The First iteration of the "Students Call for Social Change"
STEINMETZ CONFERENCE PRESENTATION
UNION COLLEGE, MAY, 2019
BY 5 MEMBERS OF THE CLASS OF 2018
Introduction: Hi, I'm Christine.
Thank you all for being here this morning.
I am absolutely delighted to introduce you to this early morning panel of 5 speakers--Giuseppe de Spuches, Kate Osterholtz, Megan Brown, Hayden Paneth, and Kathleen Sinatra. They are here to tell you about their experience writing, publishing and selling a book on Amazon in a course they took with me exactly a year ago called “Millennials and Social Change.”
The class was driven by the concept of the “rise of the Everyday Changemaker,” and students were tasked to write a personal story of change. In a world driven by many large and seemingly impossible-to-resolve challenges, I hoped to empower students to take control of the issues that mattered to them, in their everyday lives, and to use the self-publishing technology at their fingertips to not only find and embrace their own voices but also to raise their voices effectively through writing.
I envisioned this as a highly participatory class in which students worked to support one another through workshop-based activities and constant reflection, writing, and editing. Not only were students asked to view films, write journals, read articles and analyze different young changemakers, but they were also tasked to select a team to write, edit, typeset, market, and design their book, and all decisions were democratic and led by the students themselves. This approach admittedly led to frustration and difficult moments, but was also pre-emptive of the title these five here chose for their introduction: “You Get Out What You Put In.” And what they got out was this: (SHOW BOOK) Generation Now: Millennials Call for Social Change was published in June of 2018, with all proceeds being donated to an after-school program for underprivileged kids in Schenectady, NY called C.O.C.O.A House.
But grappling with a personal issue that had significantly impacted their lives was no easy matter. And being in a traditional classroom was certainly not conducive to feeling ;ike they were part of a professional team, or to calling me “Christine” instead of “Prof. Henseler,” which I insisted on in this class to promote a more student-centered environment. So every Wednesday, from 3:00-6:30pm, a Union College shuttle took us to a cool, industrial-feeling rooftop office building in downtown Schenectady called “Urban Co-Works. In this space, we workshopped ideas, constantly edited our essays, listened to an editor from The Alt, now the Collaborative newspaper share her wisdom on human impact storytelling, we discussed TED talks, shared Millennial changemaker case studies and enjoyed a small dinner together. And in this space we engaged in a series of design-centered activities to develop a public narrative that joined their “Story of Self” with a “Story of Us” and “Story of Now,” an effective structure first developed by Marshall Ganz of Harvard University in what’s called the “Public Narrative Participant Guide.”
I’ve got to tell you: it was a powerful process. It was deeply emotional. It was invigorating. It was at times frustrating, intense, and it was more enriching than I could have ever imagined. It totally transformed me as a teacher. And I remember sometimes after class skipping home, I could barely contain myself I was so ecstatic, feeling like I was actually making a difference as a teacher. And when the students’ personal stories began to emerge through genuine engagement with one another, when their authentic voices could be felt on the pages, that’s when something really magical happened, namely their life experiences turned the class into this wonder of empowerment, friendship and diversity. We all began to see each other more authentically, because the 18 students in this class came from black, brown, white, upper, middle and lower class backgrounds; they were American-Japanese, -Tibetan, -Haitian and -Pakistani, first generation immigrants and students living between two countries, gay and lesbian, transformed by sexual abuse or long-term health afflictions and disease, liberal and conservative, and, even, yes, even royal—we had a real live Prince among us (and I dare you to read the book to figure out who it was).
To this day, I deeply honor and respect this group of students who paved the way to what I hope will become a larger movement of storytelling projects and books through subsequent courses, research projects, open invitations to contribute, and a website that will serve to archive and publicize “Generation Now’s” (as we are calling them) worldview, their everyday experiences and their hopes for a better future. So it is without further ado that I introduce to you the members of ”The Introduction Team,” also known as Giuseppe, Kate, Megan, Hayden, and Kathleen.
