'Stories of Work That Matters' - Interview with Author and Story Corp Founder David Isay

In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, discussing his new book, "Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work." Over the last 12 years, StoryCorps has gathered the largest single collection of human voices. In 2003, the first StoryCorps recording booth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Since then, a quarter of a million of people have recorded interviews with their loved ones through StoryCorps. The new book is a remarkable collection of stories from the heart of the American workforce: teachers, social workers, public defenders, deli workers, plant supervisors and beyond. They include stories by dreamers, healers, philosophers and groundbreakers. "This is kind of a radical book," Isay says. "There’s no billionaires, there’s no millionaires, there’s no celebrities, there’s no professional athletes, but to me these are really the stories of work that matters."


NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh. In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the remainder of the hour looking at StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Over the last 12 years, StoryCorps has gathered the largest single collection of human voices. In 2003, the first StoryCorps recording booth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Since then, a quarter of a million of people have recorded interviews with their loved ones through StoryCorps. The new book is a remarkable collection of stories from the heart of the American workforce—teachers, social workers, public defenders, deli workers, plant supervisors and beyond. They include stories by dreamers, healers, philosophers and groundbreakers. Amy Goodman and I interviewed Dave Isay last month. Let’s turn to one of the stories featured in the book, the story of English teacher Ayodeji Ogunniyi. Speaking to StoryCorps, he explains how the murder of his father inspired him to become a teacher. He now mentors students with backgrounds similar to those of his father’s killers.

AYODEJI OGUNNIYI: Eleven o’clock that night, the knock came. They told us that our father was found in an alley and he was murdered. I remember yelling "No!" really loud. And my brother was going haywire, and he punched a hole in the wall. And then my mother just—she started to pull her hair, and she scratched her face. They found the murderers in four days. They were 18, 19 and 22. I was angry. I was very, very angry. I didn’t want to retaliate. I just wanted to just ask them why. What happens to a person, where do they get lost, to become murderers? So, you know, at the time, I was tutoring at an after-school program for some extra money, and these kids came from the same conditions that the people that murdered my father came from. A student came to the after-school program, was probably around 16 years old. We were doing something where everyone had to read out loud. He stormed out the classroom, and I went out to talk to him. And he just broke down. He said, "It’s hard for me to read." There are many people that cry because they’re hurt, they’ve been neglected, but to cry because you couldn’t read, that spoke volumes to me. So, we got him in some other programs, and he started to read, and it just was like this gift that money can’t buy for him. And by me giving that to him, I totally forgot about the pain of the murder, and I wanted to continue to give more of what I had, to heal. It just dawned on me. Everybody at some point sits in a classroom. That could be the foundation for everything else. So, that’s when I said that whatever happened to my father is not going to be in vain: I’m going to follow my heart and become a teacher.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ayodeji Ogunniyi, an English teacher, just one of the 53 stories featured in StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s new book, nearly half of which have never been heard or broadcast before. The book’s title, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVE ISAY: Hi, Amy. AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Dave. DAVE ISAY: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you’re doing with this project. DAVE ISAY: Sure. So—and in that clip, I should say, Ayodeji—a couple things. One is that he was actually headed to medical school when this happened, and his dad, who was cab driver, was murdered. And it’s one of those moments where—kind of like the moment when I came into radio with—when you and I met for the first time. One of those moments where, boom, he knew this was what he was meant to do with the rest of his life. And he changed. He decided not to become a doctor, but to become a teacher. And he’s still teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. An amazing person. And he was talking to a loved one, as everybody who does at StoryCorps. We’ve done about—in the last 12 years, about 70,000 interviews across America, two people coming to talk about what’s important in their lives. And a lot of these stories are talk about work. And what this book is, is a love letter to people—teachers, nurses, as you said, social workers—people who don’t get the credit they deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain, before we play more of them—

