Telling our own stories: Learning from Jessica Bennett

On September 23rd, the 2020–2021 AmpEquity series began in conversation with Jessica Bennett, Gender Editor at the New York Times, and author of Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace. The AmpEquity series is designed to bring compelling voices to Haas’ campus to further student, faculty, staff, and community engagement with Equity Fluent Leaders who are forging new paths in fields as diverse as business, government, and journalism.

At Haas, we talk a lot about storytelling: storytelling through data (a turn of phrase designed to make stats more palatable), storytelling at our student-run “Story Salons” (think: Moth Radio Hour for business school students), and storytelling for leadership (the title of one of our most beloved course offerings). Perhaps Haas has me predisposed to hear it, but I was struck during Ms. Bennett’s talk by how often the word ‘story’ arose. This linguistic choice is particularly pertinent considering Ms. Bennett’s ground-breaking journalistic contributions, and helps to draw out two core themes from her talk: examining the role of storytelling in history-making and rethinking who tells our stories.

The phrase Ms. Bennett used to describe the New York Times (NYT) is old-fashioned but telling: “paper of record.” For well over a century, the NYT has been viewed as one of the most authoritative mainstream newspapers, and this status means that its editorial choices have the power to shape historical narrative. Ms. Bennett, the first-ever gender editor for the paper, says that she had been “pitching the job for years” when she was finally awarded the title. One of her signature projects early in that role was a re-examination of obituaries, which Ms. Bennett noted often serve as “the last word on a person’s legacy.” She detailed a few remarkable examples of omissions from the NYT obituary pages: for instance, while journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells’ marriage was featured on the front page, she was not honored with an obituary. Even decades later, well-known figures like Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath were not given obituaries — a fact that Ms. Bennett has since corrected with the “Overlooked” project. Part of her role, she noted, is “thinking about what’s missing” — paying attention not just to what exists in the cultural discourse surrounding gender, but also paying attention to notable silences. Admitting a new roster of notable figures to the paper of record has historic significance — ensuring that the contributions of these remarkable figures and many others are reckoned with today, tomorrow, and for decades to come.

Another of Ms. Bennett’s signature projects is the “This is 18” series, “documenting what life is like for 18 year old girls all around the world.” This series was inspired by another significant cultural silence. While young women are often sexualized, turned into facts and figures, or used as political footballs, the reality remains that their day-to-day experiences are rarely chronicled or uplifted — or in Ms. Bennett’s words: “girls’ lives are often not taken seriously in mainstream media.” Ms. Bennett decided to address this gap in the historical record, and in doing so, she opted for a new approach. Rather than dispatching veteran photographers and reporters, she elected to have fellow 18 year-old women conduct the photography and interviews for the series. Each young writer and photographer was paired with a professional mentor for guidance — an editorial choice that significantly complicated the logistics of the process, given that the “This is 18” team needed to coordinate across 13 time zones on various preferred messaging apps with dozens of teenagers around the globe. While this may sound like a lot of altruism on the part of NYT staff, Ms. Bennett also noted that young women are often more comfortable with other young women, and this peer-level pairing resulted in better access and more nuanced stories. Moreover, “the female gaze could give us an entirely different perspective on these girls’ lives” by inviting new voices into the rarified world of journalism.

One of the most intriguing moments in the talk came when an audience member asked about the role of journalism in creating a inclusive feminist movement. Ms. Bennett noted that she’s a “documentarian, not a movement builder.” This clarification seemed to draw out the opportunities that come with storytelling in this critical historical moment: documentarians can have a profound impact on determining whose stories are told, who listens, and who tells them. In so doing, Ms. Bennett may not be building a movement, but she is certainly ensuring that history does not forget the movement as it was or will be — through the contributions of extraordinary leaders past or present; nor the oft-overlooked experiences of every day young women around the globe.

Given these lessons, it is clear that each of us has a role to play in amplifying equity: listening for the silences in our current conversations, and ensuring that formerly marginalized voices are given the space and resources to tell their own stories. It is our work to uplift these voices in our workplaces, industries, and homes, and EGAL will continue to provide programming, research, and support to help us on that journey. Join us!

To view a recording of the event, please contact egal@berkeley.edu.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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