Curiosity Club
Mellina White Cusack 
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Mellina White Cusack
Credit: Christopher Rufo

She’s a queer, conservative, ex-Jehovah’s Witness. When she comes to dinner, controversy sparks

Mellina White Cusack is the contrarian at the table at KUOW’s Curiosity Club.

12 years ago, I moved to Seattle from the South partly to escape sexism and homophobia. I have instead been met with a different kind of phobia — fear of diversity of ideas. So, when I heard about the KUOW Curiosity Club, I wanted to be a part of it. I saw this experiment as an opportunity to work through differences, hear other viewpoints, and maybe, just maybe, change someone’s mind.

Curiosity Club member Mellina White Cusack (left) talks with KUOW journalist Isolde Raftery at The Cloud Room in Seattle during the inaugural KUOW Curiosity Club dinner on January 17, 2019. Raftery's story on a 14-year-old boy who died after refusing a blood transfusion that could have saved his life was part of the collection of KUOW stories that fueled conversation that night.
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Curiosity Club member Mellina White Cusack (left) talks with KUOW journalist Isolde Raftery at The Cloud Room in Seattle during the inaugural KUOW Curiosity Club dinner on January 17, 2019. Raftery's story on a 14-year-old boy who died after refusing a blood transfusion that could have saved his life was part of the collection of KUOW stories that fueled conversation that night.
Credit: Kristin Leong

Our society is currently in crisis. We have lost our curiosity and replaced it with dogma. We do not listen, but instead, shout down. We see this example at the extreme on college campuses across the nation. Rather than allowing for spirited debate, many student protesters have decided to block entrances, shout down speakers, or even push administrators to just disinvite speakers with dissenting views altogether.

Unfortunately, I have seen this amplified in Seattle. I have experienced many Seattleites, from co-workers to friends, completely shut down a conversation because they disagreed with my viewpoint. From something as serious as homelessness, to benign as FDA labeling requirements, it seems no topic is safe from offending.

KUOW Curiosity Club feels different. At our first dinner, I noticed a difference between my approach to the stories and the approach of most of my fellow dinner party guests almost immediately.

Many in the Club first focused on the human impact of the issues raised by our “homework” assignments.

How does drug use affects the drug user?

What does it feels like to be the homeless person who feels forced to sleep in the park?

My approach, on the other hand, is often to immediately to jump to larger systemic questions and focus on finding solutions.

What measures do we need to take to stop drug addiction and clean our streets?

How do we solve these issues in the most efficient way possible?

I sometimes forget that humans are involved in the process. Our Curiosity Club dinner conversations have been a good reminder that we all approach problems differently.

As the contrarian in the room (well, the contrarian in Seattle), I appreciate the structure of Curiosity Club.

At our dinners, I can see others’ first reactions to my words. A pause. Even a cringe. But then, they keep listening. Their expression changes from judgment, then to curiosity and sometimes even a light bulb goes off. It means the world to me to be heard, if just for the sake of not being shouted down. At that moment, I imagine what it is like to be a progressive in a primarily conservative community and how their voice is not heard.

Shilo Murphy at the People's Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle's University District. The interview between Murphy and KUOW's Ross Reynolds was one of the stories that  KUOW Curiosity Club members unpacked at their second dinner. Ross Reynolds participated in the dinner and joined the conversation about his interview.
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Shilo Murphy at the People's Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle's University District. The interview between Murphy and KUOW's Ross Reynolds was one of the stories that KUOW Curiosity Club members unpacked at their second dinner. Ross Reynolds participated in the dinner and joined the conversation about his interview.
Credit: KUOW PHOTO/ISOLDE RAFTERY

There was one moment at our second dinner that I found especially exhilarating. We were discussing 'Heroin Saved My Life': Shilo Murphy Stands Up For Drug Users.

