WBUR’s Kind World series shows power of small acts of kindness
- Mallary Jean Tenore
- On January 23, 2014
When he started his job as a social media producer at WBUR, Nate Goldman had negative news fatigue. A lot of us have probably experienced it: the feeling that news stories are too heavy and make the world seem cold and callous.
Goldman saw stories about violence, crime and despair on news sites. But while on social networks, he came across different stories — about small acts of kindness people had experienced. Many people on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit were not only sharing these stories but having lively conversations about them.
“It signaled to me that there was a real appetite for that kind of stuff,” Goldman said by phone.
Inspired by what he saw, Goldman set out to create a series that would highlight how small acts of kindness can profoundly affect people’s lives.
He started asking people on social media to talk about their encounters with kindness. He got several responses, interviewed a few people, and then produced some audio pieces as a proof of concept. His editor, John Davidow, liked the idea and encouraged him to pursue it.
From there, Goldman created a “Kind World” Tumblr in July 2012. It has since gained a lot of attention from readers — so much so that WBUR created an accompanying on-air series, which just finished up last week. All of the Kind World stories set out to answer the same question: “What is it that makes someone stop and help a stranger in need?”
A lot of people want to know the answer to this question, says Goldman, who worked at an advertising agency before joining WBUR. He’s been struck by how many people have said the Kind World stories resonate with them.
“I think they appreciate the chance to be able to hear stories that focus on the positive rather than the negative,” Goldman said. “It seems to be a welcome respite from their normal news intake.”
Some of the stories have highlighted heroic kind acts — like the skydiving instructor who became a paraplegic after attempting to save a woman whose parachute failed to open properly. It’s a powerful story not just about kindness, but about sacrifice and gratitude.
Shirley Dygert, the woman who was saved, had this to say about instructor David Hartsock:
“You know, I’ve always been the kind of person that kind of looked out for someone else, too. But this was so above and beyond anything you can imagine,” Dygert told WBUR. “Goodness, what could have gone through his head when we were going down? And he knew what was going to happen, and he was just trying to make sure that I got out of this okay. You know, he was going to take the whole brunt of it. I mean, for me. For me, little old me. Ever since this happened, there has not been one day that I have not thought about him.”
Goldman says the skydive story generated 111,901 page views — far more than any other Kind World piece.
A lot of the Kind World stories have focused on smaller acts of kindness. One of them featured Rebecca J., a middle-aged woman who remains inspired by an act of kindness she experienced as a child. While at a Boston department store, Rebecca was drawn to a poetry book. She recalls begging her mom to buy it for her, but her mom said no. Soon after, a stranger stuck a bag in her hand and walked away. Inside, was the poetry book.
“You know, it’s kind of a small thing, a 99-cent book but it stuck with me forever, and that inspired me to do small things,” Rebecca told Goldman.
“The story about the parachutist happened a few years ago, and the story of the woman who got the book from the stranger happened 40 years ago,” Goldman said. “These stories are timelessly inspiring.”
A recent Kind World story profiled Shelagh Gordon, “an ordinary woman” who died of a massive brain aneurysm when she was 55. The story, which was based on a Toronto Star column, highlighted Gordon’s extraordinary kindness.
Gordon’s sister, who was interviewed for the WBUR piece, said “most of the gifts, most the things she did, weren’t for public viewing. They were, you know, sliding something into someone’s pocket or a quiet letter with a little something in it or left, even, at their front door. I think she had almost a sixth sense for people that were kind of hurting.”
One commenter felt especially touched by the story, saying: “This piece was a lovely surprise, as I had become convinced that in our current culture, the value of someone’s life was based on the newsworthiness of their death.”
WBUR’s Lisa Tobin, who produced the on-air Kind World series with Michael May, likes to think the stories have inspired others to be more gracious.
“Any of us could act more like [Gordon]. We could start tomorrow,” Tobin said via email. “And we see through the story, told by her loved ones, that it would have a tremendous impact.”
Tobin says people have responded especially well to the first-person nature of the Kind World stories.
“We produced this series as non-narrated, meaning there is no reporter or host, just the voice or voices of the people involved telling their own story. I think that was the right format for these stories, because you can really connect to the people,” Tobin said. “So when I hear, for example, a group of neighbors talking about this wonderful guy who pumps their gas at the gas station down the street, I can really relate to that. I’m a neighbor, too, and I can suddenly imagine how easy it would be to just stop and talk to the person the next time at the gas station, or whatever it is. So I think this format really brought these stories right to people in a way that helps them feel really relevant and applicable to our own lives.”
Although the on-air series has ended, Goldman continues to update the Kind World Tumblr and has had no shortage of content. People regularly reach out to WBUR to share stories of kindness.
“They’ll share something as small as someone returning an umbrella or a wallet,” Goldman said. “It tells us something; it tells us that those acts stick with people and that when they’re prompted with the opportunity to share those stories, they remember them. That’s helped us learn a little bit about the nature of kindness and the nature of sharing stories about it.”
As it turns out, if you actively seek out the good in the world, you can find it.
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