Stephanie Lepp has long been fascinated by the question, “How do we change our hearts and minds?” As an artist, Lepp seeks to inspire transformative self-reflection. Her most recent endeavor is a podcast called “Reckonings,” which challenges the audience to listen to — and develop empathy for — people who have done or participated in terrible things, from sexual abuse to white supremacy.
In “Reckonings,” Lepp records hour-long stories, told firsthand, of people who have undergone a dramatic transformation of their behavior or beliefs. One episode features a former health insurance executive who left the industry after learning of a young girl who died after being denied life-saving treatment. In another, two people share their experiences with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: one, a woman abused by a nun when she was a girl; the other, a priest who abused young boys.
In some cases, these episodes create a space in which a transformative encounter takes place between two people. One of the most powerful stories is told by two people named Anwen and Sameer. Each person shares their perspective on an experience they had together as freshmen in college, when Sameer sexually assaulted Anwen after a party. They talked about going through a restorative justice process together at their university and the profound, transformative process of “reckoning” with each other through this experience.
In our interview, Lepp offered her reflections on how a process of “reckoning” holds up a mirror, asking listeners to examine their own assumptions about how far they can stretch their empathy. Lepp highlights the wider need as a society to reckon with perpetrators in a way that allows people to grow and change, particularly in the case of public figures who have committed sexual assault.
What compelled you to start asking this question of “How do we change our hearts and minds?”
Throughout college and into my early professional life, I was involved in various social issues and social change — and the question always came up for me: Am I changing anyone’s mind? Am I actually influencing anyone? Whether on climate change, mandatory minimum sentencing — whatever I was focusing on at the time. And this begged the question, how do people actually change their hearts and minds?
That question became a fascination of mine. I started trying to research it, but I didn’t even know what research terms to look up. “World view transformation?” Is that even a thing? Behavioral economics came to mind, but I wasn’t trying to figure out what makes people floss their teeth more often. I want to know what moves people in really fundamental ways.
So I had been sitting with this question for many years, and I finally realized it could be really powerful to explore this within the context of stories of people who have made these kinds of transformative changes as a podcast. A couple years ago, I launched “Reckonings” to explore this question of how people change and, more specifically, how do people change in ways that connect to broader social or political change?
Telling stories in this way creates a space for the apology, or the reckoning, to take place. It’s not as compelling if it’s a soundbite or a tweet. Hearing the entire story is what helps answer the most burning question, which is the question of why. Why did you do that? We don’t know why unless we go back and hear where this person came from and what got them there. And audio is a really intimate medium. It just allows you as the listener to connect the story to yourself and reflect on your own life.
Anwen and Sameer’s story has had this really tangible impact, with some high schools now using that episode to teach young people about sexual assault. What are some of the other ripple effects you have seen from these stories?
Episodes have a life of their own. I hear from teachers who share the episodes in their classrooms, but of course I also hear from people who have personal relationships with the issue. One person who reached out to me had flirted with white supremacy at a young age and responded to [an episode about a former neo-Nazi] in thinking back to that time. It sounded like he hadn’t fully processed what attracted him to that in the first place, and the episode inspired him to do that further.
With Anwen and Sameer, a lot of what I wanted to do was put a model out there for other young men. We don’t know what it sounds like, for the most part, for men to take responsibility for sexual abuse of power. Men don’t necessarily know what to say or how to approach something like this. I wanted to put a model out there of Sameer, who does skillfully and graciously take responsibility. I hope that this stands as an example that men can learn from.
I can also say that part of what I want to do with the show is to inspire reckonings in real time. I want to help create a place where Al Franken and Mark Zuckerberg can go to confront some things in a public way, and where we make room for them to do that; where Joe Biden can clean up his history with Anita Hill, and where we let him learn and grow and change in public.
That makes “Reckonings” less of a podcast and more of a place in our public sphere where we make room for our public figures to take a look in the mirror and grow from what they see. Imagine what it would have been like if something like that existed when Brett Kavanaugh came along. I see it as a real missed opportunity of leadership. But it’s not just him, it’s also a question of whether there was space in our public sphere for that kind of growth and change in public. Would he have done something differently? Maybe. We should at least make that space so we can make more room for ourselves to grow.
When you first started this podcast, did you intend for it to be playing into the public conversation in this way, or has it transformed since you stared it?
It’s definitely evolved since I started it. Initially, it was the fascination with how people change, but it’s not all kinds of change. It’s not just left-to-right or right-to-left, it’s just conscious evolution. And as I understood the kind of change I was interested in, how people learn and grow, I made the connection to what that would mean in our public sphere. Even just the term flip-flopper — we have such a thing about people changing. And yet I hope my representatives continue to change and grow. Certainly there are changes that can be considered flip-flops if you’re just doing it for short-term political gain, but there’s a difference between a flip-flop and evolution. And may we all continue to evolve, including in public.
But I do think specifically the #MeToo movement has a particular resonance with the public sphere, because it’s a conversation we’re having right now in public. If Anwen and Sameer’s story was what we were hearing on NPR or seeing on CNN — or even on FOX News — I think we would be having a refreshingly different conversation around #MeToo.
How does the notion of restorative justice explored in “Reckonings” allow us to bring a wider range of people into our movements for social change?
As an operating philosophy, the goal should be to bring everyone in to be part of the solution and the evolution. I do believe none of us are free until all of us are free, so you have to free us all — including the tyrant. The tyrant does need to be liberated.
But restorative justice is not mutually exclusive with traditional criminal justice. People who commit offenses should be served their due consequences. And yet, just because you’re sitting in jail doesn’t mean you can’t work to repair the harm you caused. You can be part of the solution.
I might not have compassion for what someone did, I might not be able to relate or might recoil at the things people have done, but every time I interview someone, I have been able to relate to or understand or have compassion for why they did it.
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