Hacker Labs: Where do new communities, cities, and civilizations grow?

Mexico City, Washington DC, Tunis, New York City.

Also, what is TEDx?

A number of governments have jumped on the “let’s building a start up/hacker lab space to tackle some of our internal and external issues!” bandwagon, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, one of the best documented in American media right now is the White House’s team that fixed the Health Care Website and the group tasked with “hacking” other aspects of government. Some of these projects are much newer and need time to pick the issues they want to tackle, find staff with the right vision for these projects, and get settled into the ecosystem.

This post is not about evaluating how well this program runs, rather, I am providing a basic overview of some of the different types of projects and systems that I have explored… and some praise for the “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) that the TEDx program has created. 

Mexico City — Laboratorio para la Ciudad

 The Lab was designed and is currently run by a friend/mentor, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, who I met for the first time very whimsically in a favorite coffee shop at Yale while she was there as a Yale World Fellow. [She saw my messenger back from TEDx Summit and we talked about it… quickly realizing we had been looking for each other and hoping to connect on campus at some point.]

The lab started as a project out of the Mayor of Mexico City’s office in 2013. Described as a “think tank and experimental space” Gabriella was asked to build this project through an invitation she received by the (then) newly elected mayor Miguel Angel Mancera. Some of the themes the lab has tackled include “Open Cities,” “Creative Urban Spaces,” and “Civic Innovation.” They host collaborative hacking events in their spaces, and carefully document their experiments and results in beautiful ways as they go.

Every aspect of the lab is an adventure. They tackle issues ranging from making city spaces in the congested and intimidatingly massive Mexico City into smaller, approachable community spaces, the best ways to bring public art to the city, and how to teach marketable skills to a huge population in efficient and effective ways. The lab is constantly coming up with new things that it can do to improve the experience of Mexico City.

My own experiences with the group has been super positive, because Gabriella is brave and creative in the issues she wants to think about. Even when I mentioned wanting to map the informal economic networks of Mexico City… she didn’t flinch. Instead, opening the conversation with “sounds interesting, where would we start?”

Tunis — Cogite

I’m visiting Cogite this week during my trip to Tunisia (writing from one of their coworking spaces right now, in fact!) and getting to see all of the great work that Houssem and Fatene do here.

The coworking space turned skillshare lab opened the doors to its first coworking space in 2013 and has grown dramatically since then, with soon to be five coworking spaces in Tunis. Houssem Aoudi is the CEO of Cogite and the longtime curator/organizer for TEDxCarthage. Under his leadership, Cogite has grown into an amazing business space for the vibrant community that he and Fatene have built and supported with their team.

During some of their skillshare evenings, Cogite will invite local CEOs to talk about their experience building businesses in Tunisia. On Tuesday, for example, Cogite hosted Tarek Lassadi of Traveltodo, a major online tourism company for Tunisia. Lassadi answered questions from a room packed full of young entrepreneurs working in a variety of cool industries.

Cogite_Entrepreneur Discussion
Photo Credit: Houssem Aoudi (Cogite, CEO)

It was a cool experience — Lassadi was very warm and relaxed. Not at all like some of the NYC meet ups I’ve been to, where it is sometimes very difficult to connect to the speaker or the formality of the event makes the experience feel, all together, more “high pressure” to network. This was about similarly creative and business minded individuals meeting, connecting and sharing their experiences to help others grow in their own work.

Fatene (COO of Cogite) is a Branding and Strategy Whiz herself — so she has presented some tips at a skillshare event at Cogite before too.

The community that they’ve built here is so vibrant and full of great ideas, it’s not hard to imagine that soon their website will host a skillshare blog similar to the First Round Review. I’ve been here for only a little over 24 hours and already plotted out a slew of fascinating future research projects with some of the people in Cogite (from concepts to explore to the funding…).

New York City — Integrated Digital Media Lab at NYU Poly 

I’ve been able to see and an event highlighting some of the projects coming out of NYU Poly’s Integrated Digital Media and Ability Labs recently, and it’s pretty great stuff.

