Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The zeal of the immigrant: the pain of what we have left behind

I know you might be tired of hearing about immigration. Or if you hear about it you want to focus on the dire situation at hand. I get that, although I'm at a loss personally about what to do short of supporting legal challenges and supporting lawyers waiting to represent people at airports.

Bruno Catalano's immigrant
But I want to explain, as an immigrant, the dynamics of what we feel right now. You've heard of the zeal of the convert. If you convert to a religion, you had to study it rather than being brought up in it, and you're usually more observant than the non-convert. Immigrants are like converts. Most of us chose to come to America. We chose it because it was free, welcoming, and gave us opportunities we couldn't have in our countries of origin. In my youth I briefly thought about immigrating to the United Kingdom. While I still love the UK, I recognized then that even if I went to a top school and got a professional degree there, my professional trajectory in the UK would be limited because being so visibly other would be a continuing obstacle. And for more than two decades I've never had a reason to question my choice of coming to the US instead.

But in choosing to come, we also made a choice to leave. And as complex as our relationships to our countries of origin might be, there is loss in what we chose to leave behind. This sculpture describes it more eloquently than I could. And that hole feels larger every time we are reminded that we are not fully accepted in the country we chose. Every time our loyalty is questioned, despite the active choice we made, somehow it is assumed we are less loyal than those who were born here. Every time we're questioned even if we were born here, because we don't look like the majority of the people who came before, we must be just a little less loyal. That hole keens and aches. And it makes us question whether we were right to set forth, bag in hand, to this land.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cultural appropriation--I get it today

Sometimes realizations come to you at the weirdest times. As the brainstorming facilitators always tell you, there are no bad ideas (well not really), but it is true that insights will come to you on their terms not yours. And yours not to question why.

Karlie Kloss. B-list celebrity. A-list model. Honestly, I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. But she made the news today because she showed up in Vogue in yellowface this month. Not on the cover, mind you, because this apparently marks the first time a real Asian-American has made it on the cover of American Vogue. 

We all borrow culture and history and art. That's what triggers innovation--liminal spaces invite creativity. The Impressionists got huge mileage out of their Japonisme. Kurosawa borrowed time-tested plots and shots from US westerns. The world is richer for all that. It took Karlie Kloss to show me that where cultural appropriation happens is when the borrower is still the only person allowed in the room with that cultural heritage. So Karlie Kloss putting on a geisha shoot in Vogue starts feeling offensive not because of the shoot, but because Vogue is still a place where Asian models are not welcome. So if it takes a white representative to bring that culture in, then yes, it begins to feel like appropriation. 

In contrast, I didn't think the brouhaha over the "Kimono Wednesdays" at  Boston MFA exhibit of Camille Monet's two years ago was really warranted. There's plenty of Asian art at the Boston MFA, Camille Monet was depicting a white woman wearing a kimono, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK had commissioned the kimonos. But today, on Vogue, I got it.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Innovation: top-down and bottom-up smackdowns

I know I can sometimes come off as ideologically wedded to the bottom-up approach. It's true, I like the idea of bottom-up--it sits well with my own attitude that authority needs to earn respect. There's also some sociological evidence that outsiders are more inclined to come up with breakthrough innovations because they are not caught up in "the way things are done." But for the record, I really like to see these approaches go head to head and the proposition get tested empirically. And in truth, I suspect that one approach may be better for some types of problems, and that while there might be a tilt to one approach or the other from time to time, there will be plenty of counterexamples to "disprove" most rules of thumb. But I had cause to come across 3

One, students from Laval University created a 2487 MPG eco-car. That far exceeds the performance of any eco-car created by professional car manufacturers.

Two, I love to cook, and am a complete devotee of Cook's Illustrated. I also love to read the commentary and inputs and ideas featured on Food 52. When these two beloved institutions decided to run a cook-off, I was in heaven. For non-foodies out there, Cook's Illustrated, run by Christopher Kimball is the gold standard for expert testing. They publish authoritative bibles like The Best Recipe. No hedging, and it's pretty much all invented in Vermont. MIT Poverty Action Lab meets GiveWell. Food 52, founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is lightly curated site populated by regularly held contests for the best recipes. So much more like GlobalGiving, or DonorsChoose. I can't wait to find out what happens.

Three, our own GlobalGiving-Innocentive GlobalGiveback challenge sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. We're still in the middle of it, but I just heard from the Innocentive folks today that in 3 out of the 5 challenges (they happen to have had earlier deadlines for solutions), solver interest in providing a solution has been 2x what Innocentive sees usually in comparable solutions being sought by for-profit entities. That there's so much pent-up interest in the Innocentive community to contribute to solving social problems confirms my bias that international development has an untapped resource in the broader public. We just haven't made it all that easy for people to contribute.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Design Thinking, Part II

So my few loyal readers will know that given a choice, I'll always opt for working with my hands--I'll make it or fix it or refurbish it rather than buy it. Mostly because I just like doing things with my hands, and I tend to be pretty good at it.

