Tag: what i’ve learned

Be an ally

Two people standing on railway tracks next to each other. The tracks travel into the distance. Sky is gray and trees have lost their leaves.
Make the journey as an ally of those who have to fight harder than you to get through each day. (Image by Jonathan Pendleton)
I am making the effort to engage people who make racist, sexist or other bigoted comments within my social sphere.

A few months ago, I joined an online babwearing group, which has conversations about social justice and racism as part of babywearing.

Although I have a deep education in sustainability, it is more than fair to say that I come at it from an environmental and economic background. Social justice is the last part of the ‘triple bottom line’ for me to actively engage with.

It’s been a terrifyingly steep learning curve, grappling with (in the order of my self-education):

  1. Tone policing — No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege
  2. Cultural appropriation — What’s Wrong With Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm
  3. Privilege — The day I checked my privilege
  4. Racism — Walking While Black and I, Racist
  5. Roots of racism in the US — I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery.
  6. Being an ally for marginalised people — Allyship

Most of the articles I’ve linked here are beautifully written (or drawn) and I encourage you to read them (particularly number 3 and 6).

My eyes are open to injustice now. The news is full of the leaders oblivious to the advantages they’ve had through life. All the models at the optometry shop are white. All the babies in parenting magazines are white. Friends of friends on Facebook are making, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ comments.

It’s Facebook comments that I’m tackling first. I’m not an activist by nature so it takes me a lot of energy to engage in difficult conversations.

Damjan asked me, ‘Is it worth spending your energy on this?’ What I realised was that I have the privilege of answering that question with ‘No,’ and walking away. If I were Aboriginal, Muslim, disabled, transgender, suffering a mental health illness or fat, I would be forced to face in the worst of human nature on the internet and in the real world every day. Bigotry and barriers would come looking for me.

It is unfair that the people targeted with hostility are the ones who have to fight it.

As we tell our children in anti-bullying programs, ‘Don’t be a bystander. Be an upstander. So I’m starting to do my bit in my little corner of the internet.’ I’m getting ready to do it in real life too, as my maternity leave is ending and I leave my home bubble.

Here’s what I particularly need to be conscious of as I try to be a better ally.

  • Create space for the people who don’t normally get to speak so that they can be heard — I talk a lot in all settings and I need to shut up and use my influence to allow marginalised voices in. Amplify their messages by repeating them word-for-word or pointing to those voices. Resist the urge to ‘improve’ the story.
  • Give weight to people’s experiences — Science and law is the language of debate in my household and workplace. But marginalised people have experiences that are real, important, and not codified in formal systems. I have to listen to these perspectives with an open mind.
  • Accept negative emotions as part of the message — Anger and frustration is central to the experiences of marginalised people. Listen to these emotions without asking that people strip their messages into the neutral technical language I’m used to.
  • Look for and accept criticism — I participate unconsciously in systematic discrimination every day. I need to be able to accept criticism without feeling defensive.

Brick, gold or green?

Joan, Chinese woman wearing yellow, is sitting on a table in front of an audience. Visible on the table are two white men, one wearing blue chequered shirt, the other in a dark suit.
I moderated a panel at Arup’s Shaping our City event in February 2015.

At a presentation in London, I heard someone from Futerra describe three types of environmentalists: the bricks, golds and greens.

These three types are environmental versions (extensions) of Dade’s three value modes: settler, prospector and pioneer. I made a booklet version of these ideas for an event I hosted at work. You can download it here (1.6 MB PDF):

The front page of a booklet entitled 'What drives your worldview?'. It includes two silhouetted heads talking to each other with colourful speech bubbles.
I wrote a short summary of Dade’s value modes to help people understand the different values that drive environmental behaviours.

Here is a screenshot of part of the short booklet.

Three columns headed by pictures of a brick, gold bar and a grassy patch. The image includes information on how the proportion of people in each category for the US, Australia and UK. For the text, download the booklet PDF in the link above.
This is an image from the booklet and describes the values behind the environmental behaviours of bricks, golds and greens.

The introduction of the booklet says:

The following three ‘value modes’ are one handy way of understanding a people’s worldviews. They are based on surveys of thousands of people around the world on what values drive their behaviours and opinions. I often ask people to sort themselves into these groups as workshop icebreaker…

These value modes help us pitch messages that resonate with the different audiences in our organisations and communities, which is vital when we are looking for behaviour change.

Even more importantly, we recognise that people might make the same sustainable decisions for entirely different – and legitimate – reasons. Personally, I find it inspiring that there are lots of different ways of thinking about sustainability.

I wish that the booklet included a link and credit to the original authors but this information got lost between my draft and the graphic design publication. For far more detail, you can dive in at Culture Dynamics. Hat tip again to Futerra.

Lessons from Germany

I have discovered an unexpected benefit of having visited Germany. I now have a greater understanding of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is on TV at this moment i.e. the Nazi book burning rally, Adolph Hitler signing Indiana’s book when he assumes it’s Mein Kampf

The value of idealism in the real world

I really like this short opinion article — The power of ideas.

This reflects a philosophy that I’ve learned this year at Cambridge. It is a philosophy that I have not only learned but have come to believe in my core. Essentially, for me to be effective, authentic, persuasive and steadfast in the real world, I need a deep understanding of the ideal state. It is not enough to build on what’s already been done, seeing a few feet or five years ahead in the fog. Fundamental change happens when you know what you are aiming for over the next ten, twenty, fifty years, and there are a critical mass of people who believe in the same vision.

You can be idealistic and realistic at the same time. In fact, to be a change agent, you have to be.

This year has given me vision and that has been more valuable than any technical or business skills one might learn.


