me and you and everyone we know


I recently came across this speech from Sumana Harihareswara, an exec at the Wikimedia Foundation, about how user experience (UX) is, at is heart, a social justice issue. It's great, particularly for techies, because (hey, EMPATHY) it puts it in very tech-friendly terms:

Let's look at what it takes to do user experience work. You have to look at your service from the point of view of someone who knows a lot less than you, and see where they're coming from. You have to imagine the reasons why they want what they want. Seeing that causation, seeing the connection between what someone's doing now and all the causation that went before it, is empathy. It's a little like reverse engineering; you're trying to unlock the DRM that's stopping them from getting what they need. Which is a really cool hack, actually.

We need to to exercise a disciplined empathy. It's an empathy that includes qualitative thinking, like interviews and watching people use stuff to see where the snags are, and quantitative thinking, like A/B testing and heatmaps.

But the tech industry is pretty crappy at empathy. And I'm speaking from my experience here - I know library tech is its own field - but in my experience of our industry, we just drop the ball on empathy and hospitality, a lot.

This issue is SO IMPORTANT, for the ICT4D community in particular. I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall sometimes when I write about empathy, because it's hard to say anything new when it feels like nothing ever changes.

But - and here, of course, I can add my own experience to the mix - she's right. Because empathy is hard. If you have not spent a lot of time with Burmese refugees who have literally never seen a computer before, it's hard to imagine what their user experience might be like. Not impossible, but certainly not intuitive. And yet the experience is the gate; it's the X in "If X, then Y." Which means that if we want to use technology - any kind of technology, from radio to broadband - to give people more options and choices in their lives, we have to get imagining. We don't really have a choice.

(Side note: if you are at all interested in technology and its potential, particularly from this angle, I really can't recommend enough that you subscribe to Sumana's blog. I learned about it from Brendan, the King of the Internet, who never updates his own blog anymore but is also worth following on Twitter for the same kind of content and much, much more.)



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oh, inverted world

My favorite song covers are the ones that turn the song inside out, into something totally different but still legitimate. For that reason, I recommend that you stop what you're doing and listen to Damien Rice's version of "When Doves Cry." (Full disclosure: any fun that was in the original track is completely gone. It's gut-wrenching, which is to say that it sounds like most Damien Rice songs.)

I actually saw Damien Rice perform during my first week of college, and I vaguely recall him playing this (and also that his cellist covered "Purple Haze"). But unlike a lot of things from that era, this is actually a lot better than I remember.

Other updates: I've started working with the World Bank on stakeholder engagement for a short-term governance/public management project (more on that later). It's exciting, and I'm really enjoying it, but I did have to leave my babies at the school where I was working. On the last day I took a class picture, and without being prompted,* every one of them struck a completely ridiculous pose. It's perfect, the exact way I want to remember them, and looking at it makes me feel both sad and lucky.

Also, yesterday I did an 826DC workshop in which we asked our participants (6-12 YO) what animal hybrid they would choose to be. There were some really brilliant ones. My favorites were:

CUTEST: "pandeerkat" (panda meerkat)

MOST INGENIOUS: "dingaroo" (dingo kangaroo)


*As with most photographs, there was technically a prompt for attention, but all I asked them to do was say "I LOVE READING!" I said nothing about putting anyone in a headlock.

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born in this dirt

When I look at Georgia Avenue, I see it through an overlay of light. Petworth is the first neighborhood where I've had my own place to live; it has the sidewalks that take me to fresh-roasted coffee and $2.50 Jamaican patties, the Guyanese grocery store and the big open library. I live across the street from my friends, and next door to a man who, despite his ill health and limited English, never fails to ask after my mother. This is how I take it in, and it's how I'm going to remember it.

None of which means that I don't see the cracks in the sidewalk or hear the sirens at night. It's not exactly perfect. But it's mine, and I find things to love, because I'm here. And I'm going to make the best of it.

I have lived, worked, and traveled in very rich and very poor places, and every one of those communities has reinforced for me a very simple idea: that every neighborhood is somebody's neighborhood. It belongs to the people who have lived there, because when you live somewhere, it becomes part of your story, part of your identity. Even if you repudiate it, because that repudiation then becomes part of the story. 