NYU Poly has a great coworking/classroom space in downtown Brooklyn, where students are encouraged by professors like R. Luke DuBois to build things that I could really only imagine coming to life. His classes and projects reflect the same interdisciplinary approach that he takes with his own work: he has completed advanced degrees in Music Composition (He did his masters and Doctor of Musical Arts at Columbia), he is a developer and product manager at software development firm Cycling ’74, and he is a visual artist working in a variety of mediums with work at the BitForms gallery).

While opening a box of cheap electronic parts and mini-LED screens with what could only be described as glee, he described some of the cool projects students at NYU Poly take on in the lab. Professor DuBois told me once, “I dropped these tools on my desk and then told my students, ‘here are some tools. I am going to buy a sandwich. Bug my office by the time I get back.'”

The center supports programs like the ConnectAbility challenge, which rewarded programers and product designers who were thinking about creative ways to improve lives of individuals with disabilities. Kinetic Mouse, the Grand Prize Winner, for example, is a software program that provides hands free access to PCs using video camera that detect changes in facial expression.

And… TEDx?

The TEDx platform has grown dramatically since it started 5 years ago. Some of the early organizers have become local celebrities and celebrated figures in the wider “ideas economy.” My hosts in Tunisia this week are among these amazing people [Houssem and Fatene are enormously talented and creative individuals with beautiful hopes for the future].

Beyond ideas sharing, TEDx has evolved into an “imagined community,” for me. It means that I always have something to talk about with other organizers and I frequently end up visiting/collaborating with them on projects. In fact, two long time organizers did the Mongol Rally to prove how strong this community is.

I met a number of other organizers while I was working on TEDxYale. I was with a few of them at TEDActive in 2012, right after our first TEDxYale event: A Twist of Fate, and then TEDGlobal in 2013, after we had successfully transitioned into a second team and hosted a second major event (Solve for Y). My role in TEDxYale since has been as an advisor, but I am still friends with many of the organizers running awesome events around the world.



The best part of this community? Everyone asks about your projects and follows up with “sounds awesome. How can I help?” Even now, while I am in Tunis and explain what I study and like to think about, I receive a flood of stories and examples to help support my research and case studies. It’s wonderful.

TEDx has become a platform for collaboration on a local level — I love going to events in new cities and communities and seeing local heroes pull back the curtain on their projects and dig into the gritty pieces of their process and the ideas they have for the futures. It might not take place on the same massive scale that some of the TED speakers do, but many of the speakers DO talk about what it takes to “get the job done” here. Now. It’s about being present and growing together for many of these communities. The chance to celebrate a variety of locally grown concepts builds hope. I really love that.

I learn from TEDx organizers all the time. Steve Garguilo at Johnson and Johnson runs an amazing program, including TEDxJNJ, that supports creativity and risk taking within a traditionally corporate setting. He proves, regularly, that it is possible to “hack” the corporate space and encourage employees to leave their traditional roles within the company to develop amazing interdisciplinary work.

TEDx in itself begins to feel like a global ideas incubator… perfect for researchers like me who need to tap into local communities quickly to get a better sense of the questions I should be asking. Often when I find myself needing to think through a job transition, new research proposal, or am having trouble defining my questions, will turn to some of my friends in the TEDx community and pitch them concepts. My friends are extremely responsive and the feedback I get is always useful (…how often can we say that about any of our colleagues?).

I’ve collaborated on research projects ranging from “Hacking Sex-Ed” to “Mapping the Labor Structure of Baltimore” with friends from the TEDx world. And when I go abroad to do research… it’s like I’m never alone. There is usually a TEDx group I can connect with for coffee and tips about exploring the city.

I guess this all means we have a lot of work to do… but that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. I can’t wait to see what happens next with all of these creative instigators.

July: Favorite TED Talks

When people find out what I do now, I am always asked what my favorite talks are from our site. These are my current favorites, though the last one is almost always in my top 3.

This one always fills me with wonder and makes me smile.

This one reminds me that the world is beautiful and worth exploring.
This one reminds me to make time to reflect.

