08 December 2018

A hole in the wall for social change

By Kate Cunningham

Kate Cunningham is a first-year journalism student at Emerson College from Charlotte, North Carolina. She went to high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for ballet as a part of their boarding high school program. She is happiest when she is in nature, creating, writing, and spending time with those that she loves.

This is Kate's story after attending WomenExplore Fall lecture 2018 on " How to sustain momentum while working for change" featured Tim McCarthy and Paula Chandoha on November 15, 2018. 


Hands were stiff from the bitter cold air of Cambridge on Nov. 15th. My nose was pink and my eyes squinted against the harsh breeze as I searched for The Democracy Center. I was supposed to be there minutes ago, but I had yet to find it. I was so concerned I was going to have to walk in late and I didn’t know what to do. It’s safe to say that I was ecstatic when I finally came across the sign reading “Struggles, Strengths, and Strategies.” 

I walked into the warm building and turned to my right to be welcomed by a friendly face. I explained that I was a journalism student from Emerson College doing a report on the lecture. The woman who greeted me was eager to get me a seat positioned so I had a perfect view. I hadn’t had anything to worry about. 

Glancing around the room, I was surrounded by predominantly older women. There were a few men and a few students, including myself. People were eating their homemade snacks and lunches. Half-full coffee cups rested next to most people’s chairs and almost everyone in the room had notebooks out taking notes for the sole purpose of learning. 

I was by far the youngest person in the room, and it was inspiring. As someone who has spent their entire life living in the South, it is indescribably refreshing to be in a room with members of older generations that are still trying to make changes in favor of marginalized groups and to educate the public on the whole. They have never given up. When the idea that the older you get the more conservative you get came into the conversation, there was a significant group of older women who had a good chuckle about how inaccurate it was for them. 

Paula Chandoha kick-started the event by speaking about her personal experiences with change. She said she was eager to talk about “how much I hate change and how much I like momentum.” 

She talked about was a time that her family bought a goat named April that she hated. She was upset with her family’s decision, but many years later she was able to reflect and realize she didn’t actually hate the goat, rather she hated the change the goat brought in her life. It was a big change that her younger-self felt threatened by because of the unknown surrounding it; she could not control how it affected her. 

The story of the goat is a fun, extraneous example, but one that many can relate to. Many people have experienced a dislike for something largely because it brought about big changes in their life. They may not realize it in the moment, but eventually, it is possible to come to terms with the fact that it was the unfamiliarity that made you dislike the something so greatly. 

As a journalism major, reading the news is a big part of my curriculum. It is so important to not only stay informed but to also be familiar with the theory and tactics currently being used. Exposure is a momentous part of learning about journalism. With the current political state, however, reading the news thoroughly every day can be detrimental to your mentality. 

Chandoha talks about change being a “willingness to stay conscious,” but she admits even she needs help with it. She said, “I go to therapy, I read poetry, I look out the window.” All of those things help her stay clear-minded amidst “the chaos of change.” During that chaos though, she advised the audience to “stay informed”, noting that she has had “to learn to not get saturated in it.” It is about finding a balance of being exposed to the current struggles and successes of our world, but doing so in a manner that is beneficial to you. 

Chandoha stopped mid-sentence when she realized it was 12 p.m. and her time was up. The audience laughed with her before she finished her thought and redirected the attention to Tim McCarthy. 

The love that the group had for McCarthy left me with a huge smile on my face. While being introduced, he was labeled as one of their “favorite favorite people.” He said “I think this is my tenth time coming to you… I live across the street. It would be hard to say no.” The audience joined him with more laughter. At this point, the energy in the room was radiating and enticing. I was on the edge of my seat, alert for what may come next. 

Upon hearing about my pitch, my professor encouraged me to think about the irony of a middle-aged white man being an influential speaker in the women’s rights movement. It had crossed my mind, but I did not question it once I heard McCarthy speak. From the hour, or so, that I heard his words, I can understand how he has the ability to impact a variety of people from middle-school-aged boys to traditionalists and baby boomers. He comes from a place of genuine care and concern for protecting the under protected of our nation and world. 