Hi, I’m Giuseppe
Publishing a book is not something you just do. Or at least that’s what most of us thought until the beginning of last Spring. Christine didn’t even know if we could do it. On the other hand, we were all excited to take on such an extra-ordinary task. Looking back, the idea of failing was never really brought up after that one warning in the first class. Most of us never even thought we would fail. Ultimately I believe this is because we all were asked to write about something that we were enthusiastic about, something we truly believed in. We had complete freedom to express our ideas, our passions, our emotions. And with room for such transparency there was no way we wouldn’t make it. As my parents have always told me whenever I have faced a challenge: be yourself and you’ll be fine.
However, the road to success was by no means easy. Just like everything else in our lives, there were some obstacles and challenges. However, the interesting part about this particular experience was that no one had the answer to our problems. We were all in this for the first time. Ultimately this was an obstacle in itself. Still, the fact that there was no fixed solution meant we had the freedom to do everything our own way. One word that could be used to describe this book is “genuine”. We expressed our ideas how we thought they would best be transmitted to others. If you can, imagine taking on a project where, within the set rules, our possibilities were infinite. We only had a time deadline to express what’s inside of us. While this might seem abstract, it means that there is infinite space for creativity. There are no boundaries for what can be done. As a group we came together and defined what was important to us, what we believed in, and what we wanted to see change in our world. That was our inspiration. And that was in the back of our mind whenever we were writing.
To physically create our book we split up into teams. We had a writing team, which took care of the introduction. The editing team took care of every detail needed to catch errors and work on format to make us as professional as possible. A book cover team, which happened to be a team of one, designed the cover, and handled the aesthetics of our work. We also had a marketing team, which spread the word about our project, on social media and by word of mouth. Last, but not least, our typesetting team, which took care of the text’s appearance, paying attention to punctuation, formatting and all the details no one really ever thinks about, impagination being one of them.
On paper, it was a well oiled machine… It really sounds like it would have been!
More emphasis on democratic process on tangible aspects, page number in terms of cost, black and white or color,
My name is Kate and I am a sophomore here at Union. I struggled intially figuring out what I would write about, I don’t feel as though I have experienced many hardships in my life. I have a happy family, I’ve never had a serious illness or an intense trauma and I would say for the most part I was very average. So I thought instead of thinking about something that happened to me, I would choose something that mattered to me. And that, believe it or not, is sex. Let me explain, I know it sounds a little absurd.
My section of the book is entitled “The Birds and the Bees and Everything In between.” My main focus of this narrative was to create an honest and open dialogue about sex and sexuality as a whole. When you get to a certain age sex is just one of those things that everyone knows that everyone does, but nobody ever talks about it. From a young age if our teachers, parents and media engage us in healthy conversations about choice and our own bodies, we create a healthier sexual culture. Sex is fun! There is nothing wrong with admitting that, the more we talk about it, the more our ability to make choices and understand our bodies improves. I could go on and on but I will stop myself there, This piece and more specifically this class has had a profound impact on my life, and each of our lives, and that is what I am here to talk to you about today, how that ripple has turned into a wave.
You can never fully understand how much something has impacted you until you’re through to the other side. It comes and it goes but it seems for us that as soon as we forget about what our amazing project can do, it pops up somewhere and reminds us again. We as the 17 writers of this book, and the 5 speakers here for you today continuously feel the waves of positive impact crash upon us, and our community because of this project.
It’s hard to tangibly explain the growth, opportunity, connection and pride we continue to feel from this project. It has truly changed our world view and shows the world around us that we as Millennials have a lot to say, and we will be heard. Individually we are strong, our stories show that, we are incredible young people who have survived invisible illnesses, escaped alone from a Hasidic community and fearlessly immigrated to US from Pakistan for a better life. Individually we are strong, together, we are a force.
