Wednesday, December 17, 2008

empowering my father

I've recently started working on a new project, called Sprout. The core idea is it's a community workshop and center where people can come and get the social and technical resources they need to turn their ideas into reality. We're specifically focusing on ideas that support the local community: we want people to both address the issues they see in the community around them, and have a place where they can make their own jobs and become self-employed.

It's exciting! I am sure I will be writing a lot about it. It's marks a shift in my work from empowerment of people ages 6 - 12 to empowerment of people.

I've been working on it intensely for the past few weeks and have been quite satisfied doing so. There's nothing huge to report yet -- the majority of things has been figuring out how to set up a self-governed space and trying to think broadly about what it is that separates someone from having a wonderful idea to making that wonderful thing happen.

Part of this process has been reflection on helping others feel empowered. One interesting story is my father's over the past two years. I initially started writing this up for my friend Alec, who I'm working with on Sprout, but I thought it would be good blog material as well.


A little more than two years ago, my dad was living in Rhode Island. He'd been recuperating from a heart attack he'd had a year and a half prior, and seemed to really feel like he'd hit the end of the road, mentally and physically. I had a hard time going down to visit him: I wanted to see him because I knew he liked spending time with me, but the trip was always rough on me. To keep it succinct, it felt lonely to see him more or less alone.

His situation was something that stayed with me for a few years. Two years ago, I had just moved into a new apartment with a friend and we'd had trouble finding roommates for the other rooms (it was a 4 room apartment.) We ended up renting the rooms out on a 1-month basis to buy time to search for a good roommate for the remainder of the year. Around October (the lease began in Sept.), I had the idea that I should invite Dad up to come live with us. I kept the idea for about a month -- it would be a big shift to be living with my father.

The biggest thing would be that my father rambles. Specifically about the years of his life he'd lived in Europe, usually about London (something like the late '60s - '84, but I don't know if anyone really knows.) My brother and his then-girlfriend had taken to comparing it to the band camp line from American Pie: "This one time, in London ... " The rambling had gotten much more severe in isolation -- it was like all of the thinking and words that one naturally shares were damming up, flooding out upon any listener and usually overwhelming them in the process.

After thinking about for a month and running it by my friend, I figured it was worth a shot and asked my dad about it. The idea would be to somehow connect him to MIT. My dad's a very competent engineer -- well-versed in lots of engineering disciplines and a talented machinist -- and I surmised that there had to be something at MIT for him. MIT was his dream university (I think it's a bigger deal to him that I went to MIT than for me) and I knew it'd be the kind of environment he'd thrive in. So that was my pitch -- come up to Boston, and we'll find something at MIT for you to do.

On the phone he said "Hmmmm, I'll think about it," and then called me back the next day, happily eager to give it a try. We moved his stuff up in December, and adjusted to living together. He was full of an excited, hyper, blissfully unaware of social dynamics energy. I still remember how he completely (completely!) rearranged our kitchen, based off of some manufacturing engineering principle of automation or effeciency, and then would respond to my questions like "So where're the trash bags now?" in a "you-teenager-who-never-cleans-up!" tone of voice, of course you don't know! It came off as equal parts of gratitude and completely bizarre.

Of course, the bound up "let me repay my thanks by rearranging all your stuff!" and the "let me tell you all the stories I have!" energy settled. There was a vision seminar at MIT that I encouraged him to go to. I remember having to verbally push him to go -- I hit a wall which I hadn't expected, which was his confidence. I was surprised by it, but also deeply confident in his talents at an engineer, and so didn't mind convincing him that he ought to go (his fear could be summarized I think as any MIT student's fear: I don't belong here, everyone is so smart/talented, what I could possibly contribute to this community?, etc.) He would be nervous or not want to go and I would tell him it was nonsense and stick to my unwavering opinion that he needed to get out of the apartment and go do stuff at MIT and something would work out, and soon enough he would.

He visited a few programs at MIT before becoming a mentor at Amy Smith's Development Lab (D-Lab). D-Lab is one of the coolest engineering groups I've ever seen. They work with developing communities to engineer solutions for problems they're having, and do this by working with the community. This feedback ensures both the efficacy of the tool (it meets real needs and can be repaired/modified by the community using it) and, as I understand it, creates a perspective of empowerment, rather than charity. Smith founded the lab in part to show students an alternative career to engineering -- using engineering for social change -- and it's the thing that is perfect for my dad.

