Michele Weldon is Director of our Public Voices Fellowship program at Northwestern University and a public seminar leader. This Q&A is a special for our Chicago newsletter. Sign up for it by emailing here.
1) How long have you been involved with The OpEd Project? What compels you to stay so deeply involved?
I have been giving seminars, keynotes and co-leading the Public Voices Fellowships for The OpEd Project close to three years, as I began in January 2011. It seems like a very short period of time, compared to the 35 years I have been a working journalist along with the 17 concurrent years I have been teaching journalism at the graduate and undergraduate levels at Northwestern University. There are many reasons I love what I do for The OpEd Project and why I work so hard. The first is I consider The OpEd Project’s mission to change the media landscape, to make it more inclusive and to have the voices of women, minorities and underrepresented individuals and ideas heard on a much wider level critical for everyone to be informed on key issues of the day. The second is that to facilitate this expansion of voices, increasing the reach of noble and dedicated individuals, is very rewarding. Witnessing the transformation of so many is also a lot of fun.
2) As a journalist, published author, and Medill professor, what have you learned through The OpEd Project?
I have learned that an unlimited number of people throughout the country have so much to tell the world about their missions, their research, life’s work and personal experiences. It is humbling to consistently stand in a room of 20-30 strangers and hear about their ideas to help change the world. I have learned that it takes focused encouragement and skill-building to amplify someone’s voice and to literally change their lives and the minds of those they reach.
3) The Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship program, which you co-lead, was one of the most prolific this past year, with over 140 successes and counting. How did you get it to be so successful?
As Director of the Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship in 2013, and again this coming year in 2014, I have been lucky to work with EJ Graff, a friend and outstanding journalist. Our success rate (that is double and at times triple the outcomes of other universities) is due to a number of factors. The first is that the fellows were carefully chosen– both women and minority men were selected, and they come from many different disciplines. From medicine to engineering, education and law, the mix of faculty members– newer faculty, more seasoned– made for a community of vibrant, enthusiastic critical thinkers. Everyone worked hard and everyone had early success. Having 100 percent buy-in to the mission is unusual, as I learned this as co-leader for both Stanford and Princeton fellowships. Another reason for the success is that both EJ and I publish prolifically. EJ is an extremely well-respected and well-known columnist for several top outlets as she walks the walk on meeting deadlines and contributing significantly to the national conversation. I think being a full-time associate professor, leading this fellowship, and also writing 25 and more op-eds a year tends to quash naysayers who say teaching and publishing in mainstream media at the same time is impossible. EJ and I also worked very hard; sometimes editing and pitching 7 or more op-eds per week from our fellows.
4) What other projects are you currently working on?
I recently completed a nonfiction memoir–my fourth book–and have begun to really enjoy the opportunity for live storytelling. I participate in The Moth, and was part of The Moth GrandSlam in 2012. In August I did a live story for Here’s The Story at Theater 773 in Chicago. I also will be taking on a new role at The Medill School at Northwestern in the fall as director of MedillThink, a think tank for journalists with MedillTalks planned for February 2013 and more. So stay tuned. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to execute this initiative I created. I also will be leading Youth Narrates Our World for The OpEd Project, a Greenhouse initiative for students at four Chicago public high schools through The McCormick Foundation. I continue to give keynotes around the country, help train editorial staffs around the country and will be a regular contributing columnist to Al Jazeera American launching in mid-August. So I have a lot going on and all of it is good.
5) Any words of wisdom for aspiring thought leaders and/or writers?
Observe keenly, keep improving your phrase making, listen to the advice of editors and be persistent. The world needs your voice and your insight on key issues of the day. Believe in the value of what you know and your value to the world’s conversation.