Katie Orenstein
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   United States

Katie Orenstein

The Op-Ed Project
Katie is changing the demographics of voice in America by increasing the number and diversity of ideas in our public discourse.
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Check out this video for more on Katie's work:

This description of Katie Orenstein's work was prepared when Katie Orenstein was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Katie is changing the demographics of voice in America by increasing the number and diversity of ideas in our public discourse.

The New Idea

Katie founded the OpEd Project to create a sea change in our public conversation by empowering a wave of new voices to join the important discourse of our age, take their equal place as narrators of the world, and then encourage and refer others to do the same—creating a multiplier effect that will alter the patterns of under-representation in media and other influential outlets. What began as an initiative to increase the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums (such as the OpEd pages of major newspapers) has grown into a national movement dedicated to making our public conversation more inclusive and more intelligent.

They systems by which ideas flow into the world have historically been exclusive and narrow, perpetuating a culture whereby a small and demographically narrow group of people have a monopoly on voice. But today the massive media technology moment we live in is causing tectonic shifts beneath our feet and creating opportunities for a much wider range of voices to be heard. Through the OpEd Project, Katie hopes to ‘hijack the system’ and change the culture so that good ideas, regardless of where they originate, have a chance to be heard and ultimately to shape policy and social progress.

To do so, the OpEd Projects partners with universities, think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, corporations and community organizations across the nation, scouts and trains under-represented experts (especially women) to take thought leadership positions in their fields; connects them with an international network of high-level media mentors; and vets and channels the best new ideas and experts directly to media gatekeepers in all media platforms. The OpEd team offers customized multi-day and multi-week programs for organizations as well as day-long programs open to the public in major US cities. They also run yearlong fellowship programs for faculty and other influencers within key institutions – from Yale and Princeton to the Ford Foundation – who then become ambassadors for the work at the institutional level.

Ultimately Katie hopes to build, together with a network of collaborating institutions, an ‘open-source think tank’ that taps into and disseminates expertise and perspective across a wide range of ideas that matter via high leverage, high visibility channels.

The Problem

Most of the voices we hear in the world come from an extremely narrow slice of society – mostly white, western, privileged, and overwhelmingly male. Across a wide spectrum of forums (from Congress to corporate boards to Hollywood directors, from pundits on Sunday talk shows on TV, to Wikipedia editors, to expert opinion forums) women represent on average only about 17% share of voice. Voices of color overall are approximately 13%. This lack of voice leads to unequal distribution of resources and opportunity at every level; and more profoundly, to a culture of disenfranchisement – in which most of the people of the world are not heard, cannot hope to change things beyond their immediate sphere (if that), and do not feel they can make a difference in any real way.

There are many reasons for this imbalance of voice, but a lack of knowledge or skill on the part of those who are underrepresented is not among them. Rather, the root cause is a culture of exclusion in which minority voices (including women) rarely have the inside information, connections or resources to become influential in our public spheres. On a systemic level, the voices and ideas that can enter public discourse are severely constrained at every inflection point, but especially at the early entry points – such as, for example, key op-ed pages, where underrepresented groups are sorted out of the conversation before they ever enter it. These forums are early blueprints that shape the direction of public discourse and history.

Moreover, the lack of representation in such forums contributes to withdrawal on the part of groups who internalize – in subtle but nonetheless significant ways – a lack of confidence or relevance in their own expertise. This lower self-permission is reflected in the significantly fewer submissions to influential forums, perpetuating a negative cycle.

Currently, this problem – lack of voice – is addressed in a hodgepodge of ways. Many organizations and initiatives address the lack of representation in specific arenas (focusing on media or politics, for example), or silos (focusing on women, or people of color, or low income groups, for example). These are important and necessary efforts, but there is inadequate connection and collaboration among them, in part because there is relatively little focus on the shared systems and culture of underrepresentation that connect us. There is also a need for more intentional and more collaborative efforts to address the cultural and mindset changes that need to be in place in order to correct these imbalances at the core.

