Misfit Economies

Three years ago, I was introduced to Kyra Maya Phillips through a mutual friend, because we have a lot of similar interests. I had just finished a two year long research project on campaign investing in Colombia (by cartels, paramilitary groups, and the far left) and was trying to wind my way back into normal life in New York City. [how “normal” life is here is relative… but for me, this is much better than making sure I was inside and locked away by nightfall every night, staying up to write up my interviews and combing the universe for insight on organized crime… then having nightmares about said criminal groups haha]

She is a brave Venezuelan journalist who decided to start looking at black markets and the entrepreneurs that thrive in them. When we first spoke over the phone, she from London and me from New York City, we talked about cartels, and research methods and all the good stuff that comes from unusual research interests. Especially for young women.

Last night I attended her book party at the Impact Hub in Tribeca, just a block from the thriving counterfeit markets of Lower Manhattan. Perfect.

the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion
the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion

Their guests for the evening included Antonio Fernandez (from the NY State chapter of the Latin Kings), George Jung, and “Freeway” Rick Ross, all with their own stories to share about the power networks they connected to while in prison, their work in trafficking in the black market, and the power of organizing and collective action.

The event was powerful for a number of reasons.

The tug and intrigue of the topic was a major reason people were there. The black market and its rulebreakers intrigue a lot of people. Organized crime is sexy.

When I tell people I compiled a lot of research on the history of organized crime in manhattan and made a tour for myself, they get really excited and ask me to take them to see it. It’s less epic than it sounds, unless you love history and stories about the past. The truth is, organized crime and black markets look like real businesses. The same urgency to meet the demands of customers and, honestly, cheat the government out of whatever they can is there is many many different kinds of businesses.

[If you don’t believe me, talk to anyone thinking through compliance measures inside a bank. There is a whole lot of where can I make as much money as possible and slip through the holes in this regulatory web going on. Also, the research I did a few years ago on remittance transfer markets for the World Bank Transparency tools shows another side of secret costs in business. I can offer many other examples from topics ranging from pharmaceuticals to construction etc.]

Once there, people got to see organized crime and the entrepreneurs who work “the streets” from a new perspective.

The panelists come at business from a different angle: consistently they brought up that they were locked out of the acceptable system. As “King Tone” put it, when we worked within the system, we were ignored and hungry. There weren’t any options for us. When we worked outside the system, we could eat. And then at least you weren’t bored. 

Rick Ross added that he meets a lot of youth who are frustrated that school doesn’t teach them to make money and survive. The applications of school feel too distant to feel valuable. For him, he said, I asked a drug dealer how to make money, and he told me in the ways he knew how. So I followed that business model.

Antonio Fernandez spoke passionately about the power of organizing his community against police brutality, and what that meant for a city with an identity as confusing as New York City. He demonstrated the need for local organizations that spoke to the needs of the communities that they served. It was not about destroying a system, so much as creating a chapter for those trying to live in an ecosystem that blocked them out at every turn.

Kyra’s work (and my own) are about bringing these narratives into the conversation about economies. While I look at the layers that operate sometimes in harmony and sometimes in direct contrast with the regulated economy… Kyra is bringing an important narrative and perspective on some of the most misunderstood sections of the economy. The criminal base of “pirates,” “drug dealers,” and “gangsters” to some come from only movies and articles about neighborhoods they dare not explore further. For many others, these professions offer a better life or alternative to starvation.

The book just came out and I encourage you to read on. Keep exploring!

On Father’s Day

My father taught me to:

Be Brave.

Be Passionate.

Act with love.

In bravery, I learned to ask important questions and not accept “no,” so much as “not right now.” It’s a challenge. We work and we prove, or we accept that sometimes the direction we started in… is less effective than a new one.

In passion, I learned to fan the flames that drive me and fuel my hope. I create a definition for myself of a life worth living. We fight for justice.

In love, we build community through kindness. If trust is the fabric that brings communities together, creates economic exchange and growth, and allows us to live in lower stress environments where we are each able to live as we choose to live… trust cannot exist without the belief that those around you are “coming from a good place.” Be part of that social fabric. Be kind.

Happy Father’s Day!


