StoryCorps: Chronicling the Humanity of Everyday Americans

"Powerful relationships and passions...should be passed along from one generation to the next," writes Senior Fellow in Residence Karen Brooks Hopkins.

StoryCorps has collected interviews from more than 100,000 Americans. Some, such as Patrick Haggerty’s account of growing up LGBT on a Washington dairy farm, have been produced as animated shorts for television and the web. Video courtesy of StoryCorps.

Since I was a little girl taking in the creative dramatics classics at Baltimore’s Children’s Theater Association, I have been addicted to stories and storytelling. Any newspaper article that began with a tale of hardship, woe, or joy and success, sucked me in immediately. All stories delivered through fiction, drama, film, TV, newspapers, and even daily conversation (even if I didn’t know the people being discussed) for some reason attracted my attention. In fact, ultimately, I believe I was drawn to working in the arts because our sector literally lives atop mountains of stories. So when I decided to initiate my first senior fellow in residence artist visit for the Mellon Foundation staff, it seemed that it would be both appropriate and fulfilling to invite Dave Isay, the founder and President of StoryCorps and in my view, the “world’s preeminent ambassador of stories,” to be the inaugural guest.

Dave launched StoryCorps—an organization whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world—in October 2003. As a former journalist, he believes that every life is rich with tales of evolution and change, disappointment and breakthrough, and most of all, powerful relationships and passions that should be passed along from one generation to the next. And given that all history is rooted in the tradition of oral storytelling, what better way to chronicle life’s journey for generations to come?

Dave played to a packed house at Mellon and shared some of his favorite StoryCorps stories including a tale of a long-married couple who were early champions of the organization, another of forgiveness involving a woman who befriended and practically adopted the young man who murdered her own dear son, and finally, a beautiful piece about the life lessons passed on from a father to his child. Following this portion of the program, Dave treated staff to another StoryCorps innovation: brilliantly animated short films that bring the stories to life through remarkable visuals and voiceover. We saw a father’s acceptance of his gay child in the 1950s and another about a young boy who faced adversity and whose brother made history on the ill-fated Challenger mission.

These stories, so beautifully shared, go straight to the heart. As I looked around, I wasn’t surprised to see tears on the faces of many of our audience members, proving that everyone loves a good yarn.