Justin Williams has long been working to combine his interests in storytelling with activism for social justice. At the production company Kartemquin Films, for example, he coached emerging filmmakers of color through their first full-length documentaries. So when he was offered the chance to work as a facilitator for StoryCorps, the nonprofit media and cultural-heritage company dedicated to “preserving people’s stories,” Williams jumped at it. He was drawn to StoryCorps because of its simplicity (stories are recorded as 40-minute conversations between two people who know each other), its wide audience (stories are regularly broadcast via NPR), and its commitment to the representation of marginalized populations who would not otherwise have access to public media.
In Chicago, where Williams lives, StoryCorps aims to showcase diversity and document the effects of police brutality and redlining. “Here was StoryCorps, trying to elevate those stories to be more considerate of the type of country we want to live in,” Williams said. “Compassion and justice were in the mission statement.”
Founded in 2003, StoryCorps has grown from operating a single StoryBooth recording studio in New York to managing outposts in Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta, with a mobile booth and digital app to collect stories from individuals around the country. The nonprofit was inspired in large part by the work of Studs Terkel, who documented histories of common Americans and advocated for labor unions from the 1960s through the ’90s.
And yet, when a group of employees told management of their intention to unionize in late May, the organization declined to voluntarily recognize the union. In the weeks that followed, management required employees’ attendance at meetings where it discussed its opposition to the union and later disputed the workers’ bargaining unit in front of the National Labor Relations Board. The employees have continued with their unionization campaign, and will vote on whether to unionize at an upcoming NLRB election, the date of which has not yet been set.
“We thought, like many progressive organizations, they would understand that the same values we communicate through our work we would ask for in-house,” said Williams. But in mandatory meetings and FAQs distributed to staff, StoryCorps has sent the message that it does not want to negotiate with a union. “They’re trying to make it seem as if the process we have chosen is not legitimate,” Williams said.
“The election of a union does not provide anyone with any greater job security,” the company wrote in an FAQ distributed to staff [emphasis theirs]. “The union might make proposals about this or other issues, but nothing changes unless StoryCorps agrees to change it. Nothing is automatic. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Along with higher pay, StoryCorps employees are asking management for clear protocols around hiring, firing, and performance evaluations, transparent job descriptions, formal mechanisms to increase diversity and inclusion, as well as more professional development, cultural competency training, and self-care resources. Maura Johnson, a specialist in community training based in StoryCorps’s Brooklyn office, has trained health-care workers to record the stories of patients and their families, many of which center around serious illness or death. “It’s heavy work, and the mental-health benefits at StoryCorps are not great,” said Johnson, who joined the organizing effort because she had been in a union at a past nonprofit job and had seen it work there.