Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Yes, it’s true: This story was told by an American White Lady.Yes, it’s true: This movie failed to capture the complexity of a situation from any perspective. Yes, it’s true: Everyone tried really hard to make it relatable and maybe took away some of its power.

It’s also true that the powerful version of the story is the one nobody seems to want. If they did, they’d read the real Kim Barker’s  book.

I’ve tried, too, to tell my version of the story (fewer explosives, fewer parties, fewer curse words, more Afghans, longer tunics, deeper obsession with the place itself). The more I tried to relate and to simplify, the more its truth went away. I tried to explain, once, what it was like to live on a compound that I couldn’t leave without the permission of a boss who told me to my face that women didn’t matter. Someone in my writing group said, “Well, you make it sound so bad, but everybody‘s had a bad boss.” I told people how strange it felt to be in Chicago on the day all my friends back at the Embassy were under siege, how I wished I were there. “That’s dumb,” they told me. “You were safe.” As if they couldn’t even be bothered to try imagining what it feels like to have your life happening somewhere else than where you are.

It’s also true that what something looks like and what it feels like can be very, very different. I guess when you put a bed in an office and put a proposition between an official and a journalist, it’s easier to see what’s going on. But it can’t exactly make your skin crawl like it does when a middle-aged spy chief with a polo shirt tucked over his mini-gut and into his unbelted khakis makes jokes about your tits while you’re both standing on the yellow-lit patio outside a shipping container-cum-bar drinking beers sold to you by a tiny hardened Filipina woman surrounded by beefcakes fresh from the gym and suddenly all seven of them are staring right at you like they’ve never seen balls of flesh so high and round in all their lives and all you can think to do is make a joke about how creepy the joke was and none of them speak to you for weeks because he ordered them to make you suffer for his humiliation.

It can’t tell you how the dry dusty heat of a Kabul summer night makes you feel like you’re about to sweat but your skin can never quite break into a comfortable wet. It can’t tell you how it feels when you really think you’re hitting it off with some guy and he starts bragging about how he was nailing the only girl at his PRT, who’s only even “base cute” in his estimation, and suddenly this human you thought you might connect with starts to look like a sad skinny sack of straw who doesn’t realize that he’s just base cute, too. It can’t tell you what it’s like to be a 28-year-old woman fresh off of language training and a breakup who actually cares about her work and is suddenly scared as shit that she’s going to screw it all up by being too sexy, or not sexy enough. It doesn’t tell you what it’s like when you have no choice but to be your gender first, your person second, or how hard it is to write the truth even now when you know that someone will pick it up and wave it around as evidence that all women think about is our wombs and that we just don’t belong in combat zones as anything but hairdressers, lumpia makers, and prostitutes (roles in which our presence has never been questioned).

Some stories are just really hard to tell. And still we try. Sometimes we can’t quite capture what it’s like. I think that’s okay. I’m just happy somebody cared about this story enough to give it a shot.

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Living scrapbooks

I never feel so privileged as when someone shares their story with me. It’s the most precious thing any of us has. And for all the power of modern story telling (last night I demo’d some virtual reality tools that were powerful indeed), nothing quite has the same impact as sitting across from a real human, whose real voice is speaking with real emotion, and you can feel on your skin the difference between the words they’ve simply repeated over and over and the ones that still light their heart on fire.

What else I love is the role my own imagination gets to play. Especially when it’s disrupted with surprise.

Last night a beautiful human shared his story with me. I don’t know what I expected him to tell me, but I didn’t expect to hear that he’d ever been with a woman, or that he’d grown up in a tiny desert town, or that he still worked multiple jobs. His childhood was very unlike mine and yet, it was so easy for me to imagine what it was like. The whole time he spoke, it was nighttime in my imagination. Sparse with options like a desert landscape. A strange place to try to put together a sense of self in society, like sewing a doll from whatever scraps are lying around. Not so different from what I did, many miles and several whole climates away, what I feel I’m still doing.

I love the moments when we speak about such things in the concrete terms of which little pieces of life we chose. That’s where our stories come together, because as we speak, we keep choosing: This memory is for you. The best conversations are not pre-curated, but alive and unfolding in response to what the other person offers. Together we can forge worlds — they may still feel different to each of us, but at least we made them with one another’s gifts.