This course taught us lessons that we are still learning today. From the get-go, there was common goal between the members of the class: to invoke real social change through storytelling, but on the first day it seemed daunting to ask that of 18 strangers. Academia and emotion are often hard to connect. How can you grade a personal story? How do you expect to get these emotions out of people that hardly know each other? Slowly but surely, walls fell down, barriers broke and incredible, emotional experiences bubbled to the surface. We saw that academia is most impactful with the addition of emotion. This was more than a course, it was a life experience and only 17 people have gotten the first chance to do so. This process of physically writing in class was the most humbling, and fulfilling experience some of us will have for a long time, we learned once again that we are a force. We knew we all had a desperate and burning desire to impact the world around us, this fire became unstoppable and allowed us to be vulnerable and fearless when sharing our stories with each other, and with you.
Specifically, one of the greatest unintended impacts we experienced was the development of our interpersonal relationships. We started as a very unlikely rag tag group of strangers. By sharing stories and movements that we are passionate about, we gained a unique amount of love and respect for our fellow authors that would not have occured in any other situation. It’s incredibly humbling to be surrounded by people who are passionate about things that have not even crossed your mind. Our ability to be vulnerable right off the bat cannot be manufactured or replicated. It was an organic phenomenon for our desire
You are of course the next wave of impact, whoever you are. You may be our professor or mentor, a parent or a fellow Millennial, whoever you are, we welcome you in to our family of changemakers. It does not take a lot to have your voice heard, being open and vulnerable is the most direct vessel to success, this book proves it time and time again, social change comes from a place of deep passion. We task you with a challenge to go and spread the wave away from here. Share a desire for change, one of ours or one of your own, just start the conversation.
My name is Megan and I am a sophomore here at Union.
I’ll start by giving you a little insight as to what my narrative is about. My section in the book is called “Who Said it was Daddy’s Money?” I was inspired to write this because of the reverse gender roles in my family. Now, “playing house” as a kid was always weird for me. My mom is the primary breadwinner: she wakes up before the sun rises, treks into Manhattan on the train and then arrives home around 7:30 -- a two-hour commute, plus a twice-a-week schlep into Philly -- a six hour commute total. And that happens every week. As for my dad, he is a self-employed entrepreneur, which makes it so he can work from home to “play the mom,” as one might say.
Now things can get a little prickly when the waiter hands my dad the check when we’re finished eating, and then proceeds to thank him when we walk out the door. And, I hate to admit that I used to get a little embarrassed and pretty confused that my dad was the one to pick me up from school, and that he was the one in the audience at my concerts and games when everyone else had their mom. But, growing up seeing my dad in the kitchen, and picking my mom up from the train is, without a doubt one of the most positive and inspiring forces I have in my life. I, nor should anyone, tie these daily routines and familial roles to gender. Because of what I grew up observing at home, I know I should never, ever, be limited by my gender...and I aim to show that to all girls.
So that’s the gist of my story, but I am here to talk to you about the challenges we faced during this whole process -- and trust me, there were plenty.
With any dream, aspiration, or in this case, call to action, struggles are inevitable. Challenges are present solely for growth, but one must be willing to accept those challenges if he or she desires that positive evolution. Martin Luther King Jr. once wisely stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Challenge and controversy both have seemingly negative connotations, but they shouldn’t. One common denominator in those two terms is discomfort, and, naturally, we as humans do all things to avoid that discomfort. However, it is in those uncomfortable moments when one is handed the opportunity to really show his or her own strength and acquire personal growth.
I think we can all agree that putting together this book bombarded us with that discomfort. I mean half of us rolled up to a professional work space in shorts where length was deemed debatable, flip flops and a baseball caps. We were out of our comfort zone. It was awkward, it was difficult, but this task was our call to action.
Or should I say call to actions.
We not only had to overcome our vulnerability and share very deep, sometimes untouched personal stories, but we also had to come together and be able to compile all of these stories into a cohesive and publishable book.
A big theme throughout this project, like Kate talked about, was the balance between emotion and academia. This class, the production of this book, blurred that line. One of our calls to action was emotional, and the other was academic and cooperative.
So let’s start with the emotion, because after all, that’s how we started the project. Each and every one of was able to tap into a place of passion and drive, much of which manifested from a place of hardship. It was a great challenge for many of us to allow ourselves to one, feel that emotion and think it through, but then to also have to articulate a cohesive story about it.
