StoryCorps collects interviews in Alaska

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — When Jill Glaser and Daniel Sitts flew into Fairbanks last weekend they were greeted at the airport by an enthusiastic host, Jesse Hensel.

Hensel is a kindergarten teacher at Arctic Light Elementary School on Fort Wainwright. Sitts and Glaser work for the nonprofit journalism organization StoryCorps. The pair travel around the country facilitating interviews between seemingly ordinary people throughout the United States and sharing the stories of those people — who often turn out to be quite a bit more than ordinary.

Sitts and Glaser flew a long way to reach Fairbanks, in terms of both miles and atmosphere, from their home base in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“We travel all across the country and we have great partnerships, but nobody has ever greeted us as we arrived, so it was just a great welcoming to Alaska,” Glaser said.

StoryCorps came to Fairbanks as part of its military voices initiative, created two years ago to gather stories from post-9/11 veterans and their families, friends and colleagues.

While here, Glaser and Sitts plan to record more than a dozen interviews with volunteers throughout the community. They’re conducting all of their interviews at Arctic Light while it sits mostly empty for parent-teacher conferences.

“It’s cool to be able to talk to not only active duty members and also veterans, but the people that work with them and are affected by them and are affected by the military community in some way or work with the military community in some way,” Sitts said.

StoryCorps opened up the interview process to a wide swath of the military community, from spouses and children to friends and even teachers at on-base schools like Arctic Light. Hensel himself participated, along with Arctic Light Principal Mary Carlson.

Hensel and Carlson’s interview highlights the unique process StoryCorps uses to get people to share their stories. Instead of a journalist sitting down and firing off questions toward a person, StoryCorps brings in facilitators, who stay mostly in the background.

The real interview takes place between two friends or family members or colleagues, like Hensel and Carlson, who interview each other.

All StoryCorps interviews are catalogued in the Library of Congress and kept for future generations.

The interviews take the form of 40-minute conversations between participants. The facilitators have question lists they can use to spark conversation, but largely, Glaser said, the participants don’t require much prodding. They just talk — often about their experiences in the military, but also about other things, like a person or life experience that helped shape their life.

“We’re not really here to mine stories for our own purposes. It really is an experience that we think is valuable for people to have, and also it’s not as scary as it might sound,” Sitts said. “You’re sitting across from someone who you know, and it’s very relaxing. There’s no wrong way to do it.”

Hensel was a major part of the push to bring the program to Fairbanks. A friend who works at StoryCorps was looking for a good opportunity in Alaska. The elementary school at Fort Wainwright turned out to be the ideal place, while also meeting the goals of the military voices initiative.

For his grandfather’s 90th birthday, Hensel undertook a project that led him to a greater interest in StoryCorps, which in turn, helped bring the program up to Fairbanks.

“I collected stories about him from all my cousins, and then we put together a CD and sent it to my grandmother and him and just seeing the joy that they had with that and how happy they were to hear those stories and how ridiculous he found it how we misremembered things — it was just a really joyful process,” Hensel said.

When participants go in for their interviews, they’re often nervous or don’t know what to expect, but when they come out they often continue their conversation.

One of the best feelings for the facilitators is when two participants leave the studio after 40 minutes and are still chatting away about something they’ve never spoken about.

“Often people think that their story doesn’t matter — that they’re not a celebrity, they’re not a politician, so why would anyone care about what they would have to say,” Glaser said. “But with our project we really believe that every story matters and every voice counts. … That’s really what we’re here for.”

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