Multitasking can change the world

Multitasking has a bad reputation these days. As well it should; it’s probably the least efficient way to work. Or to do anything, for that matter. But the right kind of multitasking can change the world.

Take my friend Jan Abernathy. I wrote about her last week. So far we’ve only met in the comments thread of a mutual friend’s Facebook post and in a lively exchange of texts that followed. But I already like her.

I know Jan Abernathy’s multitasking can change the world; indeed, it already has.

You see, Jan works for a small independent school. And like most administrative folks at small independent schools, she wears two hats. In this case, she’s a co-chair of her school’s equity and justice task force. And she also does marketing and communications, which includes editing and publishing the school’s magazine.

It turns out, Jan and I had already met. By email, a few years ago. She remembered my name when our friend introduced us—”But I thought, what are the odds?”

When I sent in my class news for the magazine, it must have stood out. While most graduates write about their children or their career milestones, I wrote about my wedding. To a woman.

I didn’t even think twice about sending the wedding announcement to my high school and college alumnae magazines. But my grammar school….Whenever I see photos of their events it always looks like the Republican convention. (Not the most recent one—the ones before the party lost its collective mind.) You know what I mean: happy, affluent, straight, suburban people sipping Chardonnay.

If they thought the school turned out lesbians, they might spill their wine.

“Got married—finally!”

But I sent in the news anyway:

Got married—finally!—in Dec. 2013. My wife, Dane, works at [Fancy University] so I moved to [Fancy University Town] and am enjoying the perq of auditing classes for free. Still writing speeches for the corporate world (see BennettInk.com) and singing (see ElaineStGeorge.com). Just won a Bistro Award for Outstanding Vocalist.

I expected if they ran it at all, they’d try to slip it in as unobtrusively as possible.

When I saw the return email, I figured they were going to ask me to edit it—”for space,” naturally. Instead they said: Tell us more! Where did you get married? And can you send a photo?

I sent in the the details about the church and the priest and the reception. But a photo? The last thing I ever expected.

The photographer was still a couple of months away from giving us his work, so we didn’t have one of those everyone-lines-up-and-smiles-at-the-wedding pictures. I wrote back that I wouldn’t have anything appropriate in time for their deadline.

The response: We’ll wait.

multitasking can change the worldStill, I understand deadlines. So I sent back the only photo we had at that moment: Just the two of us. Very intimate. Very not suburban heterosexual. I was sure they’d never run it.

They not only ran it, they ran it in a call-out box. My lesbian wedding photo could hardly have been more prominent if they’d put it on the cover.

Eventually my amazement faded and I thought nothing more about it until last week, when Jan Abernathy told me she worked for a small independent school in the town where I had attended a small independent school.

And then she said she remembered my wedding.

I told Jan how much I had appreciated her asking for more details, for a photo. She said she was sure some people were shocked to read about the wedding, but those comments never reached her. And the photo: “I was prepared to fight for that picture,” she texted me. I almost cried. No, I’m lying; I did cry.

Intersectionality and multitasking can change the world

There’s a lot of talk these days about “intersectionality”—that no one is ever just one thing. For instance, I am simultaneously white, lesbian, Christian, an entrepreneur. I can’t really tease out the strands of my personality to present only one at a time. You are many things too, in addition to being one of my readers (for which I am grateful).

Jan Abernathy’s work-intersectionality—what I’ve been calling her “multitasking”—is what got my wedding photo published in that grammar school magazine. The school could have put many people in charge of the publication—at one point long ago, my beloved 4th grade teacher edited it—but they gave the job to the person who also works hard on inclusion issues, someone who gives marginalized people a voice within the school community. And when she opened my email, she saw an opportunity to lift up one kind of voice that doesn’t often get heard in that context. Honestly, I’m still amazed that it happened.

I told Jan that when she asked me for my photo, she made me feel normal. I mean, I don’t go around consciously feeling abnormal, but on two or three occasions I’ve had something happen that showed me what “regular” feels like. And it’s always odd to recognize that “regular” is not my usual state.

As it happened, Jan and I had our text conversation while she was en route to a conference for new heads of independent schools and she told my story, our story, to illustrate the impact that inclusion can have. On a person, on a school. On a community.

I loved that school. When I attended, way back in the late 20th century, it was about as diverse as you’d expect a school in an affluent New Jersey suburb to be. Which is to say not very. I’m glad they had the foresight—and the guts—to hire Jan. And to support her efforts to create visibility for the diverse members of the community, even if it does make some Chardonnay glasses tremble.

But this isn’t just a story about Jan Abernathy. It’s about all of us. Because we can’t be bystanders. If we want a diverse, inclusive culture, we can’t just sit back and let the “inclusion officers” handle it.

So I have some questions for you: Whose voice can you lift up today? Whose story can you tell?

“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” — John F. Kennedy


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