The Strategy

Katie’s strategy is to saturate our public discourse with new voices and new perspectives until the depth and breadth of those voices on any media platform becomes a key measure of its quality and authority. To do so, the OpEd Project works both at the grassroots level to provide training and support for any citizen across the country in the form of self-sustaining workshops, and at the institutional level with partner organizations who will accelerate the shift toward inclusiveness.

New ideas and voices most readily enter the public ecosystem through "front door" forums – such as the op-ed page of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more recently high-visibility blog platforms like the Huffington Post and Medium. Since these forums funnel resources and talent to all other media (social, TV, books), imbalances at the front door predict greater imbalances later in the chain. These forums are enormous predictors of which ideas and individuals will rise in influence. For example, as Katie points out, when CNN and other major news organizations search for expert opinions to bring on the air for perspective on a whole range of issues – from science and technology to poverty or racism – the first place they pull from is opinion pages of major newspapers because that is an immediate vetting tool. Therefore, on a strategic level, the OpEd Project has implemented initiatives that target these high leverage forums which can set in motion a disproportionate change as the flow of diverse ideas and voices increases.

Over the last several years, the OpEd Project has invested in two national initiatives to accelerate the ideas and public impact of underrepresented voices, especially women. The first is the Public Voices Fellowship that targets senior leaders and has already launched at over a dozen foundations and institutions (Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Northwestern, UT Austin, Ford Foundation, Ms. Foundation, and more). More than 240 diverse thinkers and influencers participated in the Public Voices Fellowship last year. The yearly Fellowship gathers underrepresented expert voices within these key institutions who participate in monthly seminars and workshops designed to help them articulate their specific expertise and then begin packaging that expertise in ways that can have broad relevance and appeal. The curriculum, called ‘Mattering’, focuses less on the craft of writing and communicating and more on identifying and addressing the assumptions that many underrepresented groups hold about what they know and whether their expertise matters. The first exercise on Day 1 has each participant complete the single sentence “Hello my name is X and I am an expert in Y because Z” – and often reveals fascinating patterns across minority groups including what Katie calls the ‘abuse of modesty’.

The criteria for participation is that (1) women must make up a majority, (2) all participants must be members of a group that is underrepresented in some form, and (3) the group represents a wide diversity of fields of thought and lived experience. Already from these Public Voices Fellowships significant and influential thought pieces have ended up in key media. At Columbia, the group spent weeks discussing the Ebola epidemic and was influential in lifting the quarantine in the U.S. Meanwhile at Emory, participants published a Washington Post Op-ed on white rage which was one of the most read of the year. Each Fellowship produces approximately 100 pieces which together reach from 1 million to as many as 10 million readers. Fellowship groups at each institution are paired with journalist mentors who provide light training over the course of the year and who become important contacts well after the Fellowship is complete. And of course, the process of participating throughout the year is itself transformative for Fellows who gain confidence and experience articulating their expertise, translating it for relevant audiences, and placing it out into the world. To spread the impact beyond the group, each participant commits to becoming an internal ambassador for peers and colleagues to follow suit.

Demand for institutional participation in the Public Voices Fellowship is high because institutions have a self-interested reason to participate: it helps them amplify their own voice and spread their ideas. Rather than having to heavily ‘pitch’ Public Voices, the OpEd Project has a long line of eager groups, from universities to LGBT organizations to the Asia Pacific Leaders group most recently.

A second major initiative, Write to Change the World, reaches many more people but in a short burst fashion. These programs are structured as one-day workshops open to any person regardless of affiliation, education level, or privilege – though just like Public Voices they seek out participation among underrepresented voices and women in particular. Each workshop brings together 20 people for an eclectic, diverse, game-based day of live experimentation around ideas and impact – and is designed to generate immediate results and create doorways into the OpEd Project ecosystem. Katie and her team currently run workshops in 10 U.S. cities with plans to expand to 5 more in 2016. Via a train-the-trainers approach, the hope is that workshops can grow and sustain themselves at a much larger scale over the next 2-3 years and operate in dozens of cities.

