The kids were captivated.
Following Dr. Nutt’s assembly, before the school day concluded, I had received emails from facult y and students, who notoriously ignore email, speaking about how moved they were by her presentation. They left aghast, angry, moved by her authentic passion, and galvanized. One student, close to graduation, shared that she’s rethinking her future. I believe her because she is sincere. I also believe her because, like her, I was moved. Dr. Samantha Nutt was that good.
The timing of her visit aligned with the most recent school shooting, and so it may have appeared as some contrived reaction to the current events, but the planning has been ongoing for about 8 months. In the middle of July, I got a text from my colleague Katherine Berdy, who was sitting in the audience of a presentation by some dynamic woman who was speaking on the topic of global gun violence. She was in Quebec City and surrounded by attorneys (like Katherine, I’m married to one; my sympathies!). I was riding my bike on a beach road when my playlist was rudely interrupted by a notification chirp (to my attention, so powerful and compelling that it’s tantamount to a call from the red phone). I interrupt my ride to check the text. To paraphrase: I’m in the audience of this legal conference listening to this incredible speaker. Her name is Samantha Nutt. You need to get her to Altamont. I finish the ride, get back to the house, look up this random woman online and realize she’s got some bona fides: physician, author, TED speaker, activist, founder of powerful NGOs, etc., etc. Yep. We needed to get her to Altamont. With some help from the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, we made it happen.
What a coup! As her chauffer for the day, I had plenty of time to make small talk with Dr. Nutt. She’s very warm, a little too energetic for this leisurely Southerner, totally authentic, and effusively passionate. To my offer of coffee, she replied that her forty minute presentation would become twenty! Driving her around was privilege enough. But watching her on stage, captivating a reluctant audience (who are definitely suffering from assembly fatigue), compelling a mob to surround her immediately after and delaying a well-deserved meal, challenging and changing some hearts and minds—this was magical. As the emails from students and faculty populated the inbox, I reflected. First, and not incidentally, she’s good at this. Her message is clear, defensible, and concise. She conveys it dynamically. Second, we’ve had some great guests up here in my time at Altamont; if she’s not alone at the top, she’s sharing the dais with just a few. Despite that invisible speaker/audience barrier, she appeared current, contemporary, and approachable. Her topic was timely and urgent. Her narrative balanced gritty reality with a pathway to change. And, employing an effective rhetorical strategy, she didn’t tell us; she showed us. Her presentation featured graphics and statistics; it was aurally and visually compelling; and she pushed us to an appropriate threshold—one that maximized pathos but didn’t descend into despair. It’s easy to speak to adults who’ve learned how to sit and listen, but the real litmus test for success is the response of students. So many left visibly affected, there’s no need to equivocate.
It’s worth nothing that Dr. Nutt doesn’t do this for fame. Many of her stature are transformed by prestige and a spotlight. She may leverage her position for fundraising and to garner attention, but her boots-on-the-ground mentality diffuses any concerns about ego. In her capacity as a physician, she has consistently focused on issues of women and children. Right out of med school, she took a volunteer position with the UN for $1—a commitment that transformed her life. She spends time with the people she seeks to serve—in their neighborhoods, in their homes, and too often huddled down with them beneath gun fire. She hears their stories and relates them to an otherwise oblivious audience.
The power of narratives cannot be overestimated. In this world of necessary but too often cold STEM trajectories, they contain that seed of humanity that germinates with great transformative potential. Without narratives, we lack the capacity for empathy. How can I feel your pain if I don’t know your story? Maybe storyteller is Dr. Nutt’s most important title. She can change the life of an individual or a small group. But in relating the story of a young Congolese girl who is the victim of physical and sexual violence; of the boy who, at twelve, had to take up arms to preserve his family’s safety; or the citizens around the globe who can get a machine gun cheaper than water, she helps us cultivate empathy and empowers—no, compels us to action. It is the picture of altruism and the definition of leadership.
Director, The Global Initiative
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