Paths Divergent (and the strong ladies who teach us what it means to live)

I stood on the sidewalk outside a cafe this afternoon, East 9th street, just off 2nd Avenue, with tears hidden behind massive sunglasses, croaking goodbyes into my cellphone and a number on the other end that will soon disappear.

I was an activist in college. I was sure of it. It defined me — in the columns I wrote for the Yale Daily News, in hours I spent on Monday evenings moderating debates and drafting policy recommendations, and on the weekends when I left campus to explore other parts of New Haven.

Most importantly, I wrote this to explain some of the reasons I showed up every day. [I also wrote about how I struggle with my name and awkwardly asking people to pronounce it right, d’yah’nah… there were a lot of identity conversations on the MEChA blog.]

Today, I said goodbye, one last time to the woman who raised me and was there while I was burning my fingertips learning to cook properly in our kitchen. She was there when I needed to learn to repair my pants when I fell and tore open the knees. And she was there to listen to my sometimes broken language, when I was struggling between English and Spanish and formats for language that never quite captured what I needed to explain.

Her letters to me some mornings, when I was getting ready to leave for ever lengthening trips away from home, were filled with loopy letters and blessings for my expeditions into uncertainty.

I croaked goodbye into my cellphone, as her voice urged me off the phone so I wouldn’t hear her own voice crack as she cried too.

But we don’t forget these people. These strong women who show us what it means to live and be loved. We hold onto them.

I don’t believe in goodbyes. Maybe because I’m terrible at them. I refuse to accept this as anything other than an “I’ll see you soon. In another place. With other people and other contexts and the same love we both grew around each other.”

But just in case, call your mother.

Extended Eulogies: Remembering Marina

I am working on a long form project that I am calling “Extended Eulogies.” I am interested in the role of the “curator” behind a profile of the deceased, particularly when the deceased has left behind a portfolio of written work where they explores who they are, who they think they are, and the questions they tried to answer. This is much an exploration of memory as it is about process. The following is one of many pieces of my research to answer my own questions about how I will remember some of those who are closest to me in my own life.

I still remember the morning over the summer when I woke up to 16 missed calls from a close friend and another series of texts from someone I had become friends with over the course of that spring that started with “have you read the news?” followed by “Diana, can you call me? I’m scared.” And finally, “Fuck. I feel so lost right now.” Everything had come into my phone between 1am – 4am, the last one at 4:11am.

Remembering Marina Keegan…

On May 26th 2012, Marina Keegan, one of my high school and college classmates (we both ended up in the Saybrook college at Yale) died in a car accident that shook our communities. For days, my newsfeed on Facebook was filled with people posting on her wall, sharing memories and their disbelief that she was gone. Best know for some of her prolific written works like The Opposite of Loneliness and Even Artichokes have Doubts. And even a handful of spoken word pieces, that just as quickly as her writing does tear a hole in your heart or fill you with joy.

Among her many talents, Marina was a writer, a playwright, an activist, and a creator. Her voice is well documented, as were the questions she took time to explore with you in her written work. Marina is now the author of a bestseller titled The Opposite of Loneliness, which was like sitting in a time machine and relieving my high school and college experiences in a way that knocked the wind out of me.

Who served as a curatorial voice?

I got to know Yena when we started a salon series at Yale in the spring of my senior year. Nearly a year after the accident, Yena was a brilliant soon-to-be Philosophy Ph.D student living in New Haven and making sense of what had happened to her college roommate a year earlier. Yena is a brilliant thinker, talented writer, and dear friend to many of us.

In the months following Marina’s accident, Yena was tasked with an enormous project: she was handed Marina’s Hard Drive and told to organize the work and consider which works she would have selected to use to contribute to a lasting profile of Marina. She, alongside Marina’s mother and a handful of others, began to think through the dimensions of a collection of some of Marina’s short essays and stories. [I am comparing this collection of stories to an effective “profile” of the voice of an author.]

