Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Burning Man - An Ideal Community?

I was extremely privileged to have participated in my first Burn in 2015. I found a ticket, camp, and vehicle pass one week before the event began. Ultimately, it was a deeply transformative experience in living in one of the most rare communities on the planet.

Is Burning Man the ideal model for what human communities should look like or could be? My professional background is in building community via nonprofits and the classroom. I also have a strong background in federal and local government and politics.  I have no clear answer to the question, but seek to explore some perspectives here. Overall, I believe that although Burning Man has its challenges, it is a beautiful social experiment that society can learn much from.

Privilege limits scalability 

To enter the community of Burning Man, one has to pay at the bare minimum the ticket fee which starts at $390. In essence, one could say that this is dues to join an elite club. A limited number of low income tickets exist which is great. However, one still needs to be able to take time off and be able to get to the Burn.

Moreover, one needs to bring enough supplies for food, water, and shelter for the duration of one's stay. One can bypass this by staying with a camp and sharing resources.  However, being admitted to join a camp is often based on informal social networks and sometimes involves interviews. In short, one has to be strongly connected to become a part of a camp community, and not just rough it on your own in the desert. 

Once you make it into the Burn, everything is free and you can only use American dollars to purchase coffee or ice. Everything is gifted to you including meals, spa services, clothes, emergency health care, classes, etc.  Perhaps my most impressive gift was a plane ride over the Playa with the sky divers of Camp Burning Sky (thanks again!).

Experiencing the gift economy was one of the most powerful aspects of the Burn.  I wish this could better exist in the real world, or what Burners call the "default world." However having the power to give to others inherently means you are in a state of privilege. 

Even in the alternative refuge of Burning Man, where one can express one's self and be accepted unlike in mainstream society, diversity in its many forms is lacking. Most participants are upper-middle class, White, able-bodied individuals. I encourage you to read my good friend Tyra Fennell's post about being Black at Burning Man.  I do believe Burning Man as an organization recognizes this weakness and is actively trying to address it. For example, they're actively collecting data through their annual census

So overall, by no means does everyone enter Burning Man from an equal playing field.  Even when you are inside, people live in a variety of structures ranging from tents to air-conditioned RVs.  In order to replicate Burning Man, something needs to be done so everyone is at least able to enter the space, meaning they are able to provide their own resources for self-sufficiency.  Fortunately, in the default world, this is often provided by government assistance.

I am a huge fan of representative democracy, which Burning Man is definitely not.  Police are present to enforce drug laws and provide safety.  There are free health clinics if you get sick or injured.  While camps may practice their own forms of democracy and elect their leaders, at large, there are no elected leaders. Perhaps this is not necessary since Burning Man is predominantly a week long physical event, but if it were to exist as a new society, I would want democracy.

Principles expand impact 

Above I have examined some of the challenges in terms of replicating Burning Man at scale.  Now I want to emphasize the significant positive impact that Burning Man is having on the world.  Burning Man encompasses Ten Principles: radical inclusion, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, gifting, decommodification, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, immediacy, and leave no trace.  I went to a workshop discussing ways people can apply the Principles into their everyday life in the default world.  Two professors at James Madison University shared how they incorporate these values into their teaching and that they are about to publish a book about this. It was also shared how Burners can act as a virus in society spreading these philosophical values.

Experiencing Burning Man actually does deeply immerse one in a community of people truly embodying the Ten Principles.  Furthermore, being a part of Burning Man is much more than going to the main event in Black Rock City.  There are regional events that happen throughout the year. Both during and after the event, many participants commented how they were more thoughtful about how they pick up their matter out of place (MOOP), or what is commonly referred to as trash. You think about your water usage in ways you never did before.

When most of the Burning Man community comes from at least some baseline level of privilege, and when many come from the One Percent, exposing this demographic to communal and social justice values can seriously transform society slowly for the long-term.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Three Models for Women's Economic Empowerment

There is an awakening in American society for the need for women's empowerment. While we are far from parity in most sectors of society such as business, politics, academia, etc., great strides are being made everyday.  Research studies from McKinsey and Catalyst have well documented the positive benefits of advancing women leaders, so I won't focus on that today.  Rather, let's examine three models for how organizations and individuals can work together for the advancement of women's economic empowerment.

In short, there is no single solution to advancing women leaders in American society and our workforce. We need to combine strategies from the three models below.  All stakeholders need to play their part, and we can learn from each other.  Gender parity is possible and everyone will benefit from such equality.

