To truly appreciate just how much I got out of the February 9th Op-Ed Project Core Seminar in Chicago, you must understand my old process of transmitting my thoughts to the outside world: crazed, emphatic venting.
You see, I work in the field of sexual violence prevention, where nearly every day feels as if I am battling a new blaming, woman-hating voice.
So I vent. I vent to my husband. I rage to my colleagues. And while these rants are surely cathartic (and supremely educational and inspiring to anyone nearby), they do not change the world.
And changing the world, not just venting about it, is the goal of The Op-Ed project.
Recently we gathered to learn how. I was in a class with a room full of remarkable women (and one remarkable, incredibly secure guy); among them, a human rights lawyer; a professor focusing on poverty issues; a museum archivist focusing on the history of African-American contributions to Chicago music; a doctor focusing on sleep disorders; and a therapist focusing on supporting survivors of sexual and reproductive trauma. It was a diverse group of people that all had something in common: we had so much to say, but we doubted our right and ability to say it.
Our seminar leaders, Michele Weldon and Deborah Siegel, took us through exercises that challenged us to delineate our expertise—to prove our legitimacy to ourselves in order to justify it to others. It was remarkable how many of us had the instinct to minimize our credentials.
We learned how to strategically highlight our assets way beyond listing every credential we’d ever earned—high value credentials, like, say, a Harvard Law Degree, were called “shiny baubles”: the credential that gets noticed and immediately telegraphs validation.
We were then taught about the fundamentals of effective arguments, inlcuding engaging ledes—attention-getting openers to our arguments that would grab the reader/viewer/listener immediately. Following that, we learned ways to back up our shiny opening paragraphs with strong, defensible arguments.
First, we did that in written form; later, we practiced verbally defending our arguments with a partner. The partner, trained to say, “That’s ridiculous…” before every challenging statement, enabled us to see the gaps in our reasoning, and the weakness in any of our assertions. It was a wonderful exercise.
I think the fundamental lesson I took away from the experience was the responsibility we all share for getting our messages out there in a meaningful way.
The instructors asked, “If you knew for sure that you had the cure for cancer, would you share what you knew?”
And while they acknowledged (quite sensitively) the example could seem hyperbolic or even inappropriate, the instructors were insistent on that point: if we believe we have critical, life-saving, world-changing, paradigm-shifting knowledge, we are honor-bound to get that message out there.
I strongly believe that the Op-Ed Project workshop will help us do just that, and I am so grateful for the experience.
Dr. Gail Stern has more than 20 years of experience in violence prevention education and victim advocacy. The co-founder of Catharsis Productions, her sexual violence prevention programs are presented to college, military and law enforcement audiences around the world.