New Chapters, New Beginnings

Two months ago I defended my dissertation. Two months ago I finished teaching. Two months ago I graduated. Two months ago I closed a seven-years-long chapter.

Today there is a haze hanging over Seattle, as wildfire smoke blows South from British Columbia. Today the Blue Angels disrupt our skies and demand we acknowledge militarism. Today I am hiding from the heat in my basement apartment and making sure my pet doesn’t overheat.

Next week, I begin a new chapter. I am trusting my gut – leaving academia to find work that better aligns with my skills and passions. I am a people person, a connector. I am a writer and an educator. I am a convener and an event planner. I am passionate about making philanthropy more equitable, passionate about learning how places impact the work we do, passionate about critical thinking and inquiry.

I’m joining the team at Philanthropy Northwest to make philanthropy more equitable, effective and responsive across the Northwest. We support a huge range of members: from tiny grassroots community foundations to large corporate philanthropies. From family foundations to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I will be network mapping and weaving all of these organizations, figuring out synergies and overlaps, shared values and interests. I will be listening and learning, facilitating and collaborating. I will be wearing many hats: something I love. And, I will be working at an organization led by women of color, that is paying a living wage, where I can be independent but not my own boss.


A few years ago, I identified that place was more important to me than career. I chose not to pursue an academic career, at least not at the expense of uprooting and moving. I dug into the process of graduate school instead of the outcomes. And it has paid off: I have landed in a position that feels like a perfect fit of my skills: relationship building, education, program management, facilitation, event planning… I am thrilled.

Here is to the 9-5. To having a boss. To set schedules and flex time when needed. To routine and no more grading papers. To publishing if I want to, rather than because my career depends on it. To new institutional norms and navigations. To colleagues and health care benefits. To an easy commute. To learning a TON and diving into something new. To making impact and connecting to purpose. Here we go!

poetry for a broken day

is this what it feels like to lose my self?

pinpricks deep in my shoulder, under the fascia and tendons, squirming and unsettled. frenzied scanning of social media, to see who sees
our collective humanity being chiseled away.

your food porn and vacation photos and sports posts are a punch to the gut right now.

because, this world where life is taken because of waking up black and brown in a state founded on violence against blackness and brownness.

what does it feel like?


where do i make room for grief and anger when my heart and body are already violated, traumatized? and i
know that my people were destroyed, too, elsewhere.
and i
know that this is the work of solidarity.
and i
know, deeply, that today i inhabit the world mostly safe
but i
also know that i’ve been violated. and that my heart is saturated with that. with that grief and pain and healing and overwhelm.
and it is more than guilt. it is not knowing where to put this pain, and not knowing so much that in fact i don’t even feel it, because there’s no room, and so i feel numb, and say, ‘not again’, and go to a march and stand there and feel my gut clench and my insides tingle and my nerves on edge and my heart aches but i cannot give that ache a name because
i don’t know where to house it.


it’s that instant before i see my pet take a dump in the middle of the carpet, and i yell out, ‘no, you little shit! don’t do it!’, and they do it, and i’m left
cleaning up a pile of turds, in the middle of my home and sanctuary

or before i get hit by that car, and my body knows what is happening and i feel powerless against the impact about to
impale me

or on the bus, when that man raises his voice and i await the outburst,
and try to make myself small so that
no one would notice
and i might escape unscathed


‘this is why the work matters’
‘this is why we do what we do’
‘we’re all trying to do the best we can’
‘it’s too overwhelming’
‘i need to take care of myself’
‘we need to do something’
‘self care is a radical act’
‘don’t hide behind your privilege’


today I opened a document
and looked at it and then
opened 3 other documents and then I
thought about writing some words on that
document but instead I
opened up other apps and pages and websites and feeds
and scrolled and scrolled and then
sent a bunch of messages and made a bunch of plans and
read and
consumed and consumed and consumed other people’s feelings and their
and then I opened up this document and wrote these words.



Momentum, Writing and State Change

This is a common feeling for graduate students:

We don’t know quite how to do what we know we’re supposed to do, or we fear we can’t do it ‘well enough’, and so we end up doing nothing much at all. Sure, we write here and there, we are making ‘progress’. But we fall far short of the potential of which we (and our advisors) know we are capable.

I read recently a great piece in Inside Higher Ed about why graduate students have such a hard time writing their dissertations. It boiled down to this:
1) we don’t know what we’re supposed to actually be producing (i.e. the form)
2) we are paralyzed by perfectionism (i.e. the practice)
3) we don’t have the support we need and end up berating ourselves for numbers 1 and 2… (i.e. the community)

Thanks to my advisor and the support of my PAGE network, I actually think a lot about (#1). I have read other people’s dissertations, have explored non-conventional dissertations, and have a clear sketch of the form I want my dissertation to have, when complete. The form is there, and I seemingly know what I need to do to get there. However, what I have learned is that the process by which my advisor and other graduate students have told me in order to produce that form does not really work for me. I’ve adapted to false starts, feelings of failure, and doubting my entire project, all because I hadn’t yet found the process that worked for me in producing the form. Over the last few months, I’ve started piecing together the right process for me.

Through the same avenues, I feel surprisingly supported in this work. My advisor is (amazingly) approachable, reminding me not to be ‘oppressed by my data’. Similarly, I have many graduate student peers in and outside of my department, within UW and beyond, to whom I can reach out to for help. And when it comes to sharing stories about projects and unhelpful work habits, my non-academic friends are also an incredible resource. I have also sought out enough personal resources to recognize and name many of my habits, but this sometimes isn’t enough.

At the end of the day, all of this support, training and awareness of form is quite useless if the practice isn’t there. The Inside Higher Ed article points out that writing comes from practice. 30 minutes a day, sit yourself down in the chair and write. At the bare minimum. Do this.

