“When you struggle with a problem, that is when you understand it…”
This clip autoplayed while I was working today and half-paying attention. I listened to the last part and thought, “This is excellent advice for people screening job candidates” and sent to a few friends who were hiring.
Then I listened to it again and was reminded of advice I got from my father on the importance of asking the right questions to your problems to make sure you pull the right lessons. Can you ever reverse engineer solutions if you never examined what you got you there? Can you reframe challenges into opportunities if you fail to ask the right questions? It reminded me that problems and challenges can sharpen you and make you wiser but only if you choose. Wisdom is the gold medal awarded when you lean in to learn from your struggles.
“Anyone who has struggled hard with a problem never forgets it.”
So many of my conversations with women in tech can be summarized as validating the following, “You are not crazy. This is fucked up.”
For women in tech, trusted Real Talk (not to be confused with #realtalk) is rare and usually done offline (the better to avoid Hacker News thread). Which is why I loved this post, How To Survive as a Female Founder. It has practical advice, manages to still be funny and touch on essential subjects of Real Talk– namely grinding (at work, at yourself) and looking up one day to see that all that effort is not getting you as far as your male peers. The game is rigged. So what do you do?
“I’ve been struggling for years to make this work, and signs indicate that it is finally on the cusp of taking off.
But the road has been long and hard. There were late rent checks, metro turnstyles hopped when I didn’t have the cash to pay (one time immediately after giving a keynote at a DC tech conference). A kind, sensible lawyer sister (and teacher mom) who let me put charges on their credit cards and pay them back later when I didn’t see another option. Understandably concerned relatives who told me that it was time to “get a real job.” A lot of it sucked. But what sucks the most is that I saw male friends with startups get a lot more support, more readily…and often with less traction to show.”
It was a session on the creative process, making art, his experience trying to study and navigate unwelcoming systems. I saw so many parallels between that space and the social change sector. Both worlds are art in their own right. Yet being able to thrive in either one and work with integrity to your vision while developing resources to ensure your work stays alive is a creative form all on it’s own. How we work is art.
For example, this reminds me of so many nonprofit “partnerships”…
KW: Well, metaphorically, to be stereotyped as a hip-hop artist can be very much a hood that can put you in positions where people wouldn’t expect you to be. And in the same way how, when you step into places that have a “you’re not from here”-type vibe, if you are from there, and you’re too accredited, a lot of times people will put their guards up, and be less willing to work with you. And a lot of times I’ve been able to work with the most amazing people on the planet because I was considered not be a threat to what they do—because I was just there to be a “hip-hop artist.”… Actually, I use that little box and that stereotype to my advantage–to just be able to put that hoodie on and collaborate as much as possible.
A few weeks ago I got invited to give a tech talk at a Mother-Daughter Hack Day from two dope local high school seniors who run a project called Inspiring Femgineers. I don’t have kids but had just given the graduation keynote at a local Girl’s in Technology program and had THE BEST time dismantling structural inequities via emoji and teaching them how to power pose. This group was a little younger (grades 5-8) but I said yes right away and asked if I could bring my 10 year old niece along with me. They said yes and we were game on.
It only hit me yesterday that I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about. Like most hackathons, it was kinda ╮ (. ❛ ᴗ ❛.) ╭ go-with-the-flow. So I decided to remix an email pep talk I gave my girlfriends last year about building your own power into a lady-superhero themed tech talk.
I talked about HOW to approach work in technology so it remains fun and you want to keep doing it. But mainly my message was this: learning to code is like building your very own superpower. You don’t need to ask for permission to create what you think should exist in the world and that’s awesome. When you’re doing awesome work, you will attract and build community full of people with their own awesome, funky superpowers (like back-end development! UX design! robotics!). Because eventually you’re going to experience resistance to your ideas and if you believe in your heart it should exist and you have an awesome, funky, superpower-packed community behind you, coding your own power is lot less lonely and a lot more fun.
Oh, and my talk was entirely done in GIFs.
Then I walked them through a product ideation process on a whiteboard. Lots of future apps for animal-lovers who enjoy swimming, running and singing on the horizon…
But don’t take my word for it. My niece took the world’s most awesome/hilarious/OMG-we-are-totally-related notes.
“This is my special place. I come here when I don’t want to run into anyone I work with and when I miss being around black people,” I explained to a friend I was meeting at one of my favorite spots on the other side of the city. “This is where I go when I want to sit alone and read for hours but still heargo-go music thumping in the background. Also there’s good wifi.”
“This is a place where all those things dovetail together so well,” she said. And to that I’m like YUP, yo. YUP.
I want to keep it my special place so I won’t mention where but why I love it so much is a reflection of my love for community, my deep belief in civic tech and why I constantly beat the drum for inclusivity in how we talk about, fund and do this thing we call “civic innovation”.
There’s no one in the pipeline! Women aren’t at the table! Where are the people of color?! Waaah.
As a woman technologist of color, I have conversations that evoke these phrases about 20x a week. The context for these exchanges are usually in conference rooms, small closed-door meetings or phone conversations where I am being asked to do things like explain the impact of structural racism and systemic barriers in less than 30 seconds or recruit women/people of color to do X or Y. It is as impractical in efficacy as it is exhausting.
Also it is a special type of arrogance and erasure for technologists tasked to build tools that will re-imagine the citizenship experience to also not acknowledge or explore the opportunities and innovation in the very communities we seek to build tools for. And in failing to do so, as we build in this manner are we challenging inequality or are we unwittingly driving it?
How do we build a future that not only creates new opportunities and power but also builds new forms of power that is distributed more equitably?
Pipeline, table, these structures are artificial. No wonder no fun is happening there.
When we, as community, create together, in community, we’re no longer doing civic innovation in a post-colonial context. This is how we need to build the future- in concert with one another. This is how we avoid simply creating a post-colonial Internet and take this opportunity in time to disrupt entrenched systemic barriers to access, engagement and joy. Communities can inform technology once we no longer ignore the world of innovation that has long existed beyond our conference rooms.
This is also why I was so comfortable sharing my special place with my friend who is shaping the Build With, Not For framework for civic technology in a monumental way. She gets it. And hopefully after watching her super smart talk below, you’ll see why this is important too…
“Often when we talk about innovation we talk about meeting people where they are. But we so rarely take it literally…”
Where do you go when you want to blend in yet still feel seen? Where do you go to escape but still imagine? Where can you unconsciously sway to the beat and realize everyone is doing a little dance of their own too? And what can we make when we meet there to build the future together?
Long day, exhausted but pretty cool to see this roll out today:
Today is the launch of the Getty Instagram Grant. The purpose of the grant is to support photographers using Instagram to document stories from underrepresented communities around the world. Three photographers will each be awarded $10,000 to continue projects of social impact on Instagram.
“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” McDowell writes on her website. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”
And the cards are gorgeous, hilarious and deeply poignant
There is a severe empathy gap in our culture. We are not socialized to talk about death, grief or serious illness from a place of creating connection and support systems. The pattern to approach pain and grief as something to be “fixed” rather human experiences to live and be supported through always struck me as deep culture disconnect. I’ve never understood people who “just don’t know what to say” and therefore disappear when loved ones experience grief, trauma and/or serious illnesses. Unfortunately, through death, trauma and caregiving for loved ones in my life, I have had plenty of practice to develop compassion for people who ghost but in my core I still think: Really? Really? This is Showing Up 101. How is this so hard?
Living through deep grief, I am noticing this pattern in my life now and feel unsettled on how to unfold that without the other person feeling prompted to coach/fix me. When I sense the conversation walking down that path I borrow words a friend said while she was getting treated for cancer, “I don’t need you to fix anything. I just need you to sit next to me and be with me while I’m sad.”
Last night in New York, I grabbed dinner with a friend who gave me the greatest gift just letting me talk through hard things with the grace of a someone who has survived her own rough moments through the power of connection, support and love. Connection, support and love. That is the heart of empathy.
In a sense, being supported through the other side of pain radicalized me. It made me committed to loving hard and challenging whenever I hear “I just don’t know what to say…” I always, always tell them:
It is an honor to bear witness and love someone through their pain. Who will stand with you through yours?
Quick post tonight, I am finishing a day running around NYC that ended at the Sidney Hillman Awards. It was the highlight of my day to watch so many friends I admire who grind in public service journalism be recognized. The biggest joy of all was watching Bryan Stevenson accept his award for his work leading the Equal Justice Initiative and Jelani Cobb be honored for his undisputed dopeness.
My phone died before the night was over. After it ran out of battery, I sat in the auditorium in the New York Times Center, a digital nerd scribbling notes and quotes with pen and paper in the dark. I caught myself and thought, “I feel like I’m on the Oregon Trail…” closed my notebook and turned my full attention to the ceremony.