Changing the World, One Op-Ed at a Time

Nathalie Margi, Senior Program Officer, Urgent Action Fund
May 7, 2015

Image Credit: Earth First Journal

Image Credit: Earth First Journal

If you found yourself in a room full of cancer patients and you had some knowledge about how to cure cancer, would you speak up and share it?

Participants pondered this question at the Op-Ed Project workshop organized by the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) before its Annual Conference and Federal Policy Briefing in Washington, DC this week. Mirroring the format of an op-ed, trainer Chloe Angyal hooked the group’s attention with striking statistics: 85% of the voices the public hears from in op-eds and in mainstream media more generally are men, and 90% are White. 

What does this mean about the stories and perspectives we hear? Who narrates the world? And what cost are we collectively paying for this imbalanced, incomplete, and inaccurate public narrative?

The Op-Ed Project trains diverse social justice advocates not just to write and pitch op-eds, but to participate in meaningful public conversations as thought leaders.

The Op-Ed Project emerged from these vital questions and trains diverse social justice advocates and members of the public not just to write and pitch op-eds, but, more importantly, to participate in meaningful public conversations as thought leaders in order to build “a world where the best ideas – regardless of where they come from – have a chance to be heard and to shape society and change the world.” Workshops engage participants through thought-provoking discussions and exercises on how to establish authentic credibility, craft effective and compelling arguments, and understand the value of one’s own knowledge and experience and how they fit into broader debates about the public good.

As participants introduced themselves, Chloe asked us to share an area in which we are experts. One woman reacted to this request by putting her head in her hands. “Oh boy,” another muttered, letting out a deep sigh. Three of us – all young women – qualified our responses with self-deprecating preambles about all the things we didn’t know enough about. Most of us shuffled in our seats, visibly uncomfortable.

Here we were, social justice advocates working on issues of conflict resolution, nuclear disarmament, peace agreements, and protection for women’s human rights defenders, gathered in DC for a conference tackling key issues threatening international peace and security, and we were hesitant to self-identify as experts. We had signed up for the Op-Ed Project workshop because we have something to say and important contributions to make, and we were essentially saying: “Don’t listen to me; I am not an expert.”

85% of the voices the public hears from in op-eds and in mainstream media more generally are men, and 90% are White.

Katie Orenstein, Founder and Director of The OpEd Project

Katie Orenstein, Founder and Director of The OpEd Project

This uneasiness is particularly pronounced among minority groups, such as women in mixed gender groups, or Muslim men in groups mainly comprised of non-Muslims in the US. It has to do with our sense of social entitlement: it’s harder to think of yourself as an expert if you are not used to seeing people who look like you calling themselves experts and enjoying public recognition as such.

Yet when asked about the room full of cancer patients scenario, each one of us empathically asserted that we would speak up. The difference was our perception of what was at stake. The cancer patients scenario is a matter of life and death, one that inspired us to move from a position of fear to a position of what the Op-Ed Project calls “social responsibility.”

As social justice activists, it is frustrating when issues that we consider critical do not get media coverage, or when we feel pushed to compromise our beliefs about what is right in order to be heard by audiences who might not share our views. We may be hesitant to participate in media conversations because they are too far from the conversations we would rather be having. Or maybe we just get so busy doing the everyday work of social justice that we struggle to carve out time to communicate what we have learned to audiences we wouldn’t normally reach. But we are missing out on invaluable opportunities to shift and influence public debates.

Here we were, social justice advocates… gathered in DC for a conference tackling key issues threatening international peace and security, and we were hesitant to self-identify as experts.

An op-ed is an evidence-based argument that is timely and of public value. If we take seriously the obligations that come with knowledge and we are in a position to make such a contribution – and many of us working on human rights, peace and security, and social justice issues have contributions to make on literal matters of life and death – the Op-Ed Project tells us that it is our duty to speak up. Chloe pointed out that 90% of the op-ed pitches that major newspapers receive come from White men. To equalize that balance, 15,000 women, people of color, and other minorities would need to add their voices to these discussions.

This is an imminently solvable problem, Chloe assured us, and one that has a concrete solution. She ended her op-ed style presentation with a call to action, urging us to craft and pitch op-eds about some of the global issues we are working so hard to solve.

Chloe is right, of course. As she pointed out, despite the widely held perception among social justice activists that there is a necessary tension between changing the world and advancing ourselves, the two are not mutually exclusive. Having a bigger platform allows you to have more impact. And the more power you have, the more power you have to change the world.

If you found yourself in a room full of cancer patients and you had some knowledge about how to cure cancer, would you speak up and share it?

But at the same time, when a colleague from PSFG asked me to share advice that guides me in my work, I was reminded of my international law professor, Geoff Gilbert, who described human rights work as stalactites and stalagmites that form through a slow, collective process in which innumerable individuals contribute mere drops of water.

As the contributor of only a few of these drops of water, I consider it my duty to think about thought leadership as something that comes not merely from individual activists but from collective movements. Knowledge does come with responsibilities. But so does privilege.

To achieve the crucial goal of the Op-Ed Project and build a world where all the best ideas are heard, regardless of where they come from, we also need to examine the complex structural and intersectional causes of this imbalance in power and representation along gender, race, class, sexuality, and other lines. It is not enough to assume that our self-advancement is by default changing the world. As Audre Lorde put it: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

In a room filled with cancer patients, let us find the confidence to speak up and share what we know. But let us also make it a matter of social responsibility to find the humility to pause and check if we are doing the work of creating space for others to do the same.