What we Learned from LGBTQI and human rights activists from Africa

A team of our OpEd Project teachers was in South Africa when Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on Vanity Fair. And since then the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the equal right to marriage for all.

Mama CashIn South Africa, we led a group of LGBTQI and human rights activists who had travelled from all over the continent for a two-day training with myself and OpEd Project facilitators Deborah Douglas and Zeba Khan. The participants came from different countries, including  Egypt, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. And while many celebrated Jenner’s debut they knew that in their countries the reaction would be different. The focus would not be on how she looked or what she said. For them, the consequences of coming out are much more serious.

In 38 African nations it is illegal to be gay. They shared stories that to be gay means you could be arrested, jailed, tortured or even killed. Some of their fears included:

“Being ignored

Losing friends and family

Being rejected by society

Being attacked, raped and killed

Being dead.”

One participant told us that his best friend had been hacked to death for being gay. And the perpetrators said, “Good. We got rid of another one.” Another participant, who is transgender, spoke of the difficulty in even finding doctors who will give the medical treatments they need. Some of the lesbian women who had children worry that they could be sued and their children will be taken away from them. And some of the women in the group from Egypt spoke of how difficult it is for a woman to even walk out of the house alone. She could face severe harassment or even rape.

We gathered in South Africa because the laws there are more progressive. In 1996 it became the first country to approve a constitution that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still that doesn’t stop harassment or even killing.

In 2006, a lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana, was stabbed and stoned to death in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. In 2012, four men received prison sentences for her murder. This was the first time a South African court acknowledged that a victim had been murdered because of her sexual orientation. In Gambia, being gay can result in a life sentence under the rule of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Uganda and Kenya propose the same.

Despite societal and governmental obstacles many of the activists we work with run nonprofits to advocate for their communities.

They also shared some of what motivates them:

“To promote equal rights, to stamp out patriarchy, homophobia and xenophobia.”

“I am placing a brick in the creation of a LGBTI movement in Kenya leading to East Africa, leading to Africa. The ideas are like notes in a song that become more sensible when arranged.”

“Because every single life matters.”

I offer their powerful words as a point of reflection for us in the U.S. who have much more freedom to speak out than most people in the rest of the world. Please use your voice in the service of others as we live in times where so much must be said, so many stories need to be told.

We also share this poem by one of our participants Moses Devine.



I’m young,

I love life,

I love everything around me,

I love everyone around me,

but I’m not sure if they love me too.

I’m different not because I asked to be but because

I do not fit the standards my society has set.

I love but my love has been rendered an abomination.

My friends have been deemed unworthy because they are more like me.

My hangout places have been demolished and burnt down because they accept people of my kind who have been rendered outcasts.

I’ve been made an outcast in my own home and in my own country

 just because I am different.

Some say I’m a curse while others say am just a result of globalization and immorality but to those that know me, I am just a normal teenager trying to pass

through life and its everyday challenges.

I’ve been chased and spat on by on lookers, snared at by neighbors,

turned against by friends and judged by those that hardly know me.

I’ve been a victim though many think I’m the perpetrator

all because I’m different from what society deems normal.

But how abnormal am I?

When I’m beaten don’t I cry?

When I’m spat on don’t I hurt?

When I’m stubbed don’t I bleed?

When my friends are persecuted don’t I worry?

When my friends are killed don’t they die?

So if I’m an outcast, why do I feel the same things you feel?

Post by OpEd Project Journalist Facilitator, Teresa Puente.


Today’s New York City Write to Change the World seminar brought together experts from a wide range of fields and organizations. The group included faculty from NYU, CUNY and University of Texas – Houston, the Public Communications Manager at the New York Women’s Foundation, a PhD student in Criminal Justice, a disaster resilience expert, Managing Director of Nielsen Government and Public Sector, the Founder and President of the United Nations Youth Association of Mexico, an eighteenth and twentieth century French literature scholar, a 16-year-old high school student and more.

We were thrilled to be joined by Gillian Christie, a Health Innovation Analyst at Vitality Institute. The Vitality Institute is an action-oriented global research organization working to strengthen the evidence base about what works and what doesn’t work in health promotion and disease prevention. They are dedicated to building a healthier world by advancing knowledge and research about the evolving science and art of disease prevention. Like the OpEd Project, Vitality Institute is investing in public intelligence to create a better world. That’s why we’re thrilled that Gillian is one of many Vitality Institute team members who have come through Write to Change the World.

Do you want your voice to be heard? Come see us in action. We run Write to Change the World seminars in 10 major U.S. cities on a rotating basis. Visit our website to find other upcoming cities and dates.

How to Write an Op-Ed in 15 Minutes — with 20 Authors (for real)

At the second convening of our Public Voices Fellowship at Dartmouth, on the theme of CONNECTION, our journalist facilitators gave the group an assignment, hung up flip chart sheets, and left the room.

The assignment: to write an op-ed as a team. In fifteen minutes flat.