And yet it is still societally acceptable to comment on these places as though people do not live there. When we say that a part of town is "ghetto," which is to say run-down, or neglected, or not meeting our aesthetic standards, what we are saying is that a place like that, it's not worth loving. But love isn't just about the place itself; it's about association, the things that happen there and the setting as part of the totality of the experience. People fight and fail and fall in love in housing projects too. And even when windows are broken and barred, the sun still shines through.

Richard Sherman has a beautiful and timely piece in Sports Illustrated about not forgetting where you're from, even when that place gets less than stellar reviews from critics. The main topic of the article is about DeSean Jackson and his place, or lack thereof, on the Philadelphia Eagles roster due to "gang ties." But the subtext, at least as I read it, was about this expectation that we cast off the parts of our history that others find undesirable, even when the truth is more complicated:

Those men with DeSean in the social pictures and the police reports weren’t his closest friends in childhood, but when his father died and few people were there for him, they were there. When a tragic event like that happens, the people who are around are the people who are around, and they were there for him...

But go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too, because I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up. We aren’t afraid to be associated with the people who came up with us.

(It's a really good companion piece to the ongoing debate on black poverty between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates, if you've been following that.) 

At the risk of going deep, I'm going to say that this article reminded me of the importance of narratives, and how easily and insidiously they can be co-opted. Your story is your story, and it's not my place to come in and say, "Oh, what a terrible sad neighborhood you grew up in," any more than it is for me to say, "I've never met your mother, but she sure looks like a whore." When we make these generalized, dismissive criticisms about communities that aren't our own, we make it shameful to love and survive there. We're taking away the opportunity for people to name themselves. And, in a world that needs as much of it as possible, we're leaving out all the light.


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"To the Reader: Twilight," Chase Twitchell

Saw this on the 6 train as part of MTA's "Poetry in Motion" project. I'm actually not crazy about the rest of her stuff, but I've come to peace with that. And I love this.

To the Reader: Twilight

Whenever I look
out at the snowy
mountains at this hour
and speak directly
into the ear of the sky,
it’s you I’m thinking of.
You’re like the spirits
the children invent
to inhabit the stuffed horse
and the doll.
I don’t know who hears me.
I don’t know who speaks
when the horse speaks.


Bonus: I tried to take a picture of the poem so I could look it up later and Tyler thought I was taking a picture of him. You can guess how he feels about it. (Note the Young Fidel hat.)

Tyler, if you're reading this, I know you're mad at me, but the expression on your face is really great.

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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?



the rain king

I come from mission-trip country. As a Catholic, I never attended churches where foreign travel was de rigueur (I guess because we did so much of it back in the 17th century). For my peers at Protestant (particularly evangelical) churches, however, goodwill vacations were quite common; some focused heavily on aid, some on proselytizing, some were a mix. No one ever questioned, however, the utility of such ventures, not with all the pictures clearly documenting grinning brown children. 

I had mixed feelings then about such trips, and I have them now. Which is also how I feel about a recent essay that's been making my social media rounds, Pippa Biddle's "Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist." The piece, mostly focused on secular aid visits (which I did not know existed until much later in my life...more on that later), comes down pretty squarely against this kind of travel. Overall, I don't think her thesis is wrong. But I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of her arguments, and I'd be interested to see how she (and other development practitioners) respond.

Biddle makes the argument that shipping unskilled Westerners in to do work that could be more efficiently done internally is ineffective, self-serving, and kind of imperialistic. I don't entirely disagree; because such trips are often designed in a way to engage volunteers and donors, they may not be equipped to actually address local needs. This is a well-known, and huge, problem in the development community. 

At the same time, however, this generalization has some holes, both in argument and in presentation.

  1. This article fails to acknowledge the other benefits of this kind of cultural interaction. The people who make these trips have the chance to expand their perspectives; become inspired to learn and do more; and provide positive and realistic examples of America (or other Western countries) in places where our image is glamorized at best and despised at worst. Do these outweigh the cons of badly-planned aid trips? Probably not, a lot of the time. But they do exist, and in some cases I would wager that they are enough to justify the trip.
  2. The article also conflates "service trips" and actual international aid projects, which is naive, poorly informed, and unfair. It would be great - ideal, really - if quality-of-life improvements were entirely beneficiary-led and -run. Unfortunately, the problem is that a lot of interventions require money and/or prior experience, which countries like America have and which other countries do not.

