By Abigail Lausch
After reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a Depression-era novel that focuses on the unjust trial of a black man, seventh graders began a project that combined two of the major themes of the novel: justice and empathy. The father in the novel, Atticus Finch, repeatedly reminds his kids, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Students focused on a small sampling of groups that may experience injustice in this country because of race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or immigration status. After finding a collection of news articles from recent years about discrimination, students interviewed a person who had been the target of injustice for one of these specific reasons. Finally, students wrote and recorded a fictional first-person StoryCorps piece (2-3 minute snippet of a powerful, personal story) based in the reality that they discovered through their research, allowing them to climb into someone else’s skin and briefly see the world from a new perspective.
Fictional STORYCORP 1
Interviewer: Today I will be interviewing Melissa Vining, a 23-year-old nurse who lives in Philadelphia. When she was 12, she felt different from everyone else and didn’t know how to explain how she felt to anyone, even her parents. She didn’t tell anyone until she was 21. Here she is now, to tell her story.
Melissa: My name is Melissa, and I am gay.
Interviewer: Where are you from?
Melissa: I grew up in New York City where people can be rough on you and there was a lot of crime.
Interviewer: When did you discover you were gay?
Melissa: Ever since I was 12, I knew I was different from everyone else. I was going back and forth with myself on whether I should tell my parents and friends, or to keep it to myself. I ended up telling no one because I thought that someone would try to hurt or make fun of me. It was really difficult for me to keep this secret, which dealt with the biggest part of me. I went through nine years of my life, hiding and not expressing to anyone, who I am.
Interviewer: Why did you feel like you could not tell your parents, a sibling or a close friend?
Melissa: When I was young I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone since my parents would probably say: “Wow, why do you think so? Are you sure? This is not funny – stop fooling around.” I was too scared to say anything.
Interviewer: Why did you decide to tell your parents when you turned 21?
Melissa: Now I’m not living with my parents, I’m more independent and paying my own bills. I’ve grown up more and learned how to face situations.
Interviewer: How did your parents react when you told them you were gay?
Melissa: They were really shocked and weren’t disapproving but weren’t supportive of me. It felt disappointing and upsetting yet a weight was lifted off my shoulders.
Interviewer: Did your parents feelings about you being gay change as time went on?
Melissa: Yes, six months after I told my parents, they called me and said “we need to talk.” So I went to their house and we had a heart to heart talk. They were very supportive and accepting.
My parents told me that they would defend me no matter what.
Fictional STORYCORP 2
Madelyn Thomas was in her 20s when she first noticed that women were being treated differently in the workplace simply because of their gender. She saw that very few women were in management positions and pay was unequal, too. Madelyn Thomas remembers what it like when she experienced gender discrimination as a young woman in the work world.
Interviewer: Could you describe what happened and how you felt when you first experienced gender discrimination?
Madelyn Thomas: Sure. When I was in my late 20s, I started working for a large healthcare company, and I soon realized that in our division, almost all of the managers were men. There was only one woman in upper-level management, so when the executive team would get together, it was nine men and only one woman. As our division grew and got bigger over time, only a few women became managers, and there was still only one woman at that top level.
It was very disproportionate and felt very frustrating to me and the other women working there. We had many talented female employees, but few female managers. I’ve heard this type of gender discrepancy has become a real problem in many tech firms. At Microsoft, the workforce is mostly male, especially at the executive level. They say they’re committed to a diverse workforce, but they have a long way to go!
Interviewer: How did this discrimination affect you personally? What impact did it have on your life?
Madelyn Thomas: Well, after working for this company for a number of years, I had developed a specialty and was leading a group of people, but my manager had never recognized me for this. A promotion was always put off for one reason or another. It wasn’t until I got a new manager, Michael, that I realized I had been overlooked for a long time, most likely because I was a woman. Michael knew that the culture of our division had been focused on hiring and promoting men into management positions, and he wanted to change things. It took progressive people like him to come on board and shake things up by bringing in more women to lead groups and manage teams.
When I became a manager myself, I realized that pay discrepancy was another form of gender discrimination that had been going on. Some men were being paid more than the women for doing the same job, and these women had just as much or even more experience than the men! This was eye-opening to me because we really hadn’t been allowed to talk about things like pay, but when I was promoted into a management role, I learned a lot and saw that certain things were out of balance. It made me angry, but I was able to turn it around and do something positive with it. We started to speak up with the executive team. We brought in more talented women and were quick to recognize their contributions and promote them.
Interviewer: Do you still see gender discrimination happening today?
Madelyn Thomas: The good news is that things are getting better, but the bad news is that gender discrimination is still going on. Each week, there’s a story in the news about gender discrimination. Women are putting a spotlight on unfair practices, such as being underpaid, under-promoted, or being discriminated due to pregnancy or child care responsibilities. Even in Hollywood, state and federal agencies are investigating intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors. So, even though we’ve come a long way, there’s definitely more work to be done!
In closing, how would you define justice?
Madelyn Thomas: To me, justice means treating others fairly and with equality, regardless of what background they have—regardless of their gender, race, religion, or status in society. If you work hard and contribute, those are the things that people should see in you. This is something we need more of in our society, and the young people are the ones who can carry this idea forward and make the world a better place.