Public Policy & Legislation
Responsible parties: Government entities (local, state, national, and international)
Looks Like:

Organizational Diversity Management
 Responsible parties: Corporations and institutions
 Looks Like:

 Individual & Community Empowerment
 Responsible parties: Individual persons communities, and organizations
 Looks Like: 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ladies - Get Involved in Local Government

I’m very proud to have recently graduated from Emerge California, a training program for Democratic women interested in political leadership.  For about seven years, I lived in Washington, DC and dedicated my career to advancing women leaders in politics.  I literally taught a class about gender and politics at American University.  Finally, it was my turn to practice what I preach and return to my beloved Bay Area.  Rather than being the teacher, I became the student.

I am very optimistic about the real possibility of creating tangible impact via local government.  For example, cities, counties, and states are able to pass ordinances and laws years before such change can happen at the federal level.  For example, check out the Municipality Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign.  Municipalities can advance equality at a much faster pace than at the federal level.

Emerge California is truly the premier training program to prepare women to be ethical leaders and transform the political system.  Moreover, one of my favorite aspects of Emerge California is being a part of a genuine sisterhood of passionate, ambitious, brilliant women working together to make a difference for our communities.  There are Emerge programs in 14 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. I highly recommend applying and am happy to answer any questions about the application process or program.

While I am deeply familiar with federal government, the system of local government is very different.  For instance, in California our legislators have term limits and are subject to the Brown Act, which ensures the public's right to information.  Such governance practices do not yet completely exist at the federal level.

Your city or county may offer free programs to learn more about how they work, so check out their website for programs about civic education.  I took a Civics 101 free class through the County of San Mateo. Below are some steps I have learned from Emerge California about how someone can start to get involved in local government.

Apply to join a commission for your county or city

On the city and county level, multiple opportunities exist for you to serve on a board or commission.  More women’s voices need to be on these important decision-making bodies.  Check out your city or county’s website for current vacancies and apply. Serving on a commission is a unique volunteer opportunity to support an issue you care about on the local level.  I am very excited to have recently been appointed to my city's Planning Commission and my county's Commission on Aging.

Volunteer with organizations working in your community

Similar to school, a local community has tons of clubs and organizations to get involved with.  Find a cause you are passionate to and learn about how it exists in your community.  Many national organizations such as the Sierra Club or Rotary Club have local chapters.  This is a great way to support an issue you care about and connect with likeminded folks.

Connect with your County’s Democratic Central Committee

Each county has one main Democratic Central Committee that serves as the umbrella group for the many local Democratic clubs.  This central group has monthly meetings that give you a true sense of the political pulse of the community.  You get to connect with the community’s leaders and understand the needs of the community. You can also volunteer for leadership positions within the Central Committee.  I am second alternate for a member of the executive committee.

Our communities need more women’s voices to be represented!  Decisions are made at the local level that have a real impact on people’s lives.  Get involved!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Solo Travel: Just Do It!

I am thirty, and while I have been to almost thirty countries, I finally took my first solo vacation abroad. For years, I dreamed of visiting Costa Rica and I'm proud I finally made it happen! I highly recommend you challenge yourself by putting yourself in a foreign environment to explore on your own! This was a deeply empowering and transformative experience.

Even just a year ago, I never would have wanted to do this.  I'd be bored. It wouldn't be fun. I wouldn't be safe.  All these self imposed limitations proved to be false in reality.  

I had a blast hanging out solo and navigating my way through a new country.  I made new friends along the way.  This was a great exercise in self-reliance.

Many women often hold themselves back from what can be very exciting new possibilities. What is your dream adventure that you have yet to cross off your bucket list?  Why are you still waiting?  Expand your comfort zone and ask yourself the following questions. What is uncomfortable for me? Why is that uncomfortable? How long will I keep holding myself back?  Of course be smart, safe, and manage your risks, but don't let fear control you.

Yes, it's expensive to travel abroad.  But you can consider low-cost or free ways to otherwise take a solo vacation. What new activities can you try?  Where can you immerse yourself in a foreign experience, whatever kind of place that takes you outside your comfort zone.  Can you do a one day silent retreat at your home? Have you ever eaten alone in a restaurant? Have you ever gone to the movies alone?  Is there a Meetup or social outing you want to check out? Feel free to start with small steps.  I wish you all the best as you create new possibilities for yourself!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Failing Forward at Imagine Talks 2015

This weekend I had the amazing opportunity to give my first 18 minute Ted Talk style speech at Imagine Talks 2015.  I'm most grateful to the Asian American Foundation and Edge Interns for this incredible experience.  Please click here to watch the speech.

