In a toxic election season, “Who We Are” tells the stories of a diverse and caring country
If you spend as much time as I do listening to the stories that ordinary people tell about their lives when they have a chance for an intimate conversation with someone important to them, you cannot help but be optimistic — indeed, often inspired, and moved to tears — by what you hear. As the board chair of StoryCorps — the treasured institution that has been collecting the stories of this richly diverse nation for over 12 years — I cherish that privilege. But it’s also available to anyone with a radio or a smart phone.
This election, the nation is increasingly polarized, fearful and distrustful — over violence by and against police, over mass shootings and terrorism, over an election in which lines of civility and decency has been repeatedly crossed. We’ve even seen the resurgence of a virulent white supremacy many thought had been consigned to the past. In response, StoryCorps is partnering with Upworthy, the web-based story platform, to make available a series of animations based on StoryCorps sessions. Our aspiration is that the messages they convey — of love and hope, courage and caring, determination and difference — will go viral, as a powerful antidote to the anger and hate that is poisoning the national discourse.
American elections too often pull us apart from one another, overstating our genuine differences and dividing us into red and blue states when most of us know that what we have in common as humans transcends our political, religious, racial and ethnic differences. I’ve been guilty myself at times as an occasional combatant in ideological and culture wars. But this particular election has moved beyond intense political debate to a dangerous realm, and a strong corrective is needed. What better place could it emerge from than “we the people,” with a rainbow of voices telling the story of who we really are?
Immigrants have been castigated throughout the election season. But listen to the story Blanca Alvarez told her daughter Connie about her harrowing journey across the Mexican border in 1972, and the years of yard work and night-shift office cleaning that followed, as well as the times of hunger and hardship that made it possible for her children to attend college. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could fail to be inspired by Blanca’s work ethic and courage. (Audio, video to be released in October).
Think it’s a dog-eat-dog world, in which everyone should look out for Number One? Listen to the story of Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, the cook and janitor at a California nursing home, which was abruptly shut down in 2013, stranding 16 elderly patients, many with dementia and other serious health problems. Maurice and Miguel stayed up round the clock for three days, without pay, taking care of the residents until the fire department and the sheriff showed up. Why? The residents were “family,” they told StoryCorps, and “if we left, they wouldn’t have nobody.”
We’re hearing more calls for a return to the tough days of “law and order” that created a mass incarceration crisis in the United States. Everyone should spend a few minutes with the story of Julio Diaz, a social worker in the Bronx who was robbed one night at the point of a knife. His young mugger wanted Julio’s wallet, but the night was cold, so Julio also offered his coat, and invited his assailant to join him for a meal at his favorite diner. Julio got his wallet back, along with the knife, and the mugger got $20 for the road and a fresh perspective on the kindness of human beings.
Or, in one of the most dramatic StoryCorps segments I’ve heard, listen in on a conversation between Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, the young man who murdered her only son. When Mary went to confront Oshea in prison, after living 12 years with her anger and loss, she ended up hugging him. “Our relationship is beyond belief,” Mary told Oshea in the StoryCorps booth. “We live next door to one another now. My natural son is no longer here… I didn’t see him graduate, but now you’re going to college.” “To hear you say those things… and believe in me despite how much pain I’ve caused you… it’s just amazing,” Oshea replies. “I love you lady.”
Transgender Americans have become fodder for some politicians in recent months. One StoryCorps piece shows how a Midwestern family warmly accepted a transgender grandparent. Alexis Martinez, a trans woman, spent years as a young man wearing women’s panties underneath the leather and denim preferred by her male peers. Alexis, now a devoted grandparent who transitioned after raising a family, told her adult daughter Lesley about her early struggles. Lesley reassured her, “You never have to “apologize or tiptoe” around who you are. To which Alexis replied, “I didn’t believe that anyone could love somebody like me. Now I walk in love and try to live that way every day.”
To be sure, “who we are” is not always uplifting. We’re not as far from the brutal days of pure racial hate as many of us have wanted to believe. Listen to Mary Ellen Noone, who shared with StoryCorps recollections of her late grandmother, Pinky Powell. As a young Black housemaid washing and ironing for a white family in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1910, Pinky salvaged an old bottle of nail polish her employer had thrown out, painted her nails and went to church in her Sunday finest. On Monday, she went to the general store, and when she was checking out, the owner asked, “What are you doing with your nails painted up like a white woman?” He proceeded to take out a pair of pliers and pull each of her nails out, one by one. Sometimes, the stories of America tell us how far we’ve come and how lethal it is to let loose the demons of hate once again, to isolate any community as the “other.”
The story of Yusor Abu-Salha is powerful testimony to the our best traditions as a welcoming country with no religious or ideological tests for membership in the American community. After Yusor and her husband were among those murdered in a shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last year, one of our staff learned that she had come to the StoryCorps MobileBooth when it was passing through her community in 2014 and recorded a conversation with her teacher, Mussarut Jabeen. “Growing up in America has been such a blessing,“ Yusor declared, “even though I stand out in the hijab. Here we are all one.” (Audio, video to be released in October).
Yusor understood the promise of democracy better than many of the strident voices who claim to speak for the “real America.” In these fraught months, it often seems as if loud, angry and fearful voices are all we hear. But it is in the quieter voices, from every ethnic and religious community and from every corner of the country, where we will find our best selves — who we are and who we want to be.