Language as a Door

I am in DC this weekend for a meeting that I had today with a research collaborator and a potential project lead at the World Bank. It was a really interesting conversation — it turned out we were all thinking about similar layers of cities and factors that drive tech ecosystems… in New York, as it turns out. I was thinking about it a lot of this past summer and wrote a grant proposal for further research.

But the piece that I want to write about today just happened.

I am sitting in the AirBnB I rented for the weekend when the housekeeper hired to maintain the space appeared in the doorway. He seemed really nervous, like he was hoping I would be out while he was working. He asked me what I needed and rushed through the closet, asking me in English if I needed this or that. I took a chance, he looked like he could be from my neck of the woods, and switched to Spanish.

He visibly paused and relaxed. Visibly. His shoulders came down from their hiding place up by his ears and he grinned.

He eventually asked me, where did you learn to speak spanish? Your accent…

So we talked about it. How I am from Mexico City and grew up around Spanish speakers with DF accents. I told him about how I was at a bar last night with a number of Latino servers and they were talking about me in Spanish next to me. I pretended to ignore them to see what they would say. They were guessing my age and where I came from, making up back stories for me. It was all in good fun — they were having a laugh.

But the best part, was when I closed my bill and said, Thank you and have a lovely evening, in perfect Spanish. The looks over their faces told me, “oh! She speaks Spanish! Cool!” followed immediately by “oh wait that means she totally understood everything we were saying… oops.”

My visitor thought this was all very funny — he laughed with his whole heart.

He told me where I can go in DC for real Mexican and El Salvadorian food, where to find cheaper groceries, and where I can find a community I would find interesting. It was wonderful.

So, today I confirm that language is my favorite door. The sound, the experience of it, really, makes it much easier to engage with someone when it feels familiar. Spanish, in particular, has always felt like a gentle purr in my throat. I prefer the syllables to English ones. It feels and hits me like laughter.  It will always be a place of warmth for me.

And I was glad to share that with someone else on this cold winter day.

Public Health Spending vs. Infectious Disease Rates

Some food for thought, from a really interesting piece on the World Mapper website.

This is a map comparing public health spending around the world. Countries that spend more money are exaggerated to show their spending size compared to their neighboring countries and other continents.

World Map by Public Health Spending

Nothing too surprising here, I think. We see that the United States and Europe spend the most, relative to their size. Look at Germany up there! And France! Kind of nuts.

Compare this public health spending map to the map of infectious Disease Outbreaks.

World Map by Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Nearly the opposite map in terms of perspective/size of countries, no? The Western Hemisphere is tiny tiny in this case, and India and Nigeria are MASSIVE.

Again, nothing here is too surprising. But it is really striking to see and compare these contracts in a similar format of distortion.

Based on this information, consider where we find ourselves in the Ebola crisis. We have a highly infectious disease that travels through social networks, tearing apart families and communities while also presenting truly horrifying symptoms. The disease also presents itself in some of the hardest to reach communities on the planet. I have learned, throughout our efforts to improve tech opportunities for doctors and field workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to public health data collection and/or patient follow up. What worked for the US to run in its contact tracing programs are not necessarily a good fit for the communities that we work with in West Africa or the West African Diaspora Community.

This version of public health, especially in the face of a disease as challenging as Ebola, requires a mix of practical applications and rethinking models to fit limited infrastructure, and compassion for the communities that we are trying to reach. The tools we provide, on their own, are worthless if we cannot convince our communities to adopt and engage with them. This seems to be the missing piece in a number of the programs and efforts we see on the ground. But, I am hopeful that we will continue learning from our mistakes and improving our methods and outreach.

Leave-Your-Shell-At-The-Door Spaces

When I was a senior at Yale, I met a girl who seemed to understand and articulate all of my thoughts on feminism and independence and what I wanted for myself in terms of self respect and adhering to my personal value system in the same language that I was using in my journal. It was strange. Like having my mind read for 3 hours. Obviously, we clicked and, as I usually do, we decided to build something together.

Now, nearly two years later, the salon series we built for our friends and growing communities in New York have expanded into several cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, DC, Miami and soon, hopefully, Minneapolis and abroad). The salons grow organically — what started as one salon based in NYC turned into four of them running independently in NYC and several others sprouting up because people are generally interested in what we have created.

For me, the real value add of these salon spaces is that people come to have coffee/brunch in my apartment and agree to “leave their shells at the door.” While New York and certainly other cities value carefully curated public personas and responses, we value honesty and kindness to yourself and others, self respect, and the bravery it takes to dig into the soft, uncomfortable, not fully formed pieces of thoughts and values and goals that we all hide in our mental closets for a while longer than we should.

I love meeting new, cool, badass, creative ladies across cities and inviting them to join the salon space. I naturally have found a series of close friends through these spaces. Because I’ll explain something raw in my head and they will engage with me about it, seriously. They listen. They value the ideas and person that you introduce to a space. Because that is what it is — showing up and being fully present and engaged with a stranger, but promising to listen and be present throughout the conversation, is a sign of respect. It is what builds strong communities.

I am excited to see how we grow and change this year. It has been such a pleasure to organize and attend these salons for a few hours every few weekends. I leave feeling raw and open and reminded of my own values and personal growth goals. I am grateful to have a space where I am required to leave my shell at the door. It gets heavy and unpleasant to carry around all the time.

