Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Op-Ed Project

When I was 17, I spent the summer babysitting for 4 brothers.  I'd babysat these boys since I was 11 years old, had seen them learn to swim and ride their bicycles, and grow into older boys, boys who would become the kind of young men any parent would be proud of.  They were a pack, traveled as one unit, and although they fought like the dickens at times, they always watched out for each other and looked after one another.

They lived one block from a neighborhood community center, and summer afternoons, we spent countless hours there, in the gymnasium, the pool, and the playroom.  One day, while walking home from a long session of swimming and basketball and foosball (I just had to spell that 5 times, because wouldn't you think it's fooseball?  It is not, according to google), Brett, the second oldest, relayed to me how he'd been playing the neighborhood bully at the foosball table, and the bully kept cheating, trying to distract Brett from the fact that he was pushing the ball toward the goal with his hand.  Which is completely not how you play foosball, there are no hands allowed.  So, as Brett gushed about this, and as I watched the pack, each holding their rolled up towel and two still wearing their dripping swim trunks, Brett continued, "So I told him, I said, 'Cheaters never prosper!' "

I was 14 when this happened, and I literally had to stop on the sidewalk, because here was this 8 year old kid, beaming at me, confirming that a phrase I was always repeating to the boys, was what he had just told the neighborhood bully.  It was one of those sharp learning moments for me, when I understood that kids absorb the sage and silly and stupid things we do and say, even when they act like they're not paying attention. 

So, three years later for me and this family, and they've gone through a divorce, are living with their mother, have moved from the family home into a two-bedroom rental in a rougher part of town, and I am still babysitting them over the summer, while their mom works 50+ hour weeks trying to hold it all together.
After all these changes, she arranges to take the boys on a road trip down south for one week to visit family, and I am to watch their extremely hyperactive and maniacal dog, Fudge. 

I ride my bike to their rented apartment each morning before work, get dragged around by Fudge, feed her; ride there after work, get dragged around by Fudge, feed her, and return one final time in the evening, final drag around of the day.  On the third day of this relaxing routine, I arrive for the morning drag-about and when I enter the home, it is wrecked.  I can stand in the hallway and barely take two steps because every inch of the floor has been covered with...the contents of the house.  I see the kitchen straight ahead, every cupboard open, every dish smashed on the floor, the silverware drawer dumped out, the garbage tipped and spilled.  I groan, not in the mood for a massive clean up after this demented dog.  "FUDGE!" I roar.  She is nowhere, hiding of course.  I bound up the stairs, two at time, throw open the door to a bedroom, hollering for the dog, and that's when I see that a back window is open, and a ladder is propped up to it, leaning against the back of the house.  I stand there, looking at the mess in the room, the contents of each drawer strewn, the mattresses pulled from the bunks, the lone jewelry box smashed, and begin to shake.  I shake as I walk down the stairs, out of the house, onto the quiet street, and find Fudge tied up to the back post. 

Within that hour, I learned that a neighbor found Fudge wandering the street at 5 am, and tied her up in the backyard.  I called the single mother visiting her family down south and told her that her house was broken into, and robbed.  I tearfully gave my report to two police officers, and one looked at me like the naive teen I was, and soberly told me that the house must have been under surveillance and a planned burglary, and that I was lucky that no one was still there when I arrived.  Because there I would have been all, FUDGE YOU DAMN DOG and then I'd meed Mr. Robber and be all, "Can you believe the nerve of this dog? Ooh, I love that necklace you're holding, where'd you get it?"

So, not only naive but also deeply perturbed by this occurrence, I did what any person who'd never been the victim of a crime would do.  I wrote a letter, to the burglar, and sent it to the Rochester newspaper, and a week later it was printed on the Op-Ed page.  Because, you know, the burglar probably goes through the night's loot, then brews a cup of Chamomile tea, and opens up to the Op-Ed to see if anyone objects to his chosen way of life.  I told that burglar, in no uncertain terms, that the family he picked (or she, equal opportunity here) was not the ideal family to burgle, Sir Burgler.  You jerk.

That was the first and last Op-Ed I wrote.  And it was to a robber.
If you've never tried this exercise, I can tell you this: not a real high rate of return on such correspondence.  You're better off penning a line to your grandmother. 

There is a point!  Yes, there is a point indeedy.

This past November, I attended a conference held at Case Western in Cleveland called the Op-Ed Seminar.  It was sponsored by the Op-Ed Project and here is the point: Op-Eds, which are run daily in every newspaper throughout the nation, and read by your neighbor, congress rep and president alike....are not written by you.  They're not written by your mother, or your sister or your best friend who is so smart and so funny and knows so much.

Because 80% of them are written by men.

This is not because newspapers are throwing out every letter or opinion piece a woman submits, but because, ladies, we're not writing in. 

