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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/2/13

Behind the Scenes of "This I Believe" with Dan Gediman, part 2

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"'This I Believe' is an international organization engaging people in writing essays describing the core values that guide their daily lives. Over 100,000 of these essays, written by people from all walks of life, are archived on our website, heard on public radio, chronicled through our books, and featured in weekly podcasts. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow." [from This I Believe website]

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Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with Dan Gediman, executive producer of the reborn radio program "This I Believe."  It's a five-minute radio segment, featuring a different individual each week reading his/her "personal credo" essay.

JB: What kind of reception has TIB been getting this time around, Dan?

DG: Very positive; overwhelmingly positive, right from the beginning.  From our very first day broadcasting in April 2005, we were inundated with emails from listeners, and that has continued unabated to this day.  We've done scores of events around the country, either book events around the publication of our various books, or public speaking things with high-schools, colleges, universities, and community groups. 

The people that come to these events are the folks that are most interested in what we are doing, so it's a self-selecting group, but there has been a great deal of excitement about This I Believe.  That was true in the very beginning, and continues to be so to this day.  There are progressively larger numbers of people that are exposed to this, schoolchildren who encounter it, in that their teachers assign them the reading material or the essay writing task.  

Progressively more countries around the world have been exposed to this: either through our books being translated into their languages, or visiting our website because they're trying to learn English, or are just generally interested in what we're doing.  So the response has been enormous and extremely gratifying, and sometimes overwhelming to our little staff.

JB: How very exciting. What has it been like reviewing all those incoming essays?

DG: I myself have certainly read thousands of these essays, especially in preparation for our books and radio programs. It's an amazing honor and a tremendous sense of responsibility to do right by all these people who have, in many cases, spilled their guts and told very intimate stories about their past and what's most important to them.

We ask everybody to not just write a declaration of their belief but to tell us the story behind it. And those stories are often very difficult. These beliefs were often borne out of trauma, or deep sorrow, or a very traumatic event in someone's life. Lots of people write about deaths in the family, suicide and serious illness and tragedies of all sorts. And it feels almost a little bit like hearing someone's confession.

It's very sacred and important. And all of our staff have taken that responsibility very seriously. Speaking personally, it's been a tremendous honor and again I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to properly care for these essays, regardless of whether they're great works of art.

Some of them are certainly better written than others, and some of the writers take the assignment more seriously than others. Frankly, there's quite a few written by school children who really just need to turn it in for a grade. And they don't seem to take it very seriously; it's clearly not something that they're really motivated to do. Having said that, an awe-inspiring proportion of the essays from youth [show] they are clearly taking it very seriously and they're really putting their heart and soul in it.

On our website at thisibelieve.org, we give every writer an opportunity to give us some reflections on the writing process and this is something that only we as a staff see. Their teachers don't see it. And a tremendous proportion of them write to say some variation of "I don't normally like to do this kind of school work. I don't like to write. Every time a writing assignment is given, I roll my eyes. And this one in particular, when I first heard about it, really seemed ridiculous and I dreaded it. And then when I sat down to actually do it, something really remarkable happened and I learned a lot about myself and I found it an incredibly fruitful experience."

And some of them say, "This is the best thing I've ever done in school." And then several teachers have said, "Some of my students who have a difficult time in class, this was the best grade they ever got because they took it so seriously." It's been the turning point in several of their students' lives to all of a sudden crack down and take their schooling seriously.

Those kinds of stories are incredibly rewarding to hear, both from the students and from the teachers. And I get to hear them all the time, because I travel the country speaking to various high schools and colleges and universities. So, I get to talk to lots of faculty members and hear these kinds of stories. I've spoken to probably tens of thousands of their students in various audiences at school events.  And I also get to speak to a lot of students and so I've spoken to certainly hundreds of them in short one-on-one conversations, often while signing books. It's been incredibly rewarding to hear those stories from students who tell us that this is a really intensely satisfying process for them.

From the beginning of our project, we have had a fairly complex essay-reviewing process that has involved quite a few other people. We have strongly felt that we need to have actual humans reading every incoming essay and not just rely on a machine to do it. In the beginning, we had a staff of paid reviewers, now we rely primarily on volunteers.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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