I recently discovered StoryCorps on the internet. It’s the most exciting discovery I’ve made all year; in fact, it tops my list of internet discoveries for the past few years.

Before I spend a lot of time explaining what Storycorps is – and why this discovery might be relevant to you – take a look at this engaging and inspiring Ted talk by Storycorps founder Dave Isay, who happened to have won the Ted prize this year.

If you (sadly) don’t have the 21 minutes required to watch this talk or your internet connection is not ideal for streaming, scroll down below the video, where I will (after all) give you a quick low-down on why the initiative is so exciting.

If you could not watch the video, read the next three paragraphs – if you did, skip it. 

[Storycorps is an American NGO that aims “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives”. They do this to “remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters”. At the same time, Storycorps is creating an invaluable archive for future generations.

They started off in 2003 with a single StoryBooth in Grand Central Terminal in New York where ordinary people were facilitated to interview a friend or family member, and in that way document the life story or a specific wisdom offered by that person. “Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 60,000 interviews from more than 100,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress”. They have also started various initiatives and projects around the Storycorps concept. For example, through the September 11th initiative, they worked to record at least one story to honour each life lost in the attacks on September 11, 2001. StorycorpsU is a year-long programme for learners in high-needs schools that uses StoryCorps’ content and interview methods to help the learners discover the power of their own voice – and in the process develop a sense of identity and social intelligence that prevents school drop-out.

CaptureThis year (2015) the founder of StoryCorps, Dave Isay, won the Ted Prize to make his dream of “a global movement to record and preserve meaningful conversations with one another that results in an ever-growing digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity” a reality. How? Through the Storycorps cellphone app and a platform called Storycorps.me. This app allows you to design an interview (selecting questions from the storycorps database of questions); use the phone to guide and record your interview, take a picture and automatically upload it to the Storycorps online archive (and share with your friends and family)].

If you watched the video, start reading from here:

I am really excited about Storycorps because I think it’s critical that we start to change the way we relate to each other in South Africa. But it is hard to do that. We have different cultures, languages, backgrounds, perspectives, etc. and in South Africa there seems to be an endless list of things that continue to polarise people. But for the Storycorps concept, these differences that so deeply influence the way we relate to each other, are not seen as obstacles for connection and sharing. When the whole point is to curate a global archive of life stories and experiences, the diversity that emerges is what makes it interesting and special.

Having worked a bit in social research, I have witnessed first-hand the effect that being listened to with deep attention, interest and without judgement has on people. For people to see that their experience deeply matters because it is part of the fabric of humanity – regardless of how they view themselves, or how they think others view them; to reflect on how they have impacted the world and those around them, is a very special experience – they cannot help to be changed by it in small or big ways.

Storycorps.me can be very personal, for example, you can interview your grandmother or grandfather so that your children and their children one day have a sense of who they were (or you can ask your daughter/son to do the interview with them). But what has intrigued me most is how we can use it in South Africa to connect and get to know each other on the small island of neutral ground created by the interview context. I’m also interested in how we can integrate it into our programmes to connect people to each other, hopefully activating the goodwill and social capital that tends to flow from truly connecting with another human being. I am going to give a few examples, but seeing that this post is getting rather long, before I get there, it is important to let you know that there are ways to use the Storycorps app for groups and programmatically. You can:

  • Download the app and look at the StoryCorps.me platform here;
  • Get the instructions for using for groups/projects here;
  • Look at all their other tools, advice and resources here;
  • Review the rules for participating here;

About those examples:

Cape Town Embrace: Cape Town Embrace connects parents and caregivers of young children in Cape Town who find themselves in vulnerable contexts with a fellow citizen (called a “connector”), and empowers both parties to journey together to maximise the child’s development during those first crucial 1,000 days of life. They have found that the most difficult part of their programme is to help the initial ‘connection’ to take place – the problem is not getting people into a room, but getting them to put their fears and reservations aside and to really open up to each other.