The charts were labeled with some basic elements of persuasion:

  1. Lede
  1. News hook
  1. Argument
  1. Evidence
  1. To be sure
  1. Conclusion

The newshook was ripped from that day’s paper: on the latest Apple developers conference. The argument, proffered by fellow William Cheng, from the music department: that while Apple “i”s cane be found in most student hands in class, another “I” — the first person — is largely barred from their writing, extinguishing their unique voices.

IMG_3750The rest was up to them, as a team. We set a timer — on an iPhone, as it happens — for fifteen minutes and closed the door.

It seems absurd, perhaps, to think that 20 professors from fields as disparate as spectral geometry and Latin American theatre, at only their second gathering together, could in fifteen minutes, write and op-ed as a team. But when the timer went off, there it was. Not fully written. But sketched out in a way that all it required was Cheng to bring it back to his office, polish it up, and submit it.

Which he did, to Slate.  Where it ran shortly after.

You’d think this might be a fluke, perhaps, or a product of something unique to the small college culture at Dartmouth.  But we’ve conducted this same experiment, with the same results on campuses across the country. At Columbia this year, the fellowship took a truly absurd real-life headline announcing National Termite Day, linked it with the scourge of homophobia, and in ten minutes — at least a quarter of which was spent laughing — an op-ed was born. It too, was published soon after, sans termite peg, in no less than the Washington Post, by Jennifer Hirsch, in sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. We’ve done it coast to coast, everywhere from Cornell to the Dallas, with the same results.

The idea behind this live experiment is simple:  Ideas develop slowly when left in one mind.  We can greatly increase the velocity of development of ideas if we share and exchange them.  In this case, we can develop a piece primed for the public conversation in 15 minutes flat.

columbia-public-voices-fellows-deconstruct-hunches-and-explore-the-power-of-intuition-theopedproject-publicvoices_14982780730_oBut there’s something else afoot as well. We’re not only connecting thinkers to each other but we’re connecting an idea to an event in the news.  Sometimes it doesn’t stick, it simply becomes a prompt with timely urgency behind it that gets the thing done (National Termite Day doesn’t last long, people!). But more often, like in the Dartmouth piece, it creates an opportunity to take a timeless idea — what editors call “evergreen,” and I bet you can figure out why — and make it timely.  Its’ not enough for something to matter: why does it matter today?

So connection is multidimensional: it means linking people together to develop and sharpen an argument — and the opposition an argument might face, which is just as important.  It means linking knowledge across fields to increase and ballast evidence. And it means linking what matters, and why we know it to be true with a moment in the news cycle that makes people feel urgency, what we call the “why now?” every editor needs to make a case for in their busily populated publications.

Yes, all in fifteen minutes flat.

Post by OpEd Project Journalist Facilitator, Lauren Sandler.


Today’s Write to Change the World seminar brought together local leaders from the Chicago area at the hip offices of WeWork River North. The backgrounds of today’s experts ranged from pediatrics to civic engagement in underrepresented communities.

FullSizeRender(4)Participants are working to shift public discussions on topics such as organizational psychology, child-rearing practices and socially conscious business. We are looking forward to hearing their voices influencing the public dialogue in Chicago and beyond.

A very special shout out to WeWork River North who hosted our group of thought leaders. WeWork provides small businesses, startups and freelancers with the workspace, community, and services they need.

Do you want your voice to be heard? Come see us in action. We run Write to Change the World seminars in 10 major U.S. cities on a rotating basis. Visit our website to find other upcoming cities and dates.

IMG_0693  IMG_0698

So what’s it like to be a part of the Public Voices Greenhouse, Sean?

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is the co-director of the Building Movement Project and a participant in the CGPS Public Voices Greenhouse.

Being part of Sean Thomas-Breitfeldthe Center for Global Policy Solutions Greenhouse has been great because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. Like most people working for social and policy change, I read the news and have opinions – sometimes they’re even well-reasoned arguments. But when I usually write about issues that matter, I don’t often try to reach beyond my progressive bubble. And when I have the chance to speak publicly about my work, I’m usually preaching to the choir.

Deborah Douglas and Michele Weldon – my cohort’s coaches for The Op Ed Project – have pushed me to think about the value my ideas can have beyond my small world of progressive activists and nonprofit organizations. They’ve challenged me to think bigger and reach broader when crafting my op-eds.

Here’s one example: I’m concerned about the imbalance in funding going to smaller grassroots organizations, which are often led by people of color, and big national groups that more often have white leadership. So at the first training session, I drafted a blog that basically spoke to foundation program officers – a narrow slice of the nonprofit sector, not to mention a completely obscure audience for the general public. Michele rightly pointed out that the piece was way too “inside baseball” and noted that the average reader has no idea or concern with the dynamics of nonprofit funding.

The training and coaching from Michele and Deborah challenged me to think about other examples of fundraising challenges that might be more relatable for people. It took a while for me to think through other examples and talk to people who were struggling with grassroots fundraising and crowd-funding the issues I care about. But eventually, I crafted an op-ed that compared the $220 million raised by the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS with the fundraising struggles of grassroots efforts connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a harder piece to think through and write, but it was worth the effort.

CGPS Q2 Group