In addition, the OpEd team is increasingly pursuing partnerships with media outlets that also seek a better balance in their viewpoints but have consistently struggled to do so. One recent example was a one-month partnership with Al-Jazeera America where the news outlet committed to inverting its 80/20 male/female ratio for 30 days and worked with OpEd Project to source the content. Katie is also working with groups like MIT Media Lab to better understand how ideas spread and influence us, how and why mindsets shift sometimes quite rapidly, and the effects of broadening the source of the ideas and content that consistently reaches the American public en masse. She then uses the research to pinpoint high leverage opportunities, which include penetrating a wide range of ‘expert ideas forums’ outside traditional media that make up what Katie calls the broader ‘landscape of voice.’

The OpEd Project goal is to get to a tipping point where representation in our public discourse is permanently different. They track both individual program results, as well as impact on the landscape. In the seven years since its founding, there has been a marked improvement in women's representation in key opinion forums. For example, in 2008, women voices made up 15 percent of key opinion forums; today that percentage is in the mid-20s which represents an increase of roughly 66%. For Katie and her team, the milestone in mind is 33 percent – where research suggests a tipping point occurs in a way that can irreversibly change the game.

But the intended impact lies well beyond movement of percentage points. Katie sees these percentages as a proxy for a change in culture that is more inclusive and provides greater pathways for a diversity of voices to be heard, and for people to stand up and take action. In other words, it’s not simply about replacing a current small set of thinkers and influencers with a new small set that looks different – rather it’s about precipitating a mindset shift so that more citizens recognize their expertise and feel a sense of responsibility and even obligation for sharing that with the world. The workshops and fellowships are initial steps in this direction, but the theory of change is that as more diverse voices are showcased with greater frequency, they will attract still others, and an irreversible new normal will emerge where both the confidence and sense of responsibility to contribute have gone up, while the barriers to contributing have come down. The impact of such a change would flow downstream in ways that influence everything from the content of health and nutrition literature (Katie reminds us that heart disease is actually the #1 killer of women in America but because of the dominance of male voices and literature this fact is widely misunderstood) to the types of policies and legislation and even candidates we see at the ballot box.

The OpEd Project has a team of 25 workshop leaders and 6 full-time managers with a budget of $1.8M in 2015. Fifty percent of its revenue comes from paid Fellowship programs. OpEd has a four-person governing board as well as a larger advisory board that includes David Bornstein. Among its growth goals in the next 2-3 years is to expand the Fellowship partners from 12 to 30 and to organize them into a more cohesive ‘fleet of ships’ that are in more regular communication post-Fellowship.

The Person

Katie’s father’s family is from Russia. Her grandfather was an immigrant who began working to manufacture hat bindings at age eight and eventually earned enough money to put all his children through college. Her mother meanwhile has roots that trace back to the Mayflower, and founded one of the first Montessori schools in Oakland, CA. Katie grew up in a civil rights family, her aunt being the first white member of the NAACP in Missouri.

For Katie, even within her family, there existed a subtle frustration and tension around which stories were told and which perspectives dominated. While social justice was a regular topic of conversation, feminism rarely was. When she moved to Haiti in 1990 during the first democratic elections, followed by the military coup, she was stunned at how few stories from the majority class ever emerged in international publications. The result was sometimes a 10-fold discrepancy in the number of casualties reported, and thus had consequences for how the world would react and what kinds of political action might be taken. At the time Katie was studying folklore, tracing the evolution of stories over time, including fairy tales, and she began thinking more and more about the impact of lack of voice on societal groups and social progress. Then she began to write, and her first pieces focused on the ‘who’ of storytelling and the implications on how we perceive the world and on the information we act on.

Later, back in the United States, Katie was similarly surprised and dismayed to discover that 90 percent of the major Op-ed columns in this country were penned by men. Perhaps even more surprising was the discovery that 90 percent of submissions themselves also came from men. She founded the OpEd Project to close that specific gender imbalance, and over time her work evolved to focus more broadly on democratizing voice and on creating pathways for diverse perspectives to find their way onto platforms of disproportionate leverage and influence.

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