A few years ago I spoke in front of a diverse group of students. As I walked onto the stage, the students didn’t look up and chatted among themselves. I began my presentation, and their conversations continued. For a flash moment, I was filled with fear. Then I realized that they didn’t know anything about me.
I stopped speaking, and the conversations ceased. That’s when I decided to ask them this question: Who do you think I am? I gave them full permission to give honest replies.
Hands immediately shot up and the responses came fast and furious. Privileged white woman. Rich. Never had a hard day in your life.
I answered them just as rapidly by introducing the fabric of my life: daughter of a concentration camp survivor. Granddaughter of a slave. First family member to attend university.
As barriers came tumbling down and misconceptions discussed and dispelled, cell phones were immediately pocketed. We were making human connections now. Our new conversation was dynamic, honest, and heartfelt. It lasted for more than an hour.
This wasn’t my first experience of being judged by appearance. A few years after journalism school, I auditioned for a news reporter job. The director suggested I become a “weather girl.” I refused and spent twelve years reporting and eventually anchoring the network news.
When I followed my passion to cover sports like the NHL, even before I filed my first feature, I was booed by male reporters who believed that a woman had no right to report on a “man’s sport.”
Looking back, I realize that those early experiences prepared me to write about advocacy.
Now, as an author of middle-grade and young adult nonfiction, it’s my responsibility to put my investigative journalism skills to work peeling away the layers of misconception to get at the truth. Once the truth is established, it’s essential to place that truth into context and present the story with a narrative force equal to a gripping novel. It’s the kind of hard work that can take years. The effort is a pure labor of love. But the fourth layer of story is where I come in. My own history as a barrier breaker—steeped in the legacy of strength through struggle—forms the final lens through which I connect the story to our humanity.
When the reader recognizes this connection, the spark of advocacy is ignited and a shift occurs. It has the potential to carry the reader into adulthood seeing the world as “we,” instead of “other.”
It’s the same spark that invites us to explore why it’s so easy to judge a person by appearance and so hard to value another identity if it’s not the same as our own.
So when we meet at NCTE this November, let’s pierce the barrier of misconception and embrace our shared humanity. Let’s discuss the stories of real-life advocates for social change who have gone before us and left invaluable blueprints on how to create the world we want to live in.
Sandra Neil Wallace is the author of the new biography Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights. Her first young adult novel, Muckers, is a Booklist Top 10 Sports Book for Youth and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year. Before becoming an author, Sandra broke a gender barrier in sports. She was the first woman to host an NHL broadcast on network television.