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Cultivating Your Voice: Public Narratives

  • How is journalism a tool for social change?
  • What are the values I feel called to share with others?
  • How would you curate the news?
  • Read and understand how op-eds can impact society.
  • Create pitches and op-ed articles.
  • Study the ways public narrative can be a part of activism.
  • A TEDx talk by the first hijabi columnist in Germany entitled, The Power of Stories.
  • Journalist Zeba Khan’s tips on how to write an op-ed.
  • An article from the publication, Muslim Girl.

Insofar as we are social animals, human beings are not capable of living in isolation… On the contrary, nature requires us to live cooperatively in society… In order to ensure the survival of the human race, we need authentic cooperation mainly based on a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. In fact, as human beings and social animals, it is quite natural for us to love others.

From "By nature we are social animals," in the Dalai Lama’s "Little Book of Inner Peace."

Taking My Voice Public

Stories are both powerful and social—something hinted at by the Dalai Lama in the above quote. They are also uniquely human; other species do not tell stories the same way we do. One could say to be human, in some capacity, means to tell stories.

Kübra Gümüşay, the first hijabi (hijab/Muslim headscarf-wearing) columnist in Germany, provides an excellent demonstration of these functions of storytelling in her TEDx Talk “Power of Stories — Muslims on the Web.” Gümüşay describes her experiences of Islamophobia. She particularly narrows in on the death threat of one man, a crude man who without shame told her “I hope you choke to death.” He hated her without knowing her. But over time, that man—through the human stories Gümüşay tells on her public platforms—realized she was “human too.”

Gümüşay, while acknowledging how unfortunate it was that it took so much for this man to come to what should be an obvious fact, makes a critical observation: her stories (and one entertaining narrative in particular about a Turkish marriage tradition) affected this change of heart. Stories are powerful social devices—and Gümüşay’s TEDx Talk corroborates this.

But how do we use our stories? Marshall Ganz, a former Civil Rights Movement activist who is also often credited as the mastermind behind Barack Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign, knows a lot about using narratives in the public sphere to catalyze political action. In sum, Ganz is interested in turning values into actions through the power of stories. He identifies three elements comprising public narrative: “the story of self, the story of now, and the story of us.” Connecting to Swidler’s vocabulary, the “head” and “heart” move the “hands” to action. Critical reflection and strategizing combine with personal storytelling to inspire action.

Watch this 15-minute presentation by Ganz for the California Teachers Association. As you do so, consider the following guiding questions:

  • What is the role of “constructive anxiety” in a leader’s effort to change minds that are already made up?
  • What tool does Ganz mention as helpful in combating the evolutionary tendency of fight, flight, or freeze?
  • Ganz cites a handful of ancient and medieval figures from a variety of religions. Who does he cite and how might this reflect a rhetorical strategy on his part?
  • What is the relationship of “plot” to narrative power?

Before we can cultivate a public voice, first we must recognize what values we want to translate into actions. Use the following questions to consider what values you hold dear and how you might translate that into your public voice:

  • How would you describe your niche? Is there an issue, such as Antisemitism or the climate crisis, that rises above the rest for you?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What situations, events, or ideas, do you feel called to respond to?
  • Ganz talks about the “capacity for hope.” In what ways do you draw on hope when facing challenges? What do you experience as barriers to hope?
  • Are there any values or issues related to your religious orientation or worldview that may inform the way you translate values into action?
  • Pick a person you would consider a religious or interreligious hero. What makes them a hero?

Op-ed Writing

One tangible way to bring your voice to the public square entails writing opinion pieces called “opposite the editorial” or “op-ed” pieces for relevant outlets. Such opinion pieces have the potential to be important conversation starters or movers of public discourse. In their simplest form, they are brief encapsulations of an informed and debatable opinion that is argued to, in some capacity, move the audience to care about the opinion or issue at stake.

In their guide to writing op-eds, The Washington Post offers the following advice: “Your thesis — your main argument — is the most important part of an op-ed, so make sure it is easy to locate and understand. Ask yourself: What is the two- or three-sentence takeaway from this piece? Or what might the headline on this piece be? If it’s not clear, it’s not an op-ed — not yet.”

Though there is no single, correct way to write an op-ed—and certain requirements will shift depending on the potential publisher—below is a primer on how to write an op-ed. The list is in part adapted from Harvard’s Kennedy School “How to Write an Op-ed or Column”:

  • Keep it short! Most publications prefer opinion pieces to be under 800 words.
  • Check your facts—and back them up when necessary.
  • Consider the potential audiences for this piece and how to best communicate your opinion to them in particular. Your audience should not be an afterthought.
  • Write as if you are writing for your mom: you would never talk down to her. She is a thoughtful and intelligent person, but you might need to explain some things outside her field of expertise. And you would always do so respectfully and without jargon, unless you provide clear definitions.
  • What’s the call to action? Different arguments have different sorts of calls, but you will likely want to include some form of a call to action.

Exercise: Pitch an Op-Ed

Op-eds are ways to be heard. Journalist Zeba Khan of The Op-Ed Project presented the following questions to consider when pitching an opinion piece. As part of a presentation she made to the State of Formation Fellows in 2018, Khan teaches that op-eds are evidence-based arguments that are timely and of public value.

In pairs, pitch each other different possible op-eds that you could submit to your local paper. Push each other and challenge each other by asking:

  • Why now?
  • Why should I pay attention to this issue?
  • Why are you the person to write this?
  • What is your argument?
  • What is your evidence?
  • What are the counterarguments?

Maybe some of you will turn these into fleshed out articles!

You are interested in an opening for the Op-ed editor of Our Diverse America, an imaginary online and print weekly publication dedicated to representing the people of America who are ignored or maligned by other news outlets.

The magazine was founded in June of 2022 when the now Editor-in-Chief saw the latest report from two political scientists who reported the following: “Our central finding is that the average article mentioning Muslims or Islam in the United States is more negative [in terms of the overall tone of the article] than 84% of articles in our random sample. This means that one would likely have to read six articles [that do not mention Muslims] in U.S. newspapers to find even one that was as negative as the average article touching on Muslims.”

Op-ed editors have an important role in searching for, spotlighting, censoring, and emboldening the voices represented on the opinion page. As a potential hire for the op-ed section, find 10 articles from existing op-ed sections as a pitch for what Our Diverse America’s page should look like. Consider the following: topics, tone, the identities of the writers, and perhaps even language. For facilitators of groups that meet in person, we recommend bringing physical newspapers from a spread of publishers and scissors that way the group can physically lay out their page.

For this exercise, read the article “Stop Excluding Women and Children From Prayer Spaces” by Jessica Daqamsseh for the minority-run woman-founded online publication Muslim Girl, a website launched by a high school Muslim girl that grew tired of the many mainstream misconceptions surrounding Islam and Muslims. *In small groups, consider the audience and identify arguments of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos when they come up. Is Daqamsseh’s argument an effective argument for her audience?

*If you are not familiar with Aristotle’s threefold division of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos and Logos, no worries all you need to know for these purposes can be found on this four-minute TED-Ed talk.