“We are here to radically change the part of the planet you inhabit.”

Participants in the Chicago core seminar "Write to Change The World" at Medill's Chicago newsroom

This was definitely not your typical June Saturday.

We came, we saw and we conquered reticence, reluctance and any apology for striving to contribute to the world’s conversation and walk through “the front door into the marketplace of ideas.”

As participants in a day-long core seminar with The OpEd Project, more than 30 thought leaders convened at the Chicago newsroom of the Medill School at Northwestern University to do nothing less than attempt to change the world with words.

Seminar leader Katherine Lanpher, an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster (full disclosure is she is a good friend), urged each one of the academics, business leaders, documentarians, authors and activists to own our expertise. It proved a confronting and oddly confrontational exercise.

A business owner of a $50 million company described herself intitially as someone who “works in a family business.” A therapist was reluctant to say how many families she had helped in 40 years of practice. An aspiring cookbook author played down her years of kitchen experience.

Lanpher was having none of it. She questioned each person in the room until he or she could adequately articulate a specific expertise. We applauded the aha moments of empowerment.

“The next time your instinct is to not own your expertise, think about other people,” Lanpher said, “This is always about other people.”

Katherine Lanpher

Also participating as a sponsor was Donna Gutman, founder of Women of the World, who encouraged members of her organization to dive into the challenges head-on.

Even if some of the participants came to The OpEd Project convinced it was about writing opinion and editorial pieces, they left with a more complicated conviction.


It is at first about creating “an evidence-based argument that is timely and of public value,” Lanpher said. And from that, comes a larger discourse that can lead to systemic change.

The day was about elevating new ideas and insights to a wider discussion with the goal of instituting real differences– in mindsets, laws, attitudes, trends, policies.

“If you don’t know what outcome you want, no one is going to imagine it for you,” Lanpher said.

The mission of The OpEd Project, with a Chicago office soon to be run by Deborah Siegel, and expanding to think tanks, non-profits, coporations and universities in addition to public training forums, “is an initiative to expand public debate, with an immediate focus on enlarging the pool, of women experts who are accessing the opinion forums.” That is the goal, according to founder Catherine Orenstein, also on hand in Chicago Saturday and helping facilitate the workshop.

“If you say things of consequence,” Orenstein said, “there may be consequences, but if you do not say anything, you will be inconsequential.”

Lanpher explained about the structure of a logical argument and the need “not to be right, but effective.”

Orenstein spoke about work “that opens a conversation instead of closes one.”

I listened intently. I am not a wallflower at the party of public debate. I have been a journalist writing opinion pieces and nonfiction books for more than three decades. I have been teaching journalism at The Medill School for more than 15 years, leading writing workshops for more than 15 years. I have given more than 200 keynotes across the country in the past 20 years. So I don’t need a lot of coaxing to speak my mind.

But, like so many of us, I have had setbacks and rejection in my professional life.

So something Lanpher said in an eight-hour incredibly inspiring day hit me between the eyeballs. So much so that I want to put it on a t-shirt, or at the very least on a Post-It on my bathroom mirror.

“You are all sitting on a solution for something,” Lanpher said.

Then, reminding everyone to persevere, she advised us with what may just become my life mantra:”No is a bump on the way to yes.”

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4 Comments

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