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  • Tonight, I'm going to try to make the case

  • that inviting a loved one, a friend or even a stranger

  • to record a meaningful interview with you

  • just might turn out to be one of the most important moments in that person's life,

  • and in yours.

  • When I was 22 years old, I was lucky enough to find my calling

  • when I fell into making radio stories.

  • At almost the exact same time,

  • I found out that my dad, who I was very, very close to, was gay.

  • I was taken completely by surprise.

  • We were a very tight-knit family,

  • and I was crushed.

  • At some point, in one of our strained conversations,

  • my dad mentioned the Stonewall riots.

  • He told me that one night in 1969,

  • a group of young black and Latino drag queens

  • fought back against the police at a gay bar in Manhattan

  • called the Stonewall Inn,

  • and how this sparked the modern gay rights movement.

  • It was an amazing story, and it piqued my interest.

  • So I decided to pick up my tape recorder and find out more.

  • With the help of a young archivist named Michael Shirker,

  • we tracked down all of the people we could find

  • who had been at the Stonewall Inn that night.

  • Recording these interviews,

  • I saw how the microphone gave me the license

  • to go places I otherwise never would have gone

  • and talk to people I might not otherwise ever have spoken to.

  • I had the privilege of getting to know

  • some of the most amazing, fierce and courageous human beings

  • I had ever met.

  • It was the first time the story of Stonewall

  • had been told to a national audience.

  • I dedicated the program to my dad,

  • it changed my relationship with him, and it changed my life.

  • Over the next 15 years, I made many more radio documentaries,

  • working to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media.

  • Over and over again,

  • I'd see how this simple act of being interviewed

  • could mean so much to people,

  • particularly those who had been told that their stories didn't matter.

  • I could literally see people's back straighten

  • as they started to speak into the microphone.

  • In 1998, I made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels

  • on the Bowery in Manhattan.

  • Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades.

  • They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells

  • covered with chicken wire

  • so you couldn't jump from one room into the next.

  • Later, I wrote a book on the men with the photographer Harvey Wang.

  • I remember walking into a flophouse with an early version of the book

  • and showing one of the guys his page.

  • He stood there staring at it in silence,

  • then he grabbed the book out of my hand

  • and started running down the long, narrow hallway

  • holding it over his head

  • shouting, "I exist! I exist."

  • (Applause)

  • In many ways, "I exist" became the clarion call for StoryCorps,

  • this crazy idea that I had a dozen years ago.

  • The thought was to take documentary work

  • and turn it on its head.

  • Traditionally, broadcast documentary

  • has been about recording interviews to create a work of art or entertainment

  • or education that is seen or heard by a whole lot of people,

  • but I wanted to try something

  • where the interview itself was the purpose of this work,

  • and see if we could give many, many, many people the chance

  • to be listened to in this way.

  • So in Grand Central Terminal 11 years ago,

  • we built a booth where anyone can come to honor someone else

  • by interviewing them about their life.

  • You come to this booth and you're met by a facilitator who brings you inside.

  • You sit across from, say, your grandfather

  • for close to an hour and you listen and you talk.

  • Many people think of it as, if this was to be our last conversation,

  • what would I want to ask of and say to this person

  • who means so much to me?

  • At the end of the session, you walk away with a copy of the interview

  • and another copy goes to the American Folklife Center

  • at the Library of Congress

  • so that your great-great-great-grandkids can someday get to know your grandfather

  • through his voice and story.

  • So we open this booth in one of the busiest places in the world

  • and invite people to have this incredibly intimate conversation

  • with another human being.

  • I had no idea if it would work, but from the very beginning, it did.

  • People treated the experience with incredible respect,

  • and amazing conversations happened inside.

  • I want to play just one animated excerpt

  • from an interview recorded at that original Grand Central Booth.

  • This is 12-year-old Joshua Littman interviewing his mother, Sarah.

  • Josh has Asperger's syndrome.

  • As you may know, kids with Asperger's are incredibly smart

  • but have a tough time socially.

  • They usually have obsessions.

  • In Josh's case, it's with animals,

  • so this is Josh talking with his mom Sarah

  • at Grand Central nine years ago.

  • (Video) Josh Littman: From a scale of one to 10,

  • do you think your life would be different without animals?

  • Sarah Littman: I think it would be an eight without animals,

  • because they add so much pleasure to life.

  • JL: How else do you think your life would be different without them?

  • SL: I could do without things like cockroaches and snakes.

  • JL: Well, I'm okay with snakes as long as they're not venomous

  • or constrict you or anything.

  • SL: Yeah, I'm not a big snake person --

  • JL: But cockroach is just the insect we love to hate.

  • SL: Yeah, it really is.

  • JL: Have you ever thought you couldn't cope with having a child?

  • SL: I remember when you were a baby, you had really bad colic,

  • so you would just cry and cry.

  • JL: What's colic? SL: It's when you get this stomach ache

  • and all you do is scream for, like, four hours.

  • JL: Even louder than Amy does?

  • SL: You were pretty loud, but Amy's was more high-pitched.

  • JL: I think it feels like everyone seems to like Amy more,

  • like she's the perfect little angel.

