Why Zachary Wood welcomes uncomfortable conversations

In memoir, Williams graduate reflects on path to the fore of free speech conversation, eyes the White House

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If history serves, the latest batch of Williams College graduates will become leaders in the arts, education, business and medicine, among other fields. But at least one 2018 graduate has a more ambitious leadership position in mind after exiting the leafy Williamstown institution.

"I want to run for president one day," 22-year-old Zachary Wood told The Eagle during a telephone interview just over a week after commencement.

Wood's remark wasn't a passing one.

"It's in the book," he said.

The "book" is Wood's memoir, "Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America" (Penguin Random House, $26), that is set to be released on Tuesday. While a memoir authored by a 22-year-old may seem premature, Wood had an abnormally public existence during his college years. For the latter part of that period, he was the president of an independent, student-run group on campus (Uncomfortable Learning) that brought controversial speakers to the school as a means to promote conversations between those with differing viewpoints. At a time when political polarization and free speech were making headlines, Wood received attention from major news organizations such as The Washington Post and, this spring, gave a TED Talk titled, "Why It's Worth Listening to People You Disagree with." But his ideas about political discourse — and the conservative figures Uncomfortable Learning invited to campus — weren't well-received by many at Williams, a hotbed for liberalism.

"I cannot tell you how many classes I've been in where we were only reading all liberal thinkers who the professor completely agreed with," said Wood, who identifies as a liberal himself. (He also stressed that the "overwhelming majority of my professors were committed to being great teachers.")

Students threatened Wood because of his involvement in the speaker series.

"On Facebook, one student wrote that 'they need the oil and the switch to deal with him [me] in this midnight hour.' Once, I even received a hand-written letter, slipped under my door, that read: 'your blood will be on the leaves,'" Wood wrote in testimony for a U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing titled, "Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses," in June of 2017.

In 2016, Williams had canceled an Uncomfortable Learning-sponsored talk by John Derbyshire, whose writing had been characterized as racist by many. The school's president at the time, Adam Falk, had made it clear that Williams wouldn't take such a measure unless the speaker crossed a previously undefined line.

"We've found the line," Falk wrote in a statement. "Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community."

Wood disagreed with the school's decision.

"I do not support the idea of bringing a racist or anti-feminist to campus because I am unsympathetic to the grievances of minorities. I have grievances myself," Wood, who is black, wrote in a story published by The Washington Post. "But there's something important at stake here: Free speech, and academic freedom. How can we prepare ourselves to engage the most difficult problems facing our society, how can we hope to understand them and solve them, if we shut off opposing viewpoints?"

A different Washington Post piece that Wood penned led him to writing a memoir. A first-person narrative about his family's financial struggles and its effect on his college experience attracted the attention of a literary agent, who suggested he should take on a book-length project. He began working on the manuscript during the winter of 2017, aiming to finish a chapter every two-to-three weeks. It would be the longest writing assignment he had ever worked on; he was accustomed to "10-page papers." Moreover, there wasn't much precedent for someone his age to write such a book.

"You don't have a lot of examples if you're 22 and you're writing a memoir," Wood said, noting that he read memoirs by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to help prepare.

The book is structured in three parts. The first section tracks his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., with his mother. The second part examines his life in Washington, D.C., where he lived with his father during high school. (Wood attended Bullis School in Potomac, Md., before graduating via an online program.) The last part focuses on his time at Williams, the bulk of which doesn't arrive until page 200 in the 272-page book, a Kirkus review notes. When asked if he wished he had given the Williams material more space, Wood said he was content with how he had paced the book.

"There's a lot [more there] that explains why I was able to do that kind of work [at Williams], where my interests stem from, how I became wired in such a way that trying to empathize with people who have ideas I deeply disagree with is something I find useful. So, I had to think about [what] those experiences were. I wouldn't go back and change it," he said.

Those experiences during his youth have greatly informed his personal philosophy, one that requires him to understand an opposition's argument and the factors causing it before dismantling it. He practices what he preaches, too; he was a fellow last summer in The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial department, and he recently gave a speech at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He met Newt Gingrich there, speaking with him for about 15 minutes. Wood wasn't necessarily persuaded by him; that's not the point of such dialogues.

"I have to understand who I see as being in the way of certain goals that I want to achieve," he said, mentioning that he seeks to find solutions for disparities in achievement gaps across race and class, among other pressing issues.

While he'll work in journalism at his career's outset — he starts as an assistant editor at The Atlantic this fall — politics is his ultimate calling. He wants to go to law school, join a firm and become Virginia's attorney general and governor before ultimately rising to the presidential status that Williams College graduate James A. Garfield once held. He views uncomfortable conversations as an essential part of that trajectory.

"Politics is a contact sport. ... I want to be prepared to engage and prepared to win," he said. "That way, I'm able to effect the kind of change in the world that I see as needed."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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