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Author enlightens crowd with stories of diverse American lives


Last year, more than 100,000 people from all 50 states took part in StoryCorps’ “The Great Thanksgiving Listen,” their national education project. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

At a time when division occurs among individuals due to their differences, author Dave Isay aims to foster a mutual understanding, hope and respect.

On Monday, Isay spoke in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in the Hilton University of Houston to discuss his best-seller, “Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project.”

The book is a portrait of real Americans’ lives that Isay assembled through collecting personal stories from citizens and highlighting their varying experiences.

“We’ve had every possible kind of person,” Isay said. “They matter and won’t be forgotten.”

Isay’s dedication to individuals’ anecdotes about life began 13 years ago with his company, Sound Portraits Productions, which features radio documentaries that he creates. Accounts of life, death, tragedy, hope and love captured the hearts of many listeners.

Isay said he then developed a profound interest in discovering what these narratives, which he referred to as “sacred moments in people’s lives,” had to offer.

Over time, Isay began setting up story-recording booths starting from the Grand Central Station in New York and expanding over the entire nation, making animation videos of those stories.

Isay then founded Storycorps, a digital facilitator and public service for people to individually record their tales. This was the inspiration behind his new book.

People on the Storycorps archives have been recorded in approximately 70-80 languages. Isay said the stories collected go to the Library of Congress, where they are permanently preserved for generations to come.

“There’s poetry hiding in plain sight all around us,” Isay said.

Isay’s work made him the recipient of many awards over the years, such as the TED Prize, the Hillman Prize, four Peabody awards, two RFK Journalism awards and the Guggenheim Fellowship, to name a few.

His work is especially poignant in the face of tragedy. One of the three victims of the 2015 Chapel Hill shootings near the University of North Carolina, Yusor Abu-Salha, had recorded with Storycorps just months before her death.

The crowd got to hear the recording.

“I didn’t know she recorded before her death,” said Ali Raza Khan, a biology freshman. “That was pretty shocking.”

Other heart-wrenching recordings that showed unconventional relationships were also played, including a mother forgiving her son’s killer and a man treating the person who stole his wallet to dinner.

“I think people need to realize that we’re together — we’re all in this together,” Khan said. “In the current political climate, people are very short-sighted when they look at diversity. Diversity has done so much for America in positive ways.”

Isay said his main aim is to eliminate the fear that people tend to have about the unfamiliar, hoping to show others that individuals different from them are good at heart and possess similarities.

“Dave Isay made his point tonight that no matter how different we are, there are many similarities and there is so much we learn from each other no matter where we are coming from and no matter where we are going,” said Teri Elkins Longacre, the interim vice provost and dean for undergraduate student success in the Office of the Provost.

Isay’s book was a part of the Provost Summer Read Program for incoming freshmen. Each year, the Office of the Provost selects a book and invites the author for a campus visit.

Longacre said that “Listening Is an Act of Love” was integrated in almost 199 sections of courses across different colleges this year.

“I think the importance of this book in times like this is to remind us how important it is to honor each other by listening,” Longacre said.

This was Isay’s first time speaking at a public engagement since the election. He said the crowd at UH was by far the most diverse group of attendees that he had ever spoken in front of.

“Remember the truth that all of our lives and stories matter equally and infinitely,” Isay said.

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