I don’t know why I’m writing this except that it feels worthy of capture. When my world was small, all I wanted to do was read about other people’s lives. Now that my world is so big, stuffed to the brim with beautiful generous souls who’ve gathered in Seattle from all corners of the world, all I want to do is write about them.

The Writing Retreat

This weekend, my writing partner and I took a private ferry out to a tiny island off Kitsap County. Population: 127. GDP per capita: $53k. Number of cars that fit on the ferry: 6. Percentage of houses with “no trespassing” signs: 100. It seemed odd for a community so small to be so obviously hostile. Our host said, “People are very friendly.” And yet, on a February day so warm we walked the beach in t-shirts, we encountered only one other person, and all she wanted to know is whether it was still raining.

We could not shake the feeling that something was not quite right. Places seemed relatively well cared-for; there was a rope swing on the adjacent beach; oysters were pinned down below the surf in large black mesh wire bags; there was the occasional beachfront decor or giant anchor with a family name carved beneath it – but it did not have the feel of a pleasant retirement community – more a place people go to escape other people.

The first large house just up from the ferry had a sign hung from the balcony, probably 10’x20′ on canvas, with a stamp-like image of the Statue of Liberty in the upper right corner and this unintelligible message:

We live in the United States of America

Harassment, Bullying  and Threats against our Fundamental Rights is a Crime

Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others and don’t break the law

Perhaps clarification of jurisdiction was needed as the island is a membership community and is unincorporated, with no laws other than the rules they’ve self-developed: “For safety,” no one can board the ferry without a guest pass issued by a resident. Obviously, there’s no trespassing. And, as our host noted multiple times, you can’t pick anything up from anyone else’s stretch of beach.

When we got back, we found the place has a property crime rate 118.49 percent higher than the national average. Whether that’s from outsiders breaking in or people on the island breaking each other remains very unclear.

We crossed a bridge marked PRIVATE and trekked up through the only property that lacked a “No Trespassing” sign, on principle. It seemed like they were asking for it. “We know you’re here to harm us,” they seemed to be saying; “We’ll harm you back.” That kind of thing seems to be self-fulfilling.

My hope was to finish writing a talk. I felt massively creative on the way there. We had a ferry and some long waits to spark our imaginations. And Seattle’s Best from a vending machine, and Sour Patch Kids, and cranky ferry workers who asked us if we were children. On the boat we made a dictionary of new and needed words. Fluffl: the delightedly overfull feeling you get from eating sweet carbs for breakfast. Sufra: when you want to use an object in the way its origins intended but it is too fragile and lovely to use. Dejadant: having a wildly inappropriate, lush deja vu in a very public place. Etc.

But then we got out there and my head went to mush. It was like we were in non-space, watching time tick by as no new words hit the page. I mean, we typed, we sighed, we moved our pens, but nothing happened. It was all the same stories, rearranged in less interesting ways. Like regurgitation of a regurgitation. I was staring at word-vomit that had all the flavor taken from it many cycles ago. I mean how many times can I talk about the accident before it ceases to have existed? I mean isn’t there something left in my brain I haven’t already turned into a one-liner? Twenty minutes is a long time to talk at people with no plan, and making slides will suck your soul.

I try to remind myself that the creative process is supposed to be torturous, but it’s strange when other forms come so easily. I dropped into Facebook on Saturday morning and bam! five paragraphs surrounding a new and beautiful thought that somehow connected everything in my life. I’m used to having a moment of inspiration and watching it all just pour out of me. It doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to be this hard. Especially not when I have a planet’s worth of secrets in me. Stories collected from corners of the world most people have never been. Friends who spark laughter and movement and ink flow. There are ideas I have yet to chew.

I keep hoping that if I just keep thinking, some aha! moment will strike. 30 days in to this #togetherequal campaign I’ve learned that just ruminating on why I care so much about gender equality calls up all kinds of lovely tiny stories on a near-daily basis. But trying to take the big abstract thoughts that guide my daily work and put them into a single story that people will love – I mean, I thought they were paying me generously, but it will work out to about $2 an hour by the time I get where I need to go.

