By Ericka Carr |

Words danced off the tongues of Terry Tempest Williams and Colum McCann as I leaned forward to absorb every syllable of wisdom the writers could offer. At times their conversation mimicked their lyrical writing as they spoke at Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities, Tuesday afternoon.

As Williams began to read, I clung to her words. I realized that much of her upbringing mirrored mine – a strong patriarchy, the silencing of ideas, and a lack of diversity among people.

Williams writes for democracy, equality. An act that she claims offers herself up as “a critique among my own people.”

I grew up much like she did in a small, conservative, religious town. One where my ideals were force fed, a source for my later reckonings. I sat silently in an act of careful avoidance trying too hard for approval. For most of my life, I remained silent, afraid of facing judgment for taking a stand. Not to say that I too wasn’t guilty of silencing opposition.

Williams and McCann both spoke about empathy and the need to listen to those that are different than us. The two co-founded a non-profit called Narrative 4 that seeks to build empathy in students from different backgrounds. Through this program, kids from The Bronx can discuss issues like gun laws with students from Kentucky. Because of Narrative 4, these students were able to set aside their opinions and open-mindedly accept their differences. 

McCann asked the audience, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say to one another ‘I don’t agree with you, but I could like you?’”

I thought about what my hometown would look like if they had partnered with Narrative 4. Would I have had the courage to speak my mind? To stand against the fear that silenced me? 

I never talked about compassion when immigration came up or the truth about Darwinism when I heard another tangent about evolution. Even now, I’m scared that my beliefs are too conservative or too liberal. Fear controlled me. I just wanted to feel loved and accepted, so I didn’t dare speak out.

“The only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart,” McCann said.

McCann claimed that the key to saving democracy is embracing our differences. We should no longer align ourselves to one side or another– to do away with red and blue in exchange for purple. By continuing to separate ourselves, we feed the disunity among our people. 

Ultimately, we are a collective. Our stories unite us. 

As Terry Tempest Williams and Colum McCann read, I heard their words the way they were meant to sound – a challenge. They discussed the contemporary artist’s role in saving democracy, and McCann proposed that they are our peacemaker or even the thorn in our side that pushes the collective towards change. 

Here I sit, a writer with a platform to share my words. Do I, the contemporary artist, have the ability to unite us once more?

Not alone. But through our stories, I can.