He grew to learn how to help, to feel his way around the community, and to slowly shake off his fears of people with degrees and doctorates from MIT. My dad became incredibly, undeniably happy during this first year there (he would say frequently, and with such genuineness "Maybe I have died, and I've gone to heaven! I'm not sure!") The profound transformation that the shift had -- from being in Rhode Island to being in MIT working with D-Lab -- has always amazed me. Things that read like intrinsic parts of a personality (no matter how aware you are), like how much Dad rambled, only talked about the past and never the present, or simply how much attention he paid to the person he talked to, all changed to things that felt much more accessible (in being excited by his own, present day life, he seemed much more excited about everyone else's too, and his signature rambling began to stem. I should of course make no claim that the rambling has ceased! That would be the work of majik and demons.)

Since then, my dad has become employed (in a marginal sense -- employed enough to pay the bills, but not enough to get in the way of my father happily spending all of his free time at D-Lab, which, paradoxically, it would) to take care of the shop, which is perfect for him. It's really an amazing transformation to me; I'm always happy about it whenever I reflect on it.

There's a few things I've taken away from this:

* changing someone's environment can be transformative: the big, fundamental difference in my father's life before and after D-Lab is how happy he is. He is productive, is making a meaningful contribution to an organization he finds meaningful, and he's much more content with his day-to-day life.

I don't think any amount of talking alone could have brought this shift about. I'm sure I'd talked to him before about getting back into engineering, or using his skills, or who knows what beforehand, and I'm sure that that sounded simultaneously appealing and empty (it'd be great to be making things again ... but how?) It is one
thing to construct the environment you need, and another to find it.

* When to push, when not to push: I don't know if there are any words to describe this beyond the intuition one develops from a human relationship, but I found that with my father, there were some things I could make happen through pushing him on verbally, and some that I simply had to enact myself. Convincing him to come to Boston, or thinking of clever ways to articulate that 35 years of engineering experience were just as valid as an academic career were all things I could do verbally. He'd have his doubts, I'd have my counterargument (ideally wrapped up in a sentence or two maxim that sounded good and was easy to remember) and he'd agree mentally and give whatever it was I was advocating a try.

Getting him to ask for funding for D-Lab was, however, something I got nowhere with verbally. His first year at D-Lab I helped support him financially, and by the end of the year I had wanted him to ask for funding (for the sake of my own independence and his sustianability.) There were no words, high or low or in the sky, that I could have gotten my father to do this. My father finds money to be a confusing thing, something that gets in the way of getting things done, and I think he also felt too scared to be rejected by this lab that he'd fallen in love with: the possibility that he might ask, they could say no, and we would find another source of funding never seemed to register -- the act of asking with the potential of rejection was, I think, just too much for him. At some point, I asked a friend to ask the head of the lab on his behalf, and everything worked out from there. He was extremely grateful, and I began to realize that just as my father had frustrated me by not acting, I had been frustrating myself by simply not finding another way to ask on his behalf.

* What one can change has its limits: my father isn't in the best of health, and his few semesters at MIT would thoroughly overwork his body, trying to keep pace with the overworked and frenzied students, dashing to finish their work. Any conversations I had with him to the effect of "you know, you don't have to take finals as seriously as the students do" would just be met with looks of utter amazement. It's finals time -- you have to finish! I have to help the student's finish! That's what you do!

At first, seeing the unhealthy patterns that finals creates seep over to my dad frustrated me, but I began to realize that this was beyond my influence. I could explain things as I saw them, but that finals time was needlessly stressful and ought to be taken with a grain of salt was not something that I could simply convince my father of. Over his two years, he's come to prioritize his own body more, and has balanced taking care of himself a bit more with helping students (particularly as he's learned it can take a week or so to feel recovered from such times.) Overall though, it became clear to me that while I could help in broad matters of my father's situation, simple things like these were beyond me. I couldn't just make my father have the perspectives I value and want him to have about academia.


I'm eager to hear what other stories people know of like this one, and what other commonalities or lessons there are to be unearthed from them.


inkoo said...

aww, you have done majik!

camipco said...

One day, you will write a book. Or give a TED talk.