For now, I blame the place. But I know better. It is only me who decides what makes its way out of my soul and onto the page. And behind all those flavorless, safely digested words is a trapdoor that some part of me is afraid to open. With this post, I give that part of me a warning: Somebody is about to trespass.

Please Don’t Kill Me

I’m cycling again. It’s a glorious thing. Instead of being stuck on a bus in traffic, I’m gliding through Seattle sunshine and getting to most places faster than I would otherwise.

There’s just one downfall: I have to beg drivers not to kill me.

Commuting by bicycle is an art as well as a science. Many drivers would prefer not to share the road, and some are even angry enough to try to run cyclists off it. Staying safe is about a lot more than just following the rules. You have to assume that most drivers are not actually paying attention to the turn signals or the bicycle lanes. You stay alert to parked cars to see if the driver might open a door right in front of you. You’re peering into parking garages to see if someone might dart out. Even when you have the right of way, you’re trying to make eye contact with drivers who could well turn into the intersection in front of you.

I find myself smiling, waving, or mouthing “thank you” to each and every driver who follow the law. I expect hostile behavior, so when someone treats me like a legitimate moving vehicle, I do my best to communicate gratitude. I do it for myself. I do it for other cyclists. I do it in the hope that they remember what a nice, grateful cyclist I was and treat other cyclists with kindness.

In this tiny way, I imagine, riding a bicycle through urban traffic is a lot like, well, Driving While Black. Or Walking While Brown. Or Working While Female. Or Dating While Gay. Or Getting An Education While Poor. Or Trying To Pee While Homeless. Or any other variety of being a human being trying to operate in a space that was built around the needs of other people and privileges them. You have to strike a delicate balance between being grateful for the space you are offered and continuing to advocate for your needs.

It isn’t too hard to imagine a different world. In an urban infrastructure built around bicycles, where we had the say, cars might feel the need to be obsequious when we generously share our lanes. Big-time bicycle philanthropists could pat themselves on the back for building little dedicated roadways. We could even be magnanimous and offer free bicycles to 20 motorists a year, a free entry into our club (conditional on their ability to keep up with us and our powerful legs after years of sedentary commuting). But is that what we really want, or do we want to create systems that meet everyone’s needs, allow freedom of choice, and create connections across communities?

Analogies are often ridiculous, but somehow, this one really works for me – not just because it shows how power allows groups to create a social, economic, and built infrastructure that serves their needs over those of others (the definition of privilege), but because it shows just how arbitrary that power is. Driving is not an inherently better way to get around than cycling. It’s sometimes faster and easier, and it is the only feasible way to haul really large loads, but it also costs more to the user and to society than cycling. Cycling, on the other hand, is great for your help and often a lot more fun, dangers aside. I’ve had a community of cyclists everywhere I live, and I am grateful for that connection. If someone handed me the keys to a Bentley tomorrow, I’d probably give it back. Just like, if someone told me tomorrow that I could switch genders with no consequences, I’d probably say, “no thank you” and go back to advocating for women’s rights instead.

I’d rather dance this delicate dance, slowly adding to the critical mass, advocating for increased cycling as a change that’s good for drivers, too, and trying to restructure privilege itself rather than trying to take down those who have it. And when I think about it, my approach to social change is no different. When more ways of being are accepted in the world, and when we build our systems around what all humans want and not just what those in power feel entitled to, we are all better off.

Bicycle Helmets, Technical Solutions, and Working with Humans

In preparing for a talk next week, I came across this quote from urban planner Pietro Anders Calogero‘s PhD dissertation:

Urban planners usually employ technical rationalities, often assuming that this is the only way to rationally approach a policy problem. Technical rationalities imply a uniform world: indeed, a mobile phone and the chemistry of concrete work the same way regardless of our location on the planet. But political rationalities imply localness, peculiarity, and contingency. 

It is possible to substitute virtually any profession for “urban planners” above, even those who work in policy. We all want to find the “right answer” – the optimal solution that we can use over and over again, finding efficiencies and giving us useful points of comparison.

