The OpEd Project and nursing: Shaping public discourse

Angela M. Moss |

Mission: To increase range of voices and quality of ideas.

Angela M. Moss

The author didn’t know the program was writing-intensive when she applied. Now she’s glad her fears didn’t keep her from a rewarding experience. 

Writing for publication can be an overwhelming prospect. It is for me at times. I love to tell a story but am often plagued by writer’s block, procrastination, and insecurity. I struggle with where to start, so I don’t start. I make every excuse not to write and then, at the eleventh hour, stress because I don’t have enough time to write something “really meaningful.” I worry that what I write is not relevant, will be ridiculed or criticized, or is not written well and the meaning is lost. Does this sound familiar to you?

A year ago, I applied to become a Public Voices Fellow in The OpEd Project at Rush University College of Nursing and was accepted. I was excited about the opportunity because I had recently started experimenting with Twitter, but I lacked confidence regarding social media best practices for professionals and hoped the fellowship would provide insight. Had I known it was writing-intensive, I might have run the other way, but now I’m glad I didn’t know. I could have missed out on one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to date.  

Influencing public discourse
The OpEd Project does, indeed, discuss the dominant role of social media in today’s society and how individuals might leverage platforms such as Twitter to get a message out. But, more importantly, it trains non-media writers—academics, industry thought leaders, and people who traditionally have not had a public voice—to write, publish, and share ideas in new ways to change public discourse. I received tools to do this, and the project’s facilitators instilled in me the confidence and motivation I needed.

In North America, opinion editorials—op-eds—are primarily written by people who are Western, white, privileged, and male. They may be masters at writing, but they can’t be experts on every topic. By virtue of the small, relatively homogeneous nature of these writers, the collective perspective they disseminate is limited in its ability to drive public thought.

The OpEd Project’s overarching mission is “to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.” Perhaps you are familiar with TED talks. The outgrowth of a 1984 conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged—hence, TED—these talks spread ideas through the spoken word. The OpEd Project goes several steps further with a core mission to intentionally diversify the voices that contribute to public conversation.

Realizing that public conversation is largely driven by a very small group of people was a call to action for me. If I do not speak up, someone else’s voice and perspective will fill that space, and my message will go unheard.

Empowering and painful
The fellowship was eye-opening, empowering, and fun. It was also painful. Writing an op-ed is a learned skill that requires practice, but it is also deeply personal because you are asked to expose closely held opinions. In becoming adults, we are taught to keep thoughts on sensitive topics such as politics to ourselves when engaging in “polite” conversation. Writing an op-ed departs sharply from that norm.

The first op-ed I wrote was about my youngest brother’s death by suicide, how it affected my family, and my subsequent opinion about suicide prevention. It was very personal and difficult to write but something I care deeply about. That emotion comes through in my writing.

Emotion will come through in your writing, too, if you address a topic that matters greatly to you. Giving yourself permission to be vulnerable invites readers to relate to you. What you write about in an op-ed doesn’t need to relate to nursing or healthcare, but you will bring a nursing perspective to everything you write. And remember, whatever you choose to write may very well change people’s minds. Op-eds are meant to be persuasive. That’s why we write them.

The OpEd Project is flexible to accommodate individual needs, but the most common configuration is a three-month program where up to 20 Public Voices Fellows gather once a month for all-day workshops, with ongoing mentoring between live meetings. The writing mentors and workshop facilitators are professional, active writers with impressive experience. They bring their experiences to the live workshops and become cheerleaders and role models for fellows.

Gaining traction
The OpEd Project has gained traction nationally. Yale, Stanford, the Ford Foundation, and the Center for Global Policy Solutions are among the many organizations and universities sponsoring Public Voices Fellowships. The results are amazing. Public Voices Fellows have achieved significant success publishing in major media, including The New York Times, HuffPost, CNN, The Hill, The Washington Post, Garnet News, and NPR. In my fellowship group at Rush University College of Nursing, we had more than 40 original op-ed pieces published in the first three months. We covered a range of topics, including suicide and mental health awareness, gun control, miscarriage, homeless youth, and online predators. Our college’s op-ed publication tally has more than doubled since then, and a second fellowship cohort is moving through the program now. The scope of our reach will continue to multiply.

Scholarly writing is important. We need to test and share new nursing interventions, care delivery models, and pedagogical methods. But peer-reviewed publications reach a relatively small audience compared to general public media. On average, 10 people read one peer-reviewed published article. Writing op-eds is an opportunity to bring peer-reviewed articles to the general public. Writing that is not peer-reviewed is more likely to be consumed by the public—and by you. Sharing our ideas and opinions is part of building our legacy. We should all be building our legacies now, not waiting until the end of our careers to figure them out.

Nurses need to be heard
There are more than 4 million nurses in the United States, which makes nursing the nation’s largest healthcare workforce. The U.S. public consistently ranks nursing as the “most ethical” and “most trusted” profession. We have the privilege of caring for others from cradle to grave and in all sorts of settings where people live, work, and play—not just the hospital. Of the healthcare professions, we spend the most time with patients and families, often when they are most vulnerable. Nurses, therefore, have a unique perspective when it comes to the intersection of health and human experience.

Tap into your experiences, and raise your voice to shape public discourse. Your patients, loved ones, the nursing profession, and all humankind will be better for it. RNL

Angela M. Moss, PhD, MSN, RN, APN-BC, is assistant dean, faculty practice, at Rush University College of Nursing, Department of Adult Health and Gerontological Nursing, in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

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