Today we gathered experts in New York City to explore themes of expertise, credibility and what it takes to create meaningful change in the world. We were honored to share the space with these brilliant minds.
Do you want your voice to be heard? Come see us in action. We run Write to Change the World seminars in 15 major U.S. cities on a rotating basis. For more on our upcoming cities and dates, click here.
Can’t wait to see all of you next Friday. Many of you have drafts in different stages of editing, and several have accepted pieces just waiting to be scheduled. Please bring drafts with you next week so we can get a head start on ideas and columns. After our meeting, we will have just one additional month together.
Why is it important? A reminder of The OpEd Project vision: “… to create a sea change in our world’s conversation by empowering a wave of new voices to join the important public conversations of our age, to take our equal place as narrators of the world, and to encourage and refer others to do the same—creating a multiplier effect that will alter the patterns of under-representation in media inboxes and outlets, and expand the earth’s talent pool.”
This week the political world provided a perfect example. No matter what you think about her politics, Hillary Clinton’s elevation as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate made history, and forced many to think of something they had not before – a woman as the leader of the free world.
To judge from the reactions, some are having trouble with the concept. RNC chair Reince Priebus chided Hillary Clinton after the commander-in-chief forum. He noted that she needed to “smile.” Though Clinton herself had a good comeback – “actually, that’s just what taking the office of President seriously looks like” – other voices were quick to respond: from a fact check that showed she actually did smile more than Donald Trump to endless snarky tweets. Trump himself said of Clinton: “I just don’t think she has a presidential look. And you need a presidential look.”
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus summarized it: “The remarks are worth noting not only because of what they tell us about Trump & Co., but also because they illustrate some of the gender-based challenges that Hillary Clinton confronts as she seeks to become the nation’s first female president, and that she would continue to face in office.”
As I covered Hillary Clinton’s rally at historically black Johnson C. Smith University, I was focused on what she said, as she “called out the state’s restrictive voter ID law, recently tossed out as discriminatory against African-Americans by a federal court. A ‘blast from the Jim Crow past,’ she called it.”
And as I read the reports of both candidates this past week, it again reminded me how important it is to hear from a variety of voices.
If you don’t tell your story, someone else will – and will almost always get it wrong.
We’re leaving you with a piece that gets it right. It places a polarizing figure in historical and social context rather than demonizing or presenting a particular point of view:
“Sermonizing in Pearls: Phyllis Schlafly and the Women’s History of the Religious Right” in the LA Review of Books and written by one of my facilitator colleagues, Neil J. Young.
Happy writing and see you soon,
Mary & Amy
Periodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The above letter was sent as a weekly missive to the Public Voices Fellowship cohort at Cornell University from leader Mary C. Curtis.
Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2016 “genius” grant winners, and as I perused the 23 bios, I was struck by these words from New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman, who investigates social justice issues within marginalized communities:
“I’m very interested in the relationship between storytelling and empathy, and how we can get people to feel invested in and to care about and to publicly debate things that they might not immediately think that they do care about. I think one of the ways that we do that is to get them to invest in a narrative when they put themselves in another person’s shoes.” (You can read her complete LA Times interview here.)
As you may have noticed, Stillman’s words echo a big theme of our first convening—that we are most likely to change minds when we show empathy and respect. But they also take this idea one step further, highlighting the fact that we’re most likely to bring people over to our way of thinking when we manage to spark empathy and respect for the people and causes we support.
As it happens, I experienced this first-hand through the work of another of this year’s MacArthur winners, writer Maggie Nelson. In her gorgeous book The Argonauts, Nelson delves deep into her life with sexually fluid partner Harry Dodge. The book is, among other things, a meditation on the indeterminate nature of our physical selves, as Nelson grows heavily pregnant and Dodge undergoes testosterone injections and top surgery. (The book’s title alludes to Roland Barthes reflections on how the Argonauts gradually replaced every part of their ship, the Argo, the result being an entirely new ship that retains the same name and form. Incidentally, this is a great example of the power of naming, a focus of our last convening.)
Before reading The Argonauts I would have viewed myself as a supporter of Nelson and Dodge’s choices but in a 30,000 feet kind of way. Then the book took me into their lives and world. The result: I came to feel a sense of kindship, to empathize—a far more powerful response than mere intellectual agreement. (The Netflix show Transparent—I believe its third season goes live today (news hook alert! news hook alert!)—has been another potent spur to empathy around issues related to gender identity.)
Even stories that simply depict empathy can pack a major wallop. I’m thinking of the letter written by six-year-old Alex to President Obama, offering to open his family to five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, injured after his home in Aleppo Syria was bombed. The president quoted Alex’s words at a United Nations summit on the refugee crisis this week, and the White House later released a recording Alex reading his own letter aloud. The story and video have been shared hundreds of thousands of times.
Extra credit reading: The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, a much-heralded collection of essays. (Tim, check out the title essay, the first in the collection—it’s a personal essay about her time spent as a medical actor for med students, as they learn to diagnose diseases and other disorders.)
This week’s mission, should you choose to accept it: As you go about your lives, pay attention to what sparks empathy in you. What implications does this have for your public voice?