The problem is that the technically correct solution and the one that will actually work in a specific political context are usually very different. That’s why, in international development scholarship, we’ve started to talk about “second-best” solutions – acknowledging that they might not be ideal, but that it’s better to implement something that’s suboptimal on paper than one that’s a flop in practice.

One great way to think about this is the bicycle helmet paradoxSafety experts always recommend wearing a helmet; in many accidents, they save lives. However, in places where helmets are required, fewer people tend to ride, leading to a less safe system overall, with drivers less aware of cyclists. Perversely, discussions over helmet laws also tend to shift the focus toward individual behavior and away from the infrastructure improvements that have a much larger impact on collective safety.

In other words, when dealing with humans, we should be mindful of the gap between the technically correct option (in our eyes) and the one that is likely to work.

I preach about this all the time in my work – the fallacies of big data, the challenges of using technology to solve social problems – but in my own projects, I am just as likely to get stuck pushing for the perfect solution when it simply isn’t possible to get people to behave that way.

None of us get to make decisions in perfect information environments. Even big data is no match for the uncertainty of human behavior. But when we accept political rationalities – the “localness, peculiarity, and contingency” of each place in time – we begin to see opportunities for solutions that we can actually implement, right now.

It’s a good reminder, to me, that it’s okay for some things to be “imperfect.” Real perfection is in the embrace of the possible.

Labor as Love

Last Sunday, I spoke at TEDxUofW. It was hands down the most difficult public speaking experience of my life to-date. Normally, I like to be in front of a microphone, and I enjoy distilling things into short talks or other pieces. This time, I made it so much harder.

I wanted very much to distill my work into a single ten-minute speech. People keep asking how I do what I do, what it really is, and why I am so passionate about it. As someone who used to define herself as a professional communicator, I am frustrated to discover that I still cannot do this.

Instead, I’d like to break it down into some component parts that may be more effective than a one-size-fits-all talk.

Today, I’ll start with the basics: the infrastructure of the modern workplace. Work does so much more than take up time and energy in our lives. It shapes how we behave outside of work. It can even shape who we are in the world.

Let me use an example. A few days ago, I spoke with a reporter from Crosscut about an upcoming campaign by the Seattle Department of Transportation to encourage behavior change among commuters. If the viaduct crumbles, traffic in parts of the city is going to get even worse – quickly – and we will all need to adjust quickly. That can mean working odd hours. It can mean switching to bus or bike. Whatever people choose, the goal is the same. We need to get cars off the road.

While I fully support efforts to educate people and encourage them to make better choices, this is not a marketing problem. It’s an infrastructure problem. If employers expect everyone to work from 8:00 or 9:00 am to somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, we will always have a rush hour. If adequate public transit infrastructure is not in place, people will continue to drive. If there is not enough housing located close to work, cycling and walking will be available only to a select few people. And if we don’t consider the needs of working families with children who must attend school or daycare within certain hours, we will see fewer people choose to have children and more demand for two-car garages by those who do.

People are pretty brilliant. We naturally optimize for our own well-being within the constraints of the world around us. Since I run my own schedule, I have been able to manage my commute however serves me best, including by avoiding peak bus times. I also just moved to a place much closer to the other places I need to go during the day. I’ve wanted to be here for a while, but I needed to reach a certain level of revenue before a move to my new neighborhood was feasible. I live a nearly car-free lifestyle and could not be happier – possible only because I am able to run my life in the way that works for me.

In order for a campaign like this one to work, employers have to be on board. They need to allow employees to manage their schedules however works best for them. If they want people to cycle to work, they need to provide showers and other infrastructure. They need to provide childcare and other amenities for working parents. They need to trust their staff to work remotely or split their time between home and office, based on whatever works best for them as human beings. And that, in the modern framework, is a tall order.

Somewhere on the path to corporate citizenship, we began treating corporations as very powerful individuals themselves rather than what they truly are: frameworks that allow large numbers of people to collaborate toward particular goals. Rather than relying on the self-motivation of those people to do that work and reach those goals, the modern corporation is a beast of punishment. It is an engine that runs on carrots and sticks.

