An Honest Conversation

A few of my interviews have extolled the values of radical honesty and showing up authentically, as authenticity is one of the few arenas in which mediation and trust-building can thrive. However, doing so depends on everyone being as open, clear, and as vulnerable to each other as they can be, which we know for a number of reasons is especially hard for many of the kids and just as many of the adults to do in schools. A future attempt at honesty:


Mr. Xavi honestly never really understood his students the way he wanted to, though he tried each day to connect in whatever way he knew how. Yet, every day was a hard one in which his earnestness to mold young minds was read as exactly that, making him a prime target for those who craved a sense of control. The same was true of Jerome, though his situation made all that much harder by puberty. Every day was a hard one in which his earnestness to be accepted was read as exactly that, making him a prime target for those who craved a sense of control. On this day, Jerome is in 12th grade and Mr. Xavi is his English teacher. All but 2 black students in Jerome’s English class are out of class today for various suspensions, detentions, or other disciplinary actions. The class is otherwise full by the strong attendance of the other students. In English class, a strange conversation about said conditions ensues:

“Jerome, why are you on your phone in the back? This makes me feel blue.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. Today I feel upset because you asked me why I was on my phone, and have not asked the same of any of the other kids in class who are also on their phone.”

“Jerome, today I am feeling red. My mood is green. Today I am frustrated because I am trying to teach, and your phone use is distracting me. Everyone else is on their phone, but I’m talking to you right now.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. My heart is yellow. Today I feel confused because why should my texting keep you from writing on the board when your back is turned anyway?”

“Jerome, today I am feeling red. My mood is green. My feelings are blue. Hearing you say that made me feel sad, frustrated.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. This interaction makes me feel red. Courtney is still on her phone by the way. Actually, she’s been on her phone all class and my mom just texted me so…”

“Jerome, I understand…”

“Mr. X, I feel blue because you cut me off. This makes my mood burnt mahogany. Can you help me understand why I would feel this way?”

“Jerome, today I feel red, increasingly fiery red. Today I feel disappointed because I feel you are deflecting from the issue at hand, which is increasingly distracting to me and the other students.”

A few other students let out a lazed, mixed cacophony of “mmm”, “ya”. Courtney takes a selfie with the other half of the class, many of whom were prepped to leave an Instagram comment, after having done the same all class period.

“Mr. Xavi, this makes me feel lime green. My heart is yellow. I actually would love to move on from this conversation as my phone was a distraction to me too. I’ve been enjoying your lesson so far.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney interrupts, “Can you take this picture for me?”

Mr. Xavi obliges while continuing to emote with Jerome, though growing exasperated. Today, like every day, was a hard one.

“Jerome, today I feel gray. I am tired. I don’t know why we keep having the same conversation.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney interrupts, “Another please? The angle, though.”

“Mr. Xavi, I understand what you’re saying as I am also tired. I don’t know why we keep having the same conversation.”

“Jerome, thank you for sharing. Today I feel blue, my heart is orange, my future is yellow”

“Mr. Xavi, thank you for sharing. Today I feel black, my heart is blue, my future is white, my insides feel calm. My world is bright.”

“Yes Jerome, your world is bright.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney yells. “Another please?”

Jerome takes the moment to return a text to his mom. Next to him Courtney adjusts her filter to Aden and thanks Mr. Xavi.

“Thank you, Mr. Xavi, my heart is blue. My insides feel calm. My world is bright.”



School to Prison Pipeline Ecosystem

Boston has been one of a few cities across the country to put some effort towards mitigating the over-incarceration of young children of color, otherwise known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Across the country, the school-to-prison pipeline is a pattern that can begin from pre-K and follows a child throughout their youth. Data shows that children who have been given out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or otherwise fall victim to zero-tolerance policy within the school systems are far more likely to drop out later in their academic career, and consequently more likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system. Though strict disciplinary policies are rarely beneficial to all students, this is extremely detrimental for school-aged children of color and children with disabilities, the most deeply affected groups when it comes to this pattern.

