Monthly Archives: August 2015

Farewell, Tisch College

This will be my last post as an employee of Tisch College. I still have another week of work, but as I wind down, I am starting my blogging vacation early. I won’t post again until September 8 – at which point I will be a full time PhD student at Northeastern.

It’s hard saying goodbye to a place where you’ve worked for almost eight years. I’ve seen so many others come and go, yet it seems odd to now be the one leaving. And, all loving hyperbole aside, I know they will get on with out me.

The work continues.

I am thrilled to be starting this new journey, and thrilled to be learning new ways to contribute to the work. The work of civic renewal, of improving our communities, of working together and collaboratively building the infrastructure to have everyone’s voice equally at the table.

It is important work, and the work continues.

I was more cynical eight years ago. I was skeptical of the value most people – including myself – could bring to the hard work of confronting society’s most pressing challenges. I couldn’t equally value every person’s voice and agency when I couldn’t even value my own.

Since I started at Tisch College, I have bought a house, finished a master’s degree, gotten married, seen a niece be born and watched my father die.

I have learned so much.

I have had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people I have ever met, learning not only from their work, but from their thoughtfulness in approaching the work.

I have had lunch with Elinor Ostrom, and attended lectures by the likes of Elizabeth Warren, John Gaventa, Robert Sampson, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Christiane Amanpour, and even – if you’re into that kind of thing – Antonin Scalia.

I’ve helped make some those events happen.

I have met and learned from the amazing scholars and practioners in the civic studies community – some of the most dedicated, passionate, and intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I bring that community with me, even now as I enter my next adventure. My role may change, but the work –

The work continues.

Here’s to the next chapter.

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Ode To Wren

Due to construction on campus, I and many of my colleagues have been working out of a dorm for the summer. As tomorrow is our last day in beautiful Wren Hall, it seemed only fitting that I share a few words of love for this building which has become my work home.

O, Wren Hall –

Shall I compare thee to a dormitory?Thou aren’t more lovely, tho more temperate.
Thy vistic views, trees with vodka bottle perch’d –
Thy distinctive smell and enchanting stains
Will stay fore’er in my heart – ’til I depart.
Colleagues gathered together as friends,
Lounging on couches before the day ends.
Intriguing signs made the grey walls more fun –
I’m in despair that our time here is done!

Thank you for having us, Wren Hall!

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High Modernism and Network Science

It seems appropriate, somehow, that I’m reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State before beginning my Ph.D. studies.

Scott warns against the dangers of a state which undertakes “utopian social engineering.” He sees a recipe for disaster comprised of four elements. The first seems innocuous: “the administrative ordering of society…by themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft.”

But those unremarkable tools, combined with an authoritarian state and a prostrate civil society, can lead to disaster.

The final element Scott warns of, the one that seems most relevant as I begin my studies, is a high modernist ideology. As Scott explains, high modernism is:

…a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy if science and technology. It was accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.

High modernism is a faith that goes far beyond supporting the scientific process. It is the unwavering belief that humans have the capacity to design utopia.

 

Of course, not just any humans have this capacity, high modernists would have us believe. It is only those who are properly educated, trained, and credentialed. In this technocratic utopia, experts need no local knowledge. Everything can be standardized to translate from one community to the next.

“‘Fiasco’ is too lighthearted a word for the disasters” caused by high modernism, Scott argues. “The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted.”

The high modernism which rocked the last century may be behind us. The world is to complex, too interwoven to believe in simple, standard, solutions.

Yet even as we accept the complexity of the world, we find ways to unravel it. I’m thrilled to be studying networks, an approach which allows for examining and understanding the complex systems which surround us.

So it is with the warning of Scott ringing in my head that I recently read these words about how a network understanding of biology could influence and improve medical practice:

If you suffered from manic depression in recent years, your first visit to the doctor probably started with an hour-long discussion to carefully examine your thoughts and feelings…Twenty years from now things could look quite different. Facing the same doctor, you will have a five minute discussion, just as you do in cases of simple influenza. An assistant will take a few drops of blood and you will walk home empty-handed. In the evening you will pick up the medicine from the nearest pharmacy. The next day you will wake up fresh and happy, as you did before the symptoms appeared. Both the manic and the depressive you will have been washed away.