    If our development establishment worked the way it's supposed to, development projects would be understood as mutually beneficial collaborations in which each party contributes resources and benefits from the system-wide improvements that result. Is this how development works? Of course not. But the reasons for that are complicated, and entrenched, and won't be solved by our country deciding it's not qualified enough to help anymore.
  3. Finally, and I think this is my biggest issue: despite the fact that this entire essay is about privilege, I don't think that the topic is adequately addressed - at least not in terms of the privilege required to take a stand like this one. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    1. These kinds of trips are out of reach for a lot of Americans. I think the implications of taking an "aid vacation" like this are very different for someone who grew up in poverty in America, who may have experienced discrimination at home, and who may not have had the chance to travel - who may not even know people who have traveled before. I suspect that this lack of prior resources might act as a force multiplier for such a trip; if this is the only travel a person has ever done, it's going to have a lot more resonance. I also suspect that the results of such an aid trip might be different if the visitors were people who had struggled themselves, and who might have also been "beneficiaries" of poorly designed interventions. In other words, the empathy gap that Biddle describes might not be so big after all. It's sort of like railing against non-organic foods; at some point, you're going to have to consider what makes that Twinkie appealing to so many people.
    2. Whether these trips are effective or not, they undoubtedly provide volunteers with professional skills, travel experience, and the kind of resume boost that will eventually lead hiring managers to conclude that they are well-rounded job candidates. Biddle's bio notes that she is Director of Talent at a tech startup. It also notes that she is 21 years old. I am going to guess that her "voluntourism" experience is part of what qualifies her for such a high-level position at this age. In fact, I'm sure it helps, and I'm sure she's probably very good at her job; it sounds like the camp she organized provided her with managerial experience and the ability to improvise in low-resource circumstances, two qualities that are essential for startup participants. She's had a lot of opportunities for intercultural interaction and related self-reflection, which is helpful no matter how you slice it. 

      But what this article implicitly assumes is that - if you don't gain this kind of experience through aid trips - you can probably get it somewhere else. I'm going to guess that if you have the resources to attend boarding school and then drop out of an Ivy League school to work on a startup,* you probably CAN get that kind of experience somewhere else. But that's often not the case. And so, if we're going to suggest cutting out experiences like these, I think we need to address the issue of substitution.

Look, I don't mean to come to the defense of half-built schools and unwanted preaching. I really don't. Those things are extremely problematic on a lot of levels - I think Pippa Biddle and I can at least agree on that. However, I also think that oversimplifications like these are easy targets for distortion, quotable by people who haven't really devoted a lot of thought to the issue, and generally run the risk of getting the baby thrown out with the bathwater. 

And so I think a perhaps more useful article to read, although it's a lot more Inside Baseball, is Oxfam's blog post on why interdisciplinary collaboration for development is so damn hard. As a complexity geek myself, I would like all of the development community, all of the time, to start talking about systems and the need for holistic approaches and resilience and I'll stop boring you now. However, this provides a grounded and realistic look at how and why development works the way it does. It's not as easy to applaud, or condemn, as a picture of a volunteer bouncing an African baby. But I think that's probably the point.

*I am currently helping my mentee apply to private schools and their accompanying financial aid. So I acknowledge that I could be wrong about Biddle and her privilege, in which case I certainly apologize for making assumptions.



"eerily resonant nostalgia"

It's a snow day in DC, much like everywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard, and I am happy to report that I am watching the weather from my living room and not from the street. It's quite lovely. From here.

Anyway, because I'm stuck inside and because my computer desperately needs a restart (and possibly some attention from a sledgehammer), I have two posts for you today. This one, the first one, is a list of most of the tabs I've been leaving open for you, all of which I think are interesting, enjoyable, and/or important. The second one is more international development-specific, and kind of deserves its own post.

  1. An article on Harold Ramis. This description of the director, who died last week, is very much how I would like to be remembered, too.