In a recent study of Boston Public Schools, the school-to-prison pipeline was shown to be alive and well within the city. About 10 percent of all black males, 9 percent of all student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 6 percent of all Latino males were suspended, slightly above the 5 percent of all students who were suspended in the 2014-15 school year. Those numbers are compelling, but not as compelling as the reasons behind those suspensions: In the 2012-13 school year, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice found that just over 72 percent of students in the state were disciplined for non-violent and non-criminal offenses with a suspension. In that same year, the Committee found similarly staggering patterns by race–1 in 8 black students were disciplined overall, compared to 1 in 27 white students. While the figures are quite stark, the implications are the most troubling. The high number people of color affected by out of school suspensions and expulsions mirror the prevalence of people of color found later in the criminal justice system.

Boston has been making strides in addressing these disparities by funneling resources towards this particular issue. Organizations like Greater Boston Legal Services and the ACLU of Massachusetts have dedicated funding and effort towards this through particular projects and efforts. One such initiative is the School to Prison Pipeline, created by Greater Boston Legal Services, which partners with MassHealth to provide more holistic treatment for kids who may be affected by this precedent.


An wide ecosystem of actors are also involved in either maintaining the status quo or actively working to mitigate it–they can be found in the ecosystem map here.


School Days: A Personal Performance and Reflective Exercise

Five values driving this work:

We believe every voice in this community is valuable: Every person–whether they’re a student, parent, teacher, administrator, or otherwise–has something valuable to add to this picture and we value their opinion and perspective. We recognize that this issue is best solved as a community, with everyone represented.

We believe in equity: This conversation is one part of an ecosystem of structural inequities that systemically disenfranchise black and brown people in this country. Though the space is inclusive of all voices, we also aim to direct some attention to voices that may not have previously been part of this conversation and elevate them.

We believe in positive change: We believe that there are ways we can improve, and we’re invested in seeking those out.

We are honest with ourselves and each other: This work is best served when all parties are honest about their barriers to understanding, difficulties, and challenges. It’s served just as well when folks are honest about their hopes, great breakthroughs, and moments of vulnerability.

We trust each other: In order to create an honest and open space, it’s important that participants have an understanding that they’re safe in this space to express what’s on their mind, and build from these honest conversations and explorations.

With that being said, how do you begin to tackle something as daunting as the school-to-prison pipeline?

The most important takeaway from most convenings is the understanding that though this problem will not be solved in a day, momentum has been made. Thus, I want to give everyone a chance to attack this problem and their understanding of it through empathy. Though the school-to-prison pipeline represents a larger systemic problem involving many actors, many cases begin with an interaction between the student and a teacher or administrator. I’d like this exercise to be one that allows the two parties to later tap into a moment of empathy when faced with conflict again, such that there can be a conclusion other than a punitive one.

During the school day, I’d like to take a full day to do an immersive exercise in which students can share their experiences with faculty and administrators and vice versa. I think any longer than one day would detract from class time and fail to hold everyone’s attention, but it would be enough time to fully flesh out the contours of this exercise. During the first half of the day, students and teachers could start the school day off with a concurrently-run series of interventions that detail their experience with authority inside and outside of school.

For the students–

There would be five sections of the day, all intended to allow students to express how they feel about being in school during the day. For some that could mean letting out some of the frustrations and for others that could mean showing others how they find joy in their community. The first exercise is one designed to let out that emotion out onto a physical object. Each student gets two giant pieces of poster-sized paper and is told to do whatever they’d like to it that represents how they feel about a normal school day when they wake up in the morning, before they have arrived. The second is a more physical activity, asking students to express how they feel about a normal school day around mid-day through bodily movements and dance. Slightly more structured than the last, the third asks folks to let their feelings out about leaving school at the end of the day through song or the written word. The last is a written exercise, asking folks how they feel about life at the very end of the day, as they’re going to sleep at night. Though these interventions are all done in quick succession, any student who doesn’t feel comfortable reliving their day through a particular medium can choose to swap out another medium should they choose. The wrap-up activity is a “Day in My Shoes”, in which students get to share what they’ve learned about the way they experience a normal school day through this reflection. A few students then share the story behind their interpretations of their school day, with an eye for variety. Once completed, the moderator asks students to do this exercise again, except this time describing what a perfect school day would look like to them. They can use any of the mediums they used earlier on in the day, whatever works best for them.

