In January, my boyfriend's sister, Deborah B. Goldberg, was sworn in as Treasurer and Receiver General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The first Jewish woman to ever hold statewide office in Massachusetts (it's about time!), Deb spoke to a packed gallery of more than 500 in the Massachusetts House of Representatives Chamber. From my third-row view of the ceremony, I felt overwhelmed by the rituals of the day: the Brookline Police Honor Guard, the cantor singing "America the Beautiful," the blessing by the family Rabbi. Prior to this day, my hopefulness about American politics had been beaten to a cynical pulp.
Sitting beneath the dome in that grand statehouse built in 1798, I felt refreshed by the waves of history reminding me of the principles of freedom and justice for all upon which our nation was founded. Just being there made me think about history. And why it matters.
History is the collective telling of our story. Who tells it and how it is told has profound consequences for our nation and its individuals. Who are our heroes? My musings were interrupted by Deb's speech. She took me from the general history of our country to a particular family and individual history. She was able to encapsulate some of the immigrant history of our nation into her particular history.
She did this seamlessly and used her story effectively to launch her vision for the office of the treasury, to show us how she would continue to build on the hard work and tolerance and education and public service valued by her ancestors. Specifically, she talked about how to empower the people of her state by creating a financial literacy program, developing ways to reduce college costs and alleviate student debt, and ensuring wage equality between men and women. I was impressed.
As I was talking to my boyfriend Josh the next day, I said it seemed like the campaign had changed his sister. He agreed and we marveled how people evolve at all ages. Thinking about our conversation more deeply, I wanted to know how and why Deb had changed. Perhaps, it was the act of telling her story, her personal history. Life is chaotic, and the order we impose upon it in the form of storytelling is crucial to our own happiness and success. I think it is the main difference between an optimist and a pessimist. Given the same facts, the optimist will tell a positive story and thus feel better. It seems so basic. Something we could all do more often.
In order to tell her story, Deb had to write and re-write it, honing it for the campaign trail. To get elected, it was crucial to successfully communicate her story. Recent research has shown how writing and "re-writing your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness." ("Writing Your Way to Happiness," Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, January 19, 2015). Tara Parker-Pope writes, "The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn't get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health."
Not only do we gain better health, but we give meaning to our lives. We shape time through history. We can't possibly include everything that has happened, so we edit. We pick certain events and not others. We choose the beginning, middle, and end of each story we tell. As Deb worked hard on the campaign to tell her story, she was forced to look at her own family history more deeply. The more she told her story, the more she realized how many people she had to thank, how many people were important to her particular history. The more she thanked them by telling her story, the more humbled she became. And at the same time more confident, more deeply grateful. Deb had to have been changed by the experience of crafting her own story for a bigger audience, and then in turn changed our perception of her. It is a wonderful feedback loop.
In telling our stories, women face an extra challenge. For much of history has been told by men and about men. In day-to-day life, we communicate by telling stories. At business meetings, we tell stories to get our points across. However, numerous studies have shown how women are often interrupted in meetings and don't get heard. Also, women who speak up are perceived as aggressive and less competent when the reverse is true for men. ("Speaking While Female," Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, The New York Times, January 11, 2015). Deb is lucky in that she was always encouraged to speak out by her family. And, she had an unusually strong female role model. Her mother, Carol Goldberg, was running companies and serving on boards in an era when business leaders were almost exclusively male.
Unfortunately, little has changed despite a number of studies that have shown women are better leaders. ("The Results Are In: Women Are Better Leaders," Erika Andersen, Forbes, March 26, 2012) Most recently, an MIT study has discovered one of the main reasons some teams are smarter than others: women. These researchers found that "teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not 'diversity' (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team's intelligence, but simply having more women." ("Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others," Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher F. Chabris, The New York Times, January 16, 2015) Three out of four of the top statewide elected positions in Massachusetts went to women in this past election. Perhaps the word is getting out, at least in one state.
The evening of Deb's swearing-in, I overheard two union women at the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Dorchester. "I knew from the beginning she was going to win. She's such a good person." Yes, Deb, was that good person from the beginning. But in the act of telling others her story, she became stronger and gained a clearer vision of how to realize her dreams and achieve her goals. She became an even better person for her new job. That is a good story to tell.
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