McCarthy shared five points: tell your story, understand the issue and “find your squad,” provide solidarity, embrace people who could become allies, and pay it forward.

He elaborated on how to tell our stories and urged us to ask questions to find the meaning of our stories. When sharing your story, McCarthy stressed the importance of answering “why?”, when saying, “We all have an answer to the why question and if we don’t, then we have to find the capacity to develop it. The “why” answer is what instigates action. I love this idea for a couple of reasons. It promotes self-reflection, growth, and physical change.” 

Personally, I am a very curious person. I like to ask people questions that make them think, I like reading, and I like to learn about new things. When writing, a tactic I use is to read my argument and continue to ask questions that develop it more. It is like squeezing out a towel that has been soaked in water. You keep twisting it up until there is nothing left to give. With this being said, the next idea resonated with me immensely. 

By asking “why?”, you learn whether you have that answer or not. From there, you either compose of your answer and begin to develop it, or you learn what you need to do in order to get to a place where you can answer it. If you know that you have the answer, then you are able to dig deeper into the meaning behind your story. If you don’t, then you learn to grow and get to a place where you can. Either way, both instigate self-awareness of your personal understanding, physical growth in your story, and both result in tangible changes.

McCarthy also said that “often we talk about the movement part” which is what makes changes, but the social part is necessary. I have thought about this tremendously since hearing him say it the first time, especially because I often preach the phrase “live by example.” In order for feelings, passions, and thoughts to be truly genuine, they must come solely from within. When you live by example, you are able to show someone why you feel and think what you do without making them feel like you are preaching to them. 

The word “movement” comes after “social” in the phrase “social movement”, something that is also true in the process of a social movement. People have to be exposed and educated on new ideologies before they feel inclined to instigate action. So, while the movement part is what creates the actual change, it all starts with socializing in a subtle manner. McCarthy reminded the group that, “The momentum doesn’t need to go from a trickle to a tsunami.” Big social movements take time. While that can be frustrating or discouraging, it is a good reminder to hear from someone creating change in his day-to-day life. 

One of my favorite moments of the lecture was when McCarthy recalled a conversation with his mother where she said, “I don’t think I will live to see the first woman president.” He commented on the depth of seriousness in her voice— she was not exaggerating. He brought this point up to stress the importance of being a part of a movement, not for yourself, but for future generations. He made note that, “For those of us involved in long-term work, we can’t be motivated by a complete result.” It can be discouraging to not see a tangible change in your lifetime, but often times, the hardest part is starting. By initiating change and conversation, you create momentum for future generations.  
As for solidarity, McCarthy said that momentum starts there, but is not sustained there. Providing solidarity to someone, or a group creates allies. McCarthy looked at Chandoha before saying that he cannot understand her struggles being a female, but he can “commit to recognizing the injustices and discrimination” that she faces. Addressing the situations where one offers solidarity to a group that they do not personally identify with, McCarthy said with a passion of past experience that, “those are the moments that test your solidarity… when you’re not getting a trophy for the group you are showing up for.” Again, he reiterated the idea that genuine care for the justice of underrepresented people has to come from internal desires. 

I was not entirely sure what this lecture would be like, so when I left buzzing with excitement, adrenaline, and inspiration— I was thrilled. 

After the lecture, Lindsa Vallee, a consistent presence at WomenExplore and the person who introduced both Chandoha and McCarthy, said that the organization’s goal is to expand the horizons of individuals and create an “open and vibrant” environment.
After each lecture, anyone who wants to help plan for future meetings can stay and participate after any lecture. Vallee said the organizers are all equal and everyone is welcome.
Community members like Lindsa Vallee and influencers like Timothy McCarthy have helped to initiate conversations in a range of communities. WomenExplore is one of the many places in Boston giving a space for voices to be heard and things to be learned and acts as a catalyst for Vallee and McCarthy to do their work.