Catherine Woodiwiss

Deputy Web Editor

I'm deputy web editor for Sojourners, where I report on culture, tech, and religion, and look for voices to contribute to conversations on faith, spirituality, justice, innovation, and daily life. A collection of my reporting on sexual abuse and Christian communities, "I Believe You: Sexual Violence and the Church," was published in 2014 (avail on Amazon).

Beyond the religion beat, I also write on business, tech, community innovation, nostalgia, loss, collective memory, and war, with work appearing in the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, Think Progress, and Books & Culture. In 2014, I spoke on collaborative solutions and "Do It Together" design models at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

My favorite postures are ethnographer and producer — reporting on the spread of subcultures, ideas, objects, and beliefs through time and place; and creating the conditions for others'​ voices and talents to thrive. 

My nonofficial, not-so-subtle goal is to keep D.C. weird. Hold me to it.

Posts By This Author

Design and the Pursuit of Justice

by Catherine Woodiwiss 09-24-2018
Human-centered design can be a revolutionary pathway to social justice.

DEBATE THE CHOICE all you want, but what was radical about a congressional candidate’s ban on press at an August public town hall event wasn’t her decision to shut out journalists. It was how publicly she was willing to attempt new things, to try to make democracy work for a new slice of participants.

“We are genuinely trying to create environments where our constituents feel comfortable expressing honestly and engaging in our discourse,” she tweeted. “Genuine Q?: how should we label a free campaign event, open to all, that’s a sanctuary space?”

Though she and other justice-minded public officials may not use these words, what they are attempting is a kind of human-centered design.

Human-centered design is fairly self-explanatory: When designing systems, services, or products, creators place humans at the center. But in practice, this can be radical: If my focus is to make an experience better for each user, I will design for individuals, not market trends; I will design for the outliers and anomalies, not the majority.

And, critically, it requires empathy, using every tool I can muster to fully understand what the user experiences as they interact with the system, solving problems worth solving.

Of course, the best way to learn the process is to go through it yourself.

Designer Antionette Carroll lives in Ferguson, Mo. After Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, she asked herself, “What should designers do?”

For Viewers, It's Virtual Reality. For Immigrants, It's Life.

by Catherine Woodiwiss 06-25-2018
Filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu's newest project, "Carne y Arena," plunges visitors into migrants' trauma.

PRE-EXPERIENCE: Welcome! You’re alone except for a receptionist, who gently asks you to sign a waiver and gestures to the couch. The sand-colored cushions perfectly complement the soft pink glow of the wall and a pot of shellacked succulents. The coffee is pleasantly warm. The room temperature is perfect. Everything is fine.

 

You’re here for “Carne y Arena,” a virtual reality experience created by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The project recreates the experiences of immigrants who cross the Mexico-U.S. border. In 2017, “Carne y Arena” (“Flesh and Sand”) won a Special Award Oscar, the first given for virtual reality. The exhibit accommodates only one visitor at a time, at 15-minute intervals.

You wait on the couch, feeling a twinge of anxiety over an immersive experience that requires isolation and allows no cameras or notebooks. You contemplate the Pinterest-nirvana of the lobby and scratch a few notes while you can.

Entry: So where are we, exactly?

Soon, you’re escorted through the doors of the exhibit, which is housed in an old Baptist church in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The project will take place across three rooms, a triptych of the migrant experience.

The church was slated for demolition before “Carne y Arena.” On the way in, you pass walls that look strangely familiar—you’ll later realize they are repurposed fence panels from the U.S.-Mexico border, turned horizontal to fit the dimensions of the house of God. You’re pretty sure that works as a metaphor, but before you can chew on it, you’re inside.

You're Not That Special, and Other Lessons from Kate Bowler

by Catherine Woodiwiss 05-09-2018
An Interview with 'Everything Happens' Author Kate Bowler

"I think honestly, the hardest one is that I thought I was special. I thought there was something special about me that would prevent the worst possible thing from happening. I don't know where that came from, if it's just the hubris of living and that we can't imagine ourselves dying at all. But I think I really thought I was special."

Bodily Prayer

by Catherine Woodiwiss 05-01-2018
God has placed eternity in the fleshy, beating hearts of humans.

NOTHING MAKES SENSE in the desert. Rocks that should be rock-colored sprout purple and pink under an impossibly blue sky. Barren cacti produce new blossoms. A wintry shade blisters in the sun. Canyon stone, having survived a billion years of harsh wind and water, crumbles in a human hand.

In a time when technology increasingly serves to nullify our bodies, the desert’s physicality obliterates the mind.

