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Own What You Know

hands and paper dialogue cutoutsMaura Casey knows how to make a point: “if women don’t speak up, we get the kind of world that is shaped almost entirely by men—and that cheats people.” During reunion 2010 weekend, Casey led an engaging workshop sponsored by the Athena Leadership Lab. the subject? How women can present ideas quickly and powerfully. Casey, an award-winning journalist, editorial writer, and former member of The New York Times editorial board, stressed the importance of women’s thought leadership. She represents the OpEd Project, an initiative whose mission is to “radically expand public debate, with an immediate goal of increasing the number of women in key thought leadership forums to a tipping point.” through seminars given at venues that include universities, nonprofit groups, and think tanks, women experts are encouraged to write for op-ed pages and other key forums of public discourse. Founded by Catherine Orenstein, the project is not a writer’s seminar. “It’s about ownership,” Casey told the audience, “ownership of what you have to say to the world.”

What is the link between writing op-eds and creating powerful arguments? Why is op-ed writing good practice for this skill? Casey explained how one informs the other: “any time you sit down to craft a message that is persuasive, you sharpen and hone your ability to create arguments that move people, or at least make them think differently about a subject. op-ed writing is a particularly good exercise for this because it is concrete and not at all theoretical.” Casey guided Barnard alumnae through the initial steps of a typical OpEd Project workshop, challenging participants to think about their knowledge and experiences, and how to communicate with maximum effect.

First, there was a discussion about the question of the source of credibility and establishing it. Participants discovered that expertise has a multi-layered meaning; an expert can be someone to whom others refer for specific knowledge or informed opinion. Expertise also indicates a consensus surrounding a person’s knowledge. Having advanced degrees and appropriate institutional affiliations was seen to bolster one’s “expert” legitimacy. One audience member emphasized that being effective is not about being right. Second, alumnae formed small groups in which each person completed the statement, “hello my name is ________, I am an expert in ________ , because ________ .” Some were hesitant to say they were experts in anything, while others confidently stated their occupations and how specific training contributed to their expertise. Several alumnae expanded the definition of expertise to include that which comes from a lived experience, such as parenting.

Was everyone comfortable with being an expert? The answer was no, prompting Casey to raise another critical question: how do we get over barriers and claim our thought leadership? Why did some feel they could not claim an area of knowledge for their own? The group concluded there are several sources of women’s self-dismissal—from a fear of being labeled for acting territorial or assertive, to caution over being “called out” for lacking complete knowledge of a subject. Where do women go wrong? Casey responded, “We need to change, that’s all. i want women to succeed. i want them to step up as the leaders they were meant to be, and own the power they have within them. the oped Project is one way of helping them do that.” one participant observed how women are socialized to please others, to win their approval and to refrain from being self- promoting or overly confident. Women tend to apologize for what they know (for fear of appearing “conceited”) and use qualifiers when they speak—two behaviors that detract from powerful delivery.

Casey offered several strategies for pitching ideas. She stressed the elements of brevity and simplicity: “think of the gettysburg address; less than three hundred words, about the length of a modern letter to the editor. Also, by the way, nearly all of the words Lincoln used were one- or at most two-syllable words. He didn’t write to impress; he wrote to make a point.”

The session ended with Casey’s call to action, and a reminder that our human experiences give us compassion, which can be the greatest “expertise.” to be able to feel or relate to something, even if outside one’s specialization, can be the key to making an amazing insight or argument. One inspired alumna expressed her desire to write a piece on a moving photograph and story she had recently seen in the newspaper. Everyone in the room (including Casey) encouraged her to go for it—a very Barnard moment and a reminder of the College’s enthusiastic, supportive environment for women’s goals and ideas.

For more information about the OpEd Project, go to theopedproject.org

-by Stephanie Shestakow, illustration by Paul Sahre