Balancing Human and Activist

I have many thoughts about what is happening at Yale this week and how alumni can be supportive of students and the community… but I want to start with this Talk.

Roxane Gay’s message applies to all sorts of activism. Without space to be human, make mistakes, edit, fumble, and grow… how do we participate?

I also remember struggling with this so much when I was a student & activist in college. The balance… sometimes so difficult. Especially when it came to arguing for a cause and building out a community.

Do you have time?

Generally, no.

But this question is also not worth asking me. If you’re pitching me a project, it means you should have done some background research. You know that I like to work on a lot of things, think through really difficult problems and projects, that I spend as much time as I can with people who inspire and challenge me, that the only times I turn off are when I collapse from exhaustion and give myself a few hours to process (and write about) everything.

You know I am pulled in many directions at the same time and I have to deliver feedback quickly and honestly because sometimes I don’t have as much time as I would like to sugar coat it.

But if it’s worth it, I make time.

If what you are proposing is important and fits into the value system and reasons I do the things I do, I will make time.

So maybe “do you have time” is the wrong question.

A better one would be: is this something you want to be part of? Can we make this happen?

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.


What does it mean to be a mentor? To be guided by a mentor?

These questions have come up in conversation for me numerous times in the last few months. Really, from both ends.

We hosted a salon in my apartment back in January on the theme of Mentorship: Where have mentors been helpful to you? Where do you find them? What do you ask them? And because we have a group of people coming from very different fields (academics, students, artists, writers, economists, consultants, graphic designers, etc.), we got very different answers for each field. The conversation was rich with different types of questions and guidance that we were looking for from our mentors or future mentors.

A couple of friends have reached out to me in the last few months and connected me to friends or asked me to talk to them about how I have done my job search/career search process. It is interesting to be on this side of this, since I did not graduate all that long ago and I feel that I am still learning to navigate many things. Of course, I said yes, I would talk to friends and their friends about what I am looking for and how I approached applications or looking for new opportunities.

This may be made more interesting by the fact that I switched jobs a handful of times in the last three months. I left a stable think tank job to work on a start up building software for contact tracing in the Ebola crisis, then I was freelancing as a researcher and doing a handful of different things… and finally, I took a job with the TED Content team (which I am loving and am really excited about). I’m not traditional in any sense, and a lot of my struggle with this has been finding a space that understands why I am obsessed with informal economies and constantly learning new things. TED is the perfect space for me to be right now, especially because I love the team I work with. Every single one of them.

A little over a month ago, however, when friends were beginning their “should I switch jobs” conversations with me, I felt I was unable to offer more than a kind ear and some questions, because I, too, was in flux. Perhaps the difference this time around was that I was not afraid. I had found ways that I could depend on myself and think on my feet that were new to me. I was beginning to really define my strengths and see places where I could work on my weaknesses to keep growing and being a better teammate. I also developed my 2015 roadmap and new goals for job searching (pre-TED) by what I wanted to learn this year and through the next few years (both in hard and soft skills).

I watched the “quarter-life crisis” as a friend called it, when she asked me to breakfast, dumped her doubts on the table, and asked if we could sort through them. And we did. Did she leave with a clear answer about what was next? No. But she did leave with a better sense of what she wanted to learn, and perhaps a handful of places that she would be able to do that.

This year I’ve been watching consultant and banking friends ask me, “what is next?” and “how did you find places to do what you do?”

My more non-profit oriented friends asking, “how do I handle the burn out when the cause isn’t enough to get my out of bed on frozen February mornings?”

And now students asking me, “where should I start looking?”

Last night I opened my email from an organization that I decided to volunteer with run by the Yale Latino Alumni Association introducing me to a short description of the freshman that I will be “mentoring.” My mentors have provided me with ideas about what is out there, helped me think through how I explain what I do and have to offer… and kept me positive when I went through long cycles of rejection after interview after interview. Something I had not dealt with in the same kind of rapid succession… really ever in my life before.

I think what I’ve learned about mentorship is that sometimes it’s about being that kind ear and asking questions to refine the narrative coming out of a person… and sometimes it is saying, We’re going to make a list of things you want to learn and people you think are badass. How do you want to get there.

I hope I can do a good job. Like the strong women who have guided me to where I am today.

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.

Use Your Voice

During the speaker training for TEDxMunich last week, I spent a lot of time with the “stage presence” coach. She was a wonderful, warm lady who pushed me and interrupted me to make sure that I was pushing myself as I practiced my talk.

The current challenge: being loud and owning my voice.

I thought this was a little ironic, since I can definitely be loud and very intense. Especially when I was community organizing or participating in marches and rallies in college.

This felt different though. It felt like my classrooms in college and high school, when there was some doubt in what I was saying and the fact that I was talking, when I was nervous, was an apology. Sometimes when I believe something very deeply and ardently defend it, I feel like I am being judged and people stop listening. Perhaps this has been a result of spending too much time in places that were not good fits for me, but I am also cautiously aware of whether or not someone is listening to what I am saying. Body language often gives people away when they are disinterested or have been turned off by something I am saying.

But here I was, on the TEDx stage. I should not have been apologizing for my words and eating them instead of projecting. The coach reminded and me pushed me when she saw me inhaling words.

I realized a big factor in all of this is that you as a performer are striving to connect and be liked… in the back of my head was the voice that always nags me about being more feminine. Quieter, polite, accommodating, likable. It matters to me only when… I need a group of new people to like me or support my work. This time, it was about the work. I wanted them to listen and think about informal economies. If I was too militant, they would turn away. If I wasn’t interesting, they would stop listening and I was doing a disservice to my cause.

It was an interesting period of reflection for me once I got through the material from my talk. Once I was forced to think about the presence I wanted to have on a stage, what I thought it meant to be me, sharing these stories and this material to a wider audience.

I think most young women who grew up in the same communities I did in the Northeast learned to be quiet. Ask more questions about others than you share about yourself. Make people comfortable and feel better in the space. A lot of it is focused on the external, sometimes at a disservice to our own needs and goals.

I think a goal for myself this year will be to no longer put up with the same talking down to that I get sometimes. While it is amusing when someone doesn’t realize what I do or how I spend my time and then they talk down to me about Mexico or economics or research, whatever it may be, and then someone else clues them in… the reaction is often fascinating. But it’s also not the best use of my time to pretend to be wholly absorbed in these conversations. I think I will practice being more upfront and defending my work and experience, rather than waiting for someone else to appreciate it. Thank you, TEDx speaker coach for pushing me to see the value in projecting my voice.