For the teachers and administrators–

An analogous experience would transpire for the teachers at the same time. They’d get space to do this activity in a room of just teachers, allowing them the space to find community in an environment that can often be isolating for them.

Final wrap-up:

The moderators (who were taking notes at all of the interactions of the day thus far) then facilitate a conversation between teachers and students, allowing each to air some of the points that came up during the day. There’s special care to focusing on the elements of a perfect school day, unlocking the learnings found from that reflective practice in particular. Moderators then lead a closing practice that allows everyone to build from what they learned about everyone’s ideal school day to cogenerate some ideas of how to translate that sentiment into practice.

Creating an Anarchist “Passport”

by Feroze Shah, Zaria Smalls, Maia Woluchem

A passport is a tangible, internationally accepted, physical document that serves multiple purposes for legal citizens of a ‘national entity’. Formally, it serves to provide identification, prove citizenship, enable access to state services and allow physical travel between recognized states. In order to function, it relies on an international regime of standardization and mutual recognition. The resulting processes that denote entry and exit from each port allow this physical document to also act as a tangible record of ones travel across state boundaries.

To obtain this document, one must petition their national entity and pay an associated cost. The national entity thus has exclusive power and authority to to enable or restrict access to all the privileges and rights a passport provides. This access is also not permanent. The document has an expiration date and a limited number of pages, which once exhausted, will result in the loss of all of its value. Additionally, the passport remains the property of one’s national entity even when physically with the user; it can unilaterally be revoked or cancelled at any time.

In some cases this physical document has different forms (e.g. Passport Cards in the US); however, not all forms give the same amount of access to privileges. Finally, depending on the issuing nation, some passports are more powerful as a symbol and provide more privileges and freedoms than others.

We began by trying to imagine what it meant for a world to have an Anarchist regime. We quickly settled on two distinct ways of thinking about this. The first was a world in which all countries were Anarchist. But a natural consequence of this line of thinking was that in a world in which no recognized central authorities existing, national borders were unlikely to function and the material justification of passports would largely be unnecessary. The second, more challenging, approach was to consider a world in which a state unilaterally declares itself to be Anarchist, but still functions within a larger world with other conventional nations. Most of our discussion ended up being focussed on this approach.

Our definition of an Anarchist state in this hypothetical was one in which no central authority akin to a government existed. Citizens self-organized to provide services to each other privately and laws were substituted by a norms and iterative expectations of self-interest. “Citizenship” did not have any meaning beyond being a resident of the same geographic vicinity as others. Where you were born or how you got there was not relevant, if you were present you were afforded all the “freedoms” as all other residents. Borders were not enforced, and were imposed by surrounding countries. As a result in-bound immigration was not restricted, and the requirements for outbound travel were entirely at the mercy of the destination country.

We then turned to a process of identifying the essential functions of a passport that now needed  to be substituted to be made to work in this setting, and to challenge assumptions of which of those functions would even be needed or relevant. Our fundamental challenge was that a passport in its present form, represents the very symbols of central power, authority and subservience of the “citizen” that Anarchy directly opposes. In the case of most internal requirements, such as identification and access to state services, the lack of a government or central authority made most of them redundant in the conventional sense. As there was no central guarantor of identity, most trust-based transactions would be dependent on personal relationships or informal, private networks of trust that would vary based on the use case.

The major problem to be solved was regarding how to manage the functions related to international travel. The passport serves as a de facto endorsement of a state. It can prove an individual’s origin and level of risk, and define the potential diplomatic consequences of how they are treated.  From our perspective, there was no “state” that could provide this endorsement by design so we would need to find alternatives that would placate the demands of other states to allow entry. We spent the majority of our discussion debating aspects of how this could work in a relatively realistic and feasible way. Although we did not have complete agreement on all aspects, we attempted to model the process of two already accepted aspects of the international travel regime; visa applications and enforced statelessness (which includes refugees and forced migrants).

