Wow is the best word to describe RootsTech 2019. Major announcements, new discoveries, new connections and an incredible sense of belonging were all felt this past week at the largest family history conference in the world held in Salt Lake City. For me, there were seven major takeaways that made RootsTech 2019 an experience I won’t soon forget.
1. Power of Place
This year there seemed to be an underlying theme that people need to have a sense of where they came from – not only the family – but the place. I’ve always believed in this notion, but it really rang true on Wednesday at the opening session when FamilySearch and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints made a major announcement that they would be donating $2 million to the International African American Museum to be built in South Carolina. The museum will have a family history piece in it so the African American community can trace their roots and have a sense of belonging. Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle for the church made the announcement. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, through FamilySearch is building a bridge back to Africa,” Bednar said. He talked about the 4,000 interviews FamilySearch has done in Africa with African tribe leaders to obtain the history of the families there. “We want to reconnect those disconnected by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Bednar added. Martin Luther King III also made an appearance and noted that in order for people to move forward they have to look backward, and find a sense of self by learning who came before. “We talk about learning about history so we don’t make mistakes in the future,” King said in an interview after the announcement.
FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood added to that idea of “power of place” when talking about his family heritage from London and how he found a connection there and it drew him into that culture. “In the next few days you will connect to families, homelands and feel things you haven’t felt before. He was right.
On Friday, Saroo Brierley further inspired us with this idea when he talked of his search for his birth mother and biological siblings after being separated at the tender age of 5. His story is told in his book, “A Long Way Home,” and in the movie, “Lion.” As a young adult he had a longing to find his homeland and family there. “Sometimes you have to go back to go forward,” Brierley said. He felt drawn to figure out to gain closure in his life. “I made a choice. Took a chance. Made a difference. If we never take a chance we will never know what is on the other side of the wall.” Brierley said.
2.We all need to feel like we belong.
This takeaway was also powerful for me. Bradley D. Foster, who oversees FamilySearch for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said humans have three basic needs: food, safety and a sense of belonging. “If we don’t find a secure place to belong in a family or safe place, we will find it – in a gang or something else,” Foster said. This hit me hard. This themed popped up a few times. I loved how it was brought out in the RootsTech 2019 Film Festival, where they invited people at all skill levels to submit a video talking about their experience with connecting and belonging. The woman who won, Enge Van Wagoner, told a touching story of how she felt connection and belonging with her grandfather when she served him when she became an adult. “We are two misfits that fit together,” Van Wagoner said in the video.
I also came away with the idea that I need to make sure each member of my family feels like they belong in our family. Whether it be through family stories, writing personal histories or creating our family history with activities and experiences, and of course some more good, old-fashioned love.
3. The RootsTech Team Listens!
There were some notable changes and upgrades to RootsTech 2019 this year. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved RootsTech, but this year there was a sense of peace and joy among the FamilySearch employees (who sponsors the event) and the volunteers. I think Jennifer Allen, who is the director of RootsTech, summed it best when she told us at the media dinner that this year, RootsTech was all about the attendee. Happy smiling people in bright blue and pink shirts lined the halls, happily guiding people and asking if they needed help or guidance (and I did a few times). Badges weren’t scanned like last year, classrooms were twice as big, classes started and ended on time and check in was a dream – I don’t think anyone waited more then 2 minutes to check in. This is partly because badges were mailed in advance, but this idea proved to be a great one.
As a speaker and ambassador this year, things were organized, the tech teams were at the ready to help with any problems and the people assigned to be in the rooms were the speakers “right hands” whenever we needed help. This was my second year as a speaker and I loved what I learned from last year to this year but I also loved all the advice and speaking tips I received through the year to help me prepare to give the best presentation possible – another sign that the attendees were top priorities. The RootsTech team wanted everyone to enjoy the classes, so they took care of the speakers. Thanks, RootsTech for listening to feedback and applying it – this may be my best takeaway of all!
