Journalist’s Advice: Spark Empathy to Change Minds

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Dear fellows,

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?

Until soon,

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 Dartmouth University from leader Amy Gutman. 

Write to Change the World – Chicago, September 24, 2016

Today we gathered experts in Chicago at WeWork River North 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.

 

Write to Change the World – Ann Arbor, September 18, 2016

 

 

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetToday we gathered experts in Ann Arbor to explore themes of expertise, credibility and what it takes to create meaningful change in the world. The program brought together students, scholars, non-profit leaders, journalists and community leaders from a wide range of organizations and institutions. We can’t wait to see how their ideas shape conversations around the world.

Huge thanks to our friends at the Sanger Leadership Center at the University of Michigan who hosted today’s seminar.

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.

 

How to use Twitter to help your ideas catch fire

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Hello Fellows!

At this next convening we’ll focus on the theme of CONTAGION — how we get our ideas to travel as quickly and widely as possible.  We’ll be doing some live experiments, working through some big concepts, and putting ideas into practice.

Tweet, tweet!

Some of this will involve using Twitter. So if you don’t have an account, please sign up for one asap. It could not be faster or easier—just go to Twitter.com.

Some of you are already Twitter ninjas. Others may be all like, “Uh, Twitter? I don’t think so.” You may have the (very) mistaken notion that unless you want to yak away in 140 characters about what you had for lunch, there’s really not much point. Or you may think: Okay, I realize that I could amplify my public voice by tweeting out what I’ve written (good job!), but I only have, like 11 followers. Really, why bother?

Let me enlighten you.

  1. It’s ALWAYS worth tweeting your piece—and by tweeting it out directly to people with a particular interest in your issue (perhaps you oh-so-cleverly even cited their work in yours, where it was relevant), you can vastly increase your chances of getting attention. I have a personal success story here: I wrote a piece that mentioned Nick Kristof—a college classmate whom I barely knew back in the day—and then tweeted it to him. He kindly re-tweeted, making it one of my most circulated pieces ever.

2. Twitter is not only a great way to send out ideas – it’s also a super smart and efficient way to keep your ear to the ground. I know many academics, news reporters and others who may rarely tweet themselves but rely heavily on Twitter lists to monitor current events. (Twitter lists are easy to create. As noted above, once you all share your handles—hint, hint—we will create one for this Fellowship).

3. Twitter is a fabulous way to connect with editors—to ask them if they’re open to a pitch, among other things. (We used this strategy with Abby’s piece since we didn’t have a confirmed current contact at the Wisconsin outlets she was targeting.) It puts you on their radar screen and lets you know that they aren’t incommunicado.

4. Twitter allows you to follow and participate in meetings and conferences through the use of Twitter hashtags. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try googling or ask a tech savvy friend. We can also talk more about this when we convene.)

Finally, a disclaimer: I am not much of a tweeter myself these days, though I did go through a phase. I’ve found that, for me, Facebook is more effective in connecting with the folks I want to connect with. But that varies a lot! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and so on—you are the only one who can determine what social media strategy best works for you. The only thing I’d say for sure: You really need to have one. As the saying goes: “Social is the new front page.”

Let the brainstorming begin—and we’ll see you very soon!

As always,
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 Dartmouth University from leader Amy Gutman. 

WRITE TO CHANGE THE WOLRD – LOS ANGELES, SEPTEMBER 11, 2016

Seventeen underrepresented experts gathered today at the Impact Hub Los Angeles to explore themes of expertise, credibility and what it takes to create meaningful change in the world.

The program brought together scholars, physicians and social entrepreneurs from a wide range of organizations and institutions, including a former Idaho Lumberjack champion, a competitive jump-roper, an atheist choir singer, two sci-fi superfans, a woman whose childhood house can be seen in hundreds of scary movies and an anxiety-ridden analyst with an irrational fear of peach fuzz.  These experts in the room are shaping the conversation around disparities in palliative care, recruiting women into computer science, creating sacred ritual theater and more.

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.

Building Ideas, Building Cathedrals

Hey gang,

I’m just back from the OpEd Project retreat in Vermont, where 20 of us gathered to discussed the big ideas and strategies behind our group effort to change who narrates the world.  Or as our new t-shirts say, THE STORY WE TELL BECOMES THE WORLD THAT WE LIVE IN.

At the retreat, our founder Katie Orenstein told us a Sufi parable.  Some of you may have heard it before, but it was the first time for most of us.  And throughout our time together it continued to resurface as a touchstone.  Here is the parable.

Once upon a time, a traveler came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing.

The first replied saying that he was the most miserable person on Earth and that he has the hardest job in the world. “Every day I have to move around huge stones make a living, which is barely enough to eat.” The traveller gave him a coin and continued walking.

The second one did not complain and was focused on his work. When the traveller asked him what he was doing, the stonecutter replied “I’m earning a living by doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county. Although, the work is hard, I’m satisfied with what I do and I earn enough to feed my family.” The traveller praised him, gave him a coin and went on.

When the traveller met the third stonecutter, he noticed that the stonecutter cutter had sweat and dust on him but he looked happy and was singing a cheerful song. The traveler was astonished and asked “What are you doing?” The stonecutter looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “Can’t you see? I am building a cathedral.”

That’s what we’re doing together.  Each time we speak out in public, sharing our ideas, our research, our outrage, our solutions, our beauty, it’s another stone.  And you can think of each contribution as a mere stone.  It’s pretty easy not to thrill to the idea of a stone, especially when there are so many heaps of them we’ve cut in our careers and personal lives, and when there’s so much uncut rock around us.  But without each stone, we can’t build the cathedral.  So I invite you to think of each idea you’ve been reluctant to share, or each draft you’ve been putting off writing or finishing, in the eyes of that stonecutter.  We have less than one month before we gather together again.  Let’s see how much we can  manifest the architecture of meaning before our next convening.

Best,
Lauren

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 Columbia from leader Lauren Sandler. 

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