As Yena was remembering the experience with me, she said, “You begin to look at life and death through the voice of a person. With every artist, so much of them is embodied in their work, it feels like you are interacting with that person. It feels like a pseudo interaction that you’ve had with the person who is gone now.”

How do you process your memories? What does it mean to build a profile through Marina’s voice?

Yena first wrote this piece for the Yale Daily News to remember her friend very shortly after her death. “The YDN was me and Marina. It was very raw and [the grief] was there with me. The book was more collaborative.”

Yena started by re-reading all of their Facebook messages and emails. Some long, others shorter, asking quick questions. Some sent over summers apart, others between Saybrook and the Library.

“You are not an objective bystander. You bring a different element of you to every conversation that you have, already there is a filter or an angle. We are biased by our grief, the personal relationship with the person, and how we think about that person. When I looked back at her work, I wanted to look at it through these filters, but I also wanted to try to represent her accurately, objectively, in the ways that I loved her.”

This role, as an editor, was perhaps most pronounced when Yena was deciding what was most important to include in the book, and where some of the work needed to be trimmed or cleaned up. “[T]here is also an element: this is something I am sure she would not want other people to be reading.” The process was about taking in all of the work Marina had written over the course of her life time, beginning to organize it around common themes, and present a few pieces in a collection that captured the voice of the artist.

“It was a difficult experience — with her writing, you could hear her voice,” she added. “When you encounter that grief… it’s the expression of it that is so hard. Sometimes I felt like I needed to laugh really hard, I needed to get it out of my body.” Yena started to see this project as a “personal exercise.” It became a process that required her to manage and really feel the grief that seeped into her physical and emotional responses to the work, but it also helped her celebrate the great achievements of a friend that she admired and loved.

[Sidenote: Yena was not the only collaborator on the final version of The Opposite of Loneliness. When I first asked her about the project, she told me that the questions were a little startling because she forgot that she had helped put the work together. She remembers this book as something that was a collection of Marina’s life’s work, not a book by those who curated collection for the final product.]

What I learned from talking to Yena:

We spent a lot of time talking about what it means to “know someone.” We discussed the levels of friendship that exist and how well you get to know the rhythm of someone’s thoughts and the questions she wants to spend her life answering.

We wondered, does the product itself change depending on how well you knew someone before they died? I said yes. Because to really capture the pulse of someone’s thought patterns, you would need to see them at their most carefully edited, at their most raw and unrefined, and everything in between. Yena had the opportunity to see work by Marina in many different stages of completion.

Then Yena asked me, what is the difference between a biography and an extended eulogy?

My answer was that biographies are about extended narratives: you are meant to interact with the narrative provided by the writer and the context the writer decides to provide you with as you engage with the narrative. You are not interacting with the individual.

When the artist can leave something in her original voice, you interact with it. As Yena has told me earlier in our conversation, you build into the relationship with the artist a little more.

The extended eulogy, for me, is a project about building and protecting memories that are multi-dimensional and offer a few perspectives on a person simultaneously. You see the person, in how they would describe themselves, but you also see how others (the curators) see and remember her. You also see what their life looked like, to them, from 30,000 ft. You see what questions became important to explore and what stones they unearthed to find their answers. The Extended Eulogy offers the artist a chance to remember themselves and leave behind a breathing memory that engages with you and challenges you and promises to be the same thorn-in-your-side that the artist may have been while she was living.

The work of some artists requires little context for me. I react very powerfully to it, in the same way that some relationships with other people make sense and others don’t or don’t register in our memory at all. Some voices vibrate like strings on the cello through your memory and their questions haunt you. This is not true for every conversation and person that we come across – but for the ones who do leave a mark… we remember them. We remember the sound of their voices and the pulse of their thoughts and it stays with us.

Many of us continue to serve, in our own ways, in Marina’s memory. Though my own relationship with her was largely based on the interactions we had as activists working on some overlapping issues in our communities, I remember her for her writing.

“Do you want to leave soon?”

“No, I want time to be in love with everything… and I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” [Marina Keegan, Bygones]

“Rituals, Restrictions and Relationships”

“Where are you from?”