Think of how the absence of womens voices affects public debate.
And how public debate shapes local and national policy.
And how those things shape our daily existence.
The Op-Ed is where producers and politicians turn to see what is on the mind of the people.
If women are talking about things that affect their lives amongst each other, but not sending our thoughts onto the bigger conversation, then we are silent.

While sitting in the room where the conference was held, there were roughly two dozen other women from all professions and walks of life, ages 19 to 89.  Their expertise was far and wide, and each was knowledgeable about something.  Most were representing an organization.

We did a simple exercise at the beginning, the instruction was: Go around the room, say your name, and state what you are an expert on.

It took us nearly 40 minutes to complete this, and it sounded like this:
"My name is Jane, and, well, expert?  I don't know...I'm not really an expert on anything, I mean, I work for X group, and I have some experience doing...hmm, I mean I'm passionate about Y, but I don't know nearly as much as a lot of other people."

The leader of the seminar listened and when we finally wrapped up, she told us that the same activity, when done with organizations that were entirely male, took about 2 minutes.

Not because men have more expertise in any given field, but because they claim it.  They are more likely to overclaim, and women, we are often too hesitant to claim anything at all.

One woman in this group was a professor of economics, in her 50's, and was not just an expert, but an actual Expert.  She'd been interviewed several times by NPR, the New York Times, and other major publications.  And even she took a little too long to claim her expertise in this exercise.
At the end of one of the discussions, she commented, "I always thought self-consciousness was something we grow out of.  But that's not true.  It's something we choose out of." 

At 17 I was so blinded by anger at harm brought to a family I loved that I didn't have an ounce of self-consciousness to keep me from writing my thoughts about it. To the very worldly and daily newspaper reading robber.  And since then, has there really been nothing in all these years that's warranted another letter to the editor?

Take note on yourself and your conversations over the next 14 days or so.  See what gets you fired up at work, or at home, or in the news.  And see what you do with that fire.  Do you spew off to your mate?  Your mother?  Or, do you stew a little at the state of the world and how hopeless it all is?  Do you go for a run to work it out and then drop it?  Or cut yourself a nice slab of chocolate cake and instead start calculating calories instead of thinking about that thing, what was that thing you were thinking about?

I have been guilty of all of the above, and so I'm going to pay attention to my conversations and cravings for change over the next two weeks, and who knows, I might just pen another note to the local paper.  It's been some time, I bet they must get tired of the same old 80% after awhile.

If I saw Brett now, I'd apologize for not dropping more accurate catch phrases into his childhood psyche.  Like, "Actually, cheaters sometimes prosper, but you don't have to accept it."
It's a little more clunky, but I think it still works.


  1. OOH Great post! Where have you been hiding all that insight!

  2. Excellent post, so thought-provoking. The last time I wrote a letter to the editor, I was 16. Perhaps that confidence is something we have to start with, but lose as we go along.

  3. Wow, this blew me away. Thank you!

  4. I found this post really fascinating, and it reminded me of an article in the New York Times about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Here is the link:

    While I definitely support the idea that women should be more vocal, it seems to me that a hesitancy in declaring oneself an expert may be the mark of true intelligence.

  5. Part of the problem is that it's a natural cycle. There are few female voices in the media, so we read it less, feel engaged less, are less inclined to feel comfortable participating because we get the strong sense that this newspaper is NOT FOR US.

    There's a pretty good internet magazine here in Aus called crikey - it covers politics, etc. And last year they ran a 'how can we make crikey more female friendly?' suggestion drive, since only something like 10% of their subscribers are women. The answers basically said 1) DONT have a 'women's issues' section: women are people too, they want to read all the news and not just be herded to a segregated section. Besides, issues about childcare and feeding your family are also for everyone. And 2) have more women writers! Who aren't trying to hide their voice and write in a 'nuetral' tone, aka like men.

    I'm not sure where I was going with that. I just felt the need to participate in the discussion :P

  6. Kerry: that article is fascinating! Also, it reminds me of many people I used to work with. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to not get hit by cars on the way to work, and yet they were senior management. Sigh.

  7. First thought upon reading that post? "Wow great post, but should I comment? I mean, who cares, and I don't really have anything to say anyway..." So: Great post! Great example of a theory we all know.

  8. I think it may be the realization that I am good at my job that has led to a growth in my confidence but I've started to notice a voice in my head saying things like "People need to hear what you have to say." and I find myself voicing my opinions and writing letters... and oh it's empowering.

    Now I just have to make sure that that voice is tempered by wisdom.

  9. i read this post while stewing over something that happened this morning and contemplating whether and how to respond to it. inspired after reading it, i sent an e-mail to a city council member in DC asking that he consider addressing an issue that to me seems completely unfair and yet easily resolved. thanks, chica!

  10. ...I've deleted three half-written comments about your blog since I started reading it a few hours ago.