Well, sure. Sounds easy enough.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about all that we do to get ourselves primed, or poorly primed, for that ‘sit down and write’ moment.

How many other thoughts do I have in my brain? Am I cycling through my to-do list? Does my brain even know how to prioritize what comes of higher importance? I may *think* I am working productively when I sit down to work, but am I actually?

One of my academic mentors shared with me her writing habits. On days she’s not teaching first, she carves out her mornings, doesn’t check email, sits down with a strong cup of coffee, and writes for 4 hours. End of story.

I know that such a habit wouldn’t quite work for me (I need to start my morning with stretching and physical therapy, or else my whole day will be shot and I’ll be in pain and unable to focus…)

But this practice, of knowing what works, is something all of us graduate students could be better at. Priming ourselves to work might be mockingly be called a ‘life hack’, but I tend to think of it this way: if I’m choosing to commit myself to a project (in this case, finishing my dissertation), why wouldn’t I want to show up 100% each time I want to make progress?) How can I change my state so that I’m most ready to work?

What follows are some simple questions:
1) What are my actual goals (big picture, with the diss, today, this hour…)
2) What patterns usually sabotage me in meeting these goals?
3) What can I do to optimize the time I’m going to spend meeting these goals?

A dear friend of mine shared his ‘priming’ exercises, which involved breath exercises, music, and a cold shower. I’m not sure those specific ones will be what I choose, but I love this notion. If something feels worth doing, if it aligns with my values, and I know it will help me achieve a goal (in this case, finishing my dissertation in the ambitious timeline I have set, with energy to still live a full, healthy and curious life among my community), then ‘priming’ is not just a necessary thing. I actually owe it to myself to set myself up for a strong writing practice.

So, in broad daylight, to be accountable to this space, I’m committing to learning what priming exercises work for me, and developing a more consistent and efficient writing practice. I owe it to the work, and I owe it to myself.

One Year Later

(Please note: this was originally written on Monday, August 10th, 2015. Revised and posted after that fact.)


It is now one year and one day from the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

It has been one year since #blacklivesmatter became a familiar hashtag, a rallying cry, and a flashpoint within White communities. Since conversations about White Supremacy became commonplace on my social media feeds.

One year ago this time I had just returned from Doe Bay Fest, a dreamy magical music festival on Orcas Island. I was surrounded by (mostly) other White people, on a 3 day escape from reality to the pristine island life, with secret concerts by campfire and a midnight show under an auspicious apple tree.

Today, I am also on a dreamy island in Washington. I’m writing from the desk of a new friend and potential mentor. She is a leader within Native Americans in Philanthropy, has the most bountiful garden I have seen in quite some time,  and is extremely generous to let me write and retreat to her home while her family is away.

And so here I am, one year later. Again, on an island, away from my day to day life and tendencies. The mere fact that I can reflect, retreat, escape to these dreamy islands is a neat metaphor of what Whiteness provides me: I can pursue these multiple opportunities specifically designed for ‘me’.  Opportunities to get in a car, hop on a ferry, escape the buzz and whir of modern life. To just be around other (White) humans and to slow down for a while. To not fear for my safety and security because my body or gender identity marks me as Other to the White majority that lives on islands here. That I get to take time to work, write, think, and process. That I choose the comfort of an island retreat rather than stay in Seattle and march alongside #blacklivesmatter protestors marking the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. And, while self-care is a necessary tactic for any activism and movement work, the mode and opportunity for my self-care is scripted into my Whiteness. It is part and parcel of my identity as a liberal White woman in the northwest: seek retreat, enjoy festivals, get away on the weekend, turn off the phone. Unplug.

Ah, to unplug. What a luxury to get to choose to disconnect from the frenzy of social media and email. Earlier this year, Sarah Kendzior wrote about how many of the protestors on the ground in Ferguson are living in such dire poverty that they’re having to choose between food, housing or their cell phone bills. These same cell phones that keep them plugged into Twitter, into the movement alerts and text messages. Into the videos and Vines.

So, here I am. Unplugged for the most part. Except that there’s this thing that happened here, in Seattle, on Saturday. It involved Bernie Sanders. You might have heard about it.

For full disclosure, Bernie Sanders is my frontrunner for presidential nominee right now. I agree with his economic policy, and despite my loathsome feelings about economics in general, I think that addressing the racial wealth gap in our country is going to be one of the most impactful ways to mitigate inequality and White supremacy.

My good friend Jamie Utt at Change from Within wrote a stellar piece reflecting on the Bernie in Seattle direct action, and he’s summarized it better than I could. Tim Harris, the director of Real Change News, also had this to say, and Washington’s only senator of color, Pramila Jayapal, wrote a poignant guest editorial in The Stranger.

However, to summarize my stance on this, because I can’t rely on everyone to go read Jamie (though really, you should!)…


I wonder, who gets to sanction or condone appropriate protest actions? What gives me (as a White person), the right to say whether or not these women did the ‘right thing’? Do I have crowds of people policing my Twitter posts? (luckily, trolls have not found me yet… though that is not the case for many other badass feminist bloggers.)

It is not up to me or other White liberals to deem the ‘appropriateness’ of Black action. To think that Black folks need to ask for permission for their tactics is precisely the tools of White supremacy that Martin Luther King Jr. feared.

To believe in self-determination and sovereignty means trusting communities most impacted by poverty, violence, police brutality, etc to choose their tactics and build their own movements. The Black women who are leading the way in Seattle need not ask for permission from the White ‘progressives’.

