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Join us as we explore the thought provoking themes surrounding CreativeMornings Cleveland's monthly breakfast lecture series. Excerpts of the lecture are book ended by meaningful conversations with attendees and speakers alike.

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Identity ft. Daniel Ortiz

| S:1 E:27

What is identity? Is it who we are? Is it who others see us to be? Does our identity define us or do we define it? So much is wrapped up in this one word. In this episode, we’ll try to unpack it just a bit.

David Moss:

What is identity? Is it who you really are? Is it what's left when you strip away all the nonsense and business of daily life? Is it something so deeply personal that there's no simpler way to express a person's essence? What's at their core? What are person's made of? Like DNA, defining an individual, is our identity something that we're determined by and confined by? Maybe it's just another way for us to be measured and categorized and split into separate segments of the population so that advertisers and drug companies and political campaigns can target us more effectively, or maybe it's something else.

David Moss:

In this episode, I'll be talking with Daniel Ortiz from Policy Matters Ohio, Virginia Douglas, who spent 35 years as a child welfare social worker and Isabel Robertson, who herself works in podcasting and is on the board of directors for the ACLU of Ohio. I'm your host, David Allen Moss. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Wake Up Call.

Thomas Fox:

Hi, I'm Thomas Fox with CreativeMornings Cleveland. We're thrilled to have Evergreen Podcasts on board as our official podcast partner. Evergreen Podcasts is committed to producing the best original content and engaging shows. Right now you're listening to Wake Up Call recorded on location at the monthly creative mornings lecture series. Enjoy.

Daniel Ortiz:

My name is Daniel Ortiz. I work for an organization, Policy Matters Ohio, and we do research, advocacy, strategic communications work, advocating for more vibrant, equitable, sustainable, and inclusive Ohio for everyone. We have folks who are feeling disconnected from our systems and a big part of my job to try to figure out ways to connect those.

David Moss:

And how do you see our theme identity in your work?

Daniel Ortiz:

Intersectional identity based off of family values or the art and culture and other things, political values, but also looking at that with the sort of data driven identity, looking at the different data points that people use to identify characteristics of communities and how that all kind of informs perceptions about communities and perceptions about people and the story that we tell ourselves, that data piece itself, sometimes the story that others look at and see us or prejudge us.

David Moss:

That data that's collected with each click of the mouse. And every question answered on whatever form is in front of us can help to paint a picture.

Daniel Ortiz:

I've been in positions where I've done data and analytics work and you figure out a profile, you set up your filters, you can segment your audience and it gives you a sense, right? There's a story that you can get from big data, but there's also a story to the things that don't really show up. Are you having those one on one conversations? Are you doing things to validate and cross check and see if things are making sense? And I think it's having conversations with everyday folks and we can get tied up in the quantified big data stuff.

David Moss:

Identity is personal, right? Can it be broken down into data points? Maybe this is the push pull of technology and us trying to find our way through a changing world.

Daniel Ortiz:

For me a very intersectional piece. And it's like, where's my identity in this current moment? I think it comes back to that story that we tell ourselves. I think there's a lot of things that go into our core identity or core beliefs and values that we hold, but there may be certain parts of it that we are more in touch with at a given moment, right? Race is an aspect of part of the identity construct that most people are working with our culture, our family histories, but also, what are our goals and our hopes and our vision that we're working towards? Right? So I think a lot of those things are big parts of identity, and there's also the disposition and the choices that I'm making right now. And it's like choosing to be an optimist and choosing to be somebody who's working to help, not just keep myself and my family resilient and upbeat, but also my [inaudible 00:04:46] community.

Daniel Ortiz:

I look to my hometown a city like Lorain, Ohio that still to this day has summer festivals, international festival celebrates vibrancy of the various ways of immigration and the different ethnic communities that come together to make that city work. And there was always part of that, that was informing at least my experience when I was going through school, there was obviously different tensions, whether it's class or race based. But I think there was still some sort of a sense, with the idea of like the melting pot, we could debate on that. But I think at least it was helpful in looking at communities that had racial and ethnic diversity and more than anything I think it was the front lines of being in shared space with people.

