Question: How do you know for sure if yours is a bonafide nerd family? Answer: When 3 out of 4 of you are either college students or teachers, and 4 out of 4 of you happily spend the first day of Spring Break inside a classroom. Specifically, we sat in a seminar room above the Goodman Theater in Chicago with late-winter sunshine pouring through the plate glass windows while we began to wrestle our ideas into column-length arguments suitable for publication. This was a workshop hosted by the OpEd Project and, since I have learned not to bury my lede — I think we should bring them to Michiana. Here’s why.
The OpEd Project started with seed grant money in 2008 to address a problem: the dearth of voices of women and people of color as “thought leaders” in public forums. In fact 85% of the time, the voices we hear are male (and mostly white). The OpEd Project asks us: “What is the cost to society when so many of our best minds and best ideas are left out? What could we accomplish if together we invested in our missing brain power?”
Our all-day seminar last Saturday was pretty intense — no phones or laptops allowed, so that a roomful of 20 slightly nervous strangers could focus on the value of our experiences in relation to issues. It was inspiring and intimidating to sit around a big seminar table with scratch paper and pens in an otherwise empty room with people who spanned maybe 30 years of experience as entrepreneurs, students, successful business types, and innovators in media and social services. But no one seemed to bring ego to the table. In fact, the biggest challenge of the day was working to establish our credibility on our chosen topic, anticipating our harshest critics. Late in the day, we even practiced hurling insults playfully at one another when presented with a pitch: “Who the heck are you?” “Where’d you get those numbers?” “That’s ridiculous!” It was surprisingly good for morale to assert our credentials and laugh in the face of the opposition, even if the opposition was coached by the devil’s advocate school of comedy.
Since March is Women’s History Month, following on the heels of Black History Month, it’s worth remembering that credibility is a social convention, and can be reclaimed and reconstituted. In the American 19th century, the credibility that came with higher education was denied by policy to half the population based on sexism, and denied by custom based on racism to many more. The OpEd Project pushed us to consider all the kinds of expertise a person can draw on for a public voice. Think of the power of the high school students in Parkland, for example, whose credibility as witnesses has inspired students all over the nation, including those in Michiana who led well-planned walkouts on Wednesday. To quote the brilliant Shirley Chisholm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
In this spirit, The New York Times chose March 8, International Women’s Day, to launch a series called “Overlooked No More,” as a corrective to the historical myopia of what counts as a life of achievement. “Since 1851,” they note, “The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers,” inventors, and thought leaders. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white [… ] [E]ven in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female.” Now, you can read celebrations of these inspiring missing voices, from Ida B. Wells to Nella Larson to Marsha P. Johnson in the “Overlooked no More” archive.
What a moment this is, so full of worry and potential. On International Women’s Day, I wept, watching news footage of protesting women in Spain and Uruguay and Istanbul pouring into the streets by the tens of thousands, taking up public space, demanding a voice. I think of the budding writers I shared a classroom with last Saturday, and can’t wait to read their insights about inequality in Chicago schools, consent education in Muslim communities, and the empowering life lessons young women can glean from rock climbing.
I think of the African proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Oh, lions: It is our time to roar.