To watch the footage from this event makes my stomach churn. Here are two women, asserting their Black female bodies into an extremely White space, and they are jeered, booed, told to get off the stage, and at one point someone yells that “how dare she call me a racist?!”. These are not micro-aggressions: this is aggression, plain and simple. I shudder to think about the courage it took to stand among that crowd, to assert their own humanity and the humanity of Black folks everywhere, and to be told to shut up. I send these woman so much healing energy right now.


And yet. I took the ferry to the island when the protest had just ended. I didn’t know what had yet happened, but I was surrounded by aging White Bernie supporters. I thought, “how sweet! All these islanders trudging to Westlake to see their guy.” One man stood out in particular. He had walked onto the ferry, and he had a little Bernie pin on the lapel of his hiking vest. He looked a bit forlorn and lonely, and when the rain started sprinkling as we touched based at the ferry dock, I felt a pang for him.

So when I heard about the rally, and the powerful Action by these two Black women, I thought of this man. About how even as I say, “Yes, I hear you and I trust you to choose your own tactics” to the women of #blacklivesmatter, I also hold empathy for individuals who are just trying to have a day. To make their own sacrifices of time and energy to invest some hope in a political system that is inarguably failing the vast majority of Americans. To do the important work of supporting Medicare, Social Security and the rest of the social safety net that many Republicans seem hell-bent on destroying.

This tension – between wanting to validate and accept the actions and movements of communities of color, of willingly de-centering Whiteness and White spaces (as uncomfortable as it may be!), and also holding empathy for the fact that most individuals are just trying to do their best and live their lives and get through the day with some peace and clarity – this tension is what gets me. I haven’t resolved it yet, except to say that my one fear about the Action at Westlake has nothing to do with the Black women involved. It has everything to do with the alienation and defensiveness that White folks are going to feel and act on. This is White fragility. And it is, I think, our biggest hurdle to overcome as anti-racist White folks working within White communities.

I am reminded of a quote I heard, that “Black Lives Matter is a White people problem.” It is. It is our responsibility as White people to shut up, tuck away our discomfort, and listen when Black women take the stage. It is our work to not get so defensive. There will be other chances to hear Bernie. Because, of course, the political system is designed for us. We do not have to carve out space for our bodies, our voices. White supremacy hands us a free pass to such events as these.

So I ask my White liberal friends: take a minute and pause. What triggers the defensiveness about this Action? Does this bring up some fears? If so, what? Notice them, acknowledge them. Thank them for making themselves heard. And then just please be quiet and allow Black, brown, disabled, poor, queer, trans, and Native voices to be heard. Please just take a step back and allow your fears to exist without them taking control of your actions. Because, at the end of the day, whatever fears and discomforts you have in this moment do not, cannot compare to the fear of violence, police brutality, harassment, aggression, hate and death that Black women in our country face on the daily.

I Know Smart Humans. Here’s some of their recommended reads for curious young people*.

*This list is obviously relevant for anyone curious about the world, but was compiled as a final parting list to a very curious and engaged group of 14 year olds that I taught in the summer of 2015. The section headings correspond to how the course was designed thematically as well.

Human Geography

Suggested Books

Economy zombie
Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen
The World Without Us – Alan Weisman
Disassembly Required – Geoff Mann
Freakonomics – Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us -John Quiggen
The Ascent of Money – Niall Ferguson
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World: William Bernstein
The Shock Doctrine + No Logo – Naomi Klein
Nickel and Dimed – Barbara Ehrenreich
A Brief History of Neoliberalism – David Harvey

Agriculture/Environment omnivore
The Omnivore’s Dilemma + The Botany of Desire – Michael Pollan
The Conundrum – David Own
Ecological Imperialism – Alfred Crosby
Salt: A World History – Mark Kurlansky
Fresh: A Perishable History – Susanne Freidberg Oak: The Frame of Civilization – William Bryant Logan

Open Veins of Latin America – Eduardo Galeano
Life and Death of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobslatin america
Planet of Slums – Mike Davis
Something New Under the Sun – John McNeil
Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West – William Cronon
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World – Stephen Johnson
Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago – Eric Klinenberg
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City – Russell Shorto

Lies My Teacher Told Me – James Loewen
1491 and 1493 – Charless Mann
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England – Carol Karlsen
A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn (with the caveat that it is not well cited and should be read with other perspectives)


Culture and Society
Outliers: The Story of feminism_is_for_everybody_bell_hooksSuccess– Malcolm Gladwell
The Culture of Make Believe – Derrick Jensen
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology – David Graeber
The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki
The Spell of the Sensuous  David Abrams
Feminism is for Everybody – bell hooks
The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander


The Phantom Tollbooth
– Norton Juster
The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid
American Born Chinese – Gene Luen YangThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie 

Have more suggestions for systems thinking + critical thinking books? Leave them in a comment below!

Abundance versus Scarcity

The last month of my professional, community and personal life has felt downright bursting. Abundant. Overflowing. Exhaustingly full.

I have tended towards moments of feeling like I just don’t have enough time or resources for all of it. That I will never be able to fit in all of the growth, the newness. Of course, all of this is transitory and impermanent, particularly because anything new eventually becomes, well, familiar.

Take, for instance, the latest news that I will be joining the UW Bothell faculty next year as a Project for Interdisciplinary Pedagogy Fellow, meaning I get to teach my own class each quarter. This news feels huge, expansive, validating, and also daunting. I immediately bottled it up and held the stress of anticipation in my back and shoulders.

Or that I just began the interview phase for my dissertation research – the first part where it all “feels real”, and I am also confounded with a supreme feeling of lack of time to process what is happening and to get my head around the project. I only have one shot for an interview with many individuals, and I don’t want to, well, blow it. Imposter syndrome is rearing its head here.