This was a really exciting but also very stressful undertaking!  I'm tremendously thankful to my many friends and colleagues who gave me advice in preparing this speech.  Below are some of my main takeaways I learned from this experience that hopefully you can use the next time you take a risk and share your voice in a public arena.

Start planning far in advance

I procrastinated and only started seriously sitting down to write the speech about two weeks in advance.  I had the freedom to chose my own topic and I decided to write about failure. While therapeutic, let's just say it was not very fun to do some serious soul searching and begin to clearly articulate past experiences that were very painful.  Wine proved to be crucial to the writing process! Having multiple nights to allow myself to take breaks and revisit the writing was imperative.

Be open to serious feedback

The original version of this speech also mentioned two more recent failures, but after careful consideration and advice from colleagues, I chose not to include them in the speech.  I do hope to share these stories with you in the near future, but this arena was not yet the ideal time.

I shared versions of the speech with trusted friends and colleagues and asked them for brutal advice. It was helpful to hear a variety of initial reactions to the speech. But ultimately, I synthesized the various opinions and formulated my own.

Practice, practice, practice!

While I did a significant amount of practice, I wish I had done more.  I talked out loud to myself while driving.  I read over the speech on my phone when I was surrounded by crowds but had a moment to spare. Some of my friends were kind enough to spare thirty minutes to listen to me and share their thoughts.  Imagine Talks was great and offered dress rehearsals.  Overall, I suggest that you spend as much time as possible practicing in a situation as close as possible to the real speech, standing up, in heels, while clicking the Power Point slides.

The world needs to hear your story!  Be vulnerable!

I was really scared to be this open about my failures, but I know there are others who have had similar tough times.  We need to share our voices to remind each other we are not alone.  After the speech, it was all worth it when many members of the audience privately confided in me about their similar challenges.

Cheers to failing forward together!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Building the Sisterhood of Science

Residential Programs: Successful Intervention Strategies to Encourage Girls to STEM

I am the direct beneficiary of outreach programs to encourage girls to pursue opportunities in the STEM arena.  My participation in two specific programs, NASA's Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (NASA SHARP) and UC Berkeley's Womyn in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential living program, prepared me to complete a bachelor's degree in environmental science from UC Berkeley.  Gender specific programming is necessary to open the pipeline for more women in the STEM professions.  The earlier you build a girl's confidence in math and science, the further and faster she can go in building her career.  In particular, gender specific residential based STEM programs provide girls with the personal and professional support to build lifelong networks.

In 2001, I was selected to participate in NASA's Summer High School Apprenticeship Research program for women and ethnic minorities.  The program was completely free; room, board, and transportation were provided in addition to a stipend.  For approximately ten weeks, incoming high school seniors were placed in research groups at the University of Michigan.  I worked with Dr. Keolian at the Center for Sustainable Systems to conduct a life cycle assessment of a re-manufactured engine.  It was such an exciting research endeavor!  In addition to lab work, students had a daily morning seminar about STEM careers, site visits on the weekends, and social programming.  The students lived together in college dorms which allowed for intense bonding.  I made lifelong friends and colleagues that continue to support me today.  Early in my career, thanks to NASA SHARP, I developed the skills and confidence in science which ultimately earned me one of the few spots as an out-of-state student at UC Berkeley.

Since I had such a positive experience with NASA SHARP, my father encouraged me to apply to live in Berkeley's WISE dormitory for female students pursuing STEM majors.  Students attended weekly seminars connecting them to STEM faculty and research opportunities.  Many of the students were taking the same difficult math, science, and engineering classes, so we studied together and supported each other through these challenging courses.  I started at Berkeley as a geology major, but the demands of the very hard science courses proved very tough for me.  I considered switching to an easier social science degree, but my girlfriends encouraged me to stick it out in science.  Today, the women I met at WISE continue to be my best friends and support me tremendously in my professional life.

The power of the female bond cannot be underestimated.  As women seek to break the glass ceiling in male dominated fields of science and engineering, they break through more easily when supported by other women, especially their peers.  Residential programs literally provide women the safe space to share their challenges and support each other to overcome hardship.  The informal space of a collegial environment allows the opportunity for conversations that may not arise in more formal programs.  Living together allows women to connect in unique ways.