That doesn’t sound like utopia to me. In fact, it sounds vaguely horrifying.

While there are no doubt many people with serious mental illnesses who would benefit from such an effective treatment, I’d hope it would take more than a five minute conversation before any major personality traits are simply “washed away.”

Furthermore, with such technology at our disposal, we’d be faced with serious dilemmas about what traits to live with and which to wash away. How much depression should a person accept before they undergo such drastic treatment? How soon before authoritarian states started to remove traits of outspokenness and disobedience?

None of this is to say that we should not pursue the science. It is important, fascinating work that is helping to make a little more sense of this mysterious world.

But embracing the science doesn’t mean embracing high modernism – indeed, as Scott argues, that is something we should be very wary of.

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On Bernie Sanders and Who Gets a Voice

While many are reflecting and debating the interruption of Bernie Sanders by Black Lives Matter, black men were shot in Ferguson, Missouri, marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown.

I find the discussion around Sanders fascinating – a microcosm of tensions involving race, class, gender, and age.

And while supporters of the protesters claim victory in Sander’s release of a statement on racial justice and detractors of the protesters point to Sanders’ long history organizing with SNCC and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King – all I can think is that black people will continue to die unless we can find some way to put an end to it. To radically reshape our society.

All I can think about is Christian Taylor, the 19-year-old football player who was shot and killed by a police trainee Friday morning.

The nerdy activist in me would love to have long debates about what strategies and tactics are most appropriate and effective, but at the same time…I hardly care. I just want to live in a world where black people aren’t dying at a disproportional rate.

And honestly, I don’t know how to get there.

It’s a fine academic exercise to study and evaluate the action, but as an ally in the movement towards racial justice – my role is to support not to evaluate.

It’s not my life on the line. It’s not my heart and soul that’s at risk. Who am I to tell a person of color what they should settle for?

With disruptive actions more common, there are some good questions being raised about bringing people into a movement versus potentially alienating them.

These are good questions, but – at least within the realm of racial justice – I’m not sure they are my questions to answer.

Activists of color are debating these questions as well. They are, and should be, the leaders of this work – it is their right to choose what strategies and tactics to employ. As an ally, I then have a simple choice – I can choose to support them or not.

There may be times when I’m welcomed to provide constructive criticism or strategic feedback, as a partner working towards the same goal. If not, that’s okay – there are other times in my life when my voice can be heard.

Because after all, really, this is not about me and its not about my agency.

It’s about black people dying and about black voices being oppressed.

And its about working together to change that, in the best ways we know how.

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The Republican Candidate Who Makes Me Feel Like Less of a Partisan

In many ways, I am a fierce partisan. Loyally Democratic, though the mainstream of the party is too moderate for me.

In a Republican vs. Democrat show down, I want to win.

Quite honestly, I’d probably be willing to over look many of a candidate’s questionable actions if it meant putting a Democrat in office over a Republican. If this was the 7th season of West Wing and Alan Alda’s Republican was running against a terrible, not-Jimmy-Smits Democrat…I’d probably still vote Democrat.

The partisan in me likes to see terrible Republican candidates. I was scared of McCain when he was moderate, but breathed a sigh of relief as he ran to the right.

The partisan in me would like to see Sarah Palin run for president. She still has some appeal, no doubt, but her inability read a newspaper and her tenuous grasp on international relations could only serve to fracture the Republican party more.

There’d be a certain morbid delight in that.

Or at least it seems that way in theory.

What I’ve discovered in this election cycle, though, is that when there’s a big, hulking, troll in the room, sucking up all the air time with his bombastic personality and offensive comments – I genuinely feel bad for the Republican Party.

Last night’s Republican debate – the prime-time one, mind you, not the “happy hour” one – shattered viewership records, averaging 24 million viewers and claiming the spot of most-watched non-sports show ever on cable TV.

And all the news coverage today is about the troll who took center of the stage. Everyone is discussing whether his antics gained him favorability or whether his post-debate move to attack Megyn Kelly will ultimately backfire.