Or the news that I was awarded funding from The Pollination Project for a new project called The Justice Lab – a pilot for a year long salon series for critical thinking and dialogue. I wish I could make this my full time job right now, because it feels so nourishing and true to my talents and skills. I am feeling a scarcity of resources to devote to this.

Or, of the great satisfaction of finishing up the Economic Justice Giving Project with Social Justice Fund NW, in which we raised over $106,000, and gave out 10 grants of $9,600 to economic justice organizing groups across the Northwest. With 45 individual donors, I had the most widespread network. At times, this felt completely overwhelming – the hours spent on email, on the phone, keeping track of asks and gifts and thank you notes…

Undergirding all of this has been the joy and exploration of a new and budding relationship, full of new scenarios and opportunities for growth. Plus, continued health and wellness attention through acupuncture and hypnosis, and starting to gain more awareness around the different ‘parts’ of my self that compete for attention and decision making power.

It has been easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. Scarce. Depleted.

But I’ve been trying to switch gears and adopt an abundance framework instead of a scarcity mentality.
An abundance framework reminds me of me many tools with which to navigate a new relationship, the expansiveness of time, and the abundant capacity to love. It reminds me that the injuries I face are just temporary, and part of a longer journey towards wellness. It helps me reframe the ‘parts’ that have often held me back as all part of a larger self who is learning to coalesce as a discerning, authentic, driven and open change-maker in the world.

Professionally, abundance means that there’s no rush for all of the projects. It means that hours spent fundraising were not about lost time doing other things, but about the time invested in relationships and in activism. The feeling of limited time for interviews or reflection lends itself more for gratitude for how many interviews I’ve been able to secure already, and to the open ended nature of my research. It means that rather than stuck in a land of imposter syndrome, that I am standing on the steps of a new chapter of my life, new skills, and that the only direction I can go is up (even if it means skipping, walking laterally, or tripping and falling on my face a few times).

There is no rush. The projects will come in time, the love will grow, the friends will be there… unless, that is, they won’t. And that is ok, too. Abundance means that if we lose the things we take for granted and assume have permanence, that we will be ok. There will be a vast abundance of other experiences, people, resilience, opportunities to surround our worlds.


Intolerant Liberalism and Progressive Intolerance


This summer I had the privilege of co-directing a summer study abroad program with University of Washington honors students. The comparative program (between Seattle and Amsterdam), explored concepts of urban social control. Through field-based research, the students covered themes such as policing, parenting, sex work, drug policies, homelessness, social welfare programs, public space, immigration, gentrification, transportation and gender.

In the course of our few months of study together, a few things revealed themselves.
1) Students born and raised in the Seattle region, to liberal families, tend to exhibit a particularly potent brand of what I’ve come to call ‘intolerant liberalism’. These students claim a very left-liberal politics, and are quite intolerant of anyone who either a) doesn’t agree with your views, or b) questions that which you take to be obvious and true. I will present an anecdote that illustrates this later on.
2) As it was presented to us by native Amsterdammers, it seems that the Dutch polity, and particularly mainstream politicians, lean towards an ideology of ‘progressive intolerance’. That is, shunning cultural or ethnic groups who do not subscribe to the mainstream progressive Dutch platform. Example to be presented below.

Though similar in character, these two tendencies have some important differences. This is where anecdotes will help illustrate my point.

It was the Fourth of July. We celebrated on the rooftop of our student housing. Many of my students had gone to Berlin or Paris for the long weekend. Those of us who stayed organized a small potluck party to celebrate and be as patriotic as we could muster (*this, before the crazy sh*t-storm of geopolitical and racial politics exploded in late July and August). We were grilling sausages and corn, drinking Dutch beer, and lighting sparklers. I had brought a friend to dinner with me. A fellow American, new to Amsterdam as well, who had a path much like mine: raised in a liberal and accepting family, went to a very liberal liberal-arts college, went on to a PhD. However, my PhD work is in the progressive city of Seattle. Theirs was in a Southern city, not known for anything remotely like liberalism.

This friend, a Scientist by trade and hobby, trusts data and facts, and searches for rational explanations as to Why Things Are the Way They Are. They also appreciate pushing people’s buttons, and not accepting a popular (read: progressive) answer just because it is what we are supposed to say in Conversations about Race, Class or Gender. While this trait initially threw me off, I grew to appreciate it, because it made me validate my claims and think about my own epistemological assumptions about race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality.

However, my 19 and 20 year old, Seattle born and raised, proud feminist and sex worker advocate students, were having none of it. In response to my friend’s part-facetious, part-genuine commentary and questions, their faces actually contorted in disgust. That someone might have questions as to why most crimes are committed by black people (which, for important analyses of such debates, in light of #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown, see this piece, this essay, and this Huffington Post piece which is chock full of infographics, especially this one), was in and of itself, an affront to their liberal sensibilities. That not everyone adopted their politically correct and progressive world view of structural racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity was incomprehensible. More than that, it was unacceptable. Where there could have been dialogue, instead I saw disgust.

Luckily for us, my friend and I laughed this encounter off, seeing versions of our younger selves in these students. Luckily, a few of my students, more willing to ‘play’, engaged and offered incredibly articulate, if not a bit exasperated, explanations. We continued to eat and drink and laugh. The night ended well.

Read any lay account of Dutch history, and you will likely hear a similar refrain: the country has been known for its tolerance for centuries, in large part because peoples’ relationship to water forced folks to work together for the greater good, and overlook inter-personal differences. Through the canal system, polders, and agriculture, the Dutch have seemingly been tolerating their neighbors eccentricities and opinions since the 1600s.

