BY EMILY MAY
In spring 2009 I was accepted into the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices Program with nine of the most impressive women I’ve ever met. At the front of the room was Katy Orenstein, founder of the Op-ed project, a project designed to increase the amount of women writers on the editorial pages.
Katy was pushing us to identify as “experts.” Media people love “experts” (read: talking heads) but women tend to shy away from it. We fear the “so what makes you an expert?” question like the plague, and to be fair – we’re much more likely to get it than men. The more Katy pushed us to identify, the more we wiggled in our seats and pushed back with over-intellectualized arguments that reasoned if every one’s voice matters – what was so special about ours?
What Katy did next changed my life. She told us to imagine that everyone in the room had cancer. Then after a long pause she told us to imagine that we weren’t sure – but that we thought we had a cure. She asked us: do we speak up?
We responded in unison: of course.
So, she said, “what’s the difference? The world has problems, and you all have answers. If you’re not speaking up you’re silently complicit in other’s pain.”
Those words hit me hard. It made me realize — once and for all — the power of what we had created. We had a huge international platform from which to end street harassment. We also had a me, who didn’t want to lead, write books, or pursue media for fear of making it all about me. And in the process, I had made it all about me. Hollaback! hadn’t even come close to realizing it’s potential because I was scared to lead, and in that moment I realized that this wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my fears, feelings, hesitations or career goals. I had a choice: I could lead this thing or I could sit back, go with Plan A, and delay progress.
We all know what the end of the story is, but my point is this: every day each of us face moments where we can speak up or shut up. I’m not gonna lie, speaking up is one the scariest things you’ll ever do. You’ll open yourself up to criticism and ridicule. If you speak loudly enough someone will tell you you’re fat or ugly. When we make the mistake of thinking that we speak up only for ourselves, shutting up becomes an obvious choice. But when we remember that our voices can speed the pace of progress -whether it’s ending street harassment, promoting peace, or preserving the environment – speaking up becomes so much more than an outlet. It becomes a responsibility.