Daniel Ortiz:

When you have communities that have waves of immigration that still have aspects of the community that show that history I think that to me is a unique part of the U.S. culture that we should look at and see how we can maybe continue to fine tune how we can create spaces that sell our history honestly, to this moment we're also looking to figure out what are things going to look like? How are institutions, our government going to speak to making sure that the folks are whole. And I think that it's important that we are aware that identity can be forged together and offer us a pathway forward, a new shared identity, or it can be used to continue to keep us divided.

Virginia Douglas:

My name is Virginia Douglas. I am a retired child welfare social worker. I have 35 years experience doing public child welfare. The majority of that time I spent in the foster care realm.

David Moss:

Does the age at which a child enters the foster care system affect their sense of identity in different ways?

Virginia Douglas:

Depending on the age, but the younger they are it's simply is a disruption of their entire world. They'd had no other experience to even compare to. Without mommy, without daddy, without grandma, who are you? Of course, you have to keep in mind the context in which children are removed from their birth families. And that's only in extreme cases of abuse or neglect. So there has to be overwhelmingly just cause to remove kids from that initial environment. That doesn't mean that the child doesn't have significant ties that are being disrupted, again the younger they are, it's the only ties they have had, it's all they know.

Virginia Douglas:

Older kids have had other experiences out in the world or school or neighborhood or whatever. But yes, there's a huge disruption in identity. In many cases, probably most cases, it means to change a neighborhood, change a school system and so on. And so those are extra layers of disruption to their world, which is what feeds their identity.

David Moss:

So age does really seem to be a factor in this. You're born into whatever family you're born into. And that certainly has a huge role in each person forming a sense of identity, right?

Virginia Douglas:

That's right. And those early building blocks, like you say of being, you're born into whatever family you're born into. Those are pieces of identity that we don't have control over. Those are the givens in our lives. Who are our parents? What country were you born in? Who were the people around us? And some of those early influences, we don't have any control over. As we grow and mature identity becomes not just the things that are prescribed, so to speak are givens, but what we choose and what we pursue, the older you are the more influences [inaudible 00:08:56].

Virginia Douglas:

So you have more options in a wider world to look at and choose whether you want that influence in your life. Now we don't think it through like that, but in reality, that's what happens when we choose our friends. When we choose, do we want to affiliate with for an example, do you want to be a boy scout? Or do you want to be a gang member? I mean, in a sense, you get to choose. Although of course there are pressures and some of those are unavoidable. And some of them, we kind of put ourselves in the middle of and decide later whether that was a good choice or not.

David Moss:

Wow. This is so interesting and liberating too. We all start someplace, but maybe we have a say at least in some part in where we're heading.

Virginia Douglas:

Oh, absolutely. I think there are core things about identity that form early, and you keep those your whole life, but at age 10, you have no idea who you're going to be at 30. I mean, when we ask kids, what do you want to be when you grow up? And that might give a clue to what they're thinking, but the reality between the answer at 10 and who you really are at 30 is unlikely to actually match up. I think absolutely that your identity is tied to your past. But in a sense, I really think it's more tied to the present and that these things have some flexibility to them. The present is what it is because of the past. So a healthy identity really has to make peace with the past. And that's a big, big issue for all of us. So that identity is tied to the past, but it's cultivated in the present in order to serve the future.

David Moss:

Wow. Well, I would say that's a lot to unpack. I think we all can relate, but the next question I wanted to explore was whether identity is an idea that unites or divides? A little different angle.

Virginia Douglas:

Identity is both a unifier and a divider constantly, simultaneously. And I think this is where things get tricky because history is full of examples of insider outsider divisions, where a strong sense of unity is really sought inside of the group but then that leaves a division from those that are outside the group. And sometimes it can be something basically harmless like being a member of a bowling league or the church praise team or something, while other people are not. But when identity is too exclusively tied to social, religious, political, racial, national power, well, I mean, let's say wars have been fought over less. And I think it's imperative that we reach across whatever it is that divides us to find what unites us.

Virginia Douglas:

And I just believe that identifying is a bridge builder is a beautiful thing. And especially with just the social stress and division that we have going on in the country and the world now, I think that this bridge building and the openness to learning about other is really, really important. We can't be tribal people in the sense of the isolation of my group to the exclusion of all others. In the long run it doesn't work it maybe fun in the short run. It doesn't work in the long run.