There were moments when some of us did not want to move forward, or publish our stories at all. There were times where topics were switched very far into the process. But, despite these challenges, we all had each other’s backs and worked through each issue, small and large, so that we could move forward together. Whether that be using a pseudonym to mask the subject of a difficult story, or a peer-editing team to help ignite a new idea, we were there for each other, through everything.
Now I’ll switch gears and talk about the challenge behind compromise and cooperation.
As stated in the book, “Combining 18 brains is no easy task, but each and every one of us got to practice skills that don’t get used in the everyday classroom setting. It was inevitable that when communicating our different ideas in a conference-like situation, we were bound to bump heads, but it was those bumps that shaped the character of the book, and made it that much more authentic.”
From a cooperative standpoint, challenge is always going to come when working with a large group. Everyone was coming in with their own ideas, and it was up to us, with the help and guidance from Christine to be able to compromise. Whether that be the title, the color of the cover, or the non-profit that the money would go towards, we all had to embrace compromise.
The idea of compromise was not only imperative in the creation of this book, but it’s also crucial in the progression of our world. Especially today, where we seem to be so hyperpolarized, compromise is one thing that everyone should embrace -- and our class pretty much mastered it.
Each one of us grew individually from being able to work on a project of this caliber in just ten weeks. We all were used to being on group projects, playing on sports teams and working in a cooperative group to some degree, but the necessary skills to create this book had no precedent.
So, even though this process overwhelmed us with challenge in all its forms, no obstacle was too large for us to conquer. With the immense support and guidance from Christine, coupled with the juxtaposition between vulnerability and compromise (or emotion and academia), this book was a success.
My name is Hayden Paneth, a Junior at Union, who is currently on a term abroad in Germany but contributed a story that delved into her experience in the Hasidic education system and the challenges she faced fearlessly breaking out of this community. Today, I will be reading something Hayden has prepared for you all.
When Christine told me about the Millenials and Social Change course I did not know what to expect. But it fit with my schedule and it filled the WAC requirement so I decided to go for it. Little did I know how much it would transform my character. In ten weeks, through the process of publishing this book I gained an understanding of what it really takes to create a public narrative.
Reflecting on this experience, the biggest transformation for me was how much I grew from the journey of writing an article about social change and co creating a book with 17 others. Putting my ideas together with a group of people that each had their own great idea, meant lots of compromise. It was humbling to share a thought with the entire class and it gave me perspective on how we, as changemakers, present our ideas. Additionally, it surprised me how gracefully people accepted and trusted the decision of the group, even if it is not what they personally wanted. I realized that we are most powerful as a group, working together.
One particular scenario that comes to mind is the process of writing the introduction to the book. Including myself, there were five people that were on the writing team. Can you imagine writing an introduction with Kate, Megan, Kathleen and Giuseppe? We each wrote an introduction and then we decided to combine the best parts of our individual introduction write ups as the introduction for the book. This required the soft but oh so important skill of sharing our thoughts without hurting someone's feelings. I think that I needed to grow a lot in that area and putting together all of our writings to make one amazing intro provided me with the opportunity to observe and reflect on how to best communicate with others. It was then that we all realized that my writing did not gel with the rest and that that was not a bad thing. In fact it worked really well for an epilogue.
We created a book, we did not squash people into the book.
The friendships I have made working on this book will last a lifetime. I will probably never have a class or opportunity like this ever again. I will cherish those memories forever. I have learned that I am not mediocre. That we as humans are all special and we want to feel loved and admired. I have shared a part of me with this class and trusted that the hardwork creating this book would pay off. And it did. I learned that other people might seem okay on the outside but inside they have a story of challenge and triumph. It is our responsibility to provide support to one another and spaces for reflection and conversation.
My name is Kathleen Sinatra and sophomore here at Union. Unlike some of my peers, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. While I did not struggle to determine my topic, I did struggle with how to write about something deeply personal to me - my experience with chronic lyme disease. Eventually, I was able to produce a narrative that talked about not only my experience struggling with this illness, but how the high school education system needs to change in order to support students with chronic and invisible illnesses.
