Why I write [[1]]

I write to make sense of the world when I feel so overwhelmed by the combination of information, analysis, and pure human emotion. It is the only way I can stop myself from feeling too overwhelmed to pick something to help out with where I can offer something. I write to make sense of my world, I build to do something worth remembering later.

All of this news from Baltimore makes me think about how parents talk to their children about right and wrong. How do we teach them about justice? I know it happened, but I cannot remember how my parents first introduced the concept of “just” and “unjust,” or even “fairness.”

How does one define or provide examples of justice today, while the news is scrolling through coverage from Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other communities in the United States that are sharing the stories that have been hidden for too long?

I mostly read twitter, and a handful of the articles, but there is a lot of editorializing and not enough data for me to follow and make sense of everything from here, at a distance.

All of it is, however, causing me to return to questions I’ve been returning to for the last few years.

I struggle with my understanding of “activism” and viewing myself as an “activist” in similar ways/language that my Catholic or formerly Catholic friends talk about their faith.

The difference, and what I envy them for, is that they can retreat to a church as a space of quiet reflection.

My temple is in loud gritty streets where I cannot ever turn off. Where a car horn at 4am is as natural to me as the sound of my roommate locking the door behind her when she leaves early in the morning. Never alone, never completely able to let go.

The only way I escape from losing my mind in over-defining and critiquing myself to death is to write about it. Either in the journals I keep or in poetry. The poetry is ideal because I can hide behind words and express more purely what the strain/breach of faith feels like. [Breach in both definitions: the breaking and rebuilding].

Maybe it will always be in conflict.

Once More, From the Top!

Remember sitting in the Doctor’s office and being asked to read the distant document with black letters of varying sizes on the far wall? Then covering one eye and reading it again?

And then that terrible moment that it turns out you need glasses… so you’re back in the office, this time look through different lenses, comparing clarity until you find the right combination and suddenly the world is crystal clear?

I spent the last two weeks staring at a five page document in Microsoft Word, reading and rereading the text through those different lenses. I am writing a TED talk for the TEDGlobal University session that kicks off the morning of the first day of speakers. Each round of my edits focused through a different lens.

First, the clear ones. Does this talk make sense? Are the words spelled correctly and in a logical order?

Then, the different color options: Do I like the stories/examples I share in here? Do they support the story and make enough of a point for this to work?

Followed by: is the material digestible. Is there time for people to take in information, digest it, and move with me through the talk.

Next: How can I make it shorter, cleaner, neat.

And finally, what do I sound like when I give this talk? Am I the person on stage that I want to be.

Maybe when all of these different colors and edits come together… you have a talk that you don’t mind people seeing and remembering about you before they meet you. Maybe not.

The process of writing and revising a TED-style talk requires layers of edits. It was challenging, fascinating and rewarding. I got a lot of feedback, about my writing and my mannerisms, in a short period of time. All very useful, but how often do we get such high touch feedback and help from a team of very busy people? It was fantastic.

Even during the late nights where I could feel my contacts drying out and the clock ticking away, warning me that there were mere hours until morning.

It was also an experience that taught me how to ask for specific feedback and identify pieces I wanted direct focus and attention to. I took risks in my writing and presentation — some of it paid off and other pieces of it were cut. But I learned and felt brave. And I’m excited to have this story, this script I wrote myself, out in the open.

I’ll have a hard time reading anything I write the same way again.

Duel with the English Language

It’s been a while since I had a late night duel with the English language.

In College, it happened regularly. Especially in my German/French/English courses, when the professor cared and measured and judged each of my word choices as a direct reflection on who I was as a student (perhaps also as a person. The boundary was unclear at times.). Well, also in those anxiety soaked episodes when I was writing to a new professor, cold calling someone for research/fundraising, or reconnecting with an old friend.

Those letters and emails where your language has to stand starkly on its own and represent you without you there to hold its hand any further. You hit send and you were out of the picture. Was your language enough?

I learned to stop worrying… after a certain point.

I have something to say this evening. I have a lot of ideas and things I would like to share with my audience, but words don’t seem to be arranging themselves in any recognizable order. Especially given the restraints of time and attention spans.

So English and I will have to fight each other for a while longer.

And in the mean time, I’ll overthink the meaning/tone of each word until my (hopefully) pending Eureka! moment when this talk just crystalizes and lets me sleep.

Language. This clunky tool set tagging experiences and sensations and the fog of ideas. It always feels clunkiest when I need to perform it, in whatever capacity.

I am on draft number 3 of the my TEDGlobal University talk for October… and hopefully getting somewhere. The talk I want to give keeps dodging me around dark corners. But I think I’ve almost caught her.

Queens: What does it mean to write a profile of a neighborhood?

What does it mean to write a profile for New York City? Would it be easier to write one for Queens? Or perhaps, just an avenue and a few side streets of Queens?

Is it too ambitious to hope that we can build collaborative profiles that dig into the hearts and moving limbs of our neighborhoods, cities and districts?

As I started working through these questions these last few months, I went hunting for inspiration.

All of the books I could find on the shelves of the Strand were about food tours in Queens. They recommend trying the Chinese food in Flushing, Latin American food in eastern Jackson Heights (Streets above 77), Indian food South of 77th street in Jackson Heights. It’s harder to find books digging into the history of neighborhoods and community organizations in Queens in a broader context.

Brooklyn is perhaps one of the best known boroughs of New York: a friend who recently visited Stockholm told me everything she found in the Boutiques of the city were “Made in Brooklyn,” because it was seen as THE trendy place to be. I also remember considering where I wanted to live when I first moved into New York City and having everyone ask if I was moving to Brooklyn (it seemed to be followed by a “… because that is where everyone is moving now, dahhhling.”).