Bonuses and other incentives mask terrible work environments in a papier-mache layer of money; contracts and penalties keep people dragging themselves to their desks solely for fear of what will happen to their ability to survive if they leave. A relatively absent social safety net links all of us to our employers in a relationship of perceived total dependency, and a culture that penalizes unemployment keeps people from leaving even toxic relationships until they have found another employer whose arms they can leap into.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.

I should clarify: I am for companies. I am for corporations. I am immensely proud to share a city with corporations such as Microsoft and Starbucks that lift up the community and use their power to improve people’s lives. I hope one day to grow my own work up into an organization that can do similar things for the world.

However, when it comes to the way companies treat labor, I see tremendous room for improvement. There’s that old adage: “We asked for labor, and people came.” Many companies have responded to this by trying to make people less like people and more like machines (money in –> productivity out). I think we can respond to it by trying to make labor more human.

In my TEDx talk, I described several projects I have executed solely by tapping into people’s intrinsic motivations. Every time I have put on a massive collaborative project, I have done so from a place of zero authority. I had no formal authority over other sections of the U.S. Embassy in Poland when I put together the New Media/New Democracy Forum. I was not in charge of other agencies, other countries’ embassies, or the local organizations who partnered with us in Afghanistan for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. I certainly had no hard power over the team and partners that came together for Hack to End Homelessness. In order to get anything done, I had to adapt the structure of the work to accommodate what people wanted to do and how they wanted to do it.

In each case, the results were phenomenal – far better than any work I ever got done thanks to being able to tell underlings what to do. This shaped me as a manager. I view management, including project management, as a role equal to all the others. I may provide the hub of the enterprise, but without the support of each and every spoke, I cannot form a wheel. Using this approach, I have been able to do meaningful work in a meaningful way – without ever having to incentivize people with money. In fact, when I have introduced money into these initiatives, that’s precisely the moment when their energy begin to slip away.*

Science backs me up on this. I often refer people to Dan Pink’s phenomenal TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” for a summary of what we know about what motivates people. The gist of it is this: fear, most often triggered through competition, is a finite source of motivation. It can push people for a short amount of time to perform very basic tasks.

To unlock the creativity that is required for solving complex problems, however, people need to be liberated from fear. Competition doesn’t work. Punishments don’t work. Even prizes don’t work. People need the space to explore their own creative capacity and think expansively about what they want from the world.

Which brings me back to labor. In the current structure of work, it is difficult if at all possible for most people to tap into that creative energy. As a result, employees can only do what they are told, with diminishing value on their time the longer they do it. It is no wonder that people burn out so quickly – even when, like me, they absolutely love the work they are supposed to be doing.

Working in an inhumane bureaucracy is like putting a glass jar over a burning candle and then wondering why the flame goes out (or worse, blaming the candle itself).

The candle is still there. It works beautifully. The wick wants nothing more than to burn. It loves the work it was made to do in the world.

Yet instead of lifting up the jar, we keep lighting new matches. Employers try the same old tricks of carrots and sticks. We rely on brief respites – weekends, brief vacations, and increasingly, sabbaticals – to keep up our self-esteem, but it never works for long. We design projects that give us little bursts of oxygen so we can keep going and still get recognition for being who we used to be. Eventually, gasping for air within these tight containers, we lose touch with who we really are. Even if we do get the courage to leave, it can take years for us to rediscover our passions and re-ignite our flame in a way we can sustain.

My work in the world is to prove that it’s okay for all of us – parents, children, teachers, employers, and government bureaucrats – to lift the jar. The structure of work should empower humans, not try to turn them into machines. (That’s what the machines are for, anyway.) We can give people time, space, and tools to rediscover who they are. Then, we can honor who they are by asking them to do the work they love in the way that works for them. When we do this, my friends, we will have an infinite well of energy and creativity with which to make life better for everyone. When we replace fear with love, there is no problem in the world we cannot solve.

But I’m not waiting for the powerful bureaucracies to change. I weaseled my way out from under the jar, and over the last couple of years, I have rediscovered what lights my fire. I encourage everyone else in the world to do the same. Then and only then will labor be forced to become human again.

