Accessibility links

Breaking News

'National Day of Listening' Promoted; Listening to Stories of Poverty

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: a big week for talkers and listeners.

RS: This Thursday, millions of Americans will gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving -- or "Turkey Day," as many call it. That's because a roasted turkey is the traditional star of the holiday meal, usually served with extra helpings of the latest family news.

AA: This year, a nonprofit group that collects oral histories for archiving at the Library of Congress is urging Americans to start a new tradition -- a National Day of Listening. StoryCorps is inviting people to set aside one hour on the Friday after Thanksgiving to record a conversation with an older relative or someone else important to them. The interviews can be uploaded and shared at a Web site,

RS: You don't have to be a trained sociocultural anthropologist to be a good listener, but it probably helps. Kath Weston is a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And she is the author of a new book, based on five years of riding cross-country buses and listening to people talk about lives of poverty.

AA: Her book is called "Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor." The Census Bureau says the nation's official poverty rate was 12.5 percent last year, or 37 million people. Experts are predicting an increase as a result of the current economic crisis.

RS: Reporter Jesse Dukes recently talked with Kath Weston. They rode a bus operated by Greyhound, the largest intercity bus company in North America.


JD: So the driver takes our tickets, we get on the bus, find seats and settle in.

DRIVER: "We're scheduled to arrive at our main station in Washington, D.C., at seven twenty-five p.m. The use of electronic devices is done so with a personal headset ... "

JD: Once we get moving, she tells me she wanted to write a book on living poor in the world's richest nation. As far as setting the book on buses -- well, bus tickets are relatively cheap, so if you are living poor and you have to travel, you're likely to take the bus. And while Weston does write about the causes of poverty, she's was more interested in talking to people living their lives.

KATH WESTON: "You know, I really did want to emphasize the motion. When you talk about it as living, I mean that is what you're doing, you're living. And how do you live? Those are the kinds of things that I'm interested in."

JD: Weston likes that bus travel is a chance to meet all sorts of people traveling for a variety of reasons: people migrating to find work, people visiting relatives or traveling to a political rally. She met a young Latino, traveling to a job, who gets hassled because he can't understand an English-speaking security guard.

She stood in long lines for hours or shared food with strangers, or babysat while they went to the bathroom.

One of her more telling anecdotes is about T.J., a young African-American man travelling to Oklahoma for a new job.

KATH WESTON: "So we start talking to him, and he says: "Well, I'm traveling because I have a new job in food processing.' And food processing turns out to be a kind of euphemism for working in a meat-packing plant. In the course of the conversation, it becomes evident that T.J. had no food with him on the trip and he had no money for food on this trip that was going to take more than twenty-four hours.

"And so then when we get to a rest stop, there's a counter there where they're selling soft tacos. And the guy from the front of the bus and his wife, both of them are Mexican-American, they come back with this whole bag full of soft tacos and they give it to T.J. and say 'Please take this.' And he's hesitant, but he's hungry, and he does eventually take them. And then he says to them 'gracias' [thank you], and this is a guy who doesn't speak Spanish basically."

JD: "So he's making a gesture."

KATH WESTON: "So he's making a gesture."

JD: Weston likes the story because it shows how riding the bus, which a lot of us think of as uncomfortable, can also bring strangers together. But like most of the stories in the book, it also helps her make a sociological point.

She says poverty and wealth are relative. And, for example, although America is a very wealthy country, the income of the bottom twenty percent actually fell during the boom of the nineteen nineties.

KATH WESTON: "And it was not lost on any of us, the irony of this kind of situation. You know, here he is in a position, he's going to pack the food, but he can't afford to buy any and he can't afford to eat it. So what does that say? That's a story about relative poverty. What does it mean that these are the people who are basically supplying and processing the food for the world's wealthiest nation?" Weston says that people on the bus have opinions about this sort of thing too, but she didn't want to just observe, she

JD: Another rider overhears us and wants to add her two cents to our conversation.

WOMAN: "If indigenous people were listened to ... "

JD: It's just the sort of moment that could be in "Traveling Light," and the three of us talk until we get to the station, where we go our separate ways.


JD: For VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I'm Jesse Dukes.

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives of our segments are at

RS: Thanks for listening. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.