It is interesting to watch as more and more of the people I know living in Brooklyn are moving up to Long Island City, Queens. This seems to be a new hub for the artist community. We’ll see what happens!

What I do find, however, is that the stories of Queens come through the talents and pursuits of people from the area. Is this the best way to remember an entire neighborhood’s history? Not really, but I am digging through the material I can find so that I can learn. [Side note: if anyone does know of a great history of Queens piece, please send it my way!]

We found a photographic history of Queens, discussing the neighborhoods through primary sources like flyers for events, local decrees, etc. All for a population that lived in the area around the 1930s. This book is also great, but it was printed in the 1980s and doesn’t answer questions we have about the communities there today. I also found a pictorial history from the NYTIMES describing Old Queens. In terms of more recent texts on the neighborhood, it seems someone is addressing the pan-hispanic communities of Corona and the neighborhoods of Queens through collaborative mapping efforts. In terms of a comprehensive profile, however… there are so many things I would love to dig into or see in another writer’s work.

Some authors are trying to highlight some of the narratives coming out of the community today: Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms With Queens seems to be more about remembering specific pieces of communities and how individuals interacted with these neighborhoods.

I think part of the challenge in developing maps that communicate cities as organic, moving organizations (as I am right now) is that good profiles of cities can really only exist if they can come together as collaborative pieces. It needs to be at the center of a network of different thinkers and doers and people who are able to take all of the overwhelming amounts of information that come from a moving breathing city… and distill it into something we can each sip slowly.

A profile isn’t a good profile if it is afraid to dig in and get its hands dirty — but it is also required to be approachable, in some capacity. If I cannot keep you engaged with my maps and what I want to think about, if I cannot inspire you, you as my partner in developing and understanding my city profiles, to remember corners of the city and the people that move and breathe and create and build there… then I have failed.

But I’m still digging and learning and I want to listen. Teach me how you would listen.

Visas, Civil War and Other Culturally Relevant Material

I am on the cape for a long weekend for a family reunion that I’ve had to miss for the last couple of years. It’s always interesting — we have a very quirky family. Our interests range from an encyclopedic knowledge of rap artists between here and the Middle East, a journalist who just returned from a year long assignment in Afghanistan, a geneticist, a modern art curator, and several other characters. And yes, I would describe all of my family as “characters.” (In a good way!)

This morning’s coffee table conversation, as people were waking up and joining the rest of the group, was about Syria. Not in the typical “Obama should do this… or that…” conversation.

This is about a group of refugee women who wrote and perform a play called “Syria: the Trojan Women.” This group of women adapted the play “Trojan Women” by Euripides to tell their stories and explain what it is like to live in a city after it has been sacked.

The group was invited to perform at Georgetown University by my aunt, Cynthia Schneider and then they were set to perform at Columbia University. They offered another perspective about Syria and what life is like during Civil War based in the community living it, rather than the material curated and presented by ISIS.

The story was picked by the Washington Post and then went live through Scott Simon’s NPR segment. We listed to the feed when it went live this morning. We tried to think through next possible steps to help the women come to the US, despite the State Department’s denial for their visas. There might be other ways to help!

For now, Georgetown is still finding ways to host the event, even if it means video calling the women while they are still abroad while hosting other guest speakers.

If anyone has any ideas or thoughts about how we can continue with this event or help the women with their visas… please let us know!

[The image is from the NPR story that went live this morning]

Visual Storytelling (from the Feast on Good blog)

Visual Storytelling, Diego Rivera Mural 1
image via

Growing up in Mexico, scenes from Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City were often copied into storybooks. These murals were a crucial piece of Mexican history as the country transitioned from revolution to a unified nation. It helped a population that spoke hundreds of languages piece together aspects of a shared past. This type of visual storytelling created timeless cultural pieces that allowed me to explain these stories beyond my community; I constantly learned to communicate better from them.

Stories help us become bridges between our communities. We can create and recreate those “Aha!” moments, where a concept or an idea briefly connects us to the person sharing it with us. While these murals mean one thing for me and another for someone else, we are able to share the experience of the story.

Social media makes it easier for our communities to grow across time zones, requiring us to engage with a wide variety of learners. The key to success lies in the presentation of the material. Kickstarter helps independent storytellers produce films that contribute to awareness/educational campaigns, like Preston Stringer’s “LGBT Queerstory: a Gay History Web Series.” This project tells stories about the Gay rights movement through claymation to encourage others to keep fighting for equality.

Visual storytelling is also making important strides in classrooms: one teacher, Aaron Reedy, tweeted that the lesson he gave in his biology classes on sex determination only reached about 1000 students in the 7 years he offered the class. After he produced a video version of his lesson on TED-Ed, he was able to reach 13,000 viewers in 3 days. The TED-Ed brings teachers together to make learning fun and engaging for all kinds of learners. Other platforms like InfoViz also take on concepts like the elements through playfully animated videos,designed to help students engage with the material.

How to feed the world? on Vimeo.

Similarly, businesses like Bridgewater produce videos that explain the diversity of the “economic machine” in 30 minutes to help consumers approach finance and investment opportunities with more clarity.

Today, we have the opportunity to brainstorm with talent across the globe – could telling your story through a visual language be the key to connecting your community to another, allowing you to learn from and progress with one another?

How have you seen visual storytelling used in creative, impactful ways?

By Diana Enriquez

Diana studies informal economies, social enterprises, and economic systems at Locus Analytics. She spends a lot of time exploring new neighborhoods, especially in Latin America.

Originally posted on the Feast on Good Blog