studs Terkel. The master on whose shoulders we stand. His spirit illuminates our path.”

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When Mr. Isay opened the first StoryCorps booth 13 years ago, Studs flew from Chicago to cut the ribbon. He was 91 at the time.

“Listening is an act of love,” says Ms. Todd, echoing Mr. Isay’s belief. “Being a good listener is really a skill, a hard-earned skill. Especially in the world we live in now, it seems that everybody’s shouting at each other and nobody’s listening. We hope to turn up the listening a little bit.”

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