  • SL: Well, I can understand why you think that people like Amy more,

  • and I'm not saying it's because of your Asperger's syndrome,

  • but being friendly comes easily to Amy,

  • whereas I think for you it's more difficult,

  • but the people who take the time to get to know you love you so much.

  • JL: Like Ben or Eric or Carlos? SL: Yeah --

  • JL: Like I have better quality friends but less quantity? (Laughter)

  • SL: I wouldn't judge the quality, but I think --

  • JL: I mean, first it was like, Amy loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia,

  • she loved Claudia, then she hated Claudia.

  • SL: Part of that's a girl thing, honey.

  • The important thing for you is that you have a few very good friends,

  • and really that's what you need in life.

  • JL: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born?

  • Did I meet your expectations?

  • SL: You've exceeded my expectations, sweetie,

  • because, sure, you have these fantasies of what your child's going to be like,

  • but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you think --

  • JL: Well, I was the one who made you a parent.

  • SL: You were the one who made me a parent. That's a good point. (Laughter)

  • But also because you think differently

  • from what they tell you in the parenting books,

  • I really had to learn to think out of the box with you,

  • and it's made me much more creative as a parent and as a person,

  • and I'll always thank you for that.

  • JL: And that helped when Amy was born?

  • SL: And that helped when Amy was born, but you are so incredibly special to me

  • and I'm so lucky to have you as my son.

  • (Applause)

  • David Isay: After this story ran on public radio,

  • Josh received hundreds of letters

  • telling him what an amazing kid he was.

  • His mom, Sarah, bound them together in a book,

  • and when Josh got picked on at school, they would read the letters together.

  • I just want to acknowledge that two of my heroes

  • are here with us tonight.

  • Sarah Littman and her son Josh, who is now an honors student in college.

  • (Applause)

  • You know, a lot of people talk about crying when they hear StoryCorps stories,

  • and it's not because they're sad.

  • Most of them aren't.

  • I think it's because you're hearing something authentic and pure

  • at this moment, when sometimes it's hard to tell

  • what's real and what's an advertisement.

  • 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.

  • So this experiment in Grand Central worked,

  • and we expanded across the country.

  • Today, more than 100,000 people in all 50 states

  • in thousands of cities and towns across America

  • have recorded StoryCorps interviews.

  • It's now the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.

  • (Applause)

  • We've hired and trained hundreds of facilitators

  • to help guide people through the experience.

  • Most serve a year or two with StoryCorps

  • traveling the country, gathering the wisdom of humanity.

  • They call it bearing witness,

  • and if you ask them,

  • all of the facilitators will tell you that the most important thing

  • they've learned from being present during these interviews

  • is that people are basically good.

  • And I think for the first years of StoryCorps, you could argue

  • that there was some kind of a selection bias happening,

  • but after tens of thousands of interviews with every kind of person

  • in every part of the country --

  • rich, poor, five years old to 105,

  • 80 different languages, across the political spectrum --

  • you have to think that maybe these guys are actually onto something.

  • I've also learned so much from these interviews.

  • I've learned about the poetry and the wisdom and the grace

  • that can be found in the words of people all around us

  • when we simply take the time to listen,

  • like this interview

  • between a betting clerk in Brooklyn named Danny Perasa

  • who brought his wife Annie to StoryCorps to talk about his love for her.

  • (Audio) Danny Perasa: You see, the thing of it is,

  • I always feel guilty when I say "I love you" to you.

  • And I say it so often. I say it to remind you

  • that as dumpy as I am, it's coming from me.

  • It's like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio,

  • and it's nice of you to keep the radio around the house.

  • Annie Perasa: If I don't have a note on the kitchen table,

  • I think there's something wrong.

  • You write a love letter to me every morning.

  • DP: Well, the only thing that could possibly be wrong

  • is I couldn't find a silly pen.

  • AP: To my princess:

  • The weather outside today is extremely rainy.

  • I'll call you at 11:20 in the morning.

  • DP: It's a romantic weather report.

  • AP: And I love you. I love you. I love you.

  • DP: When a guy is happily married, no matter what happens at work,

  • no matter what happens in the rest of the day,

  • there's a shelter when you get home,

  • there's a knowledge knowing that you can hug somebody

  • without them throwing you downstairs and saying, "Get your hands off me."

  • Being married is like having a color television set.

  • You never want to go back to black and white.

  • (Laughter)

  • DI: Danny was about five feet tall

  • with crossed eyes and one single snaggletooth,

  • but Danny Perasa had more romance in his little pinky

  • than all of Hollywood's leading men put together.

  • What else have I learned?

  • I've learned about the almost unimaginable capacity

  • for the human spirit to forgive.

  • I've learned about resilience and I've learned about strength.

  • Like an interview with Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson.

  • When Oshea was a teenager, he murdered Mary's only son,

  • Laramiun Byrd, in a gang fight.

  • A dozen years later, Mary went to prison

  • to meet Oshea and find out who this person was

  • who had taken her son's life.

  • Slowly and remarkably, they became friends,

  • and when he was finally released from the penitentiary,

  • Oshea actually moved in next door to Mary.