I attended a seminar to get the skills to "write to change the world." Instead, it changed me.
It was one day. Seven hours to be exact. I had signed up for this interactive seminar with a focus on expertise, thought leadership and impact. The target audience was mostly women. The premise: white upper class males write 80 percent of opinion pieces submitted to newspapers. The goal of the seminar was to impart those under-represented in the media with skills that encouraged them to become contributors and in the process move the dial to diversify public debate.
If eighty percent are by upper class white men, I wondered, than out of the remaining twenty percent women, how many of them are working class? or of another race? or nationality? How many are from "third world" countries? Note, I never even thought of sexuality? I did not need statistics to surmise that the percentage of other women like me would certainly be preceded by a decimal point.
On their website, the Op-Ed Project claims:
This seminar is about empowering you to find your voice and make a case for the ideas and causes you believe in -- whether in print, online, on TV, before your board of directors, to potential funders or investors, or on the steps of congress. And it is about the collective difference we can all make by doing so.
It was late 2009; I wanted to be empowered to refine my voice and write about issues that matter to me beyond the academy, where I make my profession. I am a university professor, an anthropologist who has written a book and articles among other things. I also wanted to reach another audience. Lastly, for years I have been told I was opinionated (not exactly a compliment) and carried that as a burden. I wanted to embrace the label because I do have something to say and found a productive way to do so.
In the seminar, we engaged in several exercises on how to present ourselves as experts, discussed how to approach issues we are passionate about to foster dialogue, and focused on how to write and pitch an op-ed.
I did not feel compelled to write a piece until four months later when I was inspired to do a review of James Cameron's Avatar. It was published on January 11, 2010. The next day, a devastating earthquake fractured Haiti, my birth country. I went into a writing spree that lasted well over two years.
With every piece I wrote, I would be reminded of opedisms in founder, Katie Orenstein's voice such as "do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?" or how important it is to "join the conversation" and "offer a different perspective." I mull over the fact that the group of voices that constitute the mainstream is a minority with a lot of power and access to resources. In spite of that enduring reality, I began to claim and even found comfort in knowing I had as much a right to express my opinion as they do in the public sphere. The hierarchy that defines us is not rooted in our ideas but in our socio-economic positions. Because of these differences, we are likely to disagree. Most importantly, we actually don't have to agree.
Last Monday, as I listened to President Obama's inaugural speech, I had an epiphany. The beautiful alliteration that has been repeatedly analyzed also resonated with me from another angle.
Seneca Falls. Selma. Stonewall.
Different. Different. Different.
That's what I heard. Yes, of course different genders, races and sexualities. What kept coming back to me was what women, blacks and gays have in common. They are seen as aberrations to the norm.
Must difference always mean deficit? Can difference become normative? Will difference ever be treated as equal to the norm?
These are the questions that seminar forced me to grapple with as I insist on having my say. With every new piece of writing, I recollect that I am as entitled to assert my perspective. Those op-ed skills spilled over other parts of my life as I continually confront power and navigate an upper class white male dominated world where I am one of very few. By virtue of who I am, (do I need to say, or is it evident?) I simply cannot escape these questions. They are a script of sorts. It is how I respond now that has changed because only of this, I am sure: my views, your views, our views, are all equally valid.