Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I'm Sorry, Cora Campbell

“Oh my god, can you believe that’s the Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game? She sounds like a teenager!” I said as I listened to Commissioner Cora Campbell during a radio interview not long after her confirmation in 2011.  She was 31, pretty, and I assumed had gotten the job as a result of more of the oh-so-common insider Alaska political shenanigans.

Fast forward to 2014. I was working as part of the team putting together the 2nd Alaska Women’s Summit and we wanted to include Commissioner Campbell. We decided to ask her to be on a panel that felt a little crazy. The panel was called “Redefining Like a Girl” and began with a viewing of the short video put together last year by the Girl Scouts and Always (watch it and be prepared to get weepy and hopeful).  

The panel included Iditarod hero Deedee Jonrowe, Olympic skier Holly Brooks, Special Olympic Athlete Ayesha Abdul-Jilil, and Commissioner Cora Campbell.  When I pitched the panel to the Commissioner’s staff, I described the panel as a discussion of the way these woman had dealt with stereotypes, as athletes, and in the Commissioner’s case, possibly as an outdoors-woman? It felt like a stretch, but somehow I felt like the panel would actually be an interesting place for the Commissioner.

What resulted was a surprising conversation, especially between Deedee Jonrowe and Commissioner Campbell (you can watch the panel discussion here). These two whip-smart, driven, and articulate women had each spent their careers battling the same kinds of stereotypes, and both seemed to feel that the directions of their lives had been altered as a direct response to those battles. Each of them had been underestimated, looked down on, patronized, and each of them had come out swinging for the fences. They each spoke about being a woman in a culture that has a systematic and sometimes subtle way of telling women that they’re not good enough.

And as I listened to the panel, I realized that I had done the same thing to Cora Campbell. I had made assumptions about her intelligence and experience based off of the fact that she was a pretty, young woman. I consider myself a feminist, and a pretty well-informed one at that, and I had made all those same negative assumptions about Cora Campbell. I was part of the problem.

I was shocked. Like most young professional women, I’ve been there. I’ve had both men and women say things to me that they would never say to a man in my position, make assumptions about my intelligence, my ambition, and my capabilities. AND I HAD DONE THE SAME THING TO ANOTHER WOMAN. And the worst part? I’m sure it wasn’t the one and only time. These kinds of societal expectations are so insidious, so “natural” that they feel like it’s just the way world works.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times now that I thought Cora Campbell was pretty. I think that has something to do with the way I responded to her. I recently worked in an office full of intelligent, ambitious, savvy women, who all also happened to be gorgeous and fashionable. Over, and over again I watched these women being taken for granted, talked down to, and underestimated by both men and women. Yes, sometimes you can use the fact that you’re being underestimated to your advantage (hello, sneak attacks!), but it still feels shitty. And frustrating. And infuriating. And even when I would try and empathize with whoever it was that was making these assumptions (usually older men, although not always), I couldn’t help but hope that I was witnessing a dying breed.

This morning I read Hana Schank’s piece in Aeon “Why Don’t More Women Play Chess” and was reminded again of how this issue is not just about changing societal stereotypes, it’s about being more aware, being more thoughtful, really looking at how we teach and how we talk to all people, not just young women. It’s about checking every assumption we make and allowing the people around us to grow in whatever way they’re capable of.

It's a tall order. But they say the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Thank You, David Shayt

I didn’t care what internship I got, just as long as I got one there. The National Museum of American History’s website listed the likely projects that each intern would be working on and the required experience for each position. I applied to every single internship that I even vaguely qualified for.

I was 19, a displaced Alaskan girl finishing up my first year at the hippiest of hippy liberal arts schools, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I had declared myself a History major immediately and was shocked to find myself one of maybe four in the school. I had some wild dream that I was going to teach high-school history in rural villages on the West Coast of Alaska.

It was 2002 and I wound up with an internship doing “object processing” for the one year anniversary exhibit of 9/11.

“Four people applied, but I thought that since you were from Alaska, you might be able to help more with some of these posters I collected,” David explained when I arrived for my first day. I thought this was doubtful, but he seemed pleased enough that I could find Kotzebue on a map without assistance.

With the eyebrows and voice of Eugene Levy, David’s lilting monologues on the history of Crayola’s color names and the functionality of silly putty were mesmerizing. He was fascinated and fascinating. The project David had brought me to work on, doing back-ground research and file building for four items collected at Ground Zero took me about three weeks. For the next three months I was directed along the path of the David Shayt School of Museum Studies, loaned out to anyone who would have me.

It was clear within those first few weeks that my internship was not like any of the other internships at the museum. Looking back, I’m certain David didn’t need an intern, but rather delighted in sharing his own passion and wonder. He told me how he had always loved the Museum of American History. He started out at 18 in the basement in the print-shop, back when all the materials for the museum were printed on actual printing presses. He did a stint in the Marine Corps, went to college, but then he returned to the museum. He wanted to be a curator, but he didn’t have a Ph.D., so instead he became an expert in all the things the museum didn’t have an expert in: bell casting, ivory carving, silly putty, crayons, coffin making, lunch boxes, wood-working tools, yo-yos, and on, and on, slowly building the curator position he had always wanted.

He showed me Foucault’s Pendulum, tragically stored in a wooden box. He let me touch Indiana Jones’ hat. He sent me to spend three weeks writing tiny catalog numbers on Julia Childs’ kitchen utensils. He sent me to the Library of Congress to do photographic research, which then turned into my excuse to get a LOC library card, granting me access into the holy of holies, the Jefferson Reading Room. He told me about Washington’s scandalous nipple. He took me into the bowels of the museum to see the old steam generators that used to pump life into the various industrial machines on display when the museum had been called the Museum of History and Technology.

He was in charge of making sure the bell in the tower of “The Castle” was in working order, so even though the entirety of the rooftops along the mall had strictly become off-limits in the post-9/11 world, we were allowed. We would go up and eat our sandwiches in the blessed breeze, looking down on the broad expanse of green grass and white marble.

I came out of his care confused, questioning, dreaming, in awe, and no longer a history major.

I ran into him six years later, surprisingly, in Juneau. He had come up for a museum conference that my boyfriend’s band was playing. I had crashed the party. I recognized him from across the room with his signature satchel bag and his smooth stride. He told me how enchanted he was by Juneau’s “gentle sparkling streams.”

I think about David several times a year. 

A few years ago I tried googling him to see if I could find an address to send a letter to him, to check in, to thank him for a strange and wonderful summer, but instead I found an obituary. So I wrote a letter to his wife, sent to what appeared to be her work address, trying to let her know that her husband had touched my life in a way that I couldn’t explain. How sorry I was for her family. 

How sorry I was that I had never told him.