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Archive for the ‘I think’ Category

*This was first published on the blog for Exhale*

At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. “But,” he says, “that wasn’t the end of my story, it was just the beginning.” He spent two decades in prison for murder, nearly half of which were in solitary confinement. He is just one of the 90 percent of people in prison who will eventually return home to their communities.
 
 
Senghor’s opportunities and life after prison are deeply impacted by the way our culture chooses to embrace or marginalize people whose behavior is judged as wrong. In his recent TED talk, Senghor describes his hope that our nation can “embrace a more empathetic approach to incarceration” instead of just locking people up and throwing away the key. Anyone, he believes, can be transformed if we create space for that to happen.
 
 
Humans have a remarkable capacity for empathy.
 
 
And yet, when Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and media pundit, revealed on national television that she is a survivor of sexual assault, she was publicly attacked and criticized. As most survivors know, despite the fact that rape is the crime, it is the victims who are often blamed for what happened to them. “You were drinking, what did you expect?” were the first words Maxwell heard after she told someone she had been raped. The more people she told, the more questions she got about what it was she did wrong to warrant this man’s bad behavior.
 
 
As anyone who has shared a stigmatized story knows, it’s common to be on the receiving end of blame, shame, pity and attack. Yet, because the voices and experiences of people who live with stigma are critical to changing the way our culture addresses our most pressing social issues — from mass incarceration to sexual assault — advocates must prioritize supporting those on the leading edge of culture change, the people who publicly share their personal stories.
 
 
Ethical storysharing is a model that ensures a storyteller’s needs and leadership are supported and her rights respected throughout a storytelling process, especially one designed to make a public impact. Approaching storytelling through the eyes of the storyteller opens doors for meaningful connections and engagement across differences with audiences.
 
 
Last year, Exhale put our ethical storysharing model to the test. We supported five leaders who traveled the nation to share their personal abortion stories, reaching over 350 audience members at 19 colleges, universities, churches and community organizations in 5 states. Independently evaluated by Learning for Action, results from the survey’s showed an increase in empathy for women who have had abortions:
 
 
• 88 percent of audiences felt more prepared to hear diverse and complex experiences with abortion after the workshop.
 
• 83 percent of audience members felt a connection to the women who shared their experiences with abortion.
 
• 88 percent of audience members heard a new perspective about women’s experiences with abortions.
 
• 97 percent believed that the workshop was respectful of diverse experiences.
 
Something else happened, too. Comments from audience members showed that many of the people who normally feel excluded from conversations about abortion felt welcomed to participate:
 
 
• “It made me feel at ease to learn that men have a role and a place in all of this that is respected and appreciated.”
 
• “I am personally pro-life and often feel shut out or judged because of my opinion. However, I could one day be in the same position and respect everyone regardless of political stance.”
 
• “I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy and sensitivity to those who oppose them.”
 
 
We discovered that the secret sauce to generating empathy wasn’t just in the stories that the women told, but in their unique ability to role model empathy before an audience. When the storytellers faced judgment, instead of defensiveness they offered their understanding. By treating others the way they would like to be treated — respectfully and with empathy — they showed that talking about abortion, even with strangers who share different values and beliefs, doesn’t have to be a divisive act. In fact, abortion can be the subject that brings people together.
 
 
This is the true purpose of why we share our stories: to create human bonds powerful enough to change the world as we know it. Personal stories alone can’t humanize taboo topics, but empathetic leaders can.
 

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*This was first published on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review*

In my experiences over the last dozen years working to transform the abortion conflict, I’ve encountered some hard truths about why we humans have so much trouble getting ourselves out of the sticky problems we create for ourselves. My organization Exhale has sought to influence mainstream culture, unearth hidden stories, and demonstrate that it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy despite increasing hostility and polarization—but it’s been no easy task. Like most leaders, I’ve needed to adapt so that I can face each new challenge with openness and optimism.