We felt the fundamental concern from a “destination” country would be to meet the current standards of establishing trust, financial viability and risk assessment. As there was no central authority we believed that this would have to be maintained unilaterally by any “citizen” of the Anarchist state that wished to travel. This would effectively include a maintaining a running collection of private documents and endorsements (such as bank statements and pictorial proof of residence and familial linkages) that could then be provided over to any country that they wished to travel to. Social media history could also be used a proxy for a lot of the functions that are currently dependent on “official” documentation. In many cases the most stringent vetting processes (especially for those individuals that do not have official documentation such as refugees) already ask for the same measures of proof.

In working through this exercise, it became incredibly apparent that this solution begs a deeper understanding of the ecosystem in which this intervention lies. In our case, though an entirely Anarchist world with no need for passports would have been the easiest fix, the natural world has few analogs for this kind of universal understanding of any type of political or social schema. By focusing on our hypothetical Anarchist state, this exercise highlights the difficulty of any intervention interacting with a bigger, more complex world, with a different set of norms than our own. In the twenty minutes we used to complete this exercise, we dove deep into that difficulty, and came up a bit short in achieving a one-size-fits-all solution. But in doing so, we also got to experience both the pain and triumph of attempting an intervention of this scale in any reality, in our case an entirely stateless one.


Housing Instability / Vision Zero / Suspension & Expulsion in K-5 Schools

Chronic Housing Instability in the City of Boston

The City of Boston, like many of our coastal cities, is dealing with a housing crunch like no other. A shortage of affordable housing is pushing people out of affordable rentals and homeownership, and increasing the prevalence of housing instability at the margins, including evictions, housing discrimination, and predatory landlords. There’s a lot the city is currently trying to do, and a lot it’s not able to do because of a difficult regulatory environment. This is a speculative exercise in what I would do, could I change those things:

Markets –  The City of Boston is past the point where building affordable housing might appreciably affect chronic housing instability for marginalized communities. Like most cities in the Northeast, there’s incredible pressure on the supply of housing currently available in the city. Furthermore, the pace and type of construction (far more market-rate housing is going up than affordable units) is insufficient to address these needs. Because the change necessary to stymie housing instability from a traditional market perspective is really slow, I’d advocate for a faster market-driven solutions that could supplement construction by allowing people to stay in their homes during times of stress or insecurity. For example, should a family come close to missing a rental payment, the city could offer a program that steps in to foot the bill during moments of emergency or an issue of timing mismatch. This critical aid during moments of vulnerability can keep families in their homes more permanently, kids in their schools, prevent the short-term panic caused by a potential eviction or case of homelessness. The City of Boston recently hiked up prices for traffic tickets across the city—this could be a good way to funnel that money.

Norms – Though finding housing for single students is hard, finding housing for working families is an especially difficult endeavor in the city due to cost, availability of right-sized units, high broker fees and security deposits, and increasingly the coordination problems caused by the widely accepted September 1st move-in date. Because so many properties save units for a September 1st move-in, it creates a landlord’s paradise both in terms of price and wraparound services for the move. Due to that artificial scarcity that hits the market around mid-June and early-July, families looking to move into apartments in summertime are forced to sublet for the first few months of their stay, pay exorbitant fees to brokers to show the last few apartments on the market, and take time from busy work days to view the last few available apartments at their price range. The increased competition creates spillovers throughout the rental market, including the high price of movers, trucks, cleaning services, and the incredible pressure on the few days surround September 1st move-in. While this may work for a flexible student schedule, the extra costs due to missed days of work, financial burden, brokers fees and child care are incredibly difficult or impossible for working families, locking them out of housing opportunity. Releasing the pressure of 9/1 and the Allston Christmas might smooth out the housing market throughout the city, making it easier on renters who aren’t students to find housing for the year.

