University Union Syracuse

James Pezzullo | Syracuse University

We began with fear.

Fear seems to have taken hold of America. It has driven teenagers into the streets and put a strongman in the White House. Despite all our divisions, we have become one nation under fear.

But, as The North Face’s ambassador and world-renowned climber Emily Harrington calmly explained at the beginning of the evening, “Fear is an asset.” From the very start, Thursday’s Get With The Times event – the first of a series of dialogues presented by The New York Times – was not about surrendering to fear, but embracing it.

Chelsea Handler, however, exudes confidence wherever she goes. She’s certainly not very fearful in the typical sense. Fear, for her, is the fear that she could accumulate wealth and fame and influence and do nothing with it. That’s why she’s embarked on her current odyssey of political activism. At Schine Student Center in Syracuse, we watched her endeavor once again prove successful, as a room packed mainly with young women roared when she discussed her work with Emily’s List and her efforts to combat sexual assault.

What many of the students found so refreshing about Handler’s dialogue with Megan Twohey – a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter, who helped expose Harvey Weinstein’s heinous history of sexual harassment – was that she was open and vulnerable. In her typical, brutally honest style, Handler answered questions with no hesitation and pulled no punches – and bemoaned the lack of similar honesty and vulnerability from our political leaders.  Known for her women’s rights activism, she was met with shock – followed by uproarious applause – for her answer to a question about her top legislative priority for achieving equality for American women.

“We need to overturn Citizens United,” she answered, without even a moment’s pause. Legislators who spend more time working and less time fundraising, Handler believes, would make the fight for women’s rights and a litany of other progressive causes easier and less expensive.

Handler wasn’t afraid to get out of the realm of politics, either. She spoke plainly about enjoying the heartbreak and hardship of your twenties, and the loudest laughs of the night came during a discussion of her relationship with rapper 50 Cent.

But, of course, the night was mainly political. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were name-dropped in the first three minutes of the conversation. There was discussion of the best way to integrate marginalized groups in to one another’s activist movements, a nostalgic overture to President Obama, and an unrestrained rebuke of a Trump supporter. Clad in head-to-toe MAGA gear, the young woman’s question about the reality of the gender wage gap was met with a classic Handler rebuttal followed by roaring applause.

Alongside fear, the undercurrent of the evening was power. Handler made reference to an “army of women,” a concept she has a wealth of experience with as a leader of the Women’s March movement. Twohey, for her part, has been a leader in the media effort to expose sexual predators, which has made women feel safer and more powerful in the workplace. She shared some of her fascinating experiences, and the crowd of students was just as enthusiastic about her work as they were about the comedian’s.

Handler’s ability to inspire the audience proved that she’s much more than a comedian these days. She spoke about helping students find their civic voice, and from the sound of the applause when she spoke about the sweeping new wave of support for gun control or the effort to defeat pro-life legislators, it was clear that Syracuse’s students had already found it – and were looking to movements like the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives to figure out how to use it.

And me? I walked out of Get With the Times with a deep appreciation of the paradigm shift taking place in American politics. America’s youth aren’t going to sit down and shut up anymore, and neither are any of the groups that have been marginalized in this country – women, people of color, gender and sexual minorities, and everyone else who has been cheated out of their share of American prosperity. The polls say there’s a Democratic wave coming in November, but Thursday night’s event proved to me that the uprising we’re seeing in America will have impacts long after 2018.

The world is changing, and we don’t know what it’ll look like when this era of change is over. The unknown can fill anyone with fear. But fear is an asset, and as America’s students our charge is to let our fear drive us to shape a future that we can be proud to live in – a world that we can confidently pass on to our posterity.

But if you’re not open to a changing world? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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