RootsTech 2024 Impact Forum: 3 ways family history is going beyond the genealogy community

Research inspires family history curriculum for youth, an expanded database at Ellis Island and tools to help children in foster care

Emory University professor Robyn Fivush — a distinguished researcher who found connection between family stories and adolescent resilience and identity — spoke about her work on the RootsTech main stage Friday, March 1.

As part of the RootsTech Impact Forum, Fivush was joined by Jody Koenig Kellas, a professor and researcher at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, to discuss the positive impacts of knowing one’s family stories.

Fivush told the RootsTech audience that the ultimate goal of both her research and Kellas’ research is “to provide the empirical data for all the work that you’re doing, to show how and why it matters.”

RootsTech emcee Kirby Heyborne, left, talks with Jody Koenig Kellas of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Robyn Fivush of Emory University during the RootsTech Impact Forum in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on March 1, 2024. | Screenshot from

Whether they realize it or not, “all families are storytellers,” Fivush said.

Fivush helped develop the oft-cited 20-question “Do You Know” scale to find what children know about their families. Those who test well show higher levels of self-esteem, fewer behavioral problems and lower levels of anxiety, among other positive results.

Kellas summarized two major findings of her research — “how families frame stories matters and how families communicate stories matters.” She listed four behaviors that tend to distinguish families on measures of health and well-being:

  • Engagement. “When families sit down to tell stories together, how warm and involved are they?”
  • Turn-taking. “Do we build off of each other’s stories? Do we give each other space to talk?”
  • Perspective-taking, or attending to, asking for and confirming each other’s perspectives.
  • Coherence, or organizing the story. “Do we do that in a way that showcases family-level meaning making?”

Representatives from American Ancestors, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and Connect Our Kids took the stage to share how research on the importance of family stories has influenced their organizations.

Family history in the classroom

While working on the web series “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings” a few years ago, Lindsay Fulton helped a young man search for his ancestors from Jamaica and discover the name of his fourth-great-grandfather.

Fulton — vice president of research and library services at American Ancestors — told the RootsTech audience it was a proud moment for the young man, not only because he learned a name but he participated in the process of finding it.

“Knowing stories about your family has an incredible and quantifiable impact on young people,” Fulton said. “But that positive impact doesn’t come from the content of the answers. It’s the process of learning those stories that results in the greatest personal growth.”

Lindsay Fulton, vice president of research and library services at American Ancestors, speaks during the RootsTech Impact Forum in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on March 1, 2024. | Screenshot from

Based on findings from Fivush’s research and Fulton’s experience with “Seedlings,” American Ancestors created a national family history curriculum for fourth through eighth grades available at

Fulton highlighted the curriculum’s three teaching strategies:

  • Encourage students to start their research at home.
  • Focus on developing research skills.
  • Foster a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

“Genealogy empowers students to actively participate in history, not just as passive learners but as historians themselves,” Fulton said. “By investigating their roots, students develop critical thinking skills, learning to analyze sources and craft narratives that connect them to the past in meaningful ways.”

Expanding the database of records at Ellis Island

In 2001, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation opened the American Family Immigration History Center in the Ellis Island Museum. With the help of FamilySearch, the foundation scanned all the Ellis Island arrival records to give visitors an opportunity to find an ancestor while there.

Jesse Brackenbury, president and CEO of the foundation, said this database will soon be expanded as part of an effort to update the museum.

In addition to arrival records from the port of New York, visitors will be able to access all United States arrival records that have been digitized.

Jesse Brackenbury, president and CEO of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, speaks during the RootsTech Impact Forum in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on March 1, 2024. | Screenshot from

“Forty percent of Americans can trace an ancestor to someone who came through Ellis Island, which is pretty incredible. It also means that 60% can’t,” Brackenbury explained.

“So for all of those visitors, we want to have a museum that they can find themselves in and a database that they can find their families in, both free online and available within that powerful, historic main immigration building.”

Helping foster kids connect to family stories

Jennifer Jacobs, CEO and co-founder of Connect Our Kids, spent most of her career working to counter nuclear terrorism. Then she read a magazine article about children in foster care that led her to start an organization to help them.

“I noticed a similarity in what foster care professionals needed to do to find families for the kids in their care and what intelligence analysts do to find and track terrorist networks,” she said.

Inspired by national security software, Connect Our Kids is an interactive hub to help social workers uncover the family connections a child already has. Genealogy tools like FamilySearch and are integrated in this hub.

Jennifer Jacobs, CEO and co-founder of Connect Our Kids, speaks during the RootsTech Impact Forum in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on March 1, 2024. | Screenshot from

Jacobs shared the example of a girl in foster care in Kentucky whose social worker used Connect Our Kids to locate the girl’s paternal grandmother. From her grandmother, the girl learned she was named after a determined ancestor who emigrated from England to the United States.

“If knowing their family stories can help children weather difficult times, then foster children need those stories perhaps more than anyone,” Jacobs said.

“Your contributions to shared family trees can be critical in building the infrastructure needed to help foster children to find connection to their people, their identity and their history.”

Related Story
What happened at RootsTech 2024? Here’s a rundown
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed