Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Things You Leave Behind

A friend on mine passed away on Monday, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I’d only just learned about the diagnosis last Friday, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

I knew Linda Borodkin through my work with The Welcome Project. I recently learned that she joined the board around the same time I started volunteering, but it always seemed to me that she’d been on the board forever.

She had a remarkable passion for non-profits and for non-profit leadership. But most of all, she saw each person’s capacity for leadership. She believed in the value each person brought to the work through their ideas, skills, and resources.

After my first year of chairing YUM – The Welcome Project’s annual fundraiser – Linda gave me the biggest, most beautiful bouquet of flowers I have ever seen. They lasted for weeks.

I hadn’t thought I was into that kind of thing, but – the earnestness and genuineness with which she felt compelled to say ‘thank you’ was a remarkable experience for me.

And Linda was big into thank yous. As a fellow member of The Welcome Project’s fundraising committee, Linda personally called almost every donor to thank them for their support.

She said it was wonderfully fulfilling to hear their stories – to learn why they supported The Welcome Project, and to hear them talk about what compelled them to this work.

But most of all, I think, she liked to see the students learn and grow, just as she liked to see the organization learn and grow.

And throughout it all, she was there helping, building, learning, thanking.

So here’s to you, Linda – thank you for everything.


Someone told me today that the world would be a better place if more people had more self-doubt.

That sounds about right.

I have written before about how unimpressed I am by the common solution to the so-called confidence gap – that is, when it’s raised as a problem that women typically don’t have the confidence level of men, I’m skeptical that the best solution is for “women to be more like men.”

Maybe none of us should be egotistical pricks.

I mean, really, should anyone aspire to be Gilderoy Lockhart?

And I’m a bit uncomfortable putting this all in gender terms – it is true that women, on the whole, have lower levels of confidence than men, on the whole – but I also know plenty of bombastic women and overly humble men.

That’s not to suggest we should just ignore the gender dimension of this issue. It is most certainly a problem that men are generally taught to be aggressively confident while women are generally taught their ideas are worth nothing. That is a problem, indeed.

But just for a moment, let’s pretend we want to instill the same lessons in all young people regardless of their gender, regardless of the race, class, sex or gender identity. Let’s just pretend we want all people to learn the same lessons. And then we can ask:

What’s the right amount of confidence to have?

Probably my least favorite type of person is someone who is overly confident with nothing to show for it. People who are overly confident with everything to show for it aren’t too far behind.

Invariably, it seems, it’s the people who think they know everything who actually know nothing and the people who think they know nothing who actually know everything.

Well, not actually know everything – because the people who think they know nothing know it’s impossible to know everything – but the poetry is better that way.

Irregardless, nothing is worse than a blowhard.

But while stunning over-confidence can be tyrannical, a dramatic lack of confidence can be devastating.

A little self-doubt may be a good thing, but too much self-doubt can be crushing, paralyzing. To wake up every morning convinced of your own incompetence, convinced nothing you ever do will add value – well, that’s no way to live, though many do live that way.

But self-doubt doesn’t have to be debilitating.

A physicist by training, I think often of the men who developed the nuclear bomb. Just what did they think they were doing?

They were inspired by patriotism, by science. They had a fascinating problem at the cutting edge of human knowledge and they brilliantly developed a solution. A solution that ended in death, destruction, and the continual threat of more.

“Now we are all sons of bitches,” Kenneth Bainbridge famously said to  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Those men probably should have doubted themselves a little more.

A moral life requires constant introspection, constant questioning, constant examining of your true motives and beliefs.

And I think that confidence should probably follow a similar process –

If you aren’t doubting yourself, you are probably doing something wrong.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Today, I heard history professor Jill Lepore talk about her recent book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

The story is one of sex and sexual identity, of feminism and struggles against convention.

According to Lepore, Wonder Woman began in 1941 as a tool for silencing critics of comic books. With the genre having only recently arrived on the scene, parents were concerned about the effects of comic books on their impressionable young children.

Superman came from a master race – problematic for 1941. Batman originally carried a gun – which was also unfavorable to the sensibilities of the day. In fact, in an effort to console concerned parents, Bruce Wayne was later given a back story – one in which his parents were shot – and Batman ceased to carry a gun.

Wonder Woman was supposed to quell such critics – although she ultimately drew more criticism of her own – by fighting for truth, love, and equal rights.

Before giving the new character her own comic book line, a short survey was given to comic readers – Should Wonder Woman be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?

Surveys came back favorably, and Wonder Woman was given her own line.

Creator William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a Harvard education, described his creation in the early 40s: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

If that seems somewhat radical for a white man in the 40s, it probably was. Marston grew up seeing the front lines of the suffragette movement – his Freshman year at Harvard he heard radical feminist and political activist Emmeline Pankhurst speak. She didn’t speak at Harvard proper, though a male student group invited her, but rather spoke off campus as the administration would not allow women in Harvard Yard.

Marston was fascinated by radical feminists and passionate about equal rights. “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” read the press release announcing Wonder Woman.

In Lepore’s description, the history of Wonder Woman quickly becomes a history of Marston – and of Marston’s family.

As the New York Times describes, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.

But that doesn’t really tell the story.

Marston married his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and then later – while working as a professor at Tufts University – fell in love with a student, Olive Byrne.

Eventually, Olive moved in with Marston and his wife, and Olive and Elizabeth each bear two children.

After Marston’s death in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth continued to live together until Olive’s death in the 1980s.

Lepore, a dedicated historian, lamented that there isn’t more documentation clearly describing the nature of their relationship. There are no letters between the two women, no notes indicating intimacy.

At least none which survived.

The polyamorous relationship was quite scandalous, you see, and a lot of effort was put into obfuscation. Marston was eventually blocked from his academic career due to the unsavory nature of his personal life. Meanwhile Olive – the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger – was concerned that the truth of her personal life would destroy advocacy for birth control.

And at the center of it all is Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was conceived as part Olive, part Elizabeth, part Margaret Sanger. She was a compilation of all these powerful and strong woman Marston had in his life. But she was part Martson – a man who I imagine wished he could have seen more Wonder Woman in himself.

Leport said that the story of Marston is about the cost of living an unconventional life.

If that’s the case, it is this intimate vulnerability which reveals Wonder Woman’s true power. Wonder Woman’s story isn’t about leading an unconventional life – it’s about leading the life you want to live and fighting to have that life accepted.

Gender (non)Conformity

Not long ago, someone told me that she was still learning to be a woman. This person was over the age of 15, so it struck me as a particularly interesting comment.

Actually, it reminded me that when I was about 15 I’d told someone that I wasn’t very good at being a girl.

“What does that even mean?” they’d appropriately responded.

It also reminded me that in my early 20s I went out and bought a bunch of “sweaters with weird necks” (I now know them as “cowl necks”) because, “that’s what women wear.”

To be fair, there was an element of class identity to that last one, as I struggled to fit into my first office setting. But still, that feeling of gender identity was there.

And it was interesting that we’d both had this experience of having to “learn” to be our gender.

Of course, our experiences have been different – I am a cisgendered woman (unless I lose points for being “bad” at it), and the person I was talking to is a transgendered woman.

I certainly don’t mean to claim understanding or familiarity with another’s experience, but I’m honestly not sure why either of us need to “learn” to be like our gender.

Yet somehow it seems reasonable to imagine a transgendered woman saying she needs to learn to be a woman, even as it sounds absurd to hear a cisgendered woman say so.

I wondered if anyone had ever questioned her comment they way someone had once questioned mine.

No, but seriously – what does that even mean?

Challenges of Educational Games

I just got back from a great weekend of gaming at Dreamation, and it got me thinking – just what is it that makes a game fun?

I find this question particularly relevant because, while educational games are on the rise, games designed with the primary intention of transmitting information are notoriously terrible. “Gamification” may be all the rage, but what’s the point of an educational game if the resulting game is neither educational nor enjoyable?

Of course, my biggest qualm with “gamification” is the implied disparagement – wouldn’t it be great if we could use games for something valuable? – the concept seems to say.

But, in fact, games have inherent value. Many games are educational. They can teach skills, values, knowledge. They can ask important questions and help us collectively explore possible answers.

I mean, sure, there are plenty of poorly designed, not particularly valuable games out there – but those games are the exception, not the norm.

But even finding inherent value in games, it can still be fun to ask, how can I build a game that explores a given issue? How can people learn about a given topic from a game?

The two are not mutually exclusive.

I think the challenge of educational games is that they tend to be too focused on the education and too weary of the game. A textbook turned into a game is still inherently a textbook. The gamification may make it less dry…but it’s not really a game.

But a game tackling a topic – now that can be fun.

In one game this weekend, I learned about the lives of hobos in the early 20th century. It wasn’t the primary purpose of the game to teach me, but it was a natural piece of the game’s existence.

In most of the games I played, we explored questions of power and privilege, of gender norms and social justice, of humanity and inhumanity.

These weren’t educational topics dressed up as games, but rather wholly quintessential games placed in a time and context which gave them life, form, and meaning.

There are many types of games and many types of fun, but when it comes to so-called educational games, I guess –

A fun game is one that asks you questions, not one which gives you answers.

The Accidental Admiral

Today, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by James Stavridis, Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Previously, Dean Stavridis, a retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy, served as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

So he’s kind of a big deal.

Dean Stavridis discussed a range of issues, including his book, The Accidental Admiral. As the name implies, the book traces his unexpected life journey.

So much of our lives are accidental, Stavridis mused as he described his rise to “Supreme Allied Commander of NATO” – a title which doesn’t sound like a role a real person would have.

Someone asked him how – before he found himself in a position of such power – he dealt with that sense of individual effort being futile in the face of such great challenges. How did he answer the question, what can I do when I’m just one person?

Stavridis responded with a Russian proverb – it’s better to light a candle than to curse the light.

One person can make a difference, he argued. But for one person to make a difference it takes collaboration. We each have the power to generate change, but to do so effectively, to do so in a good way, we need to work together.

Prison Labor

A new story emerged from Boston’s never-ending snow fall yesterday: first there was a call for people to help shovel the MBTA tracks at a rate of $30/hour. Not long after that, came a clarification: the offer was only open to union members.

Then, at last, an additional observation: state prison inmates were also clearing the tracks.

Presumably, with plenty of snow to go around, these inmates weren’t taking any union jobs, but there are still plenty of concerns with this approach.

For one thing, just how much are the prisoners getting paid for their work? The Department of Corrections hasn’t released those details, but with the median wage of state workers coming to  a meager 20 cents, I’m going to guess they weren’t paid very much.

I was really taken with the reaction to this news. The comments on Universal Hub offer a pretty diverse range of views, coupled with a somewhat hilarious attempt at citing various acquaintance as sources.

Some people were appalled, calling the use of prison inmates “slave labor.” Others were supportive, explaining that the program is voluntary and that it support re-entry.

And then, of course, there’s that old canard:

These are men who commented crimes and have lost the right to be part of society. In order to be invited back into society they’re being punished accordingly…When you commit crimes and are found guilty you give up some of your basic rights.

But how are we to evaluate these conflicting views?

Well, first, I think it’s important to realize this is not anything new. In 2011, Middlesex County inmates went out shoveling with little fanfare. Suffolk County has operated a Community Works Program for years.

That program has a particularly engaging description, reassuring citizens that inmates are under the constant watch of an armed Sheriff’s deputy and that the end result of the program is quite simply a win–win. The inmates give back a measure of the cost of their incarceration while learning the skills needed to conduct themselves as responsible, contributing members of society and the law enforcement community benefits by breaking the cycle of inmate recidivism.

There’s even a happy logo of people with shovels to be extra convincing.

To be honest, I know nothing about this program, and I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. But I am skeptical.

Maybe shoveling snow in sub-zero temperatures is more enjoyable than being locked in cage, but that doesn’t seem to be saying much.

Perhaps we should go all Roman and have inmates engage in Gladiatorial combat. After all, that would be a way more interesting way to live. I’d bet we’d volunteers.

But these individual, probably well-intentioned, programs are not my problem. The problem is deeper than that.

Today’s Boston Globe reported that the the idea to use inmate labor “came after Mayor Marty Walsh’s office asked all city departments to more efficiently use their resources.”

Because inmates are resources.

Not people.

And that’s the problem. It’s not a problem specific to Boston or to Massachusetts, but to our whole, national, prison system.

The 13th amendment states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States

As much as I disagree with the commenter who argued that criminals have lost the right to be part of society, who argued that punishment is the only atonement for their sins, that’s really what this issue comes down to.

I don’t know much about people in prison, but I do know this: they are people.

They aren’t resources to be used efficiently. They aren’t three fifths of a person. They are people.

Living, breathing, feeling, people.

Regardless of their crimes, regardless of their wrongs, regardless of what sins we may see upon their soul – perhaps it’s time we started treating them like that:

Like people.

Modern Phrases of a Living Language

I tend to be somewhat old fashioned when it comes to language. I like archaic terms and am slow to pick up the hottest trends.

I have a general dislike of portmanteaus – when I’m not traveling for a vacation, I always correct people who feel comfortable calling that practice a staycation. I won’t use that word.

But I also have a deep appreciation of English as a living language. It is always growing and evolving and changing, and that is wonderful.

Words that are coined spontaneously go on to serve a valuable role in our ability to express ourselves.

Phrases that were once trendy are still appropriate to bust out on particular occasions. I’m never distraught to hear something described as the bee’s knees.