Law – Boston’s housing market has relatively few protections for renters, including those at risk of eviction, rent hikes, and discriminatory landlords. Though the city is subject to federal laws governing fair housing and other housing provisions, stringent home rule means that efforts to enact rules like rent control and just cause evictions have stalled at the State House. Fixing housing in Boston is hard as a result, both because legislation is hard to pass and property owners and landlords are particularly powerful in the city. If I could do anything to affect chronic housing instability in the city, I would remove home rule to allow the city more flexibility to enact the housing legislation that works best for Boston.

Code – The city has incredibly limited data on housing instability because there are only a few ways for folks to report problematic landlords or practices to the city without retribution. I would bolster the 311 services the city already has to allow for anonymous reporting of landlords to the city to better define landlords who perpetuate evictions or discrimination with limited risk for the reporting party.

Traffic fatalities due to bicycle-vehicle crashes 

Though the city of Boston is aiming to lessen serious traffic accidents through it’s efforts through Vision Zero, most of these interventions are geared towards increasing driver awareness of bicycles in the street, and maintaining the right of way for all modes of transportation.
Markets – There are already quite high financial penalties for traffic fatalities, not least of all the money needed attend to yourself or your vehicle after a wreck. However, I’d bolster that financial incentive by explicitly detailing insurance plans to increase driver awareness towards bikers. Perhaps more congested cities can make biker-vehicle interactions a clear line-item in driver’s insurance plans, creating specific monetary penalties for crashes involving a bicycle.
Norms –  The “Dutch reach” is often an example a particularly effective mechanism for increasing driver awareness of bikers. By incentivizing drivers to check their side view before opening their doors, it will decrease dooring crashes between motor vehicles and bicyclists, one of the largest contributors to serious injuries in bike-vehicle accidents. Although that is a specific intervention, it does imply that drivers are generally aware enough of bikers to moderate their own behavior, which is a place I think we can get to.
Law – It’s very legal for bikes to be on the road, but it doesn’t always appear to be that way based on signage, road markings, and other indicators of the rules of the road. Where there aren’t road markings, there should be signs alerting drivers to the rules of the road, namely that drivers and bikers are to share the roadway
Code – Build a warning system into vehicles to let them know there are items in there peripheral approaching. For example, some newer models of motor vehicles have lights on their mirrors that illuminate when other vehicles or obstructions approach the car. Something like this would be immensely helpful to alert drivers of bikes approaching and reduce fatalities.
Excessive Suspensions and Expulsions in K-5 schools
The widely publicized school-to-prison pipeline is one of the major contributors to structural racism in our lifetime. A stab at some solutions:
Markets – Though markets and education already have a difficult relationship (and I’m not advocating for complicating that relationship further), a solution may come in disincentivizing punitive action for young kids. The cost of teachers staying after school to host detentions, parents arranging childcare for suspended young children, and the administrative cost of expelling students are all faced by some actor in this ecosystem. Perhaps instead it may be cheaper to train teachers in deescalation tactics or embed moments of reflection in the school day, leaning away from punitive actions for kids who may be having a difficult time adjusting to school.
Norms – I think we need to shift away from excessive punitive actions for young children in school anyway, especially to young boys of color. By treating rambunctious behavior as inherently dangerous, it stigmatizes playfulness for young kids far more than necessary. This is the first place I’d start. By putting additional emphases on the socioemotional perspective of a school day, kids may be more able to communicate the things that are troubling them, and it may open a conversation that can precede disciplinary action.
Law – Where it is flexible enough to do so, school superintendents and principals could enact rules that create more distance between initial “offenses” and suspensions. For example, kids may have to see a school counselor for a certain number of sessions before a detention, or have a certain number of parent/teacher conferences before moving directly to suspensions and expulsions.
Code – Often when kids act up in school, it can be due to a number of other issues including their home or neighborhood environment, personal difficulties, bullying, or a myriad of other issues. It may be helpful to develop a way to track students who are seeing other professionals to address a number of these other issues (for example, a child’s social worker, spiritual leader, sports coach) to coordinate care more effectively for students who may really need it. That extra ounce of coordination may keep a student from falling behind in school, or worse, getting suspended or expelled for a minor offense.

