Kenny John

Transferring from the 7 to the 6 under Grand Central I was transported to a different time. I heard his smoky strains as I passed him and smiled without seeing his face. My personal rule is that if someone can make me instinctively, unthinkingly smile with their music then I only owe them the change I have saved from the last time I was stingy. In one motion I walked past and instantly turned right around to add a tip to his hat and before he could say it I said, “thank you.” Thank you for slowing time down in this terminal, for transforming what it feels like to be alive in this station right now. The air felt full of mist and more serious somehow under the influence of his song.

I climbed the stairs and it wasn’t enough. I felt like a woman with dark hair and a red dress in a jazz club and maybe I was all of those things, except the dress was a salwar kameez and I was on my way back from an Eid celebration. I stood at the top and wished I had a partner with me because I would have taken him or her down in some kind of serious slowdance. I settled at taking my phone out to record the moment when to the next man who stopped to notice his music, he handed a white piece of paper and pointed in front of him, some twenty thirty feet away in the direction I stood. The musician took my breath away as I thought that maybe it could be me the note was for. His messenger seemed like he was about to pass me as he walked under the staircase, but he stopped and passed the card up through the rails.

Kenny John
Trumpeter / Drummer
Director of the Kenny J. Orchestra

His name is Kenny John and he plays skillfully unto the Lord and if his trumpet can transform a terminal like that, then we can do anything.

I was happy to be alone on my next escalator, up, so I could shift my weight from side to side in slow dance with self, curls bunched in one hand, feeling more beautiful just by his presence, until he was out of earshot.

Five Things I Learned in My First Year of Work

On the one-year anniversary of my first day at Living Cities, I'm sharing the five most powerful things I've learned at my workplace this year:

1. The mark of a great leader is to amplify the leader in everyone. 

I have been surrounded by leaders from the moment I joined Living Cities who have pushed me to believe in the inherent value in what I bring to the table, and to couple my curiosity with a self-assured faith in my ability to offer unique insights to our work. From Ty scolding me for sitting mute on a conference call and not introducing myself as an intern (“people need to meet all of the wonderful people we have working at Living Cities!”) to JaNay challenging me to speak out in TII meetings (“don’t think of yourself as young, because you don’t show up as young or inexperienced in a room”) to Jeff empowering me as a young staff member (“don’t ask me if you can go to the event — tell me you are going to the event!”) to Brittany reminding me again and again that there is power in my voice (“I have watched you transform an entire room with your questions”), I have been surrounded by colleagues and leaders who have empowered me to make my voice heard, and to believe in the value of my opinion.

As a young woman of color entering the full-time workforce from a competitive college setting, I honestly have battled some pretty serious internalized inferiority and self-doubt this year. But the constant nudging from strong leaders around me has reminded me how small and simple it may seem, but how powerful it is to amplify the voices of staff of every rank, gender, race, and so on.

2. The world is hungry for real-time learning. 

In conversations about the work that Living Cities does with other organizations in the field, the piece that often stands out as most innovative and unique is our commitment to learning in public and producing knowledge in real time. There is so much momentum to do good in this country, and cities are eager to learn about promising practices from one another. Living Cities has built an incredible platform to empower staff to share timely insights around both the successes and failures of our work to uplift low-income people in U.S. cities. This ability to accelerate learning through our evidence-building process will continue to be of crucial importance to our ability to effect results.

3. There is more than one way to talk about race. 

When I entered the organization, I was nervous about being educated and equipped enough to say the “right” things when we talked about race. I believe this racial anxiety — whether it stems from pain for people of color, or often from guilt for non-POC — is what hinders us from co-creating solutions and moving forward to action. How to convey oppression and trauma to people who have no firsthand experience with either remains a deep and pressing question in my mind, but what I am learning, through the training and conferences I have been fortunate enough to attend this year (and under the patient mentorship of Hafizah and Nadia), is that there is more than one way to discuss the issue in a way that is authentic to you and your experience with race and racism. It’s just crucial that you have a genuine desire to embrace the mindset of a humble student and commit yourself to the process. 

4. Genuinely engaging community is crucial. 

Whatever community looks like — whether it be residents of the cities you work in or the staff of your organization — engaging the community you serve, who is impacted by your decisions, at every stage of your work and with fidelity is the only way to determine that the work you do accomplishes not just what you believe is best for people, but what is actually most powerful for transforming the lives of people on the ground. This is particularly important from our balcony-view perspective in the philanthropic field.

