On Forums & Expansive Collaboration: European Young Leaders Summit in Tallinn, Estonia

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the European Young Leaders Summit organized by the Friends of Europe. For the first time ever, they extended invitations to leaders from North America and the Middle East to broaden the conversation and I was honored to participate.

Living in a democracy coming undone and actively fighting for an America we all deserve, I am struck by the universal conditions, challenges and fears that has given way to the rise of nationalism worldwide. I was also struck by the diversity of interventions,; by leaders at all different levels and operating within wildly different systems yet choosing to act, choosing to build and choosing to use their expertise and time on this Earth to actively build a better world.

This Forum was fascinating as it is a clear, deliberate choice to combat this climate of fear through weaving a global network of diverse thinkers and doers to build the future. As experiments in governance both in Europe and in America are being challenged, it was an especially timely reminder that we hold considerable power in our respective roles and with that power, a tremendous responsibility to ourselves, to each another, to our communities and to the broader world.

In a way, this deliberate choice speaks to what faith looks like: to trust that with some guidance, explicit intention and a proper container, a gathering people together can create a special kind of alchemy.

I came to Estonia with no expectations (though with several assurances from friends that I would love Tallinn… I did!). As a general operating principle, I practice healthy skepticism when it comes to gatherings designed to build community. It worked here because I got the sense that the real work will be the collaborations that happen beyond the forum, this was only a starting point. Here are some takeaways I believe helped relative strangers from around the world come together to create magic in Estonia…

Collaboration is Interdisciplinary

I felt like I spent the week cross-training with some of the sharpest thinkers in the world. While I love my field of technology and human rights, it was a welcomed refresh to not be THE expert in the room on specific issues. We took turns shifting from teacher to learner, from discerning difference to drawing patterns and abstractions.

The topics I was proudly not an expert in that we covered included:

  • The future of work in the digital age
  • Building audiences in the arts
  • Climate leadership and sustainable development
  • Redesigning education systems
  • Artificial intelligence and existential risk

In healthy ecosystems, debate is not just welcomed— it is actively encouraged

The fact that the entire programme opened, without any context or explanation, with a debate on neoliberalism between an economist from the Reagan administration (who really, really hates ‘the welfaire state’) and an Anthropologist from LSE (who is my new fav) set a tone. To me this said, this is a space where we can ask hard questions, engage on tough issues and where we can intellectually spar.

As a  woman of color, where my challenges and critiques are often later weaponized against me, this space felt like a breath of fresh air. I jumped in and the conversations fueled me.

In living through these tumultuous times, in both my home country and my native land, it is difficult to pull the signal from the noise. This forum dialed in on the pulse of power-building, across borders and across difference and I am increasingly reminded that this is the real energy we need to pull from as we navigate these next few years, design a long-game and build the future.

I’m grateful to have participated in a space that gave me genuine hope and also deeply challenged me to broadened my perspective. I can see and respect where the organizers took risks in their choices, trusted their participants expertise and shaped something that was provocative, inspiring and, from what I understand, only just the beginning…

Unapologetic

blackfeministandproud
I am actively limiting keyboard time since my right side is raging thanks to RSI, tendonitis and shoulder pain. I plan to resume writing actual entries with words once symptoms subside. In the meantime, enjoy excellent photos that tell stories of their own
🙂

Still.

This 30-day blogging challenge just got pretty interesting now that I worked so much last week my carpal tunnel/stress injury has roared alive. Ow, ow, ow.

Lean In: a ballet in 3 acts…

*The story below happened a few weeks ago. Re-posted from my FB because it is hella evergreen and I am doing this daily writing challenge and I wrote/lived this so it counts…

My sister’s nanny is sick. She is teaching and needs help.
Is desperate.
Calls me.
She asks “Are you #hashtag busy or ACTUALLY busy?!?!”
I’m getting some women in tech award this eve.
Was gonna go to some nerdprom stuff.
Leave tomorrow for Geneva. Have not packed.
So I’m ~kinda~ busy.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There is no child care provided at the women in tech awards thing.
(of course there is no child care…)
I vent to my childless/yolo peer group. “UGH #leanin amirite?!”
They’re like “EW KIDS. THAT IS WHAT NANNIES ARE FOR. DUH.”
One recommends I create Instacart but for babysitters…
And goes back, I presume, to Snapchatting their Tinder hookups.
Why am I throwing shade?
WHO WOULDN’T WANT INSTACART FOR TINDER HOOKUPS?!?!
My brain explodes.
Still pretty sure my generation is The Worst…
and the empathy gap for caregivers so, so vast.
a finale/

p.s still need to pack
p.p.s here is a picture of a baby deleting my code while I’m on a conference call

Question Problems

“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.”

Systems Awareness & How We Work

I not-ironically listened to this great Q&A Kanye West gave at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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.

Civic Tech & Funk Parades

“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 hear go-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”.

Place matters.

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?

Place matters.

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?

Empathy & Connection

When people you count on disappear and ghost from tough moments in life, it’s hard to take, difficult to process and it’s a pain that is completely avoidable. You don’t have words? Let’s help you find them. So this website for Empathy Cards created by brilliant cancer survivor is a INTERNET TREASURE.