This ideology of tolerance, which is deeply sewn into the narrative of Dutch life, informs many of the liberal policies for which the country is known: legalized prostitution, legalized euthanasia, decriminalized drug use, equal rights for LGBT folks, and, in theory, a secular state that is open to religious beliefs.

And yet, when I asked individual Dutch people whether the Dutch were tolerant, many responded that, “tolerant? maybe. but really, it’s just that we’re very pragmatic.” The legalization issue is a practical one: it is cheaper and easier to regulate than to criminalize. Prostitution? People have been selling sex for centuries. We might as well make a profit on it, and regulate it for safety’s sake. Euthanasia? Why not. Who are we to spend extra money keeping someone alive who is terminally ill and has expressed a conscious desire to end their life? Finally, gay marriage? Sure! Why would the state say who can and cannot marry?

Ah, but this issue of gay rights abuts the myth of religious tolerance. In a country that preaches liberalism, that has many of the most progressive policies in the Western world, the largest growing political party (the PVV), leverages gay rights as a weapon against Islamic faith and Muslim immigrants. These politicians argue that Muslims, in their admonition of homosexuality (as if all Muslims share the exact same beliefs!), do not fit the mold of Dutch tolerance.

Thus, we see the Dutch, rather than hold tolerance as a universal value, adopt anti-Islamic rhetoric, couched in language about the ideology of tolerance, in the name of, ironically, being more tolerant towards gays and lesbians.

Both of these tendencies are dangerous, but they operate at different scales. Intolerant liberalism operates at the scale of the individual: creating distance, inviting shame, and eroding trust. The intolerant liberal says, “I am right, and you are wrong, and if you do not believe what I believe, you aren’t worthy.” Is this an action that produces dialogue? Of course not. It is alienating, and were it not for the good humor of my friend and I, could have potentially led to embarrassment, shame, and future silences.

Progressive intolerance occupies the scale of the nation, the state, and the polity. It produces fractures amongst residents, erodes trust in those that are different, and simplifies complex issues into soundbites. It relies on an assumption of a shared history, in which Tolerance is an unfractured, secure whole. And in this simplification, in its becoming common sense, it becomes nearly impossible to name: for every argument against the xenophobic and racist political platform of the PVV, there are endless documents, police reports and media coverage about Muslim hate crimes against gays, the threat of Islam on Dutch culture, and Turkish and Moroccan violence and petty crime. The fear produced from social inequalities, economic insecurity, and shifting geopolitical power  finds scapegoats in these simplified narratives that position the Other as Threat, reifying the tolerant and progressive Dutchman as normative, acceptable and safe. (More here on Orientalism and Islamophobia).

At the risk of over-generalizing, let me be clear that I do not think all Seattle-ites nor all Dutch people fall into these categories. But I see both of these tendencies to be incredibly dangerous, and to stand as obstacles to true liberty or justice. Couched in rhetoric about the “right” way to be, both serve to alienate and distance those who might otherwise share common interests. Regardless of whether we live or have lived in either of these places, we should consider our own tendency to assume a “correct” approach to politics or policies. Does fear inform these beliefs? How might we change a stance, or challenge that of the politicians who represent us, if we lead with empathy and curiosity instead? There is no “right” way to be liberal or progressive, but there are many ways to produce pain and distance in the name of being “right”.

Giving failure a high five

“Oh, hi, Failure! Did you change your hair? A new outfit? I almost didn’t recognize you!”

I thought I’d gotten to know failure pretty well, after spending the better part of the last year learning that anticipated outcomes are guaranteed to change. I worked to recognize that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and realized that it is better to succeed at failing than failing to succeed. I had gotten an ‘A’ in the art of failure.

Or so I thought.

Despite trying to bring the message of failing forward to my graduate community, of discussing radical vulnerability as a vital element of collaboration and research praxis, of learning that my self worth is not tied to outcomes, of embracing that failure is an inherent (and welcome!) part of the graduate school experience (if we adjust our expectations to welcome it!)… amidst all of these exercises and conversations, these adventures into the art of failing gracefully, I had forgotten how to recognize and embrace failure in other parts of my life.

Higher education, and graduate education in particular, systematically mark failure as negative. With limited contact with faculty advisers, we often only hear feedback if we’ve done something exceedingly well (i.e. validating our self-worth with positive outcomes), or if we’ve done something exceedingly wrong (i.e. doubting self-worth and belongingness in our departments/fields/careers because of negative outcomes). This extends further into how we educate our undergraduate students. As a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, the bias against failure is deeply engrained into how we evaluate students, how we structure assignments, and how we discuss the learning process.

This fall, I set out to unlearn my negativity bias towards failure in the academy. It meant letting go of seeing a tenure track job as the only sign of success. It meant learning how I assess success on my own terms. It meant recognizing that there would be (and have been, and will continue to be) roadblocks along the way that trip me up, make me stumble, where I don’t always ‘get an A’. I was definitely learning to fail at being an all-star academic; I was learning to fail at being an ever-present member of my graduate community; I was learning to fail at identifying and articulating my own needs, especially to an audience that isn’t primed to hear that kind of language.

Given how deeply this failure-bias pervades higher ed, there were many opportunities to practice throughout the last year… Didn’t get accepted to teach the new class on Nonprofits that I spent 2 weeks developing with all of my heart and soul? Not a problem: I get to choose how I respond to such changes in my expectations! Fantastically gaffing up the AAG presentation this year because of technological woes? What an opportunity to recognize that my self-worth isn’t tied to the outcomes of how well technology operates in a session that bears my name! Forgetting everything about everyone I’ve ever read in geography during my Generals defense? Fantastic! What a way to recognize the humor and humility and imperfection that comes with new experiences.