I’ve come to the Grand Canyon to remember that I still have a body, pitching camp in one of the last places on Earth where wireless data won’t reach. Simone Weil writes that prayer is an act of paying attention, and in the absence of overactive phone-brain, I’ll be sleeping outside for a week, listening to rivers and silence, kayaking along canyons, hiking through severe elevation, relying on basic survival instincts.

Radical Refuge

by Catherine Woodiwiss 04-25-2018
The Sanctuaries collective creates a new kind of sacred space for art and justice.

I.
My family was earthquaked
I changed the noun into a verb
because it’s almost like someone did this to me on purpose ...
—Sanctuaries artist Mazaré, “Where is God in the Natural Disaster?”

OUTSIDE, A MID-NOVEMBER storm of biblical proportions is raging, but the hushed crowd gathered in this church basement is in rapt attention to a woman giving testimony. In the parking lot, a hollowed-out school bus holds the detritus of a homeless life. A handmade “Wheel of Misfortune” dangles from one rain-splattered window, over empty bottles and voided bank notes.

Suddenly the crowd erupts in cheers, and the poet, grinning, cedes the floor to a pair of musicians. Today the church is playing host to a collaboration between Street Sense, a publication run by and for Washington, D.C.’s homeless community, and The Sanctuaries, a D.C.-based art, spirituality, and justice collective. The bus—filled with real experiences of D.C.’s homeless community, represented by Sanctuaries artists—will tour the city as a mobile story. It’s the culmination of months of work. To some, it’s an act of resistance. To others, it’s church.

For all the breathless predictions of what the day after Nov. 8 might bring, a reckoning with mortality was not one of them. Yet a marked grief snaked across some newsfeeds and private emails in the days that followed—a feeling that with the election, something precious about life as we knew it had died.

That morning, the founding organizer of The Sanctuaries, Erik Martinez Resly, sent a simple note to members: “I love you.” A few improvised hours later, a small group had huddled at a church on 16th Street in D.C. to share the real-time experience of the country’s historic change in direction. For The Sanctuaries, response looked like art and togetherness—two qualities that have guided the group from its beginning.

The Heartbeat of Deep Space

by Catherine Woodiwiss 04-25-2018
In our science narratives, there’s a long tradition of featuring beautiful, rich white people and ignoring people of color and women.
Mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope / NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

Mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope / Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

THE FIRST THING NASA cinematographer Nasreen Alkhateeb does when approaching new stories is to look for the heartbeat. A transmedia artist, Alkhateeb spent much of the last year at NASA recording Goddard engineers as they constructed the massive James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018. The largest-ever space-based telescope is designed to capture images at an astonishing distance, collecting data on the formation of some of the first galaxies in the universe.

Alkhateeb’s job, she says, was to translate the complexities of this tool to a non-science audience. For that, she primarily focused on the workers on the ground.

“It’s really about all the different fingerprints that have touched this project,” she tells me. “The story of the telescope goes hand in hand with telling the story of the individuals and the agencies who are collaborating to build it.”

Outer space has twinkled in the American imagination at least since since NASA’s founding in 1958. One secular hope for salvation lies in inhabiting the heavens—whether on Mars, a source of fascination for National Geographic and for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, or elsewhere.

Yet the role NASA will play in future space exploration is up for debate. Public faith in NASA is strong—the agency is the second most-trusted government institution in America, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new Trump administration “clearly values space as an inspirational tool,” Pacific Standard opines. But there’s quite a bit to suggest a reshuffling of funding priorities from the president, whose advisers have challenged NASA’s focus on earth science—including recording the evidence and effects of climate change, which will disproportionately affect poor and marginalized communities.

The World Begins Anew

by Catherine Woodiwiss 04-25-2018
To see blooms adorning a church on Ash Wednesday—instead of at Easter—scrambles the spiritual metaphor.

REMEMBER THAT  you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The prayer said around the world on Ash Wednesday wielded a rather pointed moral to the tail end of the hottest February on record where I live. Penitents in my neighborhood church shuffled in a sun-kissed line to receive ashes on tanned foreheads, summer sandals slapping the floor. Outside, overeager daffodils bloomed their Easter welcome. A strange one, this backward Lent: balmy with a side of dread.

This existential reversal felt nothing if not timely—all through the winter, a collective litany of weary newsfeeds asked whether we really needed quite so much of it. The first months of this year have witnessed a steady erosion of trust in whatever institutions we had left: the federal government, the electoral process, our checks and balances, our freedoms, our faith, each other. Some trace our hard skid sideways to the election, or the Super Bowl, or the Oscars. (I peg it to the Cubs’ win in November. I grew up in Chicagoland—I know reversing a curse has consequences.)

