THE BRONX — Way up in the triple digits of the street-number world, Annie Murphy Paul, Harriet Washington, OEP founder-director Katie Orenstein and I, Ravenna Koenig, kicked off the inaugural convening of the Fordham Public Voices Fellowship Program on Friday. Paul and Washington are both renowned authors and journalists. Paul specializes in biological and social sciences and Washington in medicine and ethics. Washington has a brand spankin new book out this month– Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself– And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future. Paul is the author of Origins and is working on a forthcoming book about the science of learning.
They were far from being the only formidable figures present. In terms of intellectual muscle, it felt like sitting in a room full of bouncers.
Around the table in Fordham University’s 124 Keating Hall sat advanced-degree holders in and published authors on the subjects of social work, clinical psychology, Victorian literature, political science, anthropology, theological ethics, marketing, and ecology (among others). These highly-educated women and men are the architects of federally funded studies, the chairs of boards of directors of national advocacy groups, Fulbright scholars and advisors to governmental organizations.
And you would be floored at how easily they forget how incredible these accomplishments are.
Though I’ve never been to an OpEd Project seminar where this wasn’t the case, no one wanted to apply the term “expert” to themselves.
When they did, they often faced difficulties in explaining why they were an expert. Some were inclined to list an overwhelming list of qualifications, some too few in an attempt to be succinct, and some left out their most impressive assets, like a Ph.D in their subject of study from Harvard or a life-achievement award in their field.
“There was a lot of personal sorting [I had to do]” one participant said when confessing the difficulty of the exercise, going on to list the doubts that came to mind as she stated her expertise: “Am I saying too much? Is this pretentious? Is it communicable?”
After this first difficult task, however, the group became fully engaged in the process of re-imagining how their expertise could be of value to a population beyond academia. The participants contributed fruitful remarks, suggestions, and constructive comments to their fellow scholars’ brainstorming and to the OEP leader’s prompts. Fortunately, this seriousness-of-purpose didn’t deter the group from well-intentioned repartee and the occasional joke.
At the end of the evening, the Fordham scholars went around the room and shared the first sentence of an op-ed they were interested in writing. We are so excited about the conversations the Fordham scholars are poised to enter! In a brief survey of the room we found that participants intend to write about a variety of subjects including (but not limited to) “successful” aging, water conservation, decreased life expectancy rates, and the value of bilingual education.
The takeaway point of the day? “It’s very hard to wake up and run for congress. It’s not so hard to wake up and write an op-ed.” The emphasis here wasn’t so much on the op-ed form itself, but rather on the op-ed as one method among many for pitching your voice into the national dialogue on a particular topic. It’s difficult to become a thought-leader overnight. You have to approach it in increments. And an easy first step is to write an opinion piece.
Congratulations to all the Public Voices Fellows from Fordham! We’re happy to have you on board.
And remember! Whoever tells the story writes history!