Summer reading (and listening)

August 22, 2019

Dear Changemakers,

As summer winds down, I admit I have to be more realistic about what I can get to reading before fall. However, I’m feeling newly inspired by the Urban Institute’s most recent Critical Value podcast episode, filled with thought-provoking reading suggestions from my colleagues. I encourage you to listen to their picks or check out the list below.

One sentiment from my colleague Bridget Lowell stuck with me. She spoke about the power of narrative storytelling to create empathy. She reminded me that reading fiction is an exercise in empathy; it helps us see life through someone else’s eyes and has the power to influence our perceptions. And it reminds me why people need more than just the facts for persuasion, something I’ve been reflecting on a lot this summer as it relates to our work at Urban. Now, some of you know I am a Hidden Brain groupie, and Shankar Vedantam’s recent podcast episodes about the scarcity mind-set and why facts aren’t enough are especially relevant to the challenges we tackle as a research organization that aims to improve people’s lives, advance equity, and strengthen communities.

My introspection is personal, too, fueled by extra time with family and friends and milestones of our own. I was lucky enough to spend the summer with my two daughters, one of whom is about to leave for college. Boy, it is tough to be a teenage girl today. I’ve been reading two books about teenage daughters by Lisa Damour, Untangled and Under Pressure, to try to understand this better. I’ve found her writing clear, helpful, and resonant to my own life and that of my children.

Finally, I cannot write about summer reading, listening, and storytelling without remembering the American icon, Toni Morrison. Ahead of a family visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture the other week, I read Interim Museum Director Spencer Crew’s statement on her passing, which led me to her 1993 Nobel lecture. There, she spoke about the power of language. Her words seem sadly appropriate to our time.

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered, and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

What are you reading and ruminating on as the summer winds down?

Warmly,
Sarah

Critical Value’s summertime reading list
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society
Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works
Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
Pachinko
When Breath Becomes Air
The Solace of Open Spaces
The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team