In some ways I should be delighted. I can hardly imagine him winning a general and his efforts to get there – especially if he launches an independent bid – will only hurt the Republican party.

But instead, I’m just tired. I don’t want to hear about him any more. I don’t care what racist or sexist thing he said. I don’t care about his backwards views on the issues.

I don’t want to hear from him any more.

I want to hear from some sane conservatives. I want to hear from people whose ideas and experience differ from my own, but who have come to their conclusions through rational thought.

I want to see two parties who can truly balance each other – who can have spirited disagreements which force both sides to improve.

I want to see Republican candidates I can respect and who I can imagine respecting me.

I want an Alan Alda Republican.

…And then, I want to vote for a Jimmy Smits Democrat.

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On Dehumanization and Avoiding Interaction

A few weeks ago I was outside enjoying the summer weather when a man came up asking for spare change. I, like others in the area, politely expressed regrets. He moved on.

Once he was gone, the woman next to me, who had been actively ignoring the whole situation, took out her earbuds and leaned over to me. You know, I’m not really listening to anything. I just put these in so I wouldn’t have to talk to him. You should do it!

I was a little taken aback.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I know plenty of women who listen to music or put in head phones to avoid the constant harassment they face while simply trying to walk down the street. And there are certainly times when – even in a crowd – one might want to avoid social interaction.

But this woman had no problem talking to me – she just wanted to avoid talking to a possibly homeless man.

And she was proud of it.

The man wasn’t causing problems. He wasn’t harassing at all. He was just asking for change.

One might prefer to give money to great organizations like the Somerville Homeless Coalition, or support those in need by buying the Spare Change newspaper, but regardless of whether you might give the person change or not –

He was still a person.

It took two seconds out of my day to acknowledged his existence and tell him I couldn’t help. It was honestly the least I could do.

The least one person ought to do for another person.

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Transitions

In just fifteen days I will leave my job of seven and half years. In just over a month, I will matriculate as a Ph.D. student at Northeastern.

While I made these plans some time ago – starting the application process last fall and giving my notice in March – it’s just now starting to sink in as a real thing that’s happening.

I’ve made transition plans, I’m wrapping up projects. I’ve registered for courses, I’m looking for some sweet Lisa Franks.

Time is flying by.

It’s been over ten years since I was last a full time student; I hardly know what to expect.

I suspect it will be hard and challenging at times – if not, I’m probably doing it wrong. True learning is a worthy challenge.

I hope I’ll find my age an advantage – I’ve seen enough that I find little to panic about any more.

I think back on what I’d wish I’d known as an undergraduate – how to advocate for myself, how to find my own way, how to navigate the world that is academia. Those are skills I’ve learned since graduating, and they’re skill I’ll need in the coming years.

Most of all, I feel incredibly privileged.

I get to spend the next five (+?) years studying and learning. I get to spend the next five years growing and exploring and challenging myself. I’m sure some of it will be overwhelming and some of it will be mundane, but man, what an amazing opportunity.

When I was deciding whether to even apply to this program I found myself explaining – this is what I’d do if I won the lottery.

This is what I’d do if I won the lottery – and, while I didn’t win the lottery, I get to do it!

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Public Parks as Public Good

I spent much of the last week in a public park with the OPENAIR Circus, an amazing community group celebrating its 30th year in Somerville.

The big top was up for four days in the corner of the public venue. And as I sat there day in and day out, I noticed something interesting –

People kept asking my permission to use the public park.

To be fair, we had all the proper permits for use of the park and, I suppose, could have kicked people off it we found it necessary.

But it the middle of the day, hours before a performance, why would I possibly feel the need to?

A few times when people asked me, I wanted to respond with – “Of course you can – it’s a public park.”

I hardly felt I had the right to deny anyone access, though I suppose it was kind of them to ask.

What was even more interesting, though, is that not everybody asked.

I almost wish I’d tracked data on who asked for permission and who did not – large groups, for example, tended to ask. Presumably because they felt they were more likely to cause a disturbance. But there was variation among smaller groups of 2-3.

Overall, I just found it interesting to note that some people felt confident in their right to be in a public park while others imagined it was my right to bar them.

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