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Dave Isay: ‘StoryCorps has made me much more hopeful about humanity’

Dave Isay speaks at a lectern at VPM's Richmond office on Feb. 2
Tom Topinka
Topinka Photography
StoryCorps founder Dave Isay spoke at the VPM offices in Richmond on Thursday, Feb. 2, about the One Small Step program.

The One Small Step initiative connects people across the political divide for conversations.

Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, was in Richmond recently to talk about the organization’s One Small Step initiative. StoryCorps has been working with VPM to connect people with divergent political views for a conversation.

VPM News reporter and editor Whittney Evans spoke with Isay about the project.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Evans: I'm so excited to have you here. And I'm sure you've done a billion interviews since StoryCorps has been on the air. What do people want to know about StoryCorps when they ask you questions? What are the most asked questions?

Isay: Well, the ones I can't answer are like, "What's your favorite story?" That's a tough one. I think most people don't really understand what's behind StoryCorps. They just ask [about] the founding story — how'd it come to be.

I love the story that inspired you to create StoryCorps. About your dad.

Well, there are lots of foundational stories. It was my dad that kind of got me into radio, doing radio documentaries. But that wasn't the creation of StoryCorps.

I made radio documentaries for many decades before starting StoryCorps. Doing that, and then every other experience I ever had in my life, kind of led to the creation of StoryCorps.

I always was interested in radio, like using audio as a public service. Even when I did documentaries and thought that there might be a way to raise the public-service value of radio and had this crazy idea of StoryCorps.

The idea of StoryCorps is that a lot of people get a chance to be interviewed. And we don't care that much about people hearing stories, although we love putting our stories on the air. It's primarily about the people who come to the booth to record interviews. That's the public service we offer. It's to give everybody the chance to be listened to.

So, after almost 20 years, do you feel the same way about the impact StoryCorps has had on you and the rest of the world?

I've been giving a bunch of speeches today around Richmond. And I was talking to a bunch of religious leaders earlier. I talked about how, essentially, what we're doing with StoryCorps — we've had about 650,000, 700,000 people record these interviews — is really a collection of the wisdom of humanity. So, to some extent, everything I know at this point, every action I take in my life has been influenced by what I've learned through StoryCorps interviews. It's had a massive, massive impact on my life.

If you're gonna boil it down to a couple of words, you know, I think it's StoryCorps has made me much more hopeful about humanity. And it has, in general, just helped to reinforce an idea that I had a hunch about, which has proved to be true. Which is the basic goodness in most people, which is not something you necessarily get from 24-hour news.

So, you still feel the same way?

No, I feel much more strongly about that. I mean, this is something I don't usually talk about. Everybody in my family was a therapist. So, there's a little bit of a psychoanalytic piece to StoryCorps, I guess. This idea of saying the important things to the people who are most important to you.

But, you know, I think when I was a kid, I was very scared of people. And I think that part of what StoryCorps was, for me, was just finding out what people are really like. Like, is there anything to be scared of? And the answer is no.

You know, we've had 1,000 facilitators who serve a tour of duty with StoryCorps being present in these interviews. They call it bearing witness to these interviews. And if you ask them, when they come off the road, recording hundreds ... [with] every kind of person you can imagine ... . If you ask them what they've learned, every single person … gives a version of the Anne Frank quote: that people are basically good. So, that is something that I am absolutely certain of after 20 years of StoryCorps. And that is something I did not know 20 years ago when we started this.

That's, that's a semi-universal feeling, I'm sure. That you’re afraid of people, so you do something to immerse yourself in understanding people better — so that you can sort of fill space inside yourself.

Yeah, well, or some people say that some people take up a vocation to help them get better at things they are not very good at.

That's exactly why I got into public radio myself. I was also that type of person; I was very shy and afraid of people.

Oh, me, too. I've given three speeches today. I used to be terrified of giving speeches. I'm an incredible introvert. And you asked about my dad. I grew up with a lot of secrets in my family. My dad was gay. And in many ways, StoryCorps' about telling the truth and having the chance to ask really hard questions of family members.