5. Changing hearts and minds takes time. 

I have faith in the collective action approach because it just makes sense that large-scale change cannot be achieved by one sector alone, and we need data to track the outcomes we care about. And I am also learning that shifting entire sectors and systems takes time, patience, and dedicated leaders who are constantly driving the work forward.

With these insights and the countless others I have gained this year, I hope to be one of those leaders.

My Interview With Four Brilliant Feminist Leaders

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the Othering & Belonging conference hosted by the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley, and I can say without exaggeration that its content was some of the best content I have ever consumed in any form. The conference was on the obstacle of "othering," the process through which we are conditioned in society to discriminate based on any kind of difference -- and how to strive toward "belonging," or inclusion, across all sorts of fields -- from philanthropy to public health.

I think I never knew what it meant to be in a "safe space" until I experienced what it felt like to be present here. To know that everyone in the room (about 2,000 people) were all striving, aching for utmost acceptance and uplifting of ALL persons regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc. was freeing in a way I cannot articulate. I wore things I wouldn't wear elsewhere, I said things I wouldn't say elsewhere, and I felt so fully empowered to speak my mind. I am eager to share some of that spirit with you all.

I attended a breakout session called "Building a Transformational Women's Movement: Feminism at a Crossroads" where four feminist activists shared their vision and wisdom on how to forge a powerful women's movement for our time, as well as how to be kind and loving toward ourselves and others. Their words blew me away, and after the conference, I had the opportunity to interview each of them. Please check out my piece to learn from the beauty and brilliance of Malika Redmond, Vanessa Daniel, Kathleen Gutierrez, and Kim Tran.
Click here to read the post on Medium.

My Other Writing Life

Dear Readers,

The year (!) that has passed since graduation has been for me very much a time for self-care -- a time to spend time with self, listen to self, live with self, and reflect and decompress after a stimulating and challenging college career.

As many of you know, one of my responsibilities at Living Cities is to write about what we are learning in our work with cities, and about ourselves as an organization. In this vein, I have written a few pieces for work recently that I would like to share with all of you.

The first is called Radical Self-Care: Four Lessons from Our Meeting with City Leaders in Albuquerque and it describes a wonderful trip that my team took to New Mexico with the seven cities that my project works with most closely. In between group discussion, we re-connected with our work on social change through art and culture.

The next four pieces describe lessons that I learned through searching for a job in the social sector last spring, that I think can be valuable for other students and professionals as well. In one post, I share my process for searching for jobs to apply to and provide advice for young people interested in entering the social change space. In another, I describe the experience I had during my interview process, and follow up with tips for interviewers to make sure they are reflecting their organizational culture positively, as well as interview advice for students to use discussions with potential employers as opportunities to determine whether a firm would be a good fit for them.

All of my posts on the job application process are also available as part of this series called Hiring in the Social Sector.

I hope you all enjoy the fruits of "my other writing life," and I look forward to sharing more soon!


Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017

I was lucky to be able to visit our learning center this week, even if just for a few days. Though I wasn't there long, I wanted to share briefly my thoughts on where we came from, where we are, and where we're going. Click to read Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017.


You can hear it when you call them
The slight tone of surprise and expected expectation
They birthed those who birthed you

The best part, by far, of my trip to India these past two weeks was how much quality time I got to spend with my grandparents (or "the grandies" as I quite enjoy calling them). I've realized I have this subconscious fear that as I get older, I'm going to become too something -- too modern, too "American," too progressive, too aloof -- to be able to relate to my grandparents anymore. This trip was such beautiful proof that absolutely the opposite is true. Graduating college and living in the working world (albeit for very short a time) has filled me with nothing but admiration and respect for the inspiring careers and lives of strength and courage these incredible humans are living.

Let's start with my Nanaji. He won't approve, but the word that constantly comes to my mind for him and his career is "badass." (Since I know he will look this up and don't want him walking away with the wrong definition, I'm going to say I define that as "distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating" (Random House, Inc.)).

Nanaji decided to tinker with a college career in engineering, and ended up retiring as the Chief Engineer of the Punjab Irrigation Department, shortly after I was born. Then, he decided to benefit from the irrigation and drainage systems he himself had built throughout his career, and retired to his ancestral land in Abohar to run a citrus orchard.

He literally just does this for fun; so he has something to do. I asked him how he learned about farming and he said he had just been exposed to an agricultural lifestyle from a young age and that's how he picked up the vocabulary of the farm...and the technical stuff he learned on the internet. His fancy new sprinkler system for the fields arrived in Abohar the same day I arrived in India -- so I was honored and pleasantly surprised that between the two of us, he chose to receive me!

