Voices of Change

Mary Clare drove cross-country over the first 100 days of the Obama administration to capture and share conversations about change.

by Dave Jarecki

“What if … I drove around the country to find out what Americans of all political and social backgrounds are thinking about change?” The question bubbled up to Mary Clare, professor of counseling psychology, on the evening of December 31, 2008. By January 15, she’d lined up places around the Untied States to stay and people with whom to speak. Then, from January 21 through April 30—the first 100 days of the Obama administration—Clare embarked on a cross-country project known as Ex:Change, engaging in (and videotaping) conversations with friends, family, and even strangers. Twenty-eight states, 10,000 miles, and little more than two years later, the interviews, along with Clare’s travel notes and reflections, are available as 100 Voices: Americans Talk About Change, published in fall 2011 by LoudMouth Press.

“I have been studying and working on creating dialogue across differences since I came to Lewis & Clark two decades ago. In many ways, Ex:Change provided the opportunity for me to live it in a new way. Once I made the decision that this was what I was going to do, the project gained a wildfire-like momentum.”

Reflecting on why the project resonated so strongly with her, Clare recalls finding inspiration in the work of Studs Terkel, specifically his volume, Working.

“There’s something powerful about Terkel’s ability to be absolutely present and yet removed in his interviews. He was there, but he also disappeared. That quality of listening has always struck me.”

Throughout 100 Voices, Clare sets the framework of each conversation around three core aspects of change: what it means, what endures in its wake, and how we recognize its positive manifestations. From there, her interviewees take over. As she engaged people from all walks of life and from all sides of the political spectrum, Clare saw that listening creates the chance to step beyond differences.

“Change is a universal idea. Therefore, it was very important for me to hear from as many different types of people as possible, no matter what their politics were.” What Clare found was that Americans, as diverse as we are, have more in common than what we are sometimes led to believe.

“While our differences can be significant, in large part those differences are in how to accomplish values we share. If you listen long enough, you start recognizing ways we all see the world the same.”

Among the commonalities that emerged during the interviews included people’s views on the environment, the military, job creation, and education—core principles that were on everyone’s mind when they heard the word change. In addition, Clare’s interviewees had consistent thoughts related to their own roles in the process.

“No matter where people came from or what they believed in, they wanted kids to be supported, water to be clean, and wars to be stopped. And they wanted to do their part. They didn’t want to be passive watchers.”

Back in Portland, Clare spent chunks of 2009 and 2010 transcribing her interviews, uploading more videos, and maintaining an active blog to keep the project alive. Throughout the process, the idea for a book remained in the back of her mind.

“My daughter, Sara, was a big help with that. She continued to encourage me even when I was discouraged. I sent out a lot of e-mails to agents, and when those didn’t hit, I went straight to publishers. I think LoudMouth, being a small press, showed a lot of courage in picking it up.”

LoudMouth’s Greg Ayres was on board from the start.

“The project definitely caught my attention,” Ayres says. “Our mission is very much about giving a platform for voices that are not normally heard. 100 Voices gives readers an intimate experience with 100 random strangers, and a chance to consider what boxes we put others in, and how we limit ourselves with preconceptions.”

Clare’s “Road Notes” sections, which cover everything from travel musings to reflections on the conversations, bring her voice into the narrative. The book also includes stencil illustrations of more than a dozen speakers so readers can put faces to some of the voices.

With the book’s release, Clare is pleased to know that the conversations will continue to live on through time.

“In a way the project is time-bound, and in a way it isn’t. These conversations encompass a critical snapshot in the history of our country. On the flipside, there’s something exceptional about being listened to. The book provides some important insights into what happens when people listen to one another across our differences.”

Dave Jarecki is a freelance writer in Portland.

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