4. Stories Can be Told in Different Ways
This is a concept I’ve always known, but it was terrific to really SEE it. Both Derek Hough (a world famous pro dancer) and Jake Shimabukuro (a world renowned ukulele player) showed by action how a story is told in different ways. “You can express so much more with body language and the way you move,” Hough told me in an interview before his presentation. “I see color when I dance and it makes me want to move and feel alive,” he added. “Dancing is in everyone’s DNA,” he said with a laugh.
Shimabukuro told us that “music is a universal language.” He evokes his emotion through the music he plays. When he’s sad, he plays more somber music and when he’s happy things are light and fun.
The thing I enjoyed most about these two masterful performers was their link to family and the importance of family history. “The secret to life is living with the realization that we owe a great debt to all who came before us,” Shimabukuro said. Hough brought home the point that love between a family is priceless. “We have expectations for the ones we love. Trade your expectations for appreciation,” he said.
5. Tell your personal story
This year I decided I was going to attend more classes than I have in the past, so I spent my day Wednesday attending classes that piqued my interest, which mostly centered on journaling and personal history. The other great thing that came from this experience was that by watching the presenters I learned some great skills to apply in my own classes that I was teaching. But I digress, I was reminded how personal history is a part of family history. The people who come after me will want to know my story and I need to get prepared! After all, I don’t want someone else writing my story! Crista Cowan taught me the ins and outs of bullet journaling – a simple and easy way to calendar and journal your life. There’s not a lot of details, but it’s more than nothing. In another class Cowan and her mother, Sue Cowan got me excited about working on my own story and I even started on a vignette of my life. I often teach people to “start now” and “it will be enough” but it was nice to hear someone tell me to do that. I enjoyed being the listener. FamilySearch now has so many more tips to get the ball rolling on their memories app. Instructor Devin Ashby did a great job of showing me some great ideas on taking things one day at a time. I can bite off small chunks and get going.
6. Youth will not be left out of Family History
I love this takeaway! This is something I feel passionately about – I even was part of teaching a power hour class on the subject. There are so many ways to involve youth with family history work and there were so many tools and tips provided at RootsTech 2019. FamilySearch has just unveiled a whole new part of its website dedicated to family history activities that is simply brilliant. In an interview with Mike Sandberg, who is has been on the team to unveil the new site, said there is so much to involving youth with family history. “Research doesn’t resonate with youth. They want discovery,” he said. He noted that whenever a child sees their family tree they touch their own spot on the tree first. “They want to start with themselves and work their way back,” he added. A few ideas I want to try: A family time capsule, a personal time capsule for each kid, an heirloom dress up bin, talking about heirlooms and telling stories about what we have, use maps more, play more games, have fun with family history. We love to play family history games, make family history a part of our culture, set goals and offer rewards and let our kids do family history their way, but I am excited to mix things up a bit and add some more ideas and traditions.
The youth event Friday night with Derek Hough was very well attended and I could sense the excitement in the air as the teens and young adults were pouring into the Salt Palace for a fun night of games and family history mixed with dance.
7. DNA can be for everyone
I admit it, DNA is intimidating for me and I have a lot to learn, but a fun takeaway from this year is that I don’t have to make DNA too difficult, I can learn a little at a time. FamilySearch has just unveiled a new web page to answer lots of the frequently asked questions about DNA so people have a better understanding and can get on the DNA train before it gets too far down the track. I’m excited to check it out and learn more. Diane Loosle who is on the team that oversees DNA research and helps people looking for answers at FamilySearch said it has been a journey of discovery to help people, but that it’s fun and exciting. “People want to know why their results are different with different tests, they want to understand the complexities,” she said. Another FamilySearch DNA specialist, Robert Keher, said FamilySearch is always looking at new ways to help people understand and that they are working the University of Utah Genetic Science center to help people gain better understanding.
There is much discussion on DNA and all the ins and outs and I now feel inspired to seek more understanding myself!
RootsTech 2019 was a powerful week of discovery for me. I look forward to processing everything I’ve learned in the coming weeks and will share some articles and thoughts as I do so. Look for whole articles on the power of place and journaling in the coming weeks to learn with me!
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured in Meridian Magazine, LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.