Nanaji and I got to chat on the long drives from Chandigarh to Ludhiana and between Amritsar and Chandigarh, and I had the privilege of getting to see a few of the sites at which he was stationed at various points in his career. I absolutely adore these drives, and deeply cherish the assorted advice Nanaji always gives me about personal finances, moderation, and trusting in the universe to do its thing.

My Nani is genuinely one of my closest friends. I can't think of anyone else, fluent in the same English-Hindi-Punjabi melange we speak, who so wholeheartedly accepts and appreciates my antics. Whether we are spontaneously breaking into bedroom Bhangra routines, rudely spitting out citrus seeds at the farm, or muttering genuinely irreverent Punjabi commentary about strangers who irk us, we never stop laughing together.

I keep thinking that one of these days I am going to be a good granddaughter and give this queen the pampering she so deserves -- but she never gives me a chance as every morning she wakes me up with my favorite Nescafe drink and a pile of my laundry from the day before that she has decided to wash by hand. Every day. Who even does laundry every day?!

After my adventures in Ludhiana and Amritsar, I returned to Chandigarh and just debriefed with Nani for two hours. I kept trying to flag topics in my head that maybe I couldn't discuss with her or feelings of mine that she wouldn't be able to relate to, but as I continued to run my mouth, I was disproven time and time again.

Despite a knee injury (can relate), Nani carted me around running my frivolous errands until the last hour of my trip, and when I was leaving she said, "I'll miss you so much...starting tomorrow I won't have anyone to do things for!"

My Dadi is a stunning exemplar of strength and independence. She never graduated high school but started from the age of 16 to support my Dadaji in his long and celebrated career as a college professor (whence my passion for education and literature come). Her dream was to one day be the Principal of a primary school. I didn't know of this aspiration until after I asked her to be the President of Gyaan Ghar in 2008, at which point we discovered that coincidentally, this dream had become a reality!

In addition to overseeing the daily operations of this learning center home to 65 students from low-income families, Dadi also serves as Vice President for the local Senior Citizen Welfare Association (advocating for the rights and dignity of the city's senior citizens) and runs the Park Club Society (through which she has been working on transforming junkyards in the region into green urban spaces for upwards of 15 years). So although she lives alone at the age of 77, she is never without something to do, and constantly frequented by adoring community members seeking her counsel.

I skirted around trying to explain what I do at Living Cities with most people on my trip, but with Dadi I decided to go ahead and try it -- within three sentences (clumsily uttered in Hindi, no less) she had grasped our model more quickly than probably anyone I've tried to explain the organization to, including in English. She asked brilliant questions and then started talking about how we need to do more to bridge the intergenerational wealth gap between blacks and whites in which point I was just too blown away to hear anything else she said.

I spent time at the dinner table last week asking Dadi to recite her story and Dadaji's, including all the places they have lived over their lives, which I audio recorded so I can go back and look each place up to document as much of the history and wisdom of my elders as I can.

One of my favorite quotes (by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) begins: “Play with a small child as you played when you were a child. Talk with an elderly person remembering that one day, you will be like them.” In the case of my grandies, all I can do is hope that this is true.

A Conversation with Suparna Gupta, Founder of Aangan India

Last January, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the annual Harvard US-India Initiative conference about the Indian juvenile justice system and the Juvenile Justice Act of 2009. The panel featured some human rights rockstars, including Harvard Law School Professor Jacqueline Bhabha and the Founder and Director of Aangan India, Ms. Suparna Gupta.

Our conversation last winter went by way too quickly, and I've since been eager to pick both of their brains further about this topic near and dear to my heart. Having just touched down in India last week, I was lucky enough to be able to meet with Suparna Gupta to learn more about Aangan and their systemic approach to child protection.

A number of themes stood out to me in our conversation, particularly as areas that we at Living Cities are trying to figure out in the context of job creation in U.S. cities. Connections across sectors and disciplines whirred through my mind as Suparna compared their work and ours, cutting across continents and cultures.

Learning from All Levels

The first thing that struck me was how empowering and encouraging Suparna was as a listener while we spoke. She is a giant in a field that I know admittedly little about, and yet she asked more questions than she gave answers, interrupting occasionally with the excited respect one affords an intellectual peer. I thought about it later and realized that this unequivocal respect is a cornerstone of Aangan's approach -- to listen to voices that come from all places and consider them of equal weight and validity. The communities we aim to serve in the social sector are too often excluded from the dialogue about how best to help them; thus consultation with children affected by issues like abuse and neglect is a key piece of Aangan's model.