So, it does, in many ways, fill these gaps that were part of who I am. But it's completely transformed me as a person, and I think all in a positive way. And as a parent, raising my kids, the lessons you hear from parents. This is the wisdom of humanity. It's everything you need to know how to be a good parent.

The dream with One Small Step is to convince the country that it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree.
Dave Isay

I was thinking today about a piece we ran. We have a 9/11 initiative where everyone who lost a loved one on September 11 memorializes that person with a loved one at StoryCorps. And there was a dad who lost two sons. One was a fireman, one was a policeman, the dad was a firefighter. His dad was a firefighter. And he had a tradition with his kids where the last things they ever said to each other was “I love you.” So, as they were both heading into the fire, the last thing he said to his kids were “I love you.”

And you know, at the end of the interview, he said, “At least I know that the last words they heard from me, and the last words I heard from them, were ‘I love you.” And after you hear something like that, there's no way you're ever going to walk away from your kids without telling them I love you. So, you know, being immersed in this wisdom of everyday people has been an absolutely profound experience.

Let's talk a little bit about why you're here today. Part of it is for the One Small Step initiative. Can you talk a little bit about what that initiative is and how did Richmond become a part of it?

Well, One Small Step is more than an initiative at this point. It's a huge part of StoryCorps. We've had 700,000 people who know and love each other participate in StoryCorps. And we're a nonprofit, public media organization in the human connection business, and became concerned six, seven years ago, about the giant rifts that were opening up across the political divides. The issue is not that we argue with each other across divides — liberals and conservatives — but more and more, that we were starting to hate each other and dehumanize each other.

The statistics are out there. You know, 50% of the country thinks we'll see a civil war in their lifetime. More than half the country says the biggest threat to the country are people in the opposing party. And again, this is about what's called “affective polarization,” really not seeing someone as a human being.

We decided to test a new kind of StoryCorps, which puts strangers together across the political divides, not to talk about politics, but just to get to know each other as human beings. And we tested it for years. As I said earlier, StoryCorps is all about the participants. We want to make sure that we do no harm to anybody. So, we had to test this and one of the places we tested was in Virginia with VPM. We tested in, we're still testing it now, in 40-50 cities across the country.

And about a year and a half ago, we chose three cities as our One Small Step national cities, where we're focusing all of our efforts. It's Wichita, Fresno, and here in Richmond. And the idea is that we want everyone in Richmond to know this is happening, and everyone who wants to participate, to participate. The dream with One Small Step is to convince the country that it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree.

And we chose Richmond, for a bunch of reasons. We were looking for a midsize city. We looked at every midsize city in the country. We had an incredible experience with VPM. I spoke at Richmond Forum a bunch of years ago, and there were some conversations I had after speaking here that made me think that Richmond could be a place where this would work. And we did a lot of polling here.

People in Richmond are open to this idea of Richmond becoming a capital of human connection in the country. So, we want Richmond to show the rest of the country that it is possible for us to see the human being in people across the political divides.

And we are here for the long-term. We're here hand in hand with the people of Richmond. There's tremendous enthusiasm. It's a David and Goliath kind of moonshot. Because we have this hate industrial complex of $100 billion of media and social media companies that are funded by causing us to hate each other. And what One Small Step is about is reminding us that the person across the divide is just a human being.

And if we can do that, I think it can have a huge impact on Richmond and the country because a democracy can't survive in a swamp of mutual contempt.

You were at the Richmond Chamber today, which I felt was an unusual venue for StoryCorps. So, what was that conversation like?

Yeah, we were at Chamber RVA and just talked about One Small Step. In order to accomplish this, we need everybody in Richmond to be involved. We need the business community. I did a session later with faith leaders. We need everybody to understand what we're doing, everyone who wants to do it, to embrace it, and people to spread the word.

It's got to be everyday people who do this. The chamber was receptive. And we want businesses to get behind One Small Step and tell their employees about it and coffee shops to have coffee holders that have One Small Step messaging on it and really help people recognize that it's not normal, the way that we're treating each other.


Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.