StoryCorps rolls in and rolls tape on Lafayette

Woman in front of an Airstream trailer
StoryCorp Mobile site manager, Site Manager, Francheca Peña, outside the trailer for storytellers, at Mason Freetown, Wednesday, November 29, 2023. Photo by Robin May

Imagine listening to the voices of your ancestors sharing a conversation even though they lived centuries ago.

That would be captivating to hear, though impossible.

But the Lafayette area has the chance to offer such a feat to its posterity and the world because StoryCorps is back in town.

Sixteen years after its first visit in 2007, the national nonprofit’s mobile recording unit has returned to capture more conversations for eternity’s sake.

A little legacy goes a long way.

And in StoryCorps’ case, since its founding in 2003, legacy has mushroomed into 640,000-plus people sharing their stories across the nation.

Lafayette, the finale of StoryCorps’ 2023 tour to ten locations, means at least another 208 if the area’s estimated 104 slots are filled.

Organizers are hoping community residents, including those from neighboring parishes, take the time to participate during their visit through Dec. 21.

“No matter who you are, your story is important,” says Lea Zikmund, director of the mobile tour.

What Zikmund has learned during her years with the organization is that people really want to be listened to, and that is why she believes there is much significance to “listen” being the first word of their motto: Listen. Honor. Share.

“That really draws connections between people in a very powerful way,” she says.

According to Zikmund, StoryCorps provides the platform “to share what you want to share about the life you lived.”

Conversations are mostly between two persons, whether they be family, friends, colleagues or even members of an organization. They can accommodate three participants but recommend two due to the confined space. Participants’ ages have also varied, from young children to 102 years.

StoryCorps’ mission, as noted on its website, is “to help us believe in each other by illuminating the humanity and possibility in us all — one story at a time.”

Two women seated at a small table inside of a mobile recording trailer talk into microphones
Inside the StoryCorp interview booth, left, Becca Begnaud tells a story to Megan Constantin outside Mason Freetown, Wednesday, November 29, 2023. Photo by Robin May

The stories, characterized as conversations, are stored in the Library of Congress, and also aired on National Public Radio. The latter connection is why Lafayette’s public radio station KRVS is one of StoryCorps’ community partners for their return visit.

“Listening to one another, sharing what we know, is one of the behaviors that makes us human,” says Cheryl Devall, general manager of KRVS Public Media.

She feels “so good” about supporting the project because it promotes “unhurried conversations” during a time that is “fraught” with the fear of missing out, obligations, consumerism, distractions and noise.

Another local partner is La Maison Creole de Freetown, the hosting location for StoryCorps’ mobile recording Airstream trailer.

Zikmund says she selected the African American history museum, located at 800 E. Vermilion St. in Lafayette, during a prior logistic visit because of the passion and community involvement of its founder Erica Melancon Fox.

Like Devall, Fox welcomes the opportunity to be a community partner not only because it aligns with her mission of documenting oral histories in her museum’s sound lab, but also allows for stories to be “more palatable and more real” because they’re from the actual people who experience them.

“When stories are told by other people, you lose something,” she says.

Civil rights and advocacy group Move the Mindset is among organizations signed up to share their stories.

MTM President Frank Crocco, along with the nonprofit’s Vice President Ola Prejean, plans to have a conversation about the removal of the General Alfred Mouton statue.

“We had a great achievement working for equal justice in the city,” Crocco says. “It is worth documenting for future generations so that they know progress is possible.”

According to Crocco, it is important to document and archive the event because it followed a century of Jim Crow and white supremacy.

StoryCorps organizers say that stories, which are up to 40 minutes, can be about any topic and/or feeling about an issue.

Franchesca Peña, ground manager for the tour, has witnessed a variety of conversations during her stint. One that stands out in her mind were folks involved in hospice care. “There were just some really interesting conversations regarding death,” she recalls.

But Peña’s favorite was a couple who met later in life and had lost their first partners to different circumstances. From them she learned: “Falling in love at 65 feels the same way as falling in love at 16.”

To contribute to StoryCorps' legacy trove, described in their literature as “the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered,” area residents can reserve a slot at storycorps.org/krvs.

There is a facilitator on hand to guide recording sessions, so participants do not have to worry about being prepared. All they have to do, organizers say, is sign up and show up for their conversations.

A community listening event is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Clifton Chenier Center auditorium. The public will have an opportunity to hear some of the conversations recorded thus far.