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here comes the sun

In retrospect, it seems like the stormfront of bad luck that has charged through the past year made its entrance pretty soon after my birthday. In a way, it's hard to articulate how difficult the last twelve months have been, although I guess "I got laid off shortly after my mother was diagnosed with an unusual cancer" lays it out pretty neatly. But it's tough to convey the sheer exhaustion of so many days, the isolation that comes when you avoid your friends because it feels like literally nothing has changed, or will ever change, in your life. What it's like to drive back to the hospital day after day after day. On the road to Bethesda, I used to listen to a song from my senior year of college, "Dress Me Like A Clown" by Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, on repeat: I am alive, I am alive, and that is the best that I can do...

But I AM alive. And, because today is my birthday, it seems useful to commemorate that occasion. For my survival, I can credit my parents: my father, the ultimate hustler, the immigrant who has pretty much single-handedly created every opportunity he's ever had, and my mother, who - by word and by example - has always reminded me that hustling doesn't mean you get to run everyone else over. I can credit my siblings, who understood better than anyone the weird (and, frankly, somewhat put-upon) place our family occupies in the universe. And I can credit my friends, who have offered innumerable couch cushions to hug, picked up more tabs than I care to count, and never quit asking how things were going.

The thing about being catapulted out into the universe without a net is that you have to get comfortable with yourself pretty quickly, because there's no longer a job or a company to define you. I hesitate to say that it was worth it, because it's very easy to look back and say that, and I'm not exactly clamoring for a repeat. But I feel stronger now. More myself - although, paradoxically, it's through the support of everyone else that I've gotten here. So here's to another year of being alive. And, hopefully, more than that.

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but are we all Aztecas, really

(Cross-posted.)

Among the many, many things that fascinate me about the World Cup is the creation of team slogans. Partly because they reflect the event's ability to create a (somewhat) equal ground for countries that otherwise differ dramatically in global power, and partly because they are awesome.

The Washington Post did a pretty good roundup of the slogans, but I beg to disagree with a few of them. For example:

  • Australia: "Socceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History!"
    • Washington Post says: C+
    • Hillary says: A-. How can you not admire their commitment to something so profoundly dumb? Also, it's kind of fun, and games are supposed to be fun, the last time I checked.
  • Cameroon: "A Lion Remains a Lion"
    • Washington Post says: A- ("smacks of laziness")
    • Hillary says: A++++++. This is arguably the toughest and most menacing slogan I have ever heard, for anything.
  • Chile: "Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le! Go Chile!"
    • Washington Post says: B+
    • Hillary says: D. I'm pretty sure that this is just a thing you say, and not a slogan per se.
  • Ecuador: "One Commitment, One Passion, Only One Heart, This is for You Ecuador!"
    • Washington Post says: B (too earnest)
    • Hillary says: B-, for different reasons. I am actually a big fan of their sincerity, but much like Chile's "slogan," I don't think this one really qualifies. I mean, look at its length alone.
  • Ghana: "Black Stars: Here to Illuminate Brazil"
    • Washington Post says: B, for cheese
    • Hillary says: A+. It references the nation both symbolically and literally (black star on the flag), and it factually describes the behavior of stars. Plus it strikes a nice balance between being threatening and being terrifying. They're not going to eat you, like Cameroon! They're just going to show you how it's done. They'll show you the light. The black star light.
  • Greece: "Heroes Play Like Greeks"
    • Washington Post says: D, although they admit bias
    • Hillary says: Are you kidding? A++. It's not as breathtakingly baller as Cameroon's slogan, but it's in the same arena. Bonus points for the mythological allusion.
  • Mexico: "Always United, Always Aztecas"
    • Washington Post says: B+
    • Hillary says: D. First of all, why does Mexico get credit for its historical reference, when Greece does not? Secondly, this is not even accurate, as there were a multitude of pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico, including the Toltec, the Mixtec, the Purepecha, and the Maya, all of whom could very well have been good at soccer. We don't know, because colonialism. And now we're even erasing them from our team slogans. 
  • Netherlands: "Real Men Wear Orange"
    • Washington Post says: C-
    • Hillary says: B. I don't know, I kind of like it. There's another historical callback in there, and also orange is not a color that America traditionally associates with masculinity. 
  • Portugal: "The Past is History, the Future is Victory"
  • Russia: "No One Can Catch Us"
    • Washington Post says: B+ (basically: too soon)
    • Hillary says: A, for chutzpah. Also, it's short and descriptive, which is how a slogan should be. (Are you listening, Ecuador?)
  • South Korea: "Enjoy It, Reds!"
    • Washington Post says: B-, for reduced expectations
    • Hillary says: B. They really nailed the essence of most of the English that gets translated from Korean - technically clear, but still a little puzzling.
  • Uruguay: "Three Million Dreams...Let's Go Uruguay"
    • Washington Post says: B+, because it accurately reflects Uruguay's overall position coming in
    • Hillary says: B+, but again, this is a concurring opinion. I like that it sums up the World Cup's importance as a global stage. But "Let's Go [team]" is not a slogan. I don't know how many times I have to say this. 