All of this is to say, it is no wonder that I’ve come to view failure through a pretty narrow lens. And, along the way, I’ve forgotten how to identify (and embrace) opportunities for failure in other parts of my life.

I read a lot of food blogs, I live in an incredibly fit and healthy city, I eat on a mostly Paleo/Primal template because it has proven to be what makes my body and mind feel best, I am surrounded by a group of highly entrepreneurial friends, I have a large, dynamic network of absolutely incredible women in my life (near and far), and I am a graduate student in one of the strongest geography departments in the country, under two of the most brilliant women I’ll ever have the pleasure to know (this sounds hyperbolic, but I guarantee, it is not).

Who am I kidding? Against this backdrop, of course I am setting myself up for failure! Because I have created a landscape of unreasonable expectations based on amalgamations and abstractions of many individuals into an unrealistic whole. Even though I know, empathically, that all of the individuals in each of these realms has their own struggles, imperfections and shame tapes, I’ve still developed my metrics for success against a set of unrealistic paradigms. It is patently false that every person in Seattle runs every day, that those Paleo food bloggers never have cupcakes, that every other grad student knows how to write grant proposals, that all of my friends have amazing partners, or that I am the only kid on the block not brewing my own kombucha.

So, with this realization, I’m going to try to give failure a high five. I’ll say, “of course I’ll have a cupcake, because it’s Kori’s birthday! ” I say, “no, I will not run today, because it literally just rained 2 inches in 36 hours, and y’all are crazy”, and I will say, “I actually have no idea how I’m going to fund my dissertation work, but thanks to my entrepreneurial friends, I’m starting to figure it out!” Failure, in all parts of life, not just graduate school, is par for the course.

I won’t stop giving my soapbox pitch for embracing failure within the academy. This feels more important to me ever, as we lose too many bright and amazing graduate students who see their dis-ease with the academy as a sign of failure, and thus, as a sign that they should leave. That said, now that I’ve spent a solid amount of time learning how to fail at grad school, I think it’s time I learn and embrace failure in the other parts of my life. Not as a sign of weakness or a problem, but as an inevitable step in learning to be a more wholehearted, vulnerable and connected individual. Failure means I’m trying new things. It means I’m learning, and it means that I’m imperfect and human.

A narrative of engagement

*The following is the text + images I shared during a session on Publicly Engaged Critical Geographies at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, FL**

Today I’m going to share a bit of a long form personal narrative, and explore my path towards engaged scholarship. I’ll reflect a bit on what the concept of ‘engagement’ means to me in my own work, how a practice of personal engagement allowed me to be attentive and honest to my intellectual energy, and where I see this engagement leading me in my dissertation research.

So, I come to my understanding and practice of ‘engaged scholarship’ through multiple perspectives: as a student in the Geography department at UW, as a participant in the Certificate in Public Scholarship through the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, as a Publicly Engaged Graduate Fellow through Imagining America, and, finally, as a long standing (and often uncomfortable) participant in the nonprofit industrial complex, as it has come to be known in critical circles.

Each perspective listed above operates in different spaces, and with different people, values and expectations (for instance, even within the University of Washington, the language and standards used in Geography are quite foreign to those in the Humanities Center). In addition, each of my involvements produce their own institutional affiliations and histories, whether that be a history of the quantitative revolution at UW Geography, or histories of contentious politics with some of my nonprofit partners. And, while time prevents me from elaborating deeply on this train of thought here, I need to acknowledge that these institutional affiliations are part of my intersectional identity. Thus, in addition to reflecting on power dynamics, positionality, shared risk, intellectual curiosity, ethics, and rigor, institutional affiliation also informs how I understand, and practice ‘engaged scholarship’.

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So, with all of these affiliations and influences in mind, I understand engaged scholarship as the practice of “scholarship in action”, as described by Syracuse University’s former chancellor Nancy Cantor. It is an active scholarship: one that is not content to delve into esoteric knowledge production for knowledge’s sake (though that’s a valid cause in its own right). Active scholarship is one that is working towards social justice goals; one that requires us to have ‘skin in the game’ and shared risks; one that asks us to stay attentive and, well, engaged.

This is all well and good on paper. But I’ve often found myself losing sight of what ‘engagement’ means in practice. When this happens, I think about my favorite pastime, one which has also informed much of my activism in Seattle: cooking and sharing meals. How do I know if I’m ‘engaged’ in this work? I am highly attentive to the needs and interests of the people around me. I am willing to put my own agenda aside and hold space with my guests. I am intimately interested in what people have to share and how they feel during and after a meal. I know I am not engaged when my mind wanders, when I run through my to-do lists, when I think about what is going wrong instead of attending to the energy that is emerging.

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Eat for Equity Seattle, a local chapter of a nation-wide organization that I help co-organize, brings people together around community feasts for the greater good. Through a shared meal, we build community and raise awareness of a range of nonprofits that our guests support. Most importantly, to me, is that we bring people together to “come as you are, give as you can” –  thereby challenging the assumption that giving happens by wealthy people in elite spaces, like galas, auctions and the like.

While Eat for Equity is not scholarly in nature, the work has been absolutely central to my own personal engagement, and thus, towards my engaged scholarship. I have worked with Eat for Equity for 2 years. At some point during my work with this group, I became interested in broader questions about giving: what brings people to the table? How do we convey that anyone can ‘give’, whether that’s time, money, ideas, skills, energy? How can we show that we already live in a caring and gift economy, and that we could see this better if we expanded the lens with which we see the world? More personally, how could I do more to advance social justice through my own ability to give in multiple and creative ways?