I usually laugh nervously trying to decide how to answer that. It’s a hard question! Most of my friends have moved around a fair amount during their lives, so there are multiple answers.

Mexico City? Boston? New Haven? New York? (Any of the places I’ve done field work that forced me into learning more about myself?)

There was a talk by Taiye Selasi at TEDGlobal in October 2014 that stuck with me. The speaker said that instead of explaining “where she was from,” she explained where her Rituals, Restrictions, and Relationships came from.

I love that: you learn so much more about someone when they tell you about their daily and special rituals, their restrictions (therefore also acknowledging how much of our lives are governed by social constructs), and the places tied to their meaningful relationships.

Realistically, my friends (family, community) and the spaces they occupy determine so much more of my happiness then a physical space does. I could feel at home in many communities, and in fact do. The other details are fun points that help you understand how your new friend starts to see and make sense of the universe.

Wouldn’t small talk be that much better if we asked real questions?

A Perfect Love Letter

I have been collecting my favorite lines from literature and lectures in notebooks since I was in high school. Some of them are so beautiful, that I read them to myself on the way to work on the subway… and recently a friend asked if I had ever played with them, adding my own structure to it. So… I did.


[When I met you, you weren’t] doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. (J.D. Salinger, A Girl I Once Knew)

[One] of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before. (Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) [That you and I find ourselves here, where] journeys end in lovers meeting. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night) [That when we first spoke, your] laughter was a question [I] wanted to spend [my] whole life answering. (Nicole Krauss, The History of Love)

I just want you to know that you’re very special… and the only reason I’m telling you is that I don’t know if anyone ever has. (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower)

Yo te he nombrado reina.
Hay más altas que tú, más altas.
Hay más puras que tú, más puras.
Hay más bellas que tú, hay más bellas.
Pero tú eres la reina. (Pablo Neruda, La Reina)

[And I want for you to] Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. (Dr Seuss)

Who, being loved, is poor? (Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance)

[My love, the] curves of your lips could rewrite history. (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray) [And how easy would it be,] You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. (Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)

[So] if you ever have need of my life, come and take it. (Anton Chekov, The Seagull)

[For] there are stars, but none of you, to spare. (June Jordan, Sunflower Sonnet II)

Arson, Travel Bans, and Media Coverage

For a while, the only media outlet covering the recent arson attacks on Black Churches in the American south was Buzzfeed. Other channels were silent about the issue until, within 10 days, we saw 8 Black churches burn across the south.

I am heading to Tunisia at the end of the month to visit some friends. Last week there was a shooting targeting tourists in a few popular tourist areas along Tunisia’s coast. I am not traveling to those sites, but friends and family members, particularly my parents, expressed concern that I was visiting Tunisia.

I immediately checked the US Embassy website for travel warnings and bans for Tunisia and looked for further signs of trouble.

But I paused.

It quickly became absurd to me that I was looking for a travel warning for an unrelated city, when the country I live in now is experiencing a calculated wave of violence. Eight black churches in 10 days across the American South have burned down.

In the last few years that I have lived here, I watched a series of white males decide that specific populations of people that they did not like should die. And yet, while their goals are to cause fear and suffering to the communities they target, we have not called them terrorists. When I was in college, the targets were an audience at a movie theatre in Colorado and the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, very close to my college campus. Later, it was the women on the lawn of the Sorority at UC Santa Barbara, and most recently it was the community inside of a church in Charleston.

The US does not issue travel bans for these acts of violence, even though they are horrific. We also haven’t managed to improve gun regulation, specifically running decent background checks, despite repeated horrific events.

The US has also not issued a travel warning to travelers warning them about the arson campaign targeting peaceful religious centers across the south.

When I am able to divorce my instinctual reaction to these events, it does present a clear case study of “who makes the rules” and who decides “who is dangerous.”

My last thought: If we fear violence and we allow it to dictate our every day experiences, we are allowing it to win. We cannot allow it, or more specifically those who refuse to negotiate rather than turn to violence, to win.