From Protest to Op-Ed, Public Voices Fellow, Laura Beth Nielsen, Discusses Publishing

My favorite part aboImageut writing my first Op-Ed was also the scariest part. The Op-Ed Project’s Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship two-day seminar ended just prior to the election.  Before I could put the finishing touches on the Op-Ed I wrote during the training, the election was held.  We all know Barack Obama won, but for days, Florida remained undetermined.  Most of the news stations seemed unconcerned with Florida’s lack of results, but my scholarship about ordinary people and political processes led me to worry about the perception of democracy in the face of this delay.  Instead of complaining to my friends on Facebook, I did something I never would have considered before the workshop:  I wrote an Op-Ed about it. 

 

It was intimidating because I don’t think of myself as an expert in electoral politics, but I kept reminding myself what we learned in the workshop.  I graduated from law school, I have a PhD in sociology, and I have been studying law and society for twenty years.  I did not need to know the details of every Voting Rights Act case for the last forty years to know that Florida’s failure to count their votes would have been disastrous if the electoral college had come out differently.  And I do know what erodes ordinary people’s confidence in democratic processes. 

 Image

As the counting in Florida dragged on and on, I used the techniques I learned to put my argument together: a hook, the rule of three, a thesis, and some policy recommendations.  I wrote quickly, thought some more, made some revisions, and sent it off.  Even though it was scary to contemplate putting my opinion out there, it was exhilarating to have an option other than protest aimlessly. 

 

I was surprised that my mentor Michele sent it off with very few edits.  She thought it was good enough and that gave me confidence too.  Over the next couple of days, I alternated between compulsively checking to see if any news agency was going to call Florida (which I thought would make my Op-Ed useless), and checking my email to see if the first outlet would publish it.  The news outlets called Florida, and shortly thereafter, I got the three word email, “Thanks.  We’ll pass.”

 

So I had a rejection and an op-ed that was no longer timely.  Great.  Luckily, Michele Weldon convinced me to have another go at it.  The revisions were pretty simple and she pitched it again.  I settled in for a long wait and another rejection, but the second time was a charm. PBS came through with a quick acceptance.  Somehow I imagined there would be another round of editing or a lengthy “revise and resubmit” phase like we are all used to in academic publishing. Instead, the article was published in just a few hours. 

 

I learned how great it feels not to be yelling at the tv, but to be part of the public conversation about an important issue.  I learned to trust my instincts (and my mentor!) and to try again when they say no.  I learned to be willing to go outside my academic areas of expertise.  And guess what?  No one asked me about the last forty years of Voting Rights Act cases. 

 

Read Laura Beth Nielsen’s second write-up “The Price of a Civilized Society for Workers” published in The Huffington Post here.

 

Dr. Nielsen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Legal Studies at Northwestern University. This is an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow scholars at Northwestern University.

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