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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Listening to America

Woman takes journey to capture 100 voices in 100 days

By Rob Bednark
The Portland Upside
September 2009

Photo by Hamid Shabatta Bennett

Inspired by Studs Terkel, Mary Clare traveled the country and recorded American’s views on the topic of change.

After the 2008 presidential election last November, change seemed to be on the minds of many Americans. Mary Clare, graduate psychology professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, found herself thinking about change as a central theme of the campaign, regardless of party affiliation. She wondered what people meant by the word “change.” The view presented by the media was one thing, but what would a cross section of Americans say when asked about the meaning of change?

In August, several months before the election, she had made a decision to work only half time during the 2008-2009 school term. She couldn’t articulate why she was cutting back, or why she needed the time, only that she needed to do it. Then after analyzing the campaign and economic downturn with her students in a diversity class, an idea for a project began percolating.

Mary remembers being profoundly moved some 30 years ago when she first encountered a book by Studs Terkel. He had a way of capturing the voices of ordinary Americans, real people, and presenting them to readers in a captivating and unadorned way. He focused on what people said, rather than on opinions and interpretations of what they expressed.

Inspired by Terkel, Mary decided to take her own journey to capture the voices of Americans. For her project she chose the first 100 days of the Obama administration and she set a goal of interviewing 100 people.

On December 31, Mary sent an email to friends and relatives announcing her plans. She asked for referrals to any acquaintances, interview subjects whom she shouldn’t miss. She also asked if they knew of anyone who would be willing to let her roll out her sleeping bag for a night. Within two weeks she had offers for places to stay all over the country and a list of people to interview.
Mary named her project “EX:Change09”, capturing the topic of “change” and the “exchange” of ideas. The two dots in the colon are red and blue, symbolizing Republicans and Democrats; the letters and numbers are purple, symbolizing the color-mixing of red and blue.

She chose three questions “general enough to allow for any given respondent to take the conversation whatever way seems right to them:”

What does change mean to you, right now?

In the midst of change, what is important to have remain the same?

What will change look like—what will you recognize as solid evidence that change has happened?

On February 2, Mary hit the road, alone in her Mini Cooper. Over the next 50 days she headed south into California, across the southern states to Georgia, up the eastern coast to Delaware, and across the upper half of the country back to Portland, traveling through 28 states, logging 10,000 miles.

Along the way she videotaped over 50 interviews, some of them prearranged, and others spontaneous, often in coffee shops. She deliberately talked with people from all walks of life: rich, poor, homeless, seven-year-olds, 80-somethings, and Americans of varying political affiliations, religious beliefs, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

In a coffee shop in California, Todd, a 25-year-old senior at San Diego State University, took a break from pouring over his finance text to talk about change.

“I don’t really know why I changed. I mean, all through foster care and even adoption the adults all said that I would never be anything but a loser. But here’s the thing: I’m not living that prediction. I have changed and I’m committed to building a real life for myself.”

In a Tucson, Arizona coffee shop a 65-year-old woman named Cheri agreed to an interview.
Cheri wants a government for the people, not for business or for bigger government. She wants freedom. A retired law enforcement officer who’s lived in Tucson for 55 years, she raised her children to be bilingual and learned Spanish herself because “it’s only right to have both languages if you want to do any job well in this city.”

Cheri is also a practicing Muslim, raised in the mosque by her Iranian father and Euro-American mother. After 9/11, she stopped wearing hijab—the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women—because of fear for her own safety. Three years ago, Cheri still didn’t feel safe enough to wear hijab, but she was tired of hiding her identity, and wanted to do something to symbolize her devotion to God and her hope “for all people to be well and at peace.” She then showed Mary a tattoo that means “Islam.”

While getting her things together to leave a coffee shop on the banks of the Guadalupe River in Texas, Mary overheard David and Tommy talking about their Sunday school class. They were willing to stop their conversation for a minute to talk about change.

oth devout Christians, they spoke with pride of their church community in Kerrville, Texas. They spoke of the 200-300 in their youth ministry and the evidence in a recent personality inventory that these kids are ready to be active in making their community a more peaceful and kind place.

Both men emphasized the importance of family and the necessity of shifting values from greed and materialism to concern for one another and for the environment. Tommy, the older of the two, said it was time for Americans to get over being hung up on our differences and to start working together on the urgent matters facing our country.

“We’ve been majoring in the minors and not in the majors,” Tommy said.

A white man in Jackson, Mississippi, spoke specifically of the noise of dueling ideologies. People on both sides are bound and determined not to give an inch, to the point of sacrificing the well-being of the people of the country, just to save their rigid positions and inflated pride. Other Americans down the west coast and across the southwest and Texas mentioned this frustration.

In Georgia, Mary interviewed a woman who was a McCain supporter. The main thing this woman wanted? To see Americans stop demonizing one another, to be in dialogue and to listen.

Four hours later, Mary was in another Georgia town, interviewing a 17-year-old Obama supporter and daughter of ex-hippies. This teenager echoed the same sentiment as the other Georgian, that Americans stop putting others down, listen more and find more understanding.
Two young women who worked at the Starbucks in York, Nebraska spoke with Mary. They spoke about the media’s habit of exaggerating the negative and how that relates to change.

“We get the wrong picture and start thinking no one can be trusted and that the country is doomed,” said the first woman, an immigrant from Eastern Europe.

“Good luck,” the second and quieter woman said. “We need this—to know what Americans are really thinking.”

Mary did over 50 more interviews with people around Portland and in Washington, for a total of 105 interviews in 100 days. What does she take away from the project?

A number of themes emerge from the interviews, including kindness, resiliency, realism, a wait-and-see attitude, more willingness to compromise and listen than we’ve been led to believe, and people’s desire to play active roles in positive solutions.

Currently working with volunteers to transcribe the interviews, Mary is considering making them available in a book, and expanding the project’s website. She notes that EX:Change09 is not hers, but has a life of its own, guided by the ideas and participation of everyone who gets involved.

Along the way Mary noticed she had become enthusiastic about using the term “American.” What she found in the voices of the people heartened and encouraged her. She says that Americans have “more strong places to build on than we realize.”

In the 105 voices, Mary found a fundamental intelligence, an intelligence we don’t hear unless we ask questions and listen.


Find out more about Mary Clare’s EX:Change09 interview project on her website, Portions of this article are excerpted from Mary’s blog, She can be contacted by email at

Rob Bednark spent over 60 hours last year interviewing 27 people around Portland, just for the fun of it, and was amazed at what he learned.

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