How Your Family Story Can Live Forever

Architects of Change

Dave Isay, Founder, StoryCorps





Are there questions that you've always wanted to ask your your mother or your grandfather, but never have?  Dave Isay has founded a unique organization to help you create your own family legacy. Through StoryCorps, 32,000 people have been able to interview their family members -- to experience and record for posterity their rich and emotional stories. Here, Dave tells us why this experience can change your life.

Why did you create StoryCorps?

StoryCorps started out as this crazy idea about 6 ½ years ago to give families a chance - with the help of a facilitator - to look one another in the eye and say “I love you” by asking about the story of their life. When I did radio documentaries for public radio, I saw that the act of people interviewing other people about their lives could have a very positive effect on relationships. These interviews allow people to tell one another that they matter and won’t be forgotten, which is all any of us really wants to know.

Why are these interviews so compelling to people?

The interviews are an opportunity for families to leave a legacy and pass wisdom from one generation to the next. Since the conversation is going into the Library of Congress and your great-great-great grandchildren will be able to listen to it, you can ask the kinds of questions that you just don’t normally get to talk about during the regular course of events or at the dinner table. So big life questions are addressed: How do you want to be remembered? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned? What did you sing to me as a baby? It’s profound because these questions get to who we are, what we’ve learned and how we want to be remembered. I hear every single day from people that their StoryCorps interview is 40 of the most important minutes they’ve ever spent in their lives. It’s such an emotional experience.

Can an interview be a life-changing experience?

For some people -- yes. They use it, in a sense, to tie up loose ends in their lives, to ask questions that they’ve never asked before and to come clean with their family, but not in a Jerry Springer sort of way. One question that is asked in nearly every interview is – Is there anything you want to tell me that you’ve never told me before? That can lead to a very cathartic conversation. For example, we recently heard from a gay grandmother who was interviewed by her 12-year old granddaughter. They had never talked about the grandmother being gay before. The grandmother wrote that it was one of the most important experiences in both of their lives. During our 9/11 project, firefighters, who had never been to a therapist, would cry about that day because, to them, it feels like they’re leaving something for history. I hear from families every day that when you have a loved one who dies, this is the only record you have of who they are, even if some aren’t ready to listen to it for many years.

Has anything surprised you about this project?

When StoryCorps started, I expected that the stories were going to start to repeat themselves at some point. But, not only do new stories keep coming, they just keep getting better. When I ask our interview facilitators what they’ve learned, they all have the same answer – people are basically good. It’s a project that gives people a lot of hope. The stories help us recognize that we have so much more in common than what divides us as a country. It’s about the everyday people around us who live lives of quiet courage, heroism and kindness. That’s the real American story and it’s everywhere if you take the time to listen.

Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps is available on April 15.  Why did you choose moms as a theme? 

If there’s any topic talked about the most, it’s parents and it always starts with mom, even with people in their 90s. There’s a lot of wisdom in the interviews about how to be a great mom – from both children remembering their moms and moms being interviewed by their kids. I think of every chapter as sort of a poem – and a reminder on how to be a great parent. We’re encouraging people to interview their moms as a special gift for Mother’s Day. It’s a gentle book.

If I wanted to interview a family member, how would I get started?

Everything you need to know is available at Just visit our Do-It-Yourself section, which includes a Question Generator, where you can find the 10 most frequently asked questions and thousands of others. I’d also offer these simple tips: Prepare before you start. Find a quiet space to do the interview. Give yourself at least an hour. And finally - the trick is to listen. Look whoever you’re interviewing in the eye, ask honest questions and listen to the answers. Amazing things will happen.

Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and the recipient of numerous broadcasting honors, including five Peabody Awards and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He is the author/editor of numerous books that grew out of his public radio documentary work, including the first-ever StoryCorps book, Listening Is an Act of Love, a New York Times bestseller and the upcoming book "Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps."

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