Early on in the job, I asked a prominent feminist leader how she kept going against so many odds, and her answer—that sacrificing for the cause was worth it—didn’t help me at all. Over the last decade, I’ve witnessed how sacrifices like hers can eventually lead to personal resentment, bitterness, and despair. Feelings of hopelessness are a real threat to our ability as leaders to imagine creative new possibilities. Many just give up.

Take Paul Kingsworth, an environmental activist, who is so disheartened by a lack of action on climate change that he’s moved his family to a rural area to begin preparing for the worst. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he has said. “Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”

Not true, says Raven Brooks, executive director of a progressive activist network that influences politics and public policy called Netroots Nation. Brooks has seen bitterness about the state of the world manifest as cynicism and believes it’s something activists “must guard against.” “It’s one thing to be pragmatic,” he acknowledges, but it’s another to “get to the point that you are so cynical that you can’t throw a Hail Mary or think about what’s needed to change the game. You will talk yourself out of everything.”

So, how do leaders do it? How do they wake up everyday, step outside, and face a world full of injustice, hardship, and difficult decisions with no easy answers?

I recently interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs, including Brooks, to find out what it really takes—beyond time and money—to make lasting change. Their answers were inspiring but definitely not simple. People who take leadership seriously develop a host of strategies to wade through the rough waters of social change while also taking care of themselves. Their answers are about discipline and focus.

Here are some of my top takeaways from these conversations:

  • Strong leaders know how to make change. Every single leader I interviewed knows how to make change happen (even one person who said she didn’t went on to describe how she does it—regularly and successfully). Change is a lived experience for them. They might not have known how at first. It took time to get there. They had to overcome obstacles, navigate failures, and make mistakes, but they persevered, adapted, and came out the other side with knowledge and insight. That means that whatever the political or social challenge of the day, leaders have confidence in their own abilities to figure it out. They are ready for more.
  • They use dilemmas to innovate. Whether the cause is prison abolition, contraceptive safety, or climate change, leaders seek to avoid black-and-white thinking and use gray areas to imagine new possibilities. Over and over, the people I interviewed acknowledged the difficult social, political, and cultural terrain in which they operated, and expressed how valuable it was to communicate these challenges clearly, directly, and publicly. Highly ethical, they were most concerned with being truthful, credible, and real—not convincing, persuasive, or right.
  • They don’t sacrifice themselves for the cause. As I mentioned above: Burnout, cynicism, bitterness, and despair get in the way of change, and while the leaders I interviewed said they had moments when they felt all of these things, they have developed methods to not stay stuck there. Each strongly resisted the idea that sacrifice was fundamental to leadership or social change, and noted that creative, joyful, generous people are best suited to social change work. It was also interesting to note that for some changemakers, rejecting upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations isn’t a sacrifice (despite how others perceive their choices), but a lived reflection of deeply held ethics and values that give their life meaning.
  • They know political risks have more to do with friends than enemies. Here’s the challenge with acknowledging gray areas publicly: The primary risk that leaders I interviewed faced when it came to speaking openly about challenges inherent in issues like abortion or prison abolition is that it can piss off your friends. Friends (the people and organizations that share goals, and the foundations that fund them) sometimes perceive talking about dilemmas as a sign of weakness, believing it signals a lack of conviction or provides enemies with something to exploit. Peer pressure, conflict, and the desire to hold onto relationships for future funding or coalition-building are obstacles leaders face when they use dilemmas to think creatively and spur innovation.

The message I took away was clear. Leaders make mistakes, but they don’t let that stop them. Innovative leaders regroup. They adapt. They go back at it again. They find new ways forward, and they take important risks that can jeopardize future funding or collaboration with allies if it means doing what’s best. That’s how they make change, and how they’re ready to do it time and time again.

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*This was first published on HuffPo Impact*

2013 revealed a promising new political trend: A renewed interest in listening, connection and acknowledgment of gray areas to spur innovation and possibility. It’s not surprising that activists, leaders and organizations would respond to the dysfunction of the federal government by exploring ideas and practices to resolve conflicts and develop common ground.

