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Phillips: Personal experiences, not statistics, effect change

Ruby Phillips, Assistant Opinion Editor

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From publishing columns about my unhealthy drinking habits to my struggles with mental health, I have been more honest about my personal experiences in my columns for this desk than I ever have before. Exposing myself like this wasn’t particularly empowering or satisfying like I thought it would be, but the only reason I was even able to be more confident about doing so was because our current divisive political climate demands it.

What divides us today is our inability to appreciate the points of view of the other side. Stories and personal narratives seem like the only successful method to make people listen or care. Personal experiences are not universal truths or fact, but that doesn’t mean they can’t demonstrate the complexity of seemingly black and white issues in society.

Stories humanize opinions. Facts and statistics can sometimes swallow individuals whole and make people forget that when we hear something like “1 in every 6 women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” that means one in six women have actually had to experience those feelings and traumas. Words and numbers can describe the pattern or enormity of a problem, but personal narratives force people to be introspective about how they contribute to a problem and force them to understand why it happened.

During my Peer Adviser training, one of the first lessons we went over was that empathy is crucial in relating to people from different backgrounds. If we could break down those walls and get to know our incoming students’ personalities, then no matter how much we differed, we could build meaningful relationships. We all want reciprocity in our beliefs, to be validated and listened to, no matter what our opinion is.

In writer Dr. Brené Brown’s talk on empathy, she argues that to truly empathize with other people and help them with their pain, one must find their own painful experiences. But Dr. Brown missed a crucial point about empathy: Our experiences and identity shape and limit what we can relate to. Empathy cannot always transcend race, gender and class. Some fathers and brothers can’t see that catcalling is inappropriate until they witness the women in their life experience it. So, stories are the closest thing people can get to true empathy, to feeling with others. They are crucial for catalyzing action and helping others support a certain point of view.

The idea that opinions should be tied to our own narratives is what motivated me to share mine. The columns I have felt the most passionate about, that left me the most bare, were often the hardest stories to tell. That act alone can be revolutionary. No one wants to be the first person to step forward, claim a horrible experience and suddenly be the spokesperson for that entire group. Nor do people want to have to look back on their stories and reevaluate what happened to them. Often, when we think about our lives, we would rather remember the good parts than claim politicized experiences. But it took me hearing stories of other students struggling with their mental health and women finally grasping their own assault to realize the same things had happened to me.

Those who can speak up are able to release personal narratives that they’ve held close for too long. That kind of bravery mobilizes people and inspires them.

It emboldens some to speak up by validating their own experiences. And it causes others to change their opinions and realize the existing systemic patterns that make them one of many. It forces people to not only understand the gravity of the situation, but to also search for a solution.

Working on this desk this past quarter has showed me that stories are contagious and powerful. Be proud to tell your story, even if it contrasts with public opinion, because you never know who needs to hear it and what it will teach them.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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