Most importantly, I am grateful to the women who have pushed me and challenged me and listened to me when I sometimes feel lost and unable to full express myself. Thank you, Tiffany, Sharone, Camilla, Joanna, Molly and our other organizers. You have changed me for the better.

Ferguson

This quote came up in my twitter feed last night and summarizes all of my sentiments about what is going on in Ferguson, Mexico City, and many other places that I know and love that suffer through injustice.

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t realize that we were seeds.”

When governments do not listen and engage with their citizens…

When a ruling caste degrades and berates the rest of the community…

When the “just” wrongly claim “justice is served”…

They bury the seeds.

But the seeds will grow and they will be strong and form their own gardens, to sow and reap the fruits of their labors.

Will these castes be part of it, or will they be left in the cold?

Effective Recruitment Strategies: Voluntary Engagement

While I was working as a volunteer, trying my hand at community organizing and voter turn out efforts, I struggled to figure out the best ways to get people to show up to events and participate.

Time is such a valuable and limited resource. How could I convince people that my cause was the most worthy one for that block of time?

It is hard. Especially, in New York City. But we’ve had a lot of success with our current high touch model and salon program, so I wanted to share some of our successes with you. Maybe it will be helpful for people organizing other audiences.

The Salons: 

We just celebrated the first birthday for the Salon series I started with a friend while we were at Yale. The Fourth Wave project describes itself, currently, as:

WHAT ARE SALONS?

Drawing inspiration from the French Enlightenment and consciousness raising groups from the 70s, Fourth Wave Salons aim to foster a tight-knit community of female changemakers through collective self-exploration. Each Salon is a small, intimate gathering of 15 women who commit to meeting regularly for discussions.

The group explores topics like the following: What is self-respect? // What makes a good leader? What does character have anything to do with it? // What do success or happiness even mean? // What is “being mature” or “growing up?” // What’s the difference between transactional vs. unconditional love? Is one better than the other? // Why is failure good for our souls?

All of these questions, we hope, lead back to the core investigation: What is a life worth living and how do I go about living that life?

We ran the first test of the project during my senior spring at Yale and then took it live in New York City a few months later. The group grew from 15 women to a little over 250 people in our mailing lists and attendee lists. We have salons running in Miami, Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are 4 salons running in New York City, regularly, each with their own loyal base of attendees. I have not yet attended a salon that did not have new faces and friends.

Why does this model work?

1) Make sure the leadership is accessible. We are very high touch. I reach out to and talk to every potential salon attendee about what we do, what the atmosphere is like, and what the program means to me.

2) Keep building and growing your team/base. We are constantly reaching out to new people and inviting them into the fold.

3) Offer options. Each salon has a different flavor to it — we try to fit people into the best fit for them.

4) We created something unique and high quality. Women are generally excited about the work we want to do here. The honest, open spaces of our salons feels like a real contrast to a lot of the social spaces in New York City. People open up to strangers, because we create spaces where people are immediately accountable to each other. We dig into complicated and personal topics and ask our attendees to give full picture stories of what they are thinking about/experiencing.

5) Culture matters. Set an example early on. Our discussion moderators and organizers start off conversations by being honest and contributing deeply to the conversation. They set an example early on that it is ok and safe to be honest in these spaces.

6) Give everyone some responsibility for making the experience run smoothly! Each person contributes to the experience: we usually host potluck brunches or dinners, and each person is responsible for something.

7) Choose an appropriate setting. We host all events in our living rooms. I think this adds a degree of intimacy and sharing a space that belongs to other people.

8) Ask for feedback. We are constantly asking our attendees what salons mean to them, what they enjoyed and what they would like to change about the experience. The whole experience is meant to be a collaborative effort.

That’s it for now, but I am sure I will keep adding points as I go through our year in review documents.

Building Your Organization: Communication and Honesty

I’ve been thinking about the “tool set” it takes to build organizations recently.

Why? Because I think I take some of the ways that I conceptualize things and see workflow patterns for granted. I have trouble explaining them to other people because there is a gap in the language I use and the assumptions/connections I make without thinking. Organizing and executing things is a bit like breathing to me.

But it’s really hard to build teams if you aren’t willing to put in the real effort to meet language barriers and expectations. I think that is why this quote stood out to me while I was reading today:

(In regards to some of the challenges that crowdfunded companies/projects run into and dealing with the expectations of your customers/funders) “There can be a disconnect in your ability to deliver to those expectations,” Mittal says. “In those cases, the tendency is for rewards-based backers to act more like unhappy consumers, a stress that can break a young startup. It is important to set expectations upfront and to remain in dialogue with customers.” — Alex Mittal, FundersClub, since in an interview in an article posted on First Round Capital’s Blog

It’s interesting to me that being honest about limits and goals is not something more valued in seminars/classes that I took at Yale and now in New York City. It’s hard to build a solid foundation for anything without a certain baseline of honesty and accountability. If you don’t know something, there really shouldn’t be shame in admitting that and asking for time to do more research/return with a better answer.

And yet… there are enough case studies of people having trouble saying “I don’t know” as an answer that Freakonomics was able to write a podcast on the subject.

The number of times I’ve been in a meeting where someone is grasping for straws to give answers that begin slightly off and then get increasingly worse…

We can’t control for behavior everywhere… but why not start with solid decisions inside of our organizations? Be honest with your coworkers. Set that baseline where they can go through your notes, follow your thought process and trust your baseline assumptions and approaches.

Start a revolution in business: be honest when you need more help at work. Your peers will thank you when they can explore with you instead of cleaning up the mess later.