Anyway. I do agree with the Post that America's slogan ("United by Team, Driven by Passion") is stupid and probably better suited for a Chevy truck commercial. How about "At Least Our Country Is Kind of Paying Attention This Time"? Another option: "We're Still Not Calling It Football." Team USA, if you're listening, I am available as a brand consultant. Just saying.

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an "appropriate technology" manifesto

(Cross-posted from H+M. I promise I will get back to child quotes and life analysis here soon enough.)

This "love-fueled rant" from Aspiration Tech should be required reading for anyone who has ever worked with technology and/or nonprofits. A few highlights:

...Technology discussions and planning should remain firmly rooted in the language of the end user. Vocabulary is a powerful barrier to organizational autonomy and empowerment.

...What has worked offline for generations still deeply informs what works best overall. Technology has not changed the game so much as it has changed the process of winning the same. The game is the same as it has been since before anyone walking today on this earth was alive: build power in movements to catalyze social change and justice, and hold corporations, governments, and random controlling parties accountable for the leverage they exert and maintain. Tech fetishism is never a substitute for great organizing. Technology will not set you free, in fact quite the opposite.

...And last, but perhaps most important: nonprofits should never forget who technology leaves out, and what it leaves undone. A number of those most in need of the social justice impact that nonprofits strive to realize exist beyond the reach of the latest shiny internet fad. Technology is a powerful, seductive and essential vehicle for communicating vision, winning campaigns, buttressing programs and supporting operations. But technology doesn't make a better world, people working for positive social change make that better world. (Editor's note: THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS)

The only things I would add are that:

  • These ideas apply to the philanthropic arms of for-profit groups as well as nonprofits, and
  • We're not dealing with just nonprofit employees here - we also need to think about external stakeholders, including the target audiences of these projects. There's tech to improve internal function, and tech as a part of outward-facing initiatives, and most of these apply to both.

But still. It's good to remind ourselves of these things. (H/t Sean Martin McDonald.)

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it's your party

Transient

(Cross-posted from H+M.)

I love being in DC for the World Cup. It's probably because of all the international organizations that are based here, but my fellow citizens are approximately 1000x more excited about this event than people anywhere else I've ever lived.* And even though I'm not much of an athlete, or even much of a sports fan, I dig it; I think it's the global nature of the event, the fact that fans are sort of required to know about things that are happening in Croatia or Ghana, even if they're only related to soccer. And in a way, it feels more globalized even than the Olympics - maybe because there's only one sport, so the country-level fandoms are way more focused and intense (as opposed to the Olympics, where there are so many sports and affiliated politics that it's easy to lose track).

I'm also really interested in sports and global integration from another angle - the idea of one sports team as a unifier of diverse fans. Which brings me to the point of this post: a fascinating article by Sam Knight in Grantland that explores whether or not the diversity of the Belgian national team is leading to greater "Belgitude" - an attitude roughly analogous to national pride, with a dose of "I guess this country shouldn't split up after all" in the mix.  The idea is that, while many Belgians are permanently annoyed that they live in the kind of country that can go for multiple years without a government, the diversity of younger generations has led them to appreciate Belgium for what it is: a weird place, but not necessarily a bad one. For example:

...(T)he article also put forward the idea that the country’s newest citizens might be the first to truly accept Belgium on its own eccentric terms. Leman believes that theory has come true. “How to explain?” he said. “Our national discussions are internal discussions, and very domestic, and these guys coming from outside look at Belgium and they say, ‘Why destroy this country? With its nice system?’”**

As a person who has seen the Mighty Ducks movies,*** I know the trope of sports as common ground is a bit simplistic, but I also think there's something to it - maybe because it's simplistic, actually. Sports fandom is a little bit primal; as much as we might like to imagine that it comes from our head, I think it's probably based in the heart and the gut. Which means that even though there are a million political and economic differences that a sports team will never bridge, that instinctive aspect of being a fan lets us circumvent all of that and, for a moment, find common ground with someone else. It's not everything, but it's also not nothing.