This interview brought up many concerns for me. Shilo Murphy runs a needle exchange in the University District that provides clean meth and crack pipes and needles for heroin. This organization is directly responsible for thousands of needles being thrown on our streets and in our parks and playgrounds.

In a recent interview, a member of Shilo’s organization openly stated that they have a policy of giving a single individual hundreds of needles without the need to exchange dirty ones. That is a public health hazard.

If Murphy were a private citizen who wanted to tell his story, I would be all ears. I would appreciate his willingness to be open and provide a lens into a world I do not often see or understand.

However, that is not the case. Murphy’s work influences public policy and public funding. With this power, there must be accountability. Just like we would expect journalists to respectfully drill Durkan, Inslee and Bezos, we should expect the same level of media accountability for NGOs that receive public funding. I didn’t feel that the interview was hard enough on Murphy.

After I brought up these concerns, another Club member spoke up to disagree with my perspective. She shared that a family member had died due to his struggle with drug addiction and she urged us to remember that there are real people at the heart of all these policy debates.

She pointed out that people’s lives can be saved with access to clean needles and she emphasized that people struggling with addiction need compassion, not judgment or harsher laws criminalizing their behavior.

Was my perspective impacted? Absolutely.

Was my mind changed? No. However, I understand how such a traumatic and life-altering experience in one’s life could forever influence how that person views a public policy. When you suffer such tragedy, you never want another person to share your fate. It is everyone’s responsibility to listen and understand. Otherwise, no sensible policy change will ever be embraced by the community.

Dennis Lindberg was 14 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He refused to received blood transfusions, which ultimately led to his death three weeks after he was diagnosed. Dennis was 12 in this photo. Dennis' story, reported by Isolde Raftery, was part of KUOW Curiosity Club's "homework" that fueled conversation during the Club's first dinner. Isolde Raftery participated in this dinner and joined the conversation about her story.
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Dennis Lindberg was 14 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He refused to received blood transfusions, which ultimately led to his death three weeks after he was diagnosed. Dennis was 12 in this photo. Dennis' story, reported by Isolde Raftery, was part of KUOW Curiosity Club's "homework" that fueled conversation during the Club's first dinner. Isolde Raftery participated in this dinner and joined the conversation about her story.
Credit: SKAGIT VALLEY HERALD/SCOTT TERRELL

Although we disagreed, I related to this Club member at that moment because I understand how challenging it is to have honest conversations about issues when we’re emotionally attached to them.

I had a similar reaction during our first Curiosity Club dinner when we were discussing When A 14-Year-Old Chooses To Die Because Of Religion, Can Anyone Stop Him? This story is about a teenager who died after refusing a blood transfusion because of his Jehovah Witness faith.

Thinking back, I wish more people had challenged me that night. As soon as I opened this story, I felt a rush of blood through my body. I was immediately angry. I felt that because I was also raised as a Jehovah Witness that I should be heard.

After thinking about our dinner conversation that first night, I realized that my personal experience should in no way influence a judge’s decision about what is the right age of consent to end one’s life. I realized that my perspective is not rational, it’s emotional. Emotions are not the way to shape laws and policies.

If I could sum up my experience, I would say that Curiosity Club helped me to bridge seemingly opposite parts of who I am: a data driven policy wonk fixated on results, and a human being who has lived the consequences of decisions crafted by lawmakers who are completely distant from the judgments they make every day.

What if there were Curiosity Clubs all throughout the country? What if we all sat down at a table to first hear each other and then work to find solutions? What would our society look like? How could we find solutions? That’s a tall order, but I am happy to be a part of the first step by being part of this experiment with KUOW.

Mellina White Cusack is the founder of The Seattle Conservative. In addition to politics, Mellina also writes about culture and LGBTQ style. She is a contributor to DapperQ, the popular queer style community, and in 2015 they named her a Top 100 Most Stylish DapperQ. In 2018 Mellina served as Campaign Director for Christopher Rufo for City Council. She lives in Seattle.