“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?

Expand Yourself

“Do not shrink. Your voice matters.” 

I was in the back room at a journalism conference 6-ish years ago and Dori Maynard was giving me a pep talk. I don’t remember why but my morale was low and I felt lost (not too dissimilar from now, actually!) Dori listened before using that moment to issue a call to action for me to see that I’d start feeling less lost as soon as I got to work on making my own path. “Everything is changing, nothing is guaranteed… create, invent, show up. Do not shrink. Your voice matters.

Tonight I attended the DC memorial service for Dori and it was beautiful and sweet, painful and real. I still cannot believe she is gone because I see her everywhere: in my work, on mastheads around the world, honoring good journalism, pushing where we can do better, asking hard questions, pushing us, pushing me. Do not shrink.

“The country’s greatest achievements came about because somebody believed in something, whether it was in a steam engine, an airplane or a space shuttle. Only when we lose hope in great possibilities are we really doomed. Reversals and tough times inspire some people to work harder for what they believe in.” — Dori’s father, Robert C. Maynard wrote.

Dori was our relentless champion. Not just a champion for diversity in journalism, for media we all deserve. She saw an inclusive world most people in media could not even begin to imagine, one where diverse voices can shape our media and drive the future. At the Maynard Institute her heart and soul was committed to making this future come alive: create, invent, show up.

“She spoke truth to power even when addressing the most formidable audience. Her voice can now only be heard by those willing to carry on her work.

Geneva Overholser said tonight “Being around Dori was like being called to expand yourself.” That is the essence of Dori I always try to hold with me. I work in industries which usually render women that look like me invisible. Yet with Dori I always felt seen and that gave me faith to expand myself and work hard for a future I believe in, for a better world we all deserve. I will always, always cherish her for that. She made me brave.

Do not shrink. Your voice matters.

On being alone, together.

Sparked by inspiring friends in my writing group, I’m kicking off a 30 day blogging challenge here. This is Day 1. On y va…

I had no idea I was in such good company.

Though I don’t like this also meant I am probably not the one who felt spent, empty and exhausted.

And I have been for awhile but I finally took advice from good, caring friends and took some days off to recharge. Four days later I sit here feeling like a new woman— better, re-energized, and happier. It was such a clear, obvious fix that I also sit here wondering: what the hell took me so long?

Now I see why it was hard to recognize— this is not how I usually get exhausted. Instead of maintaining an intense international travel schedule, deploying to various disasters, visiting with field projects or speaking at conferences, I’ve been on a just-as-intense meeting grind though never really leaving DC or New York. Constantly on, with so many people, in so many meetings that I usually didn’t have a voice by the end of the week while also still working across different time zones. Not to mention managing the usual high-stress demands that comes in tow with being from a large intergenerational immigrant family. For some reason, because I wasn’t jet-lagged or decompressing from intense/sad trips, my exhaustion didn’t fully register until I was checking in with a good friend, dreading the meeting-people-packed day ahead. Empty, exhausted, out of gas it clicked.

“I am a motherfucking introvert,” I declared.

It is interesting being an outgoing person with a large personality and a genuine love of people… who also almost always would love to just to sit with those people she genuinely loves and have a quiet meal or read a book rather than hang out in a bar. I grew up in a large family, constantly surrounded by people all the time. But in that loud house full of people, I bifurcated like a boss: the unofficial kid-bossypants organizing neighborhood games but also carving out my own moments of zen constantly lost in books or exploring. Once I literally created my own reading cave in a set of bushes and was there so long, so focused on 1001 Arabian Nights and tuned out to world around me that there was a full-out search party organized.

This is all to say, I present to the world as an extrovert but I am a motherfucking introvert.

And was totally in denial about that for a long time.

I was in denial each time I tried to sit in bars reading a book and get ridiculously annoyed when someone inevitably tries to ask me about what I was reading.

Finally conceding that night on the phone with my friend spent and empty: I am a motherfucking introvert.

Later I tweeted/FB this joke:

And was genuinely surprised how much it resonated with my friends on FB who had excellent suggestions for introvert-friendly social spots. I didn’t realize I had so many introvert friends, that so many other public-facing leaders also crave quiet and that they hand intel on so many A+ spots… hold outs!

“Wow. I’m really not alone in this…” I thought to myself. “Well I am alone… but so very not.”

That night on the phone with my friend, we talked through what I could do to refill my energy well. Listening and acting on that counsel was such a tremendous gift for myself. I’ve always been proud to be someone who derives strength from solitude and perfectly happy being alone with myself — when did I accept army crawling on empty the only option rather than a call to create the space I need to thrive?

The core of this tale is quite basic: Area Woman Takes Break, Feels Better. But for a post about solitude the essence of the outcome is even more awesome: giving space to discover more about ourselves and sharing what we need to show up as our best self can create a stronger connection with others. We can get even better at being alone, together and it will make us closer friends, stronger leaders and happier people.

“Have your own revelations… we can all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.” – Susan Cain


What magical things did I do on this tiny break?

Nothing spectacular: read, sit in quiet, exercise, write. Alone.

And it was motherfucking glorious.