Lauret Savoy, an alum of our Mount Holyoke program and an environmental science professor at the school, writes a guest blog post about the “miracle” of The OpEd Project.
I attended a day-long OpEd Project seminar hosted by Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, two of the nation’s oldest women’s colleges. Katie Orenstein opened the program with this key question: “Who narrates the world?” What startled me was how fast I responded under my breath, “Certainly not me.” I know the vital importance of the stories we tell of the world and of ourselves in it. Yet, as Katie spoke in her keynote and in the small workshop, it became clear how much I silence myself, a self-saboteur still believing deep inside that she has little to say and no authority to speak. Katie probed and pushed me in the small group. What is the bigger picture—and how do I and my ideas fit into it? The next question brought tears: Do I understand my knowledge and experience in terms of why they might matter to others? I began to see “responsibility” more fully as my ability and capacity to respond.
I just wrote my first opinion piece, prompted by the press on White House butlers and the movie by producer-director Lee Daniels. The piece points our how African Americans have always been in those rooms of executive power. Enslaved and free men cleared sites for Washington, DC, then built the city, including much of the Capitol and the President’s House (later called the White House). Most presidents before the 1850s staffed the White House with enslaved servants. The pieces focuses on one man who worked for 21 secretaries of state under 14 presidencies. A man whose life and contributions are little known today, yet whose story reveals the troubling ties between African Americans and the nation’s capital. To think of him and others as silent, behind-the scenes witnesses is to consider the past through a narrow frame.
I requested a mentor at 9 AM; by 1:30 PM the same day she (Cassandra West) had read and responded to my draft. Cassandra was gracious, generous, thoughtful, supportive, and to the point. Her edits clarified and strengthened the piece. Then I learned that she attended the college where I work. I felt I’d met a new friend and colleague.
Editors at the Washington Post and New York Times praised the op-ed but declined (it wasn’t current enough). The Christian Science Monitor published it. The piece was distributed in syndication through the Monitor’s deal with Yahoo! News online.
I’ve gone from questioning the worth of my ideas to believing this is just the start. And I owe this opening to The OpEd Project. My silencing fears only diminished me.