Earlier this month, Dorie Clark threw down the gauntlet at Harvard Business Review by writing a post called Come Out of the Closet at Work, Whether You’re Gay or Not. I’ve decided to take on the challenge of blogging about the professionally relevant ways I am not the average science/environmental writer – and why these differences are assets, not disadvantages.
When I was in the Midwest, multiple people advised me to write for the alternative press. Once they found out what my background was, they jumped to the false conclusion that I must have politically radical views. My strategic choice to obscure my background in most of my workplaces came from my experiences with this assumption. I am writing this blog post because the article above persuaded me to change my mind.
But I know honesty fuels good prose. So I am going to write about these identities here and explain why I think outsider perspectives can enrich both journalism and blogging.
Unlike most environmentalists I’ve met, I grew up in a lower middle-class family in a major city, surrounded by people whose cultural backgrounds were different from mine. Our social circle was international, so I understand both Russian and Spanish. I also spent time in Russia.
Because of my experiences seeing food shortages in Russia and being on the less-wealthy side of the tracks in Chicago, writing about working-class communities is extraordinarily important to me. There are huge disconnects between these communities, including many communities of color, and the mainstream environmental movement. When I write about mainstream environmental issues, I do so from the perspective that low-income communities matter.
People don’t see my class and cultural background when they meet me. Because I am white, I can sometimes help bridge the gap between existing science and environmental organizations and the people they have not reached. However, this puts me in an awkward position. Because I can “pass” as a white, middle-class person, some people may not trust me. They don’t know that I had to learn the norms of middle-class workplaces by reading books about them.
My cultural experiences in Chicago didn’t just leave me with an interest in environmental justice; they also kindled an interest in the arts. I grew up writing spoken word, but it’s been years since I went to an open mic. During high school, I did an internship with the Mexican Fine Arts Center and made a mosaic of part of the Aztec calendar. I also made a mosaic of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, dancing on a slope. Today, I take dance classes four to five days a week.
This is why, when people talk about including the humanities in science writing, I perk up my ears. Dance, visual art, and other forms of creative expression can enrich science communication and bring the subject to life. I subscribe to the Facebook page of the Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, which is supported by Science Magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Music has been a life-changing force for me. Contrary to stereotypes about metal fans, The Guardian has reported that students who are interested in metal are likely to be intelligent. I played guitar throughout high school and part of college, was in a band for a short time, and am finally donating that guitar to charity this month. I also listened to punk rock during and after college. One evening, I went from an honor society ceremony to a punk show.
My music taste has had a profound influence on my writing style. Even when I am not writing blog posts about zombie apocalypse messages in science communication, I find that a metal-and-sometimes-punk cultural sensibility works its way into most of the writing I produce – even nonprofit press releases. So far, no one has objected. Publicity writing tends to be more rosy than thorny, but using sharper prose doesn’t seem to damage my writing style; if anything, it improves the results.
These are the non-mainstream identities that have shaped or changed my science writing and professional interests – my relationships to class, culture, dance, visual art and music.