DAVE ISAY: Yes, sure. AMY GOODMAN: —how people talk to each other and what this project you started, so many years ago, that’s become the largest oral history project in the United States, StoryCorps, is. DAVE ISAY: Sure. So, it started—you know, we did—I did a lot of social justice work, the Moreese Bickham work. And being in a place like the Louisiana State Penitentiary and interviewing someone like Moreese, he had—giving him the opportunity to talk about who he was and what his dreams were. And I saw, doing these interviews, many of which were done kind of with you as editor many, many years ago, that—how important and sometimes transformative it was in people’s lives to have a chance to speak their truth, and did documentaries for many years and had this kind of crazy idea 12 years ago to turn documentary on its head and say that the—you know, maybe we could do something where the purpose isn’t the final product, but giving many, many, many people the chance to be listened to in this way. So we built this booth in Grand Central Terminal, where you can come and honor someone who matters to you and listen to their stories and ask them, "Who are you? What have you learned in life? How do you want to be remembered?" And then, as you said, you get a copy. Now we don’t do CDs. That was the old days. It’s digital copies now, and another copy goes to the Library of Congress. And it’s basically, you know, this process, this 40-minute process, where it’s almost—the conversations are almost like if I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say and ask of this person who means so much to me? And—

AMY GOODMAN: So a kid interviewing her father— DAVE ISAY: That’s right. AMY GOODMAN: —or co-workers coming in, talking together.

DAVE ISAY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: A student interviewing her teacher. DAVE ISAY: That’s right. And we work with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits across the country each year so that they can tell the clients that they serve about StoryCorps, and those folks can come in and become part of American history, as well. So your great-great-great-grandkids can get to listen to this at the Library of Congress. And, you know, what that experience reminds people many times is just how much their lives matter and that they won’t be forgotten and that their stories are important. So, it just—it builds off that work, the Moreese Bickham work, from all those many years ago. AMY GOODMAN: Moreese Bickham, who served how many decades in prison at Angola on death row—

DAVE ISAY: In solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: —and eventually got released.

DAVE ISAY: Yeah, yeah. It’s the poetry and the power and the grace and the beauty in the stories that we find all around us when we take the time to listen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another story from the project. In 2015, Wendell Scott became the first African American inducted to NASCAR Hall of Fame. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he poured his earnings into maintaining his own race car. In this StoryCorps animated short, his son, Frank Scott, speaks to his grandson, Warrick Scott. Together they remember what it took for Wendell Scott to cross the finish line at racetracks throughout the South. This is Frank, followed by Warrick.

FRANK SCOTT: He started racing in 1952. And, you know, it was like Picasso, like a great artist doing his work. When he was in that car, he was doing his work. But, you know, he couldn’t get the support, where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorship. He did everything that he did out of his own pocket. And as children, we didn’t have that leisure time. You know, we couldn’t go to the playground. He said to us, "I need you at the garage." I can remember him getting injured, and he’d just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working. But he wasn’t allowed to race at certain speedways. He had death threats not to come to Atlanta. And Daddy said, "Look, if I leave in a pine box, that’s what I got to do. But I’m going to race." I can remember him racing in Jacksonville. And he beat them all. But they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then, when they did drop the checkered flag, then my father was in third place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen, and they always kissed the driver. He finally got the money, but, of course, the trophy was gone, the fans were gone, the beauty queens were gone.

WARRICK SCOTT: Did he ever consider not racing anymore?

FRANK SCOTT: Never. That was one of my daddy’s sayings: When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me. Like, I can remember one time when we were racing the Atlanta 500, and he was sick. He needed an operation. And I said, "Daddy, we don’t have to race today." He whispered to me and said, "Lift my legs up and put me in the car." He drove 500 miles that day. He always felt like someday he’s going to get his big break. But for 20 years, nobody mentioned Wendell Scott. But he didn’t let it drive him crazy. I think that’s what made him so great. You know, he chose to be a race car driver. And he was going to race until he couldn’t race no more. 

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