And what's even more interesting about cases like the Belgian team is that, if this analysis holds up, they're actually taking the idea of sports-based unity to the next level by not only bringing people together, but by creating a new reality in order to do so. (Granted, that reality can best be summed up as "This isn't so bad," but again, you've got to start somewhere.) I'll be interested to see if it holds up, and to consider the implications of this narrative creation for the future - after all, as divided states go, Belgium is probably among the tamer examples.

Also, I am kind of obsessed with Stromae and his video about the Red Devils' official song, "Ta Fête" ("Your Party").

*With the possible exception of South Korea, but everyone there would have been cheering for one team.

**A sentiment that reminds me of Tina Fey's turn as Blerta, the Albanian addition to Girls. ("I have roof over head. For this, I thank God.")

***QUACK QUACK QUACK

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integrating empathy into the Maker movement

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire.

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire.

(Cross-posted from H+M.)

I think I've finally figured out my problem with the mantra "Fail fast, fail often."

This week/end, I had the opportunity to attend two "Maker" related-events - the DC Mini Maker Faire on Sunday, and an AAAS/MakerEd-hosted conference, "Making Education Great: Expanding Support to Broaden Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Making," on Monday. Since, of course, I have an affinity for both nonformal ed and user-centered program design more generally, I jumped at the chance. Besides, they sounded like fun.

And they were fun - interesting, thought-provoking, engaging, with lots of Legos and wire for me to play with as I listened. If you're not familiar with the Maker movement, it refers broadly to "the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers" - in other words, DIY, with a heavy focus on creation and/or technology. (This post is largely focused on the domestic community, but there is certainly a push to export these ideas to encourage entrepreneurship and the acceleration of tech innovation as well.) It's a movement that, in theory, has the potential to be radically inclusive; when you make stuff, after all, you're no longer bound in the same way by what you can buy. In theory, it should lead you to the idea that institutions and rules are mutable and breakable, that you have the power to invent things and to change them and to take them apart. In theory, "making" and "hustle" aren't so far apart in spirit. In theory.

But theory is one thing, and practice is another. In practice, inclusivity remains a huge issue, which is why everyone was gathered at that conference. (Tellingly, the vast majority of participants were highly educated, although there was a lot more racial and gender diversity than I was expecting, which was cool.) So-called "maker spaces," labs with materials where anyone can play and create, are one of the linchpins of this movement, but they're also far more common in well-off communities; low-income schools often struggle to support quality STEM education at all, much less innovation in science teaching. But I think one of the biggest reasons - certainly the biggest reason we're not talking about - is this: in America, when you're poor, and when you lack privilege, the consequences of failure are different. 

Think about it. When you give yourself permission to fail, the implicit assumption is that you have the resources - materials, time, reputation/social capital - to try again. That's a pretty damn privileged assumption to make. When you're poor, you don't have resources. That's what being poor means. Furthermore, mainstream American society is not exactly set up to reward experimentation among underserved groups; when you're on welfare, and being derided for your life choices by people who don't even know you, it doesn't exactly put you in a head space where you can be like, "You know what I want to do? Experiment!" It's more like, "You know what I want to do today? MAXIMIZE MY CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WITH EVERY CHOICE I MAKE." Risk aversion is often ultimately the more practical option.

Unfortunately, "fail fast, fail often" is a common mantra among Makers and the subcultures it overlaps - design thinkers, "innovators," etc. The idea is that you want to iterate, to improve, to fix things, that failure is how you learn. And it's not a bad idea, per se. But it's also not an idea that we can just assume is natural in every community. Because failure is for those who have resources and chances, who can make a mistake and not have to worry that it will reflect poorly on their entire race or ethnic group or neighborhood. And if we assume that an aversion to failure is some sort of flaw, rather than a natural reaction to circumstance, we're just flaunting our own privilege and the fact that we don't have to worry, at least not in the same way.

So what's the answer? I'm not totally sure. To its credit, the Maker movement - which is very new, at least in its current form - is grappling with these questions, using discussions like yesterday's to figure them out. But I think we might ultimately need to change the way we talk about these things a little bit. Rather than just talking about placing Maker Spaces into communities, we need to address the experience we hope to co-create, to actively work with the community to understand what they want and need (which is to say, ask them). We need to understand that these kinds of spaces might look different in different places, that they might involve car mechanics or Instagram apps instead of 3D printers (which are cool, but come on guys, we need something else). We need to understand that they have an intimidation factor, and that intimidation factor needs to be dealt with. (And, for the record, I think these are lessons that can be applied to ICT4D more broadly as well.)