Nal’ibali: As you know, a major problem in our country is that many of our children are functionally illiterate after years of schooling. This is the result of there being very few books in most South African homes, let alone books in languages people speak and know well, which is contributing to a lack of reading culture in SA. The Nal’ibali campaign aims to get children to love reading – which means they also need to get parents to value reading and stories. But, there is very little literature available in local languages (other than English and Afrikaans), or stories that appeal culturally. So many stories have never been told. What if we started interviewing each other specifically to mine our untold stories that will inspire and intrigue our children and young people. Valuing stories, leads to valuing reading.

Activate: ACTIVATE! is a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good across South Africa. Connecting youth who have the skills, sense of self and spark to address tough challenges and initiate innovative and creative solutions that can reshape our society. As is illustrated by Dave Isay’s story during his Ted talk – authentic leadership, especially for the greater good – grows from personal experience. Sharing your story is an important tool for reflection, while gaining the perspective of different points of view held by others, which is critical for work aimed at the public good. Also, there is space for mentorship-type relationships in Activate – which again requires a connection between people that would have been unlikely to ever connect during the normal course of life.

The Storycorps and Storycorps.me websites offers many more ideas for how the Storycorps tool and concept can be used in programmes and communities. The American Psychologist, Ann Masten, tried to understand why some children manage to thrive, despite their poverty. Her conclusions, from long-term studies across the world, were so simple, so unremarkable, yet so profound and hopeful – she calls it the “Ordinary Magic” that can change a child’s future[1]. I think the StoryCorps concept and tool also activates a bit of “ordinary magic” in the way that people can change when they feel they matter, and are truly listened to. We could do with some of that in South Africa.

[1] A caring parent or caregiver; another caring adult standing by the child; and connections to opportunity – even modest opportunities – at crucial times in a child’s life.

2 Comments

  • Kayin says:

    I’m so happy to find someone else in SA who is excited by this!

    I feel that high-impact low cost interventions need to engage with what skills are available, and with what motivates people. My sense is that stories are accessible and lead to “positive sum” benefits if the conditions are right (which is why Nali’bali excited me so). I agree with the idea that deep attention helps significantly in development work, stories have the additional benefit of building identity and conceptions of what is possible. One way of framing some of the difficulties we have in this country is in terms of a paucity of narratives (the Chimamanda Adichie TED talk on the danger of a single story alludes to the effects of this internationally).

    Shortly after watching the talk I came across this project: http://cwbsa.org/osys (and no, I don’t work there 😉 ). Curious to see how these interventions play out on high-tech and low tech platforms. I’d also like to think about how to measure whether storytelling simply feels good, or whether it really does strengthen relationships and relational abilities in ways that are helpful in later life.

    On a personal note- I really enjoy your work on the growing confidence website.

    • Judy-Marie Smith says:

      Dear Kayin – thank you so much for writing this comment.

      I was sitting behind my computer and almost jumped up to join the standing ovation for the Chimamanda Adichie Ted talk. I wish there was a way to get every person in South Africa to watch that talk.

      Also very good to know about the Clowns without Borders project. I think it would be great for them to connect with Nal’ibali – especially around the StoryBosso project that Nal’ibali is running at the moment.

      It would indeed be very interesting to understand the impact of such storytelling projects – I found this article on an evaluation that Storycorps is planning, unfortunately it is not dated – would be very interested to read the findings of that when it becomes available. Looking at biographical storytelling integrated into programmes like Cape Town Embrace where you can look at the outcomes of connections between people in terms of children’s development, and examine a tool like storycorps.me as a mechanism to facilitate the connection would also be interesting.

      It makes me very happy to hear that you are finding the Growing Confidence website helpful. If you have time you should write to me and tell me where you do work 😉 (Judy-Marie@dgmt.co.za) – always nice to learn more about people that are interested in and share our passion for this work.

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