But I've been reading Matthew Crawford's book Shop as Soulcraft lately, and I'm tempted to find even more virtues in the hands-on approach than I was. One important point he makes is that mastery over things is, for better or worse, a key component of our psychological makeup, such that it feeds our spirit (as Eli noted in her comment) and makes us happier, more empowered, and in the end truly creative. (Crawford has some scathing comments to make about the faux creativity of Build-a-Bears and customized Scions).

But the point I want to highlight here, is an implied point. He points out the difference between theoretical and conceptual knowledge (as exemplified by his physicist father) and empirical, real knowledge (as exemplified by his knowledge of his exasperatingly old and dodgy VW bug) and how these two types of knowledge part company. I can draw an analogy to the conceptual knowledge that I used to rely on for my work at the World Bank, and the hard-won empirical knowledge that social entrepreneurs on GlobalGiving use day in and day out.

Crawford's point is that life today provides much less of the latter than it used to, and that it is a dangerous thing--for the spirit, for sustainability, for our ultimate fates. While I don't see a concomitant shift in the development field--having come into existence really in the 20th century it is a product of its time and the lion's share of resources in development are put in service of solutions based on conceptual knowledge--I think the discounting of knowledge on the ground is equally dangerous in development. But like the motorcycle repair guy, most social entrepreneurs just go on about their business without much flash or renown. But they sure make the lives of their community better. They have to--they are right there and either they deliver results, or the community will move on.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A matter of faith

GlobalGiving was founded on the realizations that:

  • there were entirely too many potential social entrepreneurs all over the world that needed to be given a chance to test their idea of fighting poverty

  • for one rock star social entrepreneur, there were probably at least a hundred people who had tried something like, and failed

  • international development badly needed more than one Nobel Peace Prize winner in the sixty plus years since colonialism

  • and try as we might, there was no way for even the best and the brightest to know who would succeed, and who would fail, much less why

So what the world needed was a platform that made it safe and easy for all these bottom-up efforts to be visible and accountable to the outside world, and whose mission it would be to continuously lower the barriers to entry so that we didn't inadvertently leave another Mohammed Yunus stalled for lack of support. Of course, you can argue for development Darwinism, that the social entrepreneurs who aren't crazy or committed enough to keep going against all odds weren't going to succeed anyway--but clearly there are economies in the world that provide a hospitable environment for small-scale businesses and others that do not, and most of the economies that don't pay the price in lower prosperity overall.

So it's my vision for GlobalGiving that we play a small role in making social entrepreneurship just a little less crazy, a little less quixotic, and that we thereby make it possible for more innovation and change to happen in development. We won't know ahead of time what those innovations will be. We won't even know who will lead those innovations. We might know if someone one day can trace a rock star social entrepreneur back to their beginnings on GlobalGiving, but there's no guarantee we will be directly responsible, nor even that they might have succeeded without us. So it comes down to a matter of faith--an ironic position for me, as basically a non-believer with a Buddhist heritage.

This is, of course, a restating of Dennis's latest post (which in turn is really a hat tip to Bill Easterly), but here I am restating what we're about because we had two retreats last week, and in reiterating what inspired us to start GlobalGiving, I was struck by the fact that most of my colleagues encouraged me to state it, and state it again. So here it is.

(It's also a way for me to get back to blogging. I realized how bad it was when I saw that I had unmoderated comments from June--eek. Eli, Dibyendu, my apologies!)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Design Thinking

Yesterday as I felt compelled to defend why I was repairing my 99 cent gardening gloves instead of buying a new pair, as Dennis suggested, the connection between Depression habits (or, in my case, inherited postwar habits),

, kaizen and design thinking became clear.

I repair stuff instead of throwing them away out of habit and practice, and because being chary with resources is a taught Japanese value. But I persist I'm repairing stuff even though it doesn't make strictly economic sense because I learn a lot when I take things apart or repair them. I either see the bad design or poor workmanship that led to the hole in the first place and know what not to do (gloves case in point) or I marvel at the cunning of the colonial clockmaker, who I think, had to create this Western clock at the behest of a expat colonial client.

And so every time you repair or otherwise take time to get into the guts of something you can see how it was put together and how you can do better--or shamelessly copy, as the case may be. That's the logic behind kaizen, and the logic behind design thinking, as Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO reminded me last week at the Bankinter forum in Madrid.

(As you see, I'll do anything to defend my own little pastimes and foibles.)

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Truck envy, or the way we justify things

This weekend we had brunch with an old colleague of ours we hadn't seen for over 10 years. What do you know but he's gone and bought a Honda Ridgeline that Dennis has been drooling over for the last year or so. This renewed his sense that a man's entitled to a Honda Ridgeline, but some last doubts remained ... hence the following exchange:

Dennis: I need a truck for my place in WV, I have decided. So I am getting a Ridgeline this week – unless you tell me that a diesel will be out in the fall?
Friend [who is passionate enough about the Ridgeline that he's blogged about it]: >Diesel. Great question. I've heard conflicting reports, that it was coming next year, but also that it has been canceled ... I wish my wife would let me get one... of course, I don't have any reason to own one ... I heard that Tufte owns one!

This is why I love these guys. Anyone who would think of justifying a truck purchase by citing Tufte get my vote.