Andersen, Gonzalez-Block and Janssen

When StoryCorps rolled into Jackson in early February 2015, the non-profit brought with it three ladies who, for the last month, have immersed themselves in the local culture.

As they record for their last day here and head south for New Orleans, facilitators Danielle Andersen and Vanessa Gonzalez-Block and site manager Emily Janssen spoke with Find It In Fondren. The three talked about their experiences and shared what stories mean for all Mississippians.

Where are you from?

Danielle: Upstate New York
Vanessa: Montclair, NJ, by way of Chicago, IL
Emily: Born and raised in Selkirk, New York with most of my adult life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

How did you come to work with StoryCorps?

Danielle: I had just moved to Brooklyn after finishing grad school when I discovered the StoryCorps intern program. I knew about SC from the oral history and documentary work I’d done in the Southern Studies department at Ole Miss and the intern program was a great way to get in the door.

Vanessa: I had been aware of StoryCorps through my public radio work in college, and had been trying to work there since graduation! Coming from an Anthropology & Film background, I love storytelling and believe in its power. After a year of doing interfaith work at a great organization in Chicago, I was so excited to secure a dream job as a mobile tour facilitator.

Emily: I first came to StoryCorps years ago in the first year that StoryCorps sent our Mobile recording booths across the country.  I had been working as a case manager and advocate for homeless youth.  I saw how powerful it is to share your own story, to be listened to, and to be recognized and treated as someone whose voice and daily life matters.

What have you enjoyed about Mississippi, and specifically, Fondren?

Danielle: On top of meeting some of the nicest, most welcoming people, I’ve eaten some amazing food. The folks at Babalu, Brent’s, Cups, and Sneaky Beans have taken good care of us, and we’ve definitely had a fun night or two at the Apothecary.

Vanessa: Lovely people, and great food! Everyone here is so nice, and open to conversation. I’ve loved the conversations I’ve had with waiters at Brent’s Drugs and Babalu. I’ve loved the food at Saltine and Campbell’s Bakery. I’ve taken up yoga at Butterfly Yoga, and am touched by the community that’s built there. There’s so much to do here, and it’s been a lot of fun.

Emily: Folks in Mississippi have offered us so much kindness and hospitality. I have been struck by this everywhere I go; from the grocery store to the airport to the inside of our booth. Fondren has really been our home away from home, so to experience this welcome from our neighbors every day has made being here so memorable. We have definitely made our way around the neighborhood — taking salsa classes, doing yoga, eating endless amounts of good food, and running to the hardware store when we need it. I recently traveled back to StoryCorps’ offices in Brooklyn with a box of Campbell’s cupcakes in hand, and I can tell you that StoryCorps’ love for Fondren extends all the way to New York.

What have you learned about Mississippians that has surprised you most?

Danielle: People joked with us when we arrived that the first questions a Mississippian will ask is, ‘Who are your people?’ and ‘Where do you go to church?’ so I don’t think surprised is the right word, but everyday in the booth, I am impressed by what people have been able to overcome through faith and the love of family.

Vanessa: I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Mississippians. It’s been interesting to hear people talk about what a Southern identity means, and how that Southern identity intersects with other pieces of someone’s identity. It has been incredible to hear stories about the Civil Rights Movement from people here in the South. Having grown up in the North, I feel like everything I learned about seemed very distant, and now I’m relearning that history.

Emily: It wasn’t necessarily surprising, but I have noticed that people here have a deep love for Mississippi and many have made an intentional choice to call Mississippi home.

What do you think Mississippians can learn from sharing their stories?

Danielle: I guess to put it simply, telling stories, and more importantly listening to stories, allows the common threads that run through all our lives to become more visible. I think that when we can hold on to those threads of common experience we’re more inclined to allow each other our differences and work together.

Vanessa: Sharing stories is a great time to reflect on the things that are important to a person, family, culture, and community. I think it helps to make sense of those milestones and significant events, and furthermore, make sure that that history is not forgotten. This allows future family members and community members to learn from that history, and also understand how that history affects their lives.

Emily: We so rarely take the time to sit down with the people in our lives and have a conversation without distraction. I would recommend that everyone do this, whether they are recording their conversation for posterity or just sitting face to face with their cell phones off for a little while. Each of us holds a lifetime of history, and our loved ones know just a small piece of that. At StoryCorps we have the additional honor of preserving recorded conversations in our archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where these very personal stories collectively inform who we are right now in our country, and how we have gotten to where we are.