The Borders of Fulton Street

Many mornings, Fulton Street feels like the ultimate border crossing station. You move without a physical passport, but always with permission of those around you who also share and add character to the space. This permission is your visa. At once, you are part of the story and the transition.

Every morning, on my way to my favorite coffee spot, I pass by a mosque with a healthy community coming in and out of its doors. On evenings when the wind blows in the right direction, we can hear the call to prayer from our living room, faintly through the now bare trees. There is also always a group of people talking and sometimes shouting outside Bergen Bagels on Waverly and Fulton. There’s a mental healthcare facility on the same corner, where a number of disable veterans gather before and after their appointments. Some are haunting by the ghosts of their time at war, and their glances take in much more than their immediate environment. It’s hard not to feel something squeezing sharply around your heart.

Sometimes these different groups interact, sometimes they pass by each other with little more than a nod. But they are all there, witnessing the same scenes I do every day.

 

And there are definitely moments where it is easier, and others when it is harder. In the context of the recent student protests, I like so many others have been included in some very challenging conversations about race and access to basic rights. We hosted a salon yesterday that was open, allowing us to examine so many of the specific issues and questions our friends had about race, their own immigrant backgrounds, and what our role was in shaping society. We considered how we, in each of our bodies and the histories tagged on us by those bodies, could move through our neighborhoods and work places. We stumbled through our questions, those points where experience limited our understanding of perspective, and crept forward, learning and asking questions and offering feedback.

I was reminded of a scene that happens somewhat often on Fulton Street in the mornings. There is a disable veteran, confined to a wheelchair, who arrives and departs from Fulton on the bus. Near the corner where his bus leaves, there is a deli with a cashier who “looks Middle Eastern*.” Some days, this man moves his wheelchair as close as he can to the step outside the Deli and yells with the strangled breathe of someone who has lost so much. The sound is quiet, but the words are like knives when you can hear them properly. The stair prevents this man from reaching the cashier, but each time he knocks the stair with his wheelchair, you can hear the determination in his voice to one day reach this “enemy” he has identified for himself.  [*This is an oversimplification, but this seems to be how the veteran identified him, based on the things he yells through the door at the cashier.]

It is frightening. I feel for the cashier as much as I feel for the veteran. Both of their pain is visible on their faces and the strained voice of the veteran. And I asked our group, what is our role in this? How does one act? Or do we keep to ourselves, outside these spaces and stay in our own small corners of the city?

It reminded me of the structure my friend, now an Army Ranger, has described within his first year of basic training. So many of our troops come from families where there realistically weren’t many other options. And often, returning from war did not mean better opportunities or support.

We talked, briefly, about underserved veterans and mental health… and the experience of going abroad to war, to a defined “enemy,” and then returning home to see people who had fled violence and had come to resettle into a new country… who looked like the communities these troops were fighting in another context. And here was a perfect scene describing Brooklyn, this city at the borders of the world… and the challenges that come with that.

I didn’t leave with answers, but, as always, I intend to keep exploring.

TEDTalks Live: The Education Revolution

Last night the Empire State Building was red in honor of the first sessions of TEDTalks Live on Broadway.

I was sitting in the balcony in the Town Hall theatre, surrounded by teachers, students, and TED staff who were there to celebrate some of the brave thinkers taking on the “Education Revolution” head on. Speakers included principal Nadia Lopez, who became an important figure in education reform when one of her students was profiled by Humans of New York and the student cited his high school principal as the most influential person in his life, Former White House Chef and food policy advisor Sam Kass, and Andrew Mangino from The Future Project.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the evening was when principal Lopez was introduced by host Baratunde Thurston and everyone around me stood up and cheered. It was the warmth of reception that celebrities usually receive… and it was amazing to be part of a community that is this excited about a principal committed to making change in the lives of her students. She spoke without jargon or false promises, it was purely focused on her students and the community she was building in Brownsville. How she showed up for them every day, and therefore expected them to do the same.

I think the commitment the TEDTalks Live team made to including students and teachers at this event was what helped create such a magical experience for the rest of the audience. My section of the audience positively glowed with warmth for many of the figures on the stage last night, and their love and enthusiasm was infectious.

I left optimistic for the future of education reform… and seeking new places to be useful in my own corner of the world.

Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.