Sharing Knowledge in Real Time

So of course Suparna opened by asking me, "What are you doing these days?" and when I mentioned that I work on writing to share real-time learnings across the cities we work with, she paused me to say, "Wait -- real-time learning -- what is that phrase? That's what we need."

Our philosophy toward learning at Living Cities is that if we wait to publish until research is "conclusive" in an academic sense, the window for when that knowledge could be useful to another city will likely have passed. Hence we encourage our cities not to be afraid to "fail fast" -- regardless of whether they achieve a success or a failure, to share lessons learned with the world in real-time so that other cities can replicate promising practices and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Aangan is a pioneer in collecting data at the grassroots level and then giving the data back to communities so they can implement change on the ground in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate. The team recently launched an app through which areas that are hotspots for child trafficking can self-report community data -- this data is then shared back to the community, and also reported to the state government. Thus change can take place at multiple levels: community members can use signs of high-risk situations to better equip them to protect children in the region based on trends that emerge for them, and the state can roll out policies and programs to protect children. (One such program has police officers spending a few hours a week with women and girls in the community to build trust, so that they be seen as advocates who can aid in prevention, rather than authorities dealing in punishment.)

Seeking Systemic Solutions & Cross-Sector Collaboration

Another piece that came alive for me in our conversation was Suparna's (indirect and conversational) description of what it truly means to look at a problem from the systems level. "I started off being really interested in education, and then realized I was more concerned about the students who weren't in the classroom. What was keeping these kids out of school?" This simple rhetorical question sent me reeling down a mental journey about why I always feel like there's something missing in the level of support we can provide at Gyaan Ghar, why I wish I could go home with each and every student and observe what their relationship with their parents looks like and whether they fight with their siblings or not, and on and on all the way to the root cause of why they are where they are. Suparna drew the connection between lack of familial financial security and risk of being trafficked for me simply and vividly, again hearteningly striking a connection between our focus on wealth creation for low-income people at Living Cities and Aangan's work on child protection and well-being. To consider and engage with an entire system on an issue like child protection is both comfortingly tangible and dizzyingly complex.

We bemoaned the fact that more students don't say they study "systems science" because "political science" brings to mind something easier to understand -- but we ranted about the need to reform entire systems surrounding elected officials to embed change that persists beyond each new administration eager to make its own uniquely innovative mark. I got to spend a bit of time here talking about how the cross-sector tables in each of our Integration Initiative cities originated, and also how we continue to iterate to make sure the right people are at the table to make sure that change is sustainable and sustained.

Personal Reflections

Influenced by my time working at Sasha Bruce Youthwork and proud of my certification in their "competency-based counseling" approach, I was quick to jump in and ask how counseling fits into Aangan's work with women and children. Suparna challenged my assumptions by asking "what exactly do you mean by 'counseling'?" (Her background is in psychology and communications, so the question was meant purely didactically, and caught me accordingly off-guard.) I stumbled to get out the words "clinical talk therapy" (as technical as it gets when you are as out of your depth as I was) and she pushed me to think about what counseling would mean for the communities that Aangan works in. "If you mean talking, everything we do with these kids is talking. In fact, it's the only tool we have. If you mean sitting in an office talking to a 'professional,' I encourage you to think about the vocabulary it takes to describe the risks these children are facing, even as an adult. Now picture a child trying to describe those experiences in a clinical setting." Once again, I was pushed out of my comfort zone to think about the inherent privilege and potential for alienation involved when we tout tools that are not culturally appropriate. Suparna then drew the link to artistic expression (trauma-informed informal "art therapy") as a tool that Aangan uses to work with children (when appropriate). Implicitly: art is a language we all have access to. My jaw dropped to the floor as another tool whose application I've grappled with emerged from our conversation, drawing connections across multiple fields I'm extremely passionate about.

I left our conversation with a deep sense of optimism. I was extremely heartened to find the field I currently work in so relevant and "easily" applicable to a different social issue in a country with an entirely different set of cultural norms and political forces. Suparna's words about overcoming systems as engrained as child marriage, or even the caste system -- through words, the only tool we have -- gave me so much hope, and re-instilled my commitment to continuing to push and grapple with these issues, one piece at a time.