    Mr. Ramis was multitalented: he was a skilled fencer and a ritual drummer, he spoke Greek to the owners of his local coffee shop and taught himself to ski by watching skiers on television. He made his own hats from felted fleece.
  2. "Experimental Music on Children's Television." PHILIP GLASS ON SESAME STREET. (This is also going in the Museum of Favorite Things.)
  3. "Dear Parents of White Children." I will say, right off the bat, that I disagree with her argument against telling kids that "everyone is equal." A good point that she does make, though, is that non-white kids are forced to confront race issues from a very early age, and our society would probably be a little healthier if white kids had to do the same.
  4. Two insightful pieces on teaching, both for educators and non-educators: "#ResistTFA and the Teaching Profession" and "You Think You Know What Teachers Do. Right? Wrong." No matter what background one comes from, teaching is HARD. I had about as much education experience from undergrad as a non-ed major can get, and my teaching experiences have still been ludicrously hard. Because teaching is hard, and undervalued, and still lacks prestige in this country.
  5. A list of romantic comedies featuring Chris Messina. This should require no explanation.



the facts, as they stand

HILLARY This prompt says, "You're stranded on a desert island and you can only take one thing. You can't bring a tool, like rope or a hammer, and you can't bring anything electronic. What would you bring?"

TYRELL Well, I guess in that case I'd bring a friend.

HILLARY Oh, that's a good one.

TYRELL Yeah, so I'd have someone to talk to, and someone who could help me out.


(A few minutes later. TYRELL'S MOM comes in)

HILLARY Tyrell was saying for this one that he'd bring a friend. I thought that was a really good answer. You know, so you'd have some help.

TYRELL Yeah. And then, if I got hungry, I could eat him.



what we had and what we lost

I wasn't really planning on writing about Jordan Davis. Because it's not like my opinion differs from thousands of others (death --> bad --> injustice), and anyone who has ever met me, or read anything I've ever written, could probably have guessed my stance. Besides, while I do hit that sweet spot of being both famous and widely beloved,* I don't have quite the following necessary to inspire a mass peace 'n' justice movement. Maybe next year.

But then, in a Florida Times-Union article about the case, I came across the following line:

“We all wanted to live lavish,” [Davis' friend Floyd] Haynes said. “We all wanted to be successful. We all wanted to be successful, not rich, but powerful, like music as it moves through you.” 

This is a description that stopped me in my (reading) tracks - I actually went back and read through it again to make sure I understood it. It's a throwaway line in a regional newspaper on a case that still isn't receiving the attention that it should, and it comes from a seventeen-year-old. It's amazing - a perfect description of power and desire and teenage aspiration. And its speaker was a friend and a peer of this boy who got shot, a person who, by luck and by chance, still happens to be alive.

I was talking to a teacher the other day and we were complaining about how the great flaw in educator memoirs is that it fails to capture how funny and brilliant and alive children, in particular, can be. We get so caught up in the narrative of long hours and poverty and solitude that we forget to notice the rest. I know a sixth grader who, on paper, is a low-income minority at a public school who can't pronounce his Rs and reads at the level of an eight-year-old. He is also, and this is not an exaggeration, one of the smartest people I've ever met; his metaphors are boundless, he has a knack for teaching others that some adults I know could learn from, and his ability to improvise a story is unparalleled. He has an imaginary acquaintance named Baby D. The other day, we had the following exchange:

MISS EASON [Student], I know you were running out there. Baby D told me.

STUDENT (looks me straight in the eye) You are a fibber. Because yesterday I sat on Baby D, and now he's in the hospital.

I have known this kid for about three months, and even with that short period of time, I can tell you that my life is better - more entertaining, more colorful, grander - for having known him. And he's just one example; over the course of my (varied) career, I've known literally thousands of children, and I could give you ten more descriptions of ten equally amazing students right now off the top of my head. We're so accustomed to focusing on the struggle that we ignore the fact that these students have just as much capacity for magic as any other human. Which is why, issues of injustice aside, it physically hurts me to think that these are the children who will grow up to be targets, that the only thing that separates them from the fate of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis or a hundred other unnamed victims is luck.

And this is what I wish we would talk about more, aside from the obvious issues of light and darkness: the fact that when someone - particularly a young person like Jordan Davis - dies, our world is dimmer. Naomi Shihab Nye says that "(a) man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little bit shorter." We have no idea what or whom Jordan Davis could have become. We have no idea what words he could have spoken. Because the streets he would have walked on are shorter now.

Instead, we have the words of someone much like him, whose survival seems at this point to almost be a fluke, and the words of some girl who happened to read about it. So I guess that's why I changed my mind about writing this. Not because my own words are so eloquent or so deserved, but, because I am alive, I can at least use them to call attention to the ones we don't have anymore.