Last week I attended the ScholarFest at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the best moment was being asked by the hostess if I would like to visit “the past, present or future?” and then, upon selecting the future, being led down a beautiful hallway in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library and settled into the beginning of a discussion about life on other planets.

The event initially came into my periphery when someone that I work with at TED sent a description of the event, highlighting their program for the “Lightening Conversations” and asked if I had time to go. I said, absolutely.

[Quick update: videos from Scholarfest are now on youtube. Here is the session cut for the Future]

First, what were the “Lightening Conversations?”

The first part of the ScholarFest program used scholars paired based on mutual research interests, tangentially related research interests, or directly opposing research interests.

Each pair was given 10 minutes to start a dialogue intersecting their research and/or engaging with each other’s work. Speakers were not directly introduced by the initial introduction to the event, instead weaving in a quick line or two about their work in the first few minutes of each session. There were five sessions in the first piece of the program and some time set aside for town hall style Q&A. The total program ran for an hour and 20 minutes before it transitioned into a new room with a new theme.

The structure of each pairing depended on what the two speakers decided they wanted to do. Participants were informed of their pairing and introduced to the other speaker the night before the panel. For some, it seemed they had found new collaborators and conspirators, even though their topics and opinions on various subjects varied so greatly. For others, the mix could be abrasive, but also ended quickly.

Some of the structures that evolved during these 10 minute Lightening Conversations:

  • each person introduced a few key points and themes from their research,

  • each person introduced their work and then asked their partner about their specific research work,

  • they started with a thematic question that applied to both of their areas of interest,

  • they presented a question directly to the other person

  • a science historian moderated/interviewed the scientist

  • the critiqued each other’s theories/work and had a lively discussion

  • they discussed and wove themselves from each other’s work into the same discussion

I was intrigued by the Lightening Conversation format for a few reasons. First, it seems like a great way to breathe life back into Academia. It was a wonderful treat for me, as a researcher, to watch experts in their fields have an open conversation and ask each other questions. It was a chance to see how their minds worked outside of purely academic contexts and formats. The informality and speed of the conversations meant that each person had to think on their toes.

Second, the interdisciplinary themes of the Future (and some of the other conversations, in particular Freedom of Speech) meant that these experts were asked to step outside of their fields of expertise and engage in new thought experiments. It made academia feel more human. Challenging. Like a continued experiment that the audience was invited to watch and engage with… not a typical experience when attending a university lecture. A lot of ground was covered quickly.

Finally, the audience was offered a wide range of perspectives before they were offered the opportunity to reengage with the entire cast of speakers from that session. Rather than pull from a single thread of opinions or thoughts, there was a tapestry of conversation to pull from and multiple experts could respond to our questions. This was nothing short of delightful. I felt very spoiled.

I would really like to see more of this take place at Yale (and others, but I can only speak from my experience). It brought rich life back into the research I’ve seen only in very long and dense academic texts. Looking forward to ScholarFest next year!

Personal Democracy Forum: On Transitions of Power

I never thought I would hear the best talk on Transitions of Power at a tech conference… but I learn new things every day.

Last week I attended the Personal Democracy Forum, not knowing exactly what to expect. I left feeling inspired and so excited about the work that people and businesses interested in Civic Tech were doing.

The curators for the event, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej found and produced one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. The content was excellent (truly exceptional).

My favorite speakers and topics surprised me. Especially this one by Danny O’Brien, who weaves together the rich history of his fight for freedom of the internet… and the important of transitioning power. He is funny and high energy… and humble. I am inspired to take a similar lens to my own life and projects. I’ll say no more…


When “Data” Builds Your Profile Without Context

The “personalized content curation” feature of modern marketing (read: companies focused on 100% pure data w/o additional context) & even the content curation on Facebook assumes we are static and unchanging.

This is particularly fun when I play with the “Who does google think you are” feature on my different email accounts.

Just a few current profiles:

1) Work email: Female (because I at some point told them in google+), age 25-30, interests: (list of several hundred topics ranging from bizarre histories of the United States to neuro-imaging to python hacks)

2) Male, 45-55, interests: Python, Algorithms, Economics, Cyber Crime

3) Male, 35-45, interests: Public Health, Africa, Ebola, Vaccines, Latin America, Economics, MIT, WHO, UN

And now an existentialist question… if google thinks I am a middle aged man, does that make me a middle aged man?