The Power of Words: Interview with OEP Junior Fellow Ravenna Koenig

Just yesterday, OEP Junior Fellow Ravenna Koenig published an op-ed in response to the comments that sprang up in her University’s community on the heels of Obama’s announcement that he would be speaking at the Barnard 2012 Commencement. Her powerful piece caught the attention of President Spar, the President of Barnard College, who has given Ravenna the opportunity to meet with her and air her concerns. We are so proud of Ravenna and commend her amazing achievement.

Today, I, Anaam (Social Media Fellow) had the oppurtunity to check in with Ravenna and ask her a few questions about her recent success:

– Can you give us some background on what inspired you to write this piece? Why was it important for you address this issue?

Working with The OpEd Project, I’ve often heard it said that powerful op-eds don’t have to be the culmination of a lifetime of research, they can just as legitimately emerge from a lifetime of experience, and are usually more powerful when they do.

I brought 21 years of experience to the op-ed that I wrote about the misogyny that emerged on Columbia University’s online forums in the wake of Barnard College’s announcement that President Obama would give the commencement address to the Barnard class of 2012.

As I read the misogynistic comments that cropped up online in reference to this announcement, and as I began to talk to other women on campus in the successive week,  my personal experiences of sexism and misogyny began to achieve the weight of a collective experience.  

I began to realize that I wasn’t the only one in my age group who had spent years feeling hurt and offended by the sexism that is rampant but often written-off as “harmless,” “just immature,” or evidence of “joking,” in our youth culture. All of a sudden I was angry that I had been made for years to feel like an aberration because I let sexist comments rile me up instead of “just ignoring them,” as I’ve so often been encouraged to do. And I wanted the other young women who are affected by this issue and issues like it to feel like they’re not being dramatic or overreacting when they get offended. Misogyny is not okay. We need to be more vocal about that. So I wrote an op-ed.
– What kind of response have you generated? good or bad?

Most of the responses have been good. Almost all of the comments posted on the article itself have been really, really supportive and encouraging. The most special ones have been from people who were in the vanguard of the feminist movement and have expressed how important they think it is that women my age don’t lapse into complacency on these issues.

But I also think that where the article was published– Women’s Media Center– has something to do with the positive homogeneity of the response. It seems to me that WMC isn’t where people who have sexist leanings go to get their news, so a part of me feels that the response I’m seeing is indicative of the fact that I’m preaching to the choir. 
– What do you hope to accomplish with your op-ed? (Do you hope more students will get involved, call to action, etc)

The first thing I wanted to do with the op-ed was just vocalize an unequivocal condemnation of the comments and the mindset they are symptomatic of. I wanted women and men at Columbia and Barnard to feel that their outrage over speech like this has a corporeal presence in public discourse. I hope they do, but if they don’t, I hope that my op-ed might inspire others who have views on this topic to voice them, whatever they are.

I also hope that this article makes people who read it shift their idea of what our responsibility is to voicing our moral objections. All too often we’re encouraged to embrace the excuse that “boys will be boys.” I think that’s wrong. I think we’ve settled down in a limbo that we’re calling a state of gender-equality, and it’s false. But moreover, I want young women and men to approach their lives with a sense of stewardship over the principle of respect– to speak up when they hear an off-color remark, engage in disagreements with compassion and civility, be fearless in trying to broaden someone else’s view, and be receptive to having their own minds broadened from time to time. 

There are many organizations out there that work to address the many disparities between men and women in the status quo, and I think it’s important that people get involved in these. But I think it’s just as important to devote time to thinking about how we as individuals can be more intentional in our personal efforts to exhibit and foster respect. 

Be sure to check out Ravenna’s amazing op-ed here.

Ravenna Koenig (right) with Courtney Martin (OpEd project advisor, mentor-editor, and leader of The OpEd Project Fellowship Program at Princeton University)


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