Rather than saying "Fail fast, fail often," I think we might need to say, "I'm scared sometimes, but here is a place where it's safe for me to try things and fail. How can we make it a space where you feel the same way? How can we fail together?" We all want to pull back the curtain on Oz, to learn how to build our own worlds. But we have to understand that we haven't made it easy for people to get started on that journey, and to get anywhere, we're going to have to learn what failure means for each other.

(HUGE thanks to Danielle Martin, who told me about this event and encouraged me to come, and to the amazing Dorothy Jones-Davis and Kipp Bradford, who organized the event with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

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fun with a purpose

(Cross-posted from H+M.)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you use data for development purposes.


This is a map from DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for better city policies for children and families. They recently launched a revamped version of their data tool, DC KIDS COUNT, which is part of a national program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

A few years ago, I had a boss who was fond of saying, "Maps are great, but then what?" The point he was making - and I think it's a good one - was that with all of the new data visualization and crowdsourcing technology that's arisen over the last decade, it's easy to get caught up in making really neat-looking infographics that nonetheless fail to serve any strategic purpose. And if these maps stood alone, that description would probably apply to them; yes, a map that shows how sharply student reading levels decline as you move across the city is arresting, and depressing, but it doesn't offer a clear call to action.

What I love about DCAC's tool, though, is that it was designed for a reason and for a specific audience. Its maps provide nonprofits with hard data they can use in lobbying local officials, particularly ANCs (Advisory Neighborhood Committees - a local body of government in DC) and city council members. They also provide a clear visual reference for DCAC itself to use in making their case to local politicians for more child-friendly policies on issues like school funding. And - should these politicians choose to back a given initiative or policy - they now have accessible, engaging data to which they can refer when trying to get their peers on board.

If you're interested in data tools or issues of child poverty and development at all, I encourage you to go check out what DCAC is doing - their data is open-source and available to all, so if you want to play with it and see what you can learn about kids in this city, go for it. (Their incredibly dynamic founder, HyeSook Chung, is also posting some neat information on their blog that explains a little bit about their methodology and the choices they made in developing this.)


(Full disclosure: I participated in a volunteer consulting project last summer that worked with DCAC to advise on potential changes to the old DC Kids Count tool. However, I was not involved at all in the creation of the final product - I was part of one team out of several, and my work ended in August, before the changes began.)

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love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

Transient

(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 

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thanks to listeners like you

(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

"It is because of NPR," my Uber driver told me this morning. "All because of NPR!"

He was referring to his knowledge of English, which he acquired almost exclusively from - you guessed it - National Public Radio. "I have RFI [French public radio] access on my phone, but my teacher and my wife said, 'No. You should listen to NPR.' And now? RFI? Never." (He added that his favorite host was Kojo. Obviously.)

I have no real new observations here, except that I love being reminded of how powerful effective media can be for educational purposes. When I hear stories like this one I think of my father, living as a child quasi-refugee in France, getting his first introduction to America from Tom Mix Westerns; of my old friend Yuriy, who once told me that he learned English from the reruns of DuckTales they broadcast in his city in Ukraine; of my host brother in Korea, who learned the word "undertaker" from the name of his favorite American wrestler. (Yes, really. And yes, I'm counting it.)

And, of course, now of this man, a former executive with Coca-Cola in Cameroon whose daughter is in the US Navy and who's working on a novel about the experience of the African immigrant in America.* I'm glad that the mediated, highly enunciated NPR accent has proven its worth. And I'm glad that we make it freely available to all Americans, new and old.

 

*It was a long ride. 

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hands up to the light

Two things, for the eve of Memorial Day:

1) One of my favorite essays about memory and loss - I think I've posted it pretty much every year.

I go because I believe that no matter where you came from or what you believed in, when you die, you want flowers on your grave and people who visit you and remember you that way.

I’m not any kind of traitor or any kind of hero. I am the sister of Rogelio Bautista, and I say his name so you will hear it and be one more person that remembers him.

2) Another favorite: a song about fighting the good fight. 

We have the right to insist to be free and brave/

If that should cease to exist, I'll throw my heart away

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I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.

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