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This series of questions came into clearer focus for me this past fall, which coincided with the beginning of my PAGE fellowship. In October, I met my fellow PAGErs at the Imagining America conference. I was blown away: here were graduate students who were curating museum exhibits, organizing rural workers, building video games with high schoolers, creating and editing open source journals, making art, writing their own blogs, and pursuing many non-academic ‘side projects’, including, a sustainable vest company called Ishi Vest, that I must plug, because they are charming, beautiful, and run my dear friend Harishi in Chicago.

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After only 4 hours of knowing these folks, I felt a deeper sense of home than I have ever felt in my own geography department.  This interdisciplinary group of grad students came from multiple institutions. Through the course of our meeting, it became clear that our unifying fiber was that all of the PAGE fellows were “project people” – never satisfied with one project, one interest, or one field. We were engaged in an array of spaces, with diverse stakeholders and multiple audiences. And we recognized that our own identities were fluid, shifting depending on which space and which audience with whom we engaged. I came home from this meeting absolutely buzzing, and wrote a blog post called “We Are Project People” that tried to capture the spirit an energy of our group.

Two days after that conference, I met with the program director of Social Justice Fund, a social justice philanthropic foundation based in Seattle. I had scheduled this meeting weeks prior, interested to learn more in how I could be involved in a ‘giving project’; many people who knew me in Seattle suggested I get involved as an extension of my interests in eat for equity, in giving, and in social justice more broadly. But this involvement was just going to be another ‘thing’ I did. Just another group to know and work with.

Meeting the PAGE Fellows encouraged me to see my interest in practices of giving differently. Up to that point, I’d sidelined this as an “extra-curricular interest”. Eat for Equity was just a fun thing I did on the side. Social justice fund was just going to be another community connection I fostered. My real project was going to be a critique of youth empowerment programs. And I thought I might be able to involve Social Justice Fund academically through the Practicum component of the Public Scholarship Certificate.

I think back to the anecdote I shared about having a meal together, and whether or not I could identify feelings of engagement. I wasn’t necessarily able to recognize that questions of giving were the thing that was capturing my attention and engaging me. But I was certainly beginning to see that questions of youth empowerment were not engaging me. I was apathetic, passive and lacked investment in the intellectual and political stakes of that project.

In fact, it was not long after I started recognizing my own disengagement that I had a powerful conversation with Ben, here. I told him about my excitement about SJF, and how I was thinking about partnering with them as a side project for my Practicum. He looked at me, quizzically, and said, “That sounds like a dissertation…”

So. I sat with that. I thought about the energy that the PAGErs brought to their projects, and the rich engagement that fueled their intellectual and personal lives. And I started to re-evaluate and take greater notice of my own excitement about these questions of giving, social justice, politics, donor-activism – more broadly, just questions of how, why and where people give. I started to take these questions seriously. I started to realize that my own lived experiences, the ones which I had heretofore thought of as “side projects” were the threads and fibers weaving together to inform my landscape of scholarship. These were it turns out, inseparable.

Now, as I start to shape my dissertation project, I look more intentionally to these lived experiences, community engagements, and scholastic projects as a larger tapestry of publicly engaged work. I share a few of these experiences here.

There is my involvement with the Mapping Youth Journeys program, a multi-year participatory mapping project with middle school students in Seattle. Through a cultural history mapping curriculum, I was part of a team that sought to understand how mapping shaped students’ civic engagement. Importantly, this work showed us how iterative the learning process was: the students’ insights shaped the direction of the research, they showed us that they were not ‘civic actors in waiting’, but that they already held a great deal of cultural wealth and civic knowledge. The mapping component allowed them to connect the dots of their situated knowledge in new ways, but they were, themselves, publicly engaged individuals who were able to express their knowledge in digital and non-digital ways. This project demonstrated how to take non-expert knowledges seriously, and to be open, attentive, and engaged to findings that we did not expect.

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There is my vast participation with nonprofit organizations, as a staff person, a volunteer, a scholar and a mentor. One that I’ll draw on here, is my Master’s work with a Seattle based nonprofit, but I cannot say it was entirely engaged. Through that project, I realized that self-reflexivity does not equal engagement. I was intimately aware and involved in a reflexive practice, but I never felt engaged in the way that felt open and invested. I didn’t have much at risk. I was an observer, a critic. A participant, yes, but with not much skin in the game. My presence was not missed when I was gone, and my contributions did not make many ripples.

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There is my current involvement with the Relational Poverty Network, a growing network of scholars, community members, students, researchers and activists connecting people and ideas to challenge poverty and inequality. As a member of the Network, and mostly as a research assistant, I am not involved in a ‘research project’ per se, but I am engaged in thinking deeply about what the Network can do, how it connects to multiple audiences, how its work can engage policy makers, how we can be vulnerable and share risk with our current and future community partners, and how we can engage in the political project of making new knowledge that disrupts reductivist notions of poverty.

This all brings me to my current engaged work with Social Justice Fund. Despite Ben’s prodding that my ‘Practicum’ sounded like a dissertation project, I am currently completing my practicum with SJF.

But they will also be one of my collaborators for my dissertation project! The youth empowerment project bit the dust a while back. I realized that to honor my own intellectual and political energies, I had to be honest and dive into where my engagement was leading me. So, in the fall I will begin 12 months of fieldwork that seeks to understand geographies of giving and philanthropy in the PNW. The backbone of the project is to understand the shifting political economy of philanthropy post recession, and the new spaces and subjectivities that emerge from philanthropic engagements. I want to know about how philanthropy can enable politics at various scales.

While I will engage with SJF formally through this process, I am already engaged in the program and have ‘skin in the game’ as it were. I will be part of a giving project, I am on their informal board of ‘community engagement’, I volunteer, and I’m completing a narrative analysis of their rich archival materials for my practicum. And, when the dissertation wraps up, I will not diminish my engagement with SJF. As long as I’m a resident of Seattle, I envision being part of giving projects, and a fierce advocate for the work they do.