So I’m always interested to see what words and phrases stick with me. And I wonder which ones will survive time. I hope that in 80 years no one even remembers that amazeballs was even a thing.

Lately, I’ve been gravitating toward the half sentences which have emerged as popular.

Maybe it’s because there is 6 feet of snow on the ground, but, I can’t even –

I love that expression. I can’t even.

It so perfectly captures that overwhelmed feeling of confusion coupled with revolution.

I don’t think there was a good expression for that before.

I’m also a fan of phrases such as: no, but really and wait, but, what?

I wouldn’t have guessed those three words would make such a good expression, but it’s a welcome replacement to hold the phone or shut the front door. The more brash version of that former expression is fine with me, but I’d not use it here.

So I wonder if these half-phrases, these sentences which grammatically mean nothing but are filled with cultural context, will survive.

Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but one things for sure – it’s wonderful to be working with a living language.

Transit and Politics

The big news yesterday was that MBTA general manager Beverly Scott resigned. Her resignation came after the T shut down train service for a day following record breaking snow fall. A day on which she held a “barn burner of a press conference” in which she defended the T.

Now, for those of you not from Boston, a little history.

The T is in a lot of debt. About $9 billion in debt, including interest.

Now, that doesn’t just come from poor book keeping. The state’s Central Artery Project – eg, “the Big Dig” – focused on improving highway transit, most notably rerouting 93 and putting part of it underground. The highway was falling apart and not able to support the volume of traffic.

What does this have to do with the MBTA? Well, as part of the Big Dig, the state is legally obligated to provide certain environmental justice mitigation. That is, if you’re going to make it possible for more cars to be on the road, you’re obligated to make improvements which mitigate the environmental impact. And not just because we’re all going to die from global warming, but because living near highways is actually really bad for your health.

So, the state was obligated to make transit improvements. And in 2000, Massachusetts passed $3.8 billion in debt from transit improvements off to the MBTA, granted them 1 percent of the revenue from the state’s 5 percent sales tax, wished them well and told them to balance their book.

That didn’t work.

Fast forward to December 2012 and Beverly Scott starts as General Manager. She inherits the oldest transit system in the country and the most indebted transit system in the country.

Frankly, I don’t know what made her take the job in the first place – there’s no single person capable of “turning the T around.”

So I’m not surprised that with nearly “a Gronk” of snow – that’s over six feet – the system had to shut down to pull itself together.

But Scott’s resignation in the wake of the closure wasn’t all together surprising. As Peter Kadzis put it the day before her resignation, “My gut tells me this is more about ritual than politics. The ritual of offering a sacrifice, in the form of Scott, in the name of moving forward.”

So that’s how we’re managing our public transit system now. Ritual sacrifice.

And while Kadzis says it’s not about politics, it seems to me that it’s all about politics.

If it was a sacrifice, it was a political sacrifice. It may not have been driven by a Democrat v. Republican showdown, but it was about human and community interaction in the public sphere. It was all about politics.

It probably didn’t help matters that Scott was appointed by a Democratic Governor and that the Republican Governor who know holds office was part of the administration that saddled the T with the debt in the first place. But more fundamentally, it was about a need to blame someone, to have someone become the embodiment of all that went wrong.

It’s like a slightly less disturbing version of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

Personally, I liked Scott. I thought she was on fire in her press conference and I was impressed that she was so bold in explaining the T’s problematic history. But regardless of how you feel about her, politics seems like a poor way to manage our transit.

As Beverly Scott said in that final press conference:

If there is a silver lining, please can we be talking about what are the long-term …yes, the T needs to be efficient, it needs to push itself, but this is not just about cutting costs.  You can cut every cost you wanted over here and that is not going to wind up taking the place for what has to be systemic, planned, serious, bold reinvestment in terms of this doggone transportation system. Not just to wind up keeping it where it is, but to wind up making it be what it can absolutely be in terms of being a modern, top-notch, serving-with-pride transportation system.

Frontiers 2015 – Call for Panelists!

Alumni of the Summer Institute for Civic Studies are organizing a few of the panels for Frontiers of Democracy 2015. We are seeking panelists to help shape engaging sessions on the following topics:

Frontiers will take place in Boston on June 25-27 and all panelists must register for the conference. To be considered for one of these panels please complete this form by Friday, February 20:

Whether you come as panelist or not, you should definitely check out Frontiers. As the framing statement on the website explains:

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, committed and innovative people strive to understand and improve citizens’ engagement with government, with community, and with each other. Every year, Frontiers of Democracy convenes some of these practitioners and scholars for organized discussions and informal interactions. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.