Whoever tells the story writes history: Takeaways from the Op-Ed Project

Photo from the Op-Ed project: the story we write becomes the world we live in

I have been doing something for the past few years that the day-long Op-Ed Project training warned me about. Something that, statistically, most women do. I grossly underestimated myself. I lowered my numbers.

Introducing the Op-Ed Project

In the day-long course I took on Friday in New York City — “Write to Change the World” — I learned a lot about credibility. About comfort levels in establishing your own expertise. The importance of knowing your value to others. How this all leads to influence, and this influence matters — particularly given some past grim statistics that editors receive about 90% of their pitches from men, and 10% from women.

OP-ED Project logo

At the event, each participant provided their name, their expertise, and evidence to back up that expertise. I decided to call myself an expert in infusing “fun” into unpopular ideas while engaging the community, the idea of which occurred to me during my documentary tour. I mentioned that I had over 20 articles covering these efforts.

I’ve been telling people, on the rare occasions it comes up, that number. Yet, how was this possible when I’d catalogued over 50 press placements alone during my 2008 – 2010 tour with my documentary Seeing Through the Fence (many lost to time/archives)? Today, I discovered that number was closer to over 75 when I added a Press tab to this site. Somehow, I’d underestimated my impact by 50 articles. Yikes!

I was also shy about touting the fact that I co-founded and led a very popular Vegan Chef Challenge. Like one of the women in the class, I often described myself as co-organizing, when really I led the effort, which included a fantastic team of people (or in years prior to 2016, one person). Somehow, this is still is hard to write, as if I’m downplaying the key role others played just by copping to a leadership role. One woman participant in the class had the same problem. Despite the fact that she led a project, she said she did not want to steal the limelight from her team.

(Incidentally, I finally put together a preliminary “how-to” for others wanting to organize a similar Challenge, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. There is so much to add, but it’s a start.)

The influencer problem

Per numbers reported by the Op-Ed Project, a full 76% of tenured faculty at top universities are men. Over 80% of congress, Hollywood producers, and “experts” cited on Sunday AM talk shows are male. At the Washington Post, 90% of op-ed submissions came from men, and 88% published are male.

Who reads op-eds? Politicians, potential book agents, screenwriters. Academics, television show hosts. Op-eds (as you will see from the links at the end) lead to television appearances, book deals, policy change. Leaving women out of this equation means there is a huge gap in the conversation.

Investing in missing brainpower

The Op-Ed project has a simple goal: Get more smart women publishing. The Op-Ed Project trains women to take thought-leadership positions in their field. “Because whoever tells the story writes history, and imagine what we could accomplish if we invested in our missing brainpower?” Since the project began, the percentage of women in key commentary forums leapt from 15% over 21% (as of 2013).

They host seminars, fellowships, and other events throughout the year to make this happen. And they have been, for a decade.

“Controlling” your narrative

Once, a family member of mine — a woman — was told she was controlling after she asserted her opinion. Later, I told her: “You’re not controlling. You’re in charge.” Too often, as most of us are painfully aware, women are given the message that being in charge is shameful or seen as power-grabbing (and power-grabbing is most always seen as negative when women take power). Flipping this narrative is necessary.

One thing that struck me was a simple triangle framework the Founder & CEO of the Op-Ed project, Katie Orenstein, shared at the end, to help break free of being pigeon-holed. When she went to publish her book, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality & the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, the publishers at the time framed her work as the “Little Red Riding Hood book” and she was horrified. She slowly poked holes in this  simplistic rendition — pigeon hole — and eventually took control of her narrative by expanding on three themes in her book. In her  biography, she states that the book “explores stories told about women over 500 years across multiple continents, and how they shape our lives today.”

Much more complex than a childhood fairy-tale.

Should you take an Op-Ed training?

The Op-Ed project day-long course was transformative. The course is no longer just for women participants. (In fact, I sat next to the founder of Seventh Generation.)

If you want to write a full op-ed, some of the longer training sessions accomplish this. In this one-day session, you will mainly tackle the issue of credibility and influence, as well as gain the opportunity to refine your argument for a potential op-ed. However, it’s an extremely useful exercise, particularly since you are given one-month access to a mentor network for your first op-ed.  There are also fellowships available to those who cannot pay for the course.

After taking the course, I feel confident to apply the lessons learned to both my work directing the marketing function for the Social Intervention Group at Columbia and my own writing and advocacy.

Learn more and sign up for a training session.

Examples of Op-Eds published by past project participants

Stepford is Us (founder of Op-Ed project)

Imagining a Black Wonder Woman (led to invitations for author to contribute to an essay collection, appear on Salon.com podcast, and speak about race and comics on the Dr. Vibe show.)

Budget Cuts Hold US Scientists Back (led to invitation to become regular CNN contributor)

Comey’s firing is as bad as the Saturday Night Massacre (led to regular MSNBC appearances & more commentary)

Low Pay for Women of Color = More Clout Needed in Politics (after this, ran and elected for office in Washington State)

A Wisconsin poll worker dreads the job (led to witness case challenging laws)

Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt (led to collaboration opportunities, discussions, debates)

The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t (led to media appearances and offers of support)

When War Comes Close to Home (led to Pentagon admitting attack and considering investigation)

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. (Led to most emailed op-ed of ‘14, and bidding war among publishers for her book, and list of 50 most influential thinkers on Politico)

Yes, Design Thinking is Bullshit…And We Should Promote it Anyway (led to debate over design thinking)

Other influential pieces (not participants, obviously!)

If Men Could Menstruate (1978) and Letter from Birmingham Jail


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