I am here today, however, to talk with you about the impact writing this book had on not only myself, but my peers, and hopefully our audience.
In order to do this, I first want to ask you to consider what change looks like.
Curing cancer. Eliminating poverty. Creating world peace.
These are what I, and many other, often believe is needed to be accomplished in order to claim the title of a “changemaker.” And that seemed impossible to do, especially in ten weeks.
So what exactly is change?
We referred to merriam-webster, looking for a simple answer. But, when asked to define change ourselves, we found that our answers varied.
“Ideas that move and influence a community to act differently from their norm.”
“small actions that occur during a period of opportunity to create a ripple effect”
But, again, many of us paired “change” with words like “significant” as if this pairing was unquestionable and unavoidable. This pairing, however, can be almost paralyzing.
What we learned is that this was wrong. To be a changemaker means to make a difference in your community, no matter how big or small. And, the everyday changemaker, who may not make the most extravagant change or tackle the most spotlighted issue, is just as powerful and equally as important.
What we determined was that change can be made both in intangible ways, such as by altering attitudes and behaviors, as well as in more tangible ways, like creating laws and policies.
Change does not have to be groundbreaking, earth shattering, or life altering, it simply has to be put into action.
In the spirit of demonstrating what an everyday changemaker looks like, we decided to donate 100% of our book profits to a local Schenectady charity called C.O.C.O.A. House which focuses on mentoring and tutoring underserved youths in our community. As of today, we have been able to donate over $250.
But, the mere creation of the book was not our only attempt to create change. Rather, as our introduction stated, we aimed to “inspire the next generation of changemakers” through sharing our personal narratives. We hoped that shedding light on issues important to us, and explaining their relation to our lives and your lives, as our audience, would help to start to make change within our communities by inspiring those to tackle issues important to them too.
Most tangibly, we plan on writing future volumes. The course is being offered again this spring and this set of changemakers are currently working on creating the second volume. I have been fortunate enough to get to work with this group of students. While the feel of the class is different, and it was a strange adjustment now serving as a “student course leader” and not just as a student, there is one aspect of the class that hasn’t changed- that every student has an important story to share. Through continuing to offer this class, we continue to give voice to students. If we continue to do this, especially starting with a young generation, we can bind together and tackle problems both big and small starting sooner, rather than later.
But, it is important, and perhaps most important, to talk about how we each have been personally impacted by this class and through the creation of this book.
Megan was guided towards an internship at The Collaborative through the connection she made with Katie Kusack, the editor from The Alt, and continues to develop her love for writing.
Giuseppe credits the class to a change in both the way he thinks about others and how he approaches the world, realizing that everyone struggles and that everyone has their own story to share.
Kate, inspired by her work on her personal narrative, started a Planned Parenthood Generation Action club, joining more than 350 chapters nationwide, and aims to empower and educate women in regards to their reproductive and sexual health.
And, for me, this class has essentially changed the trajectory of my college career. I decided to take a shot and apply for the DC term, and I went this past winter and worked as a legislative intern in Congressman Tonko’s office. I had the opportunity to speak with a four high school classes about social change and the power of narrative writing. And, I am currently preparing for an 8 week summer research fellowship through Union that focuses on giving voice to college immigrants to the US, and with the help of Christine, I plan to eventually create a book that compiles these important stories.
This book was created with the intention of continuation. Change is not stagnant. It is ever evolving, able to awaken and inspire. Each one of us sees a different way to implement what we learned in the class and create change in our communities and in our lives.
This course has challenged us and inspired us to think about how we can effect the world as changemakers. Each of us leaves this class with a different answer to this, which is the best part.
Through this book, we are reminded that we must empower ourselves through our education and the utilization of our voice to make the change we want to see. In doing so, we begin to create an infinitely expanding ripple effect, reminding us that no matter how small or large our effect may seem, our use of voice is invaluable and contributes to the greater social change.