* That does not mean I do not pay people or ensure they are otherwise being compensated for their contributions. People cannot offer their gifts if their basic needs are not being met, and the way we meet those needs in our society is with money. I firmly believe that we need to find better ways as a society to pay people to build the things we need – releasing ourselves from structures of ownership and intellectual property – but that’s for another time.

You Will Survive

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Yesterday, I attended the annual benefit luncheon for YWCA, one of our partners from Hack to End Homelessness. YWCA provides a safety net for women in our community by offering housing support, employment services, and the reassurance that women have somewhere to turn. As one of the speakers put it yesterday, what YWCA really does help women “get out of survival mode” – that stressed-out, fear-driven state where everything feels impossible.

Once they turn the corner from survival into life, these women go on to do amazing things. Eighty-six percent of people exiting YWCA housing facilities move on to more stable housing. Six in ten job seekers find work. Children (98 percent of those who participate in YWCA’s programs) go on to meet developmental milestones and/or enroll in kindergarten. The impact of simply caring for people’s basic needs is tremendous.

That should be no surprise to anyone. “Survival mode” is a killer – literally. When we believe that our survival is on the line, we live in constant fear. We avoid risks, even when those risks may be necessary to exit survival mode. We become emotionally unstable, viewing everyone around us as a threat, even those who are trying to help. This mental state reinforces itself, convincing us that there is no way out. It strikes me that the most important thing YWCA does for people is to be there for them, reassuring them that they will survive, and helping them shift toward medium-term and long-term solutions.

While not all of us have experienced the levels of personal, generational, and network poverty faced by one in three women-led households in the United States, we have all experienced “survival mode.”

  • We’ve had to work for bosses who constantly hold over us the threat to fire us and destroy our reputations.
  • We have been in relationships that we felt we could not live without, even when they were not meeting our needs.
  • We have had long-dreamed-of opportunities within our reach and shrank back, terrified that we would not be able to manage the disruption to our known world.

Even when we are far removed from the true survival pressures faced by billions of people on our planet, we are stuck moving through life with cortisol and noradrenaline sabotaging us through our brains and bloodstreams. We gain weight, feel depressed, and worry about whether we’ll be okay.

The current social paradigm in the United States keeps us in survival mode all the time. We often disconnect from our family networks to pursue careers in what is referred to as a “dog-eat-dog world.” Everything, even doing good (or pretending to do good), is a competitive sport.

Silicon Valley Gif

A scene from season two of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”

Does this seem insane to anyone else? Why, in an era of so much plenty, when for most of us, survival is a guarantee, do we continue to be stuck in survival mode? And what can we do to get out of it?

The answer is simple. “Survival mode” is a state of mind. It is harder to battle the closer you are to death, but even then, survival mode is a psychological state – one humans have been stuck in for most of our history, and one we are ready to transcend. To do so, we need to communicate to our egos that everything is going to be okay. Here are a few ways to do that:

First, we can remind ourselves what the edge of survival really looks like. Volunteering with or at least learning about the work of service providers like YWCA can show us just how okay we really are. Philanthropic giving gives us a psychological boost. These activities remind us that, at least from a basic-needs standpoint, we are going to be okay.

Second, we can think back to situations we thought we would never get out of, but somehow did. We may never wish to go back there, but we can eliminate the fear of survival by reminding ourselves that we have survived. We can thank the people who were there for us when things were not okay.

Finally, we can, very intentionally, create support networks in our communities, much like YWCA staff do for their clients. We can remind our friends that they will always have a place to stay and food to eat. We can help them think through the worst-case scenarios and let them know how we will be there for them if those scenarios comes to pass. Recognizing that we all go through times of shortage and plenty, we can create a social safety net of our own.

By living generously, we release ourselves and others from survival mode.

When that happens, we can all go forth and do great things. We can bring our gifts into the world – works of art, acts of service, feats of engineering, study of puzzling problems, resolution of conflict, inspiring stories, management of complex systems, leadership in difficult situations, the next generations of human life. By giving freely to one another, we not only ensure our own survival, we make life richer for ourselves and everyone around us.

So get out there. Know that you will survive. Build communities where no human is left behind. And then, together, let’s get past survival mode and into the life that awaits.