Emily Jannsen and Erika Romero spend their days listening in on conversations.
As site director and facilitator, respectively, for StoryCorps, it's what they're paid to do. The two, along with a couple of other facilitators who cycle in, set up camp in an Airstream, travel to various cities, and invite residents to come and talk.
You've probably heard that it's Colorado Springs' turn, with the Airstream parked in front of Ivywild School through June 19. Participants will find a simple construct: Each StoryCorps participant brings a conversation partner along into the dimly lit space, and the partners sit across a small table from each other. After a standard introduction — "Today is ... I am ... and I'm here with ..." — they just begin talking.
The facilitator sits nearby, listening and occasionally helping guide the conversation. Microphones are on, but the tissue box on the table often gets more attention.
At the end of the 40 minutes, participants leave with a recording. If they allow, it will be uploaded to the StoryCorps archives, where nearly 60,000 other conversations are housed. A select few make it onto Morning Edition each Friday on NPR, one of the nonprofit's national partners.
With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and various private grantors, StoryCorps has blossomed over its 12 years. The nonprofit has published its own books and launched special programs for teachers and veterans, and earlier this year, took a $1 million prize from the TED conference and poured it into a smartphone storytelling app.
Wanting to know what it's like on the inside of this organization, I entered the Airstream last week and turned the tables on Jannsen and Romero. What I found were two women who could make anyone feel at ease — and who spend so much time together that they finish each other's sentences.
"People who work at StoryCorps are a tribe of kindred spirits," says Jannsen, a 34-year-old with brown hair and black-framed glasses. "We walk through the world with openness and curiosity and genuineness."
Janssen says she has trouble planting roots. When she called me, the caller ID said Minnesota, which is where she went to college and where she still keeps some belongings in a friend's basement. Other stuff is with her parents in upstate New York. Asked about relationships, she said, "I got no one." She does have a dog, but most of the time the dog lives with her aunts, and she worries he might be disappointed when they're back together.
Romero, on the other hand, comes from Queens, New York, and has a boyfriend of five years. The 23-year-old with dark brown hair and kind eyes says their relationship has always been long-distance and when the opportunity arose for her to travel for a year with StoryCorps, he was supportive. ("What's another year?") She also speaks to her family on a daily basis. "It makes coming home so much better."
StoryCorps workers usually rely on public radio partners like KRCC to figure out accommodations. In the Springs, Janssen and Romero are staying in a house owned by TheatreWorks. They had spent just one week in the city when we spoke — long enough to be awed by its natural beauty, but not long enough to generalize about it, or us. When they leave, having heard about 140 conversations, they'll have deeper insight into Colorado Springs.
Every town they visit is different, they say, but 90 percent of the time, the conversations are about similar topics. We talk about family and friendship and love. And what they've learned from where they sit — where, it should be noted, there's usually another box of tissues — is less about geography and more about the human condition.
"Listen, you have to listen," says Romero. If you ask how someone is and they say, "OK," she says, you have to really listen to know what "OK" means.
Jannsen agrees. "Listen first, without assuming. Listen holistically. Listen mindfully without being distracted by the millions of things around us.
"That's the beauty of what happens in this booth."
StoryCorps conversations are by appointment only. Visit storycorps.org to see if times are still available. (Romero encourages people to get on the waitlist if all times are taken). The archived conversations are also available through the website.