Building the StoryCorps Justice Project: Call for Groundswell Practitioner Perspectives

By: Tanya Linn Albrigtsen-Frable and Adam Wilson  

StoryCorps, the national oral history project, is launching the Justice Project – an initiative that will amplify and preserve the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration and the justice system nationwide   We hope to use this and other Groundswell spaces to generate response, engagement, and reflection as we build this project.  Please help us build the best project possible. 

Jamal: “How do you think our relationship changed after I got incarcerated?”

Born: “I still feel the same way. I still got love for you, of course… I’m always there if you need anything. Because you could’ve spiraled down easily, and I just felt in my mind, somebody’s got to be there for him. Just like I would hope somebody would be there for me.”

Born Blackwell and Jamal Faison

Born Blackwell and Jamal Faison

While incarcerated, Jamal struggled with the emotional toll of the conditions at Rikers Island and turned to his uncle, Born Blackwell, for support.   When visiting loved ones held at Rikers, family members and friends are often subject to special searches.  Born says the process felt “just like I was locked up.  We get on the bus just like we were criminals”.  Despite acknowledging that “this was really discouraging for me,” Born made the visit nearly weekly during those 8 months to support and counsel Jamal, telling him to “hold on” and “keep his head” and reminding him, “just because they treat you like an animal doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”   In October 2012, Jamal was released from custody. Dropped off in Queens around 2:00 AM, he immediately reflected on the challenges that would await him outside jail due to the discrimination and stigma that those with criminal records face.  “I have to work twice as hard, if not three times as hard, as someone that doesn’t have a record to get a fraction of what they can easily just go and get.”

Jamal came to StoryCorps with Born to remember his release from Rikers Island and discuss how their relationship supported Jamal through the challenges of re-entry.

"I remember feeling this tremendous weight of fear of what my life would be like." (Click here to hear the story)

Broadcast on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on June 3, this story is a part of the new StoryCorps Justice Project, a project that creates spaces for people directly impacted by the prison industrial complex to tell their stories. We are in the early phases of this project and are excited to use the Groundswell blog as a space to share our progress, challenges, and learning with other practitioners, as well as dialogue with other peoples doing similar oral history for social justice work about their experiences.

So What is StoryCorps?  

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.  Since 2003, thousands of people have shared their stories through StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded and, with permission, archived at the Library of Congress as part of American history.  Millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on public radio and watch our animations.

We are widely known for the stories we collect from the public, and the segments that are heard on NPR. Anyone is welcome to make an appointment at one of our three permanent StoryBooths (Atlanta, Chicago, or San Francisco), or at our MobileBooth if they are near one of the 10 yearly stops made by our iconic Airstream trailer.  In 2015, we developed a digitally accessible StoryCorps app ( that allows people throughout the world to record a story and upload it to our website.

Initiatives and projects built around community engagement are a key component of StoryCorps’ programming and strategic vision.  In 2015, 62% of the almost 6,000 StoryCorps interviews we collected came through partnerships with community organizations. 

Each year, StoryCorps joins with dozens of libraries, museums, nonprofits, hospitals, educational institutions, and advocacy/aid groups to record and archive stories. Typically, a partnership is designed around a particular organizational goal, and StoryCorps’ role is to organize the event and oversee the recordings by providing equipment and trained facilitators

StoryCorps first got involved with the Groundswell network in 2015, with individual staff attending Practioner Support Video Chats and sharing blog posts.  In 2016, we joined Groundswell with the hope of building stronger relationships to the larger oral history and social justice communities. 

The StoryCorps Justice Project (SJP) Gets Underway

 This year, we are undertaking one of the most challenging, complex, and aspirational initiatives in our history: the StoryCorps Justice Project (SCJP).  The United States of America puts more people in jail and prisons than any other country in the world.  The StoryCorps Justice Project will amplify and preserve the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration and the justice system nationwide.

In 2016, we have two focuses for this project.  The first emphasizes the role and effects of incarceration nationwide. The second centers the experiences of youth of color involved in the juvenile and adult justice system in New York City. We intend for our work and shared stories to raise awareness of the issues faced by the individuals, families and communities who are directly impacted by mass incarceration, and help to demystify the role of the criminal justice system in communities of color and working class and poor communities.

Between now and next year, we will nationally broadcast (on Morning Edition) at least three stories collected through this work.  We will collect a total of 125 interviews from about ten partners across the United States.  We will produce additional segments that our partners will use in their work, and we will author blog posts and encourage dialogue on our social media platforms. 

Building an Equitable Project

While we are proud of much of what StoryCorps has built, we also recognize we have a significant amount of internal work to do this project well.  We have expansive experience doing oral history work with many communities, but have not worked specifically on the issue of mass incarceration. Because mass incarceration has such grave and particular impacts on all levels- from the individual to interpersonal and intergenerational, family, community, national, and international levels- we strive for this project to make genuine and accountable contributions to the movements addressing the injustices of mass incarceration and heal the communities impacted by it. We are also aware of the stark ethical challenges that we as an organization must address to do this well. In the coming months, we hope we can lean on support from experts in our partner communities as well as Groundswell’s experience.

Language and framing matters when our project goal is to “amplify and preserve the stories of communities impacted by mass incarceration.”  We are accountable for respecting the dignity and humanity of our participants, who come from communities of color and working class and poor communities that have historically and presently been both misrepresented and exploited in the media.  Our communications must be deliberate, thoughtful, accurate, consistent and reflect a commitment to justice, equity, and cultural relevance, as well as demonstrate that we are informed on current language and communication practices in the field. 

Through this process we have been engaging in questions such as:

§  How do we ethically represent the stories and lives of people who have been incarcerated and are vulnerable to state and social power? 

§  How do we honestly incorporate the input from partners and experts in regards to current language and engagement in this specific community and field? 

§  As an organization that disseminates content via national media platforms, how do we balance the needs and perspectives of our participants with the structural demand for disclosure of criminal records in mainstream journalism? 

§  How do we bring a trauma-informed approach to the act of interviewing itself, and how do we build structures of deeply informed consent to respect the agency of participants and partner organizations?

We thought we could use the Groundswell blog as a site in which we share our experiences and reflections while the SCJP project unfolds. We know that there are a lot of practitioners that have experiences and perspective to offer and that may also grapple with similar challenges.

Our invitation is for any other practitioners to use the “comments” section to respond, reflect, ask questions, or react to the questions we pose and information we share. We would also welcome a response post for publication on the blog. We are excited about the possibilities of using the blog as a space for dialogue and hope that the collective knowledge and experience of the Groundswell community can provide us with insight, direction, critique, and support, as we build this project. 

We look forward to the conversation!


About the authors: 
Tanya Linn Albrigtsen-Frable is the Manager of the StoryCorps Justice Project.  In addition to her work at StoryCorps, she facilitates poetry and storytelling workshops with youth at Rikers Island and in juvenile justice facilities (including secure and non-secure sites).  She is a lead organizer with Yeah, That's What She Said, an intersectional feminist arts and education collective based in NYC. 

Adam Wilson is the Managing Director of Community Engagement at StoryCorps.  Adam has been with StoryCorps for more than 8 years, and was previously a community and labor organizer.