No one understands the challenges of conflict more than Planned Parenthood, so it makes sense that they stepped out early. Last January, Planned Parenthood made a major announcement acknowledging that Americans’ views on abortion weren’t so cut and dry. Their willingness to adopt the gray area so proudly and publicly signaled potential for a major shift in the abortion conversation.

Less than a year later, they are less alone in their approach. More and more public figures are advocating for better ways of dealing with our differences.

In a fall TEDTalk, Sally Kohn, the liberal pundit formerly of Fox News, spoke about a concept she calls emotional correctness: “You can’t get anyone to agree with you if you don’t listen to them first… we spend so much time talking past each other and not enough time talking through our disagreements.”

Philanthropy publicly embraced the idea of building bridges across divides this year too. The Board of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced a new initiative, which will “zero in on the problem of political polarization. We believe… that alleviating polarization is a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us.”

This desire to try something beyond fighting is happening on the local level too. (more…)

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*This was first published in HuffingtonPost Politics*

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences. (more…)

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* This was first published in the New York Times, “Room for Debate,” on June 30, 2013, amongst other opinions on the impact of women sharing their abortion stories.* 

When I had an abortion it was safe, legal and covered by health insurance. I had no horror story to tell of a scary back-alley procedure, and I had no heartfelt regrets.

But the facts didn’t begin to describe my experience of having an abortion. My story was one of challenge and triumph, heartache and loss, friendship and family, and so much more. I wished I could have talked about it, without my story being used to promote abortion rights or to help dismantle them. Instead, I wanted to join with others to create a conversation rooted in the diverse, complicated lives of the women and men who’d experienced abortion.

It’s crucial that a range of experiences — from remorse to hope — are heard and understood in all nuances, no matter the political outcome.

That conversation is starting to happen. More women, and some men, are sharing their intimate experiences in private and public ways. One result is that the myths and stereotypes of who has abortions are beginning to crumble in the face of true stories. Another result is that women and men who’ve experienced abortion are now able to find and connect with each other. Feeling supported and comforted after an abortion, instead of isolated and alone, goes a long way toward healing and well-being.

But, sharing abortion stories isn’t all warm and fuzzy. There are real risks for the woman and for this emerging conversation about abortion in our lives.

A woman who shares about an abortion experience with family or friends can put her relationships in jeopardy. And, while social media can connect people by spreading stories quickly, a woman can lose control of her story – and her message – as it moves across the Internet. These risks can be mitigated with community support, but it’s hard to build community without first taking a risk.

My worst fear is that our personal stories will become commodities in the political marketplace, casualties in the conflict over abortion that get repackaged to benefit one side or other of the debate.

That’s why it’s so crucial that the full range of personal experiences women and men have with abortion — from remorse to hope — are able to be heard and understood in all their layers and nuances no matter the political outcome.

 

 

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*This was first published on Storycenter, the blog of the Center for Digital Storytelling*

“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” said Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics in a phone call with me last year. “On the other hand,” she says, “ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story. True engagement happens when the listener can see multiple outcomes for a story and is able to come to their own conclusions.”  (more…)

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At 30-years old, I hit a metaphorical wall.  I was exhausted and burned-out.  A social entrepreneur, I had poured my whole self into the venture I began at 24-years old and it seemed there was nothing left of me, for me.  I had a hard time getting to sleep.  I cried a lot.  I was broke.

I looked for role models, for other feminists who had dedicated their lives to changing the world by leading organizations to see how they did it.  I saw just two choices.  Either I could keep going, personal sacrifices be dammed, and find myself an old, bitter lady fighting the same battles year after year, with increasing exasperation and exhaustion. Or, I could quit and find something less taxing and also, less meaningful. I thought this was a false choice. I wanted a third-way, a path where I could be a leader with a joyful heart and a full life.

I set out to make that path. You might say, I leaned in to the challenge. (more…)

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