Isabel Robertson:

I'm Isabel Robertson. I'm a podcast producer at Evergreen, and I'm also a fact checker researcher for a show called StoryCorps. I am also on the board of directors for the ACLU of Ohio, which is the state affiliate for the National ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union.

David Moss:

As with our other guests, Isabel has a unique perspective. So I asked her, "Why is identity important? Why talk about it right now?"

Isabel Robertson:

I think it's at the core of how you define yourself, how you see yourself, but also how you see yourself in relation to the world around you.

David Moss:

As for the world around us, we're in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And many of us are cut off from our communities to a large extent. And I'm talking about our cultural communities, our Saturday morning brunch groups, the people we go to concerts or comedy shows with, our regular going out or watching the game together group, whatever it is, art showings, religious services, everything canceled, all of it. What do you think this is doing to all of our sense of identity?

Isabel Robertson:

Community is such a huge part of identity. And so in this time where community is such a fuzzy thing, like what does that mean when you can't all be together in person that becomes confusing. I've actually found some of my communities have felt stronger during this pandemic because there's a little bit more intentionality behind them. We're really having to go out of our way to connect with one another, just off the top of my head. I mean, a group of friends from college we've been getting together every week over Zoom to hang out and watch movies together. There's a tradition at my summer camp called [logs 00:00:14:30].

Isabel Robertson:

You sing together, and there's a whole bunch of rituals involved and they've been doing that remotely as well, but I haven't been to services at my synagogue in ages. And so that piece of my identity has felt a little bit farther away. Even our Passover Seder with my family, we had to do that remotely, which was nice, we were able to do it, but it didn't quite hold the same weight that it usually does because there's the chaos of my grandma doesn't know how to mute her computer. And there's all this stuff. And so it doesn't feel the same.

David Moss:

It's interesting how connections we have with our communities can wane or strengthen when faced with a strain. When you think of identity, how do you tend to frame it in your mind? Is it more of a forest that strengthens? Is it more of a unifier or divider?

Isabel Robertson:

I think identity at its best can absolutely be a unifier. I also think that for a lot of people, it is inherently a divider because of our country's history and I think that, that can't be discounted. The one thing that comes to mind when you mentioned the ACLU is in part, I know that I was considered for and selected for the board because of my identity as a young person. And I think that's true in different ways for a lot of my other fellow board members who were selected because of their involvement in the Jewish community, or we have a number of religious leaders on our board of different denominations and different religions.

Isabel Robertson:

We have members of the black community. We have people who represent so many different identities and then to come together in a group to fight for a common cause is really, really powerful. And it's definitely a unifier, even though we all have these disparate identities that we're representing or backgrounds that we're bringing to bear, we're all there for the same reason and to fight for the same things and so that's really powerful. Of course, identity can and has been used as a divider forever and in so many different contexts.

David Moss:

To be useful, I suppose identity has to be firmly tied to quantifiable data and these metrics can be useful for all kinds of great things like selecting a diverse group of people for a board. The fact is identity is fluid. We talked with a lot of guests about how factors from your past shape the present and future. We're a sort of a collection of identities.

Isabel Robertson:

Identities are definitely cumulative. I think you can't ignore or discount the ways in which you identified in your past, but I also think you can redefine them both consciously by choice. And then also just through self exploration and understanding yourself better. For example, a lot of people in the queer community did not always necessarily identify as queer their entire lives, at least in the sense of like having a label or a word as an identifier. I'm Jewish. My mom is Jewish and was raised Jewish. My dad was born and raised Presbyterian and he decided when I was five that he wanted to convert to Judaism. And so he now is Jewish. That's an identifier that he consciously chose to create for himself.

David Moss:

So what is identity? Yes, it's all the boxes that can be ticked on the census questionnaire. Yes, it's the answers we give on the credit card application? Yes, it's our membership at the rotary club, the gym, the church. It might even be where we buy our groceries, but it gives me some comfort to know that it's a lot more than just that. Wake Up Call is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, a special thanks to producer and audio director, Dave Douglas, account manager, Conor Standish. Thanks to [Bob Crew 00:18:30] for the use of their song rooster available on iTunes. If you would, please like and review this program, it really helps. Learn more about this and other podcasts from Evergreen at evergreenpodcasts.com. I'm David Allen Moss, thanks for listening to Wake Up Call, ideas that crow.

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