As advocates of women in STEM explore options to close the gender parity gap, they should consider the power of gender specific residential programs.  Many college campuses have women in science and engineering residential programs.  Advocates can explore how these programs can be enhanced. Where such dorm programs do not exist, companies and philanthropists can consider making long-term capital investments to endow buildings designated for women in STEM.  In addition to college dorms, advocates can create residential programs for high school girls such as summer programs. Building communities of the Sisterhood of Science will provide young women the necessary support systems to excel in their careers.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Silicon Valley: Take on Your Next Challenge of Innovating Diversity in the Workplace

Silicon Valley is the place of endless possibility. The birthplace of new technologies that are directly impacting the way people live around the world. Change moves very fast here, unlike the public policy processes of other powerhouse places like Washington, D.C. In fact, in many regards, the innovation happening here is far ahead of American laws and policies, and actually sets the tone for their creation. Many of the creative geniuses here like to attack a problem quickly, but with an innovative mindset that results in a lasting impact. The most recent obstacle pervasive throughout the Valley is its lack of diversity. However, this challenge is also the Valley's greatest opportunity to continue to reform the way America does business.

In recent months, most of the leading technology companies in Silicon Valley have collectively acknowledged a major challenge their industry is experiencing overall. The tech leaders have publicly acknowledged the lack of diversity in their companies' employees. Moreover and fortunately, these public acknowledgements come with the recognition that this is a serious problem, and that the company is ultimately suffering from its dearth of diversity. Silicon Valley does not run from problems. It attacks them head on and finds the most effective solution. I am eager to see how Silicon Valley innovates diversity in the upcoming months and years. 

Fixing the diversity dilemma has no single solution, and can't be cured with the development of a new app or upgrading a tech product. The solution must be multifaceted and include short-term and long-term strategies. On the whole, tech companies must not only focus on recruitment and retention, but also on how the company overall values its commitment to diversity.

Continue to collect data to get a deep understanding of how the diversity challenge exists in your specific company. Offer employees the opportunity to share candid feedback about their work experience in regards to diversity through regular anonymous surveys or focus groups. Seriously evaluate this feedback and enact what changes are feasible.

Additionally, short term tactics can include enhanced recruitment efforts to find new candidate pools. This may mean partnerships with minority organizations or schools from underrepresented communities. Make special efforts to recruit diverse candidates for upcoming internship programs. This may also look like a revised internal reference system that removes traditional barriers for talented candidates that don't necessarily come from the top schools or other privileged traditional recruitment pools and social networks. Scholarship funds or partnerships with established nonprofits are a great investment.

Short-term Strategies
Immediately, a company can actually improve its numbers in the short run through a number of tactics. Number one, focus on the retention of current employees who come from diverse backgrounds. Support them with employee resource groups, mentoring, and professional development opportunities. Companies can make sure they have the best maternity and paternity policies to entice employees to stay. Similarly, companies can provide resources and programs to on-ramp women who may have left the workforce due to child rearing. What diversity best practices has your company not yet utilized or could be doing better? Hire new staff soon to help you explore these questions.

Keep an ongoing conversation about diversity within your organization. Host events to celebrate diversity and encourage education and awareness among all levels of staff. These can be round-table discussions, films, receptions honoring historical months and events, or conferences.
Companies can consider industry-wide partnerships, coalitions, or working groups to work together to improve the tech industry overall. Sharing data and resources collectively can yield a greater impact. Commission a multilateral research study to explore system wide best practices that companies can undertake. 

As annual strategic planning, board meetings, marketing, and budgeting processes begin, make sure diversity is on the agenda and significant time is dedicated to its discussion. All top company leaders need to be included in this conversation. Companies need to determine long-term plans to address diversity in a comprehensive way. What exactly are the short-term and long-term diversity goals for your organization? What financial and human resources will you dedicate to achieving such goals within certain deadlines? How does your company value diversity in a comprehensive way, beyond just statistics about diverse employees, but across all aspects of your organization, from supply chains to potential customers? As I mentioned in a previous post, the United Nations has recently created a system-wide plan of attack to improve gender parity among its employees. Tech companies can adapt this model to achieve their own diversity goals.

If there is an industry ready, willing, and able to take on the challenge of diversity in the workplace, it is high tech. Already, it has revolutionized the workplace, and perhaps diversity will be its greatest new innovation.