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Sonya Pfeiffer: Reframing How We View Life and Others Through Empathetic Storytelling

What does an ex-reporter, criminal defense and civil rights attorney, and gallery owner have in common?

While this may seem like the onset of a bad joke, it’s a question Sonya Pfeiffer is frequently asked.

The “through-line,” Sonya says, is storytelling.

Growing up the daughter of an invested Columbus, Ohio, politician and a teacher passionate about literature and the arts, Sonya was exposed to an array of insights at an early age. This meant getting a taste of the life of local immigrants and hearing first-hand the injustices experienced by fellow citizens that a privileged white girl would likely be ignorant to otherwise.

In an interview with Mark Peres on his podcast “On Life and Meaning,” Sonya shares a childhood experience that served as an early catalyst to experiencing life through the eyes of another.

Sonya recalls attending an African American church service with her father, where she became restless halfway through and asked to excuse herself so she could play at the nearby playground. Sonya said, “…anyone who's familiar with those services knows they go on for a long time. And when you're eight years old, you ask if you can leave…’”

With her father’s permission, Sonya enthusiastically headed to the nearby playground, where a few kids were already playing.

“As soon as I came up, one of the girls said, ‘What are you doing here, honky? You don't belong here honky.’”

While ignorant of what they meant by “honky”, it was clear to Sonya that she was not welcome to play with the local Black kids. Confused, Sonya went back inside and quietly sat down beside her father.

On the car ride home, Sonya recalls her father’s remarks after sharing her experience.

“Rather than saying, ‘Oh, poor you. I'm so sorry that happened.’ My dad's response was, ‘Well, now you know how those kids probably feel most of the time when they're walking around in the world, where everybody else is white, and they’re the ones who are black.’ I remember being very struck by that. I wasn't upset that my dad didn't side with me or say I'm sorry. It hit me. He's right. He's totally right.”

This was one of many formative moments that inspired Sonya to seek to understand and share the voices and stories of others, leading to her first career as a journalist and reporter. Sonya worked in Paris and Tel Aviv and covered international stories, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords; and reported in large and major cities across the U.S., including Omaha, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham (where she covered the high-profile Michael Peterson case), Boston, and New York.

When it came to being a reporter, Sonya remarks, “I remember being assigned stories and thinking to myself, ‘I have no idea what this is about.’ And then realized I had to ask questions to somebody who was a quasi-expert or expert in this [assigned] field and that I was going to sound like an idiot. But at the end of the day, that's the only way you learn. You've got to ask questions. You've got to be curious. You've got to be humble.”

Curious, passionate, empathetic, and humble were the visible traits that inspired me to reach out to Sonya for an interview immediately after hearing her speak at a Charlotte Center event.

The overarching message I took away from her speech was this: Stories are a powerful catalyst for change. They can shift attitudes, influence action, and breed truth and love just as much as they can misinformation and hate.

While attending law school at Chapel Hill and reporting on the weekends in Boston, Sonya recalled seeing two similar stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Associated Press that ran the same day. As similar as they were, one simple word framed them very differently.

The image with the young black male read: “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store….” While the image with the two white individuals read: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store….”

Sonya said, “This is where context matters. This is where what we have been told comes out in ways that we might not even intend. But what happens in stories like this is we are perpetuating this dominant narrative. This narrative, written by people who have power, who have privilege, who don’t look like this man on top [pointing to the image of the young Black man].”

It was in that moment, Sonya said, that she realized how powerful stories were and that they needed to be utilized in the courtroom. Not simply to paint a picture of the reality of the individuals being represented but to dismantle misinformed assumptions and challenge the laws and rules that were constructed largely around the biases of the privileged.

“As a criminal defense lawyer, it's a different voice. It is the voice of the person who everyone is trying to silence, and everyone has even looked at as less than a human. No longer do you have the same humanity once you've been charged with a crime. Telling those stories is a heavy responsibility, and I think very important. … we [the law firm] represent people who have allowed me and my law partners to tell their stories, to advocate for them. And that responsibility is one that I take very seriously, that I'm, again, just grateful for every time I have the opportunity to do it.”

Like many people who devote their lives to a burning passion, Sonya freely allows her desire to tell the stories of others to pour over into every facet of her life. In 2017 over dinner with former gallery owner Larry Elder, and his wife Janice, Sonya decided to find a new creative way to share others’ stories and purchase Elder Gallery - now Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art - a fine arts gallery in Charlotte, NC.

In an interview with Charlotte Is Creative, Sonya says, “I had been looking for new ways to address some of the challenging societal issues that underlie my legal work — race, gender, income, education, the ways in which various historical narratives have affected (and infected) our understanding about each other and ourselves. …”

Sonya expresses that art has the power to spark conversation around sometimes challenging and controversial topics and express them in a way that words can’t.

As someone who describes herself as a woman who doesn’t say no, there is no telling where her passion for helping others will lead her next. However, I have no doubt Sonya will fulfill her lifelong goal:

“My only goal in life … I just want to arrive at the grave exhausted. When I breathe my last breath, I want to feel as though I didn't miss out on any opportunity to live. And my idea of living is really having as many experiences as you can, learning as much as you can about the people who live in the same world as you, and understanding the world around you.”


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