There are conversations. And then, there are conversations—ones that are honest and sincere, filled with emotions and brimming with the potential to inspire or uplift.
Ball State University’s recent on-stage public event, “A Conversation with President Mearns,” featuring alum and best-selling author Ashley C. Ford, and President Geoffrey S. Mearns, fits firmly into that second category of discussions.
Ms. Ford, Ball State’s Fall 2021 Writer-in-Residence, appeared with President Mearns at the University’s Sursa Performance Hall Oct. 7 with an in-person audience and many others tuning in via livestream.
A 2018 Ball State graduate, Ms. Ford is the author of Somebody’s Daughter—a powerful New York Times best-selling memoir that explores her life coming of age in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a single mother and an incarcerated father. The book was published in June by Flatiron Books under the imprint, An Oprah Book.
The esteemed author and President Mearns asked each other thought-provoking, introspective questions, starting with President Mearns’ inquiries to Ms. Ford. Here are snippets of this meaningful public conversation:
President Mearns: Why did you decide to share, with a public audience, what your childhood and life journey was like? Why did you make that decision?
Ms. Ford: Because I couldn’t find many stories out there that reflected some of the grandest and cruelest parts of my reality back to me. And I knew I wasn’t alone. There are seven billion people on the planet. I am not the only person dealing with any one circumstance, any one experience. If that’s true, then that meant that a lot of people were missing a story that could affirm them and point them back to themselves. And I wanted to write that kind of story. It was just a challenge and a goal for me to do that work. It felt very important to me in a way that a lot of things didn’t.
President Mearns: When I read the book, it was filled with pretty vivid descriptions of challenges, disappointments, profound sadness. And, I found that there were times when I had to put it (the book) down. But then, the story was also filled with the same vivid stories of happiness and joy. So it’s complex and almost paradoxical, in that respect. Tell us how you can reconcile that paradox? That’s what the book is about, right?
Ms. Ford: It’s about people. And that’s what a life looks like for most people. There are moments of extreme struggle. There are moments of cruelty. There are moments of poverty—all different kinds of poverty. But even in those lives are people who look at certain parts of their lives and go, ‘Oh, that was so … ahhh! That breaks my heart. That is so terrible.’ Those people also have moments of joy, and moments of levity, and moments of pleasure, and mischief.
If all of those things exist in one human life, we can only write about one thing and probably come up with a pretty good story—if we only wrote about that one part. But it’s a much more honest story, it’s a truer story, if it has all of it in there. I knew I wanted to write a true story. This is my life. A memoir was an opportunity for me to fully be myself on the page and have people see me and know, in some senses, who I am.
President Mearns: What is the message or messages that you want to impart to our students?
Ms. Ford: Probably the biggest thing that I want students to know, young people especially, is that you’re okay. I feel like the world spends a long, long time and a lot of money trying to convince you that something is wrong with you. Something is wrong with your hair. Something is wrong with your belly. Something is wrong with your feet. Something is wrong with your butt. Something is wrong with your legs. Something is wrong with your brain. Nothing’s wrong with you. If something is different about you than most of the other people you know, it’s different. It’s not wrong. It’s not bad. Nothing about you is wrong.
And if you are treated that way, that’s not about you. That’s about other people. If you’re not hurting anybody and you’re not hurting yourself, actively hurting yourself or anybody else, there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing about you that needs to be fixed. Stop trying to fix yourself and spend a lot more time just figuring out who you are. Once you’re out of the role of student, or worker, or anything else, you know what’s left? You. Just you. A totally likeable, loveable, fantastic person. I really want to you spend time with that person.
You can watch the video of the entire conversation—including what Ms. Ford asked President Mearns, and his responses—on Ball State’s YouTube page.
Ms. Ford will appear for one more public, on-campus event as part of the University’s Fall 2021 Writer-in-Residence program:
Nov. 11: Somebody’s Daughter Book Club—Ball State professor Jill Christman will join Ms. Ford to moderate a lively discussion about Somebody’s Daughter. The event will take in Ball State’s Student Center Ballroom at 7:30 p.m. Please remember that masks are required inside all Ball State buildings. The event will also be livestreamed at bsu.edu/live.
Questions for Ms. Ford, about Somebody’s Daughter, can be submitted online prior to Nov. 11. As many submitted questions as possible will be included in the event. Ms. Ford will sign books following the event.
Ball State’s Writer-in-Residence program is sponsored by the Office of the President; the English department; the Office of Inclusive Excellence; the Multicultural Center; the African-American Studies Program; Office of Community Engagement; Women’s and Gender Studies; and the Shafer Leadership Academy