Today is the 20th anniversary of the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. It also marks my 20th year in Minnesota…and there is a connection.
Twenty years ago September, I stuffed all the worldly possessions I could fit into a poorly air-conditioned 1982 Ford Escort and drove from Rhode Island to Minneapolis. My goal: go to graduate school, get a couple degrees from the School of Journalism and maybe become a professor (I didn’t become a professor, but that’s a story for another time).
People constantly asked me what I wanted to study, I had the germ of an idea. It grew straight out of the Cold War and its aftermath, and was, essentially this: How was everything we’d ever learned about the world so completely wrong? And what was the media’s role?
You have to understand that growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no doubt about how the world worked. The Russians were evil, inscrutable and powerful. Half of Europe was in thrall to the Soviets, and always would be. War was unthinkable and inevitable. These were incontrovertible facts and always would be. Until Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about glasnost and perestroika and the United States didn’t get in the way, and in a few years, the Wall came down. And those incontrovertible facts…weren’t.
When people heard my thesis topic, they often assumed I had an interest in Russia and Russian history. I didn’t, not specifically anyway. My interest was in how a society – and the media in particular – perpetuated this inflexible worldview…in the ways we get trapped by stereotypes and stories, and ignore what doesn’t fit so that nothing changes.
So when I think of how the Wall came down, I feel the joy of the people of Europe embracing freedom. And I also think about change – about how the people of Europe began to believe that things could be different. About the need to look past “what is” and toward “what could be” in my own life and work. Because today, as individuals and as organizations, we are the media … we can help people see the world in new ways. When the story should change — or simply could be better, or fresher, or more meaningful — it’s not just in our power to embrace change – it’s our responsibility.