This is a story about living an engaged life. It is not enough to expect graduate students, scholars, administrators, activists and advocates to be engaged in our work. We must be attentive to our own energies, needs, curiosities and positionality. To live an engaged life is to take time to check in, to evaluate where and when you can share risks, to reflect on one’s politics and privilege, and to pursue that feeling of being ‘in it’. Think about sitting around a dinner table, with dear friends, with a beautiful dish of food shared between you: that is a moment of engagement, and it is that feeling for which I think we should strive.

**Following this talk, there was a lively conversation about how to bring vulnerability and risk into our work. For more on this, I recommend Richa Nagar’s scholarly work on radical vulnerability, or Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability, or her book Daring Greatly. Please reach out if you’d like to continue the conversation!** 

Synergies and Satisfaction: Performing my Professional Self

Exactly one week after finishing my exams, (and a celebratory dinner of pho), I enjoyed a spontaneous fancy-dinner, went home happy, sleepy, and full of delicious wine and beautifully arranged small plates. I was deeply grateful. And also full of dread: I knew I had, at best,  a mere 3 hours of sleep ahead of me before my early, early morning airport shuttle. I had a 5:20 AM flight  to Denver.

I did not know that flights took off that early.

There were many things that could have gotten me down about this trip, but I felt quite eager to get on route to Boulder, CO. I was attending the 20th annual Critical Geography Conference, with keynotes by Richa Nagar and Alvaro Reyes. I also was going to catch up with two old friends: one of whom is working on her MA in human-environment relations at CU-Boulder Geography, the other, a previous roommate, co-worker, co-conspirator, and fellow educator.

From a professional standpoint, this conference allowed me to explore my new research direction. The talk was not an argument, not an explanation of empirics. I presented a theoretical framework for critical geographers to engage with the nonprofit sector outside of a limiting, negative, critiquing framework, and instead encouraged a perspective that is more open, more interested in learning rather than judging, and that performs a politics of possibility rather than limitations.

I felt nervous to give this talk, initially. Drawing on the work of Gibson-Graham, I knew my work might draw criticism that it wasn’t political enough, not grounded enough, didn’t have clear enough methodology, or wasn’t going to be relevant or scalable. Not to mention, I only had one week in which to prepare this talk, practice it, and feel confident speaking about my work.

Lucky for me, it turns out my committee and I were thinking on the same page. One of my exam questions dovetailed nearly perfectly into the substance of this talk. I had previously outlined the talking points (months ago!), but didn’t know how I would populate it.

And then, a moment of synergy. Whooosh! Snap! Shhhhhwop!

I had written about applying Gibson-Graham to my dissertation project, and what I might learn through that application. I wanted to prepare a talk about how geographers could theorize the nonprofit sector in new ways. I decided to outline how geographers have theorized the nonprofit sector, what a Gibson-Graham inspired analysis would include, how I’m envisioning mapping that engagement onto social justice philanthropy, and what other parts of the nonprofit sector critical geographers could engage with.


I only had a few days to prepare this talk (because, let’s be real, my brain was 60% mush for 4 days after my exams. I didn’t get started on this until Tuesday, and I left for CO on Friday). I started writing out a scripted paper to read in Boulder.

Except that this supposed stress-reliever proved to be anxiety-producing. I do not read papers when I give talks. I talk. Conversationally. To engage the audience. To translate outside of academese. Reading from a paper would have confined me to, well, reading. If I go off script, what then? I’m lost.

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself of my strengths. I know this stuff. I just wrote about it for three days straight, and have been thinking about it deeply for months. And I like presenting and talking, and making audiences feel engaged and at ease and curious. I scrapped the working paper and went back to my roots. Bullet points, talking points, images. I blocked off conference rooms at Office Nomads and practiced the talk a few times. I wore high heels. I paced around and performed my professional self (to an empty room).

Fast forward to Saturday, when I gave my talk. The whole weekend, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction with my professional identity. The Critical conference marked the first conference I’ve presented in since realizing that I can be (and am) more than a graduate student. I’m a professional interested in creative philanthropy, a politics of possibility, and  re-politiczing the nonprofit sector.

Being able to represent myself in this multi-modal capacity was so… liberating. I wore my multiple hats proudly throughout the weekend. When people asked what I did, I thought, “Yeah, you know what? I do a lot of things. My graduate work is but one aspect of how I engage with these things.” When fellow grad students asked what is on my horizon, I said, “You know what? I don’t know. And I feel comfortable with that. Because I love to teach, I love to research, and I know I have skills that transfer across multiple paths. I will probably end up designing my own hybrid career, but I know I will continue engaging with the nonprofit sector and hopefully teaching and researching as well. Maybe I’ll end up consulting.  Maybe I’ll teach. Maybe both!” And when I responded to questions after my talk, it was with a confidence and clarity that I haven’t quite felt before in academic settings. People asked me things because they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And I had things to say, because I’ve been living and breathing this for years! It’s not to say that I’m an expert. It just felt… comfortable. For one of the first times (and hopefully not the last!)

When I say ‘performing my professional self’, it is, for the first time, a positive thing. I wasn’t miming or pretending. I was performing within a  comfortable role, albeit it a new one. I felt like an understudy to my own professional life who finally got the chance to take the leading role and expand into it. I added my own creative flair to a role that had previously been modeled to me, but never felt my own.

What a huge gift. A relief. I am filled with gratitude for having the space to think deeply, try on and perform this professional self, and find a deep satisfaction with the ways I’m choosing to engage, share and act.