But there’s something particularly dizzying about the separation of church and earth. The globe is getting hotter every year now, but the effects of this ecological trauma, like any grief, are far from linear. If warming simply meant the usual weather, shifted a month early or late, we could figure out how to recalibrate—but our snowfall is breaking records and our ice caps are melting. A winter afternoon can begin as warm as an early summer day and suddenly drop 25 degrees to freezing rain.

Poetic Justice?

by Catherine Woodiwiss 04-25-2018
The moral of the story? We're working on it.
 Everett - Art / Shutterstock

 Everett - Art / Shutterstock

YOU HAVE TO feel for Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, who probably gets tired of hearing about his own death.

Kamen, still very much alive, introduced the self-balancing vehicle in 2001. But since 2010, when new Segway Inc. owner Jimi Heselden accidentally drove a Segway off a cliff to his death, popular memory has conflated the tragedy with its creator.

There are any number of plausible reasons for this case of false identification, but one of the most persistent deals with moral comeuppance: A person invents an obnoxious, silly vehicle; a person dies from the frivolous invention. It isn’t kind, but that sort of morality tale is enduringly satisfying. When we despair for humanity, our inner cynic appreciates when humanity gets what’s coming.

Kamen isn’t the first victim of misapplied poetic justice—fascination with the archetype of the doomed inventor stretches back to Greek myth, punctuated by names from Hamlet (whose snide “’tis the sport to have the engineer / hoist with his own petard” unwittingly championed his impending demise) to Alfred Nobel, who, despite popular myth, did not actually have many regrets about inventing dynamite.

John Sylvan, inventor of the Keurig single-cup coffee dispenser, is a recent case of the regretful kind—he publicly laments having introduced the waste-belching quick-fix to bulk coffee, and later designed a fully recyclable prototype that would remedy the environmental concern. But most of us only know (or care?) about that first part.

There’s something viscerally satisfying in the demise of a technological Icarus. Such falls let us root for our own inertia—a triumph against the hubris of building something nonessential, and the idealism of thinking it could change the world. To stop at a moral tale of disaster is to keep the focus on poetic justice and our own wisdom. It also, conveniently, keeps us from having to face the complexity of, “What do we do about it now?”

Entering My 'Power Decade'

by Catherine Woodiwiss 04-25-2018
My over-30 colleagues have shared a common sentiment: Our 30s are so much better than our 20s.

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a woman turning 30 must be in fear of her age. When I was 27, I got an accelerated peek into the process—I was in a bad car accident, and the recovery left me temporarily reliant on the trappings of old age: breathing apparatuses, a mostly liquid diet, walking with a cane.

I managed to weather it with good humor, knowing most of the changes were temporary (who hasn’t dreamt of shaking her cane from a porch at noisy youths below?). Now, back in my “correct” age, I’m grateful for that behind-the-scenes trial run at the other end of things. To be young and healthy again is a relief. But I’m now not afraid of aging, either.

I turn 30 this month. To be, at 30, unmarried, childless, career still evolving, and happy about it, as I am, is still viewed with suspicion, especially for women. While we’ve mostly divorced specific ages from expected signifiers of “adulthood”—marriage, children, home ownership, defined career—there’s still an underlying social expectation for women and men alike: Your 30s are when you “settle down.”

But my brief sojourn into old age didn’t give me a craving for these trappings of thirtydom. Instead, this visit to the end of the line gave me a deep look into my own soul. I did not emerge from enforced solitude in my later 20s looking to lock down a career and a man. I did emerge eager to honor my soul’s boundaries, newly curious about the divine, insistently pulled toward creating spaces of peace and healing for others.

Now that the chronological experience of life has been scrambled and the expected scripts tossed out, crossing over into 30 feels like the beginning of some real fun.

Maybe We've Gotten Gratitude All Wrong

by Catherine Woodiwiss 03-29-2018
An Interview with 'Grateful' Author Diana Butler Bass

Woodiwiss: We're coming up on Good Friday and Easter. And a lot of strains of Christianity teach the story of Good Friday as, “God also gave us this gift of Jesus’ death. It was horrible, but Jesus did it to pay for our sins, so we have to worship him.” There's this implied debt. 

Bass: It makes absolutely no theological moral or biblical sense at all. So where do we get that? It's very complicated, but Protestantism was built on this idea of faith: On one hand, they said that salvation was a free gift, that it was the act of grace. On the other hand, they complicated that free gift with this idea of economic exchange.

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