One month to go! One month to go!

I did something useful today. I went into ‘internet lockdown’, yes sireee… I sat in my room with its super fast internet connection and its handy dandy internet cable plug thing and I UNPLUGGED MYSELF! I didn’t check my email for six hours! ooooooooooooo….. And I’m gonna do it again tomorrow!

I learned something interesting about flights and market segmentation yesterday. I talked to a travel agent about flight prices. I knew that somehow if you booked early enough, you got cheaper tickets. How does that work? Does the airline go, ‘Okay, a month before take-off, all the prices go up! Suckers, those people who don’t book early!’

In fact, the rules that govern the system are different, even if they appear to have the same effect. What the airline does is release all its seats at different prices. I don’t mean that seat B2 is more expensive than AK5, no. What they do is, ‘Okay, a hundred seats will be on sale for £400, a hundred will go for £450, another hundred for £600…’

So, yes, your chance of getting a cheap flight does improve if you get in early but the availability of the cheap fare also depends on demand. I mean, how many people would be the same seat for £450 if they can get it for £400?

So the question remains: Why do airlines do this? Is it to capture the poor-but-organised segment of the market (like concession fares for movies)? Is it to encourage people to book early? Is it to entice travellers if the market demand is low? Is it to make money from desperate or disorganised people who book two weeks before the flight?

It is an interesting and clever business model…

Diamonds are forever

Anna was telling me about the clever Tiffany’s campaign, which singlehandedly spread the idea that the right amount to spend on a diamond engagement ring was three month’s of the man’s income.

‘They even put a calculator on their website so that the man could work out how much he should spend,’ she said. ‘Although, any man who needs that calculator probably isn’t worth it…’

‘I read somewhere that the original reason for the diamond engagement ring was because once people got engaged, well, it was kind of like they could start sleeping together,’ I said.

Anna looked puzzled. ‘Was it to prove that they really were engaged?’

‘No. It was in case the woman got pregnant and then got dumped. She would at least still get some money to survive on by selling the ring.’

Anna considered this briefly. ‘So the ring’s like a deposit?’

I started laughing. ‘Exactly!’

The Mosuo

The Mosuo are an ethnic group living in the province of Yunan near Tibet. My parents visited them on their last trip to China.

Mum described the matriarchal society. ‘The women are the bosses. They run the village, the families and businesses. When a Mosuo woman sees a man she likes, she can point to him and say, ‘Come here’ and they will go to her bedroom. To show that there she has a man in her room, the man’s hat is hung on a hook near the door. When the woman is tired of him, she can tell him to leave. He takes his hat with him and the hook hook by the door is empty again.’

I listened, astonished. ‘Mum, I don’t know if many men would mind that…’

Mum shrugged. ‘Well, if the woman gets pregnant, it is the responsibility of her brother to raise the child. That is the burden of the men, to look after the children of their sisters.’

You can read more about the Mosuo here.

Monbiot tells us: ‘Choose Life’

George Monbiot is an environmental and political journalist, who writes for The Guardian. My values and beliefs align closely to his, although he is more radical than I am.

He has some careers advice on his blog, which warns me (and you):

Even intelligent, purposeful people almost immediately lose their way in such [corporate/institutional] worlds. They become so busy meeting the needs of their employers and surviving in the hostile world into which they have been thrust that they have no time or energy left to develop the career path they really wanted to follow. And you have to develop it: it simply will not happen by itself. The idea, so often voiced by new recruits who are uncomfortable with the choice they have made, that they can reform the institution they join from within, so that it reflects their own beliefs and moral codes, is simply laughable. For all the recent guff about “corporate social responsibility”, corporations respond to the market and to the demands of their shareholders, not to the consciences of their employees. Even the chief executive can make a difference only at the margins: the moment her conscience interferes with the non-negotiable purpose of her company – turning a profit and boosting the value of its shares – she’s out.

I had a session with the careers advisor this morning. Both he and I agreed that becoming a chartered engineer should be my key priority. However, Monbiot says, “…be wary of following the careers advice your college gives you.”

Nor does this mean that you shouldn’t take “work experience” in the institutions whose worldview you do not accept if it’s available, and where there are essential skills you feel you can learn at their expense. But you must retain absolute clarity about the limits of this exercise, and you must leave the moment you’ve learnt what you need to learn (usually after just a few months) and the firm starts taking more from you than you are taking from it. How many times have I heard students about to start work for a corporation claim that they will spend just two or three years earning the money they need, then leave and pursue the career of their choice? How many times have I caught up with those people several years later, to discover that they have acquired a lifestyle, a car and a mortgage to match their salary, and that their initial ideals have faded to the haziest of memories, which they now dismiss as a post-adolescent fantasy? How many times have I watched free people give up their freedom?

Oh dear.

8 rotten reasons to apply for a PhD

I picked up the New Scientist Graduate Careers Special (28 October 2006) at the Careers Service yesterday. There is a gem of an article by Matthew Killeya (PhD statistics). This is his list of eight rotten reasons to apply for a PhD.

  1. I want three more years of life as a student.
  2. I’ve got nothing better to do.
  3. I fancy my lecturer. (!)
  4. I want to pull students (“Don’t even go there – much, much worse than pulling your lecturer.”)
  5. I want “Doctor” on my credit card (“In fact, most people with a PhD are reluctant to flaunt their title. Imagine somebody introducing themselves as “doctor” in a pub – you’d probably think they were a prat.”
  6. They offered me a place.
  7. I’ll be raking the cash afterwards.
  8. I want to know all the answers. (“…expect your PhD to throw up more questions than answers.”)