Participation by Design

In my previous life I was a policy researcher, working with communities to measure the impact of federal and local policy in their neighborhoods. An essential part of that work was community surveys, something that often our partner organizations would see as important but laborious and expensive tasks. On one particular project, we decided to invest in tablet computers to complete our community surveys, making a previously arduous job a more streamlined endeavor that could better incorporate community members in the process of data collection.

In theory, survey administrators would go door-to-door throughout the neighborhood in pairs with a community member, tablet in hand. After gaining entrance to someone’s home with help of the community member, they would read the survey aloud as prompted by the tablet, which was dynamically programmed to respond to a person’s survey answers. As a result, the survey could be anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the type of survey respondent. Instead of carrying around pads of paper, leaving sensitive information more vulnerable to loss, the data was uploaded to a remote server which was now password protected. This level of protection allowed us to get much deeper than we would otherwise, asking folks to disclose their feelings of safety, detailed information about their children, and the private details of their life in the neighborhood.

In practice, it did just that. It was extremely successful in that got the organization the information they needed, and community members were able to take part in the larger survey effort, which took about six weeks to complete. However, with some distance I feel discomfort in the work we did for a few reasons, only a few of them having to do with the technology.

As a researcher, our interactions with the community were primarily extractive exercises. Though we were intending to cultivate community in our survey effort, showing that this was a way for everyone to have a hand in the reimagination of this neighborhood, what instead we did was pass this detailed information on to higher powers, who then made decisions without continued input. Having completed a few of those surveys myself, many of these interactions were bolstered by trust that giving up this information would be for a greater, distant good. As a result, folks would discuss this sensitive, personal information, receive $50 in return, yet in some cases, were never heard from again. We listened to stories of disenfranchisement, heard tales of repeated efforts for neighborhood revitalization, all of which were hard to capture in the survey we provided, and harder still to continually act upon as the project went on.

Recently the project itself was sunsetted due to limited grant funding, leaving all of that detailed survey information locked on a server in my old office, where no one in the community has access to it despite all of that effort. It’s since left me thinking a lot about the use of technology for social change as one discrete moment in the timeline of a project. As a one-off community exercise, our survey was very successful. For those six weeks, folks felt as though they were really contributing to something and were generally thrilled to be a part of it. We got the change we hoped to see, but only for that particular moment.

In retrospect, I regret that there were not more pathways for this to be more democratic, more participatory the entire way through. Nobody in the community has access to this treasure trove that we made together, and that stops all future use of this resource by anyone else who wants to take it up and enact change with it themselves.

As I know now, the nature of research creates power dynamics that are hard to overcome by the sheer will to be better. With some distance, maybe there is a place for this kind of research in an ecosystem of discussions about social change. However, they are distinct from efforts to truly push social change—for those we all need to make better efforts to embed that by design.

Learning to Step Forward

As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been afraid of the poor outcomes of even my most banal decisions. I used to be that cripplingly shy kid in most social situations, ruining any idea that I’d be the confident, loud, and overbearing Nigerian auntie I guess I was supposed to be. Better a weird kid than a difficult one, I guess.

Though I’ve worked hard to be a 9-5 extrovert, it’s still difficult for me to step out and make my opinions known in most situations. I’ve still got my kid in me manifesting in the worst ways. To date, I’m still fighting the urge to sit quiet when I have an idea and encourage myself take up some space. The strive to remain agreeable is taxing — wouldn’t recommend.

It’s not to say there hasn’t been stuff brewing, albeit always showing up more quietly than I intended. In my former life I was a policy researcher, hiding whatever fiery thoughts, critiques, and realities I had about the inequality of the real world in a very agreeable working paper that only a few people would read. It was a comfortable space for a younger me – non-confrontational and polite, but I also could have been convinced it was an action. We would pat ourselves on the back for moving the needle (any needle), no matter how incrementally. If someone makes a bad policy decision out of the work we’ve done, it was their prerogative. We were as neutral and fact-based as we could have been. Given our current political situation and my former institution’s only marginal bend towards positive action, I would not consider myself entirely proud of this position.

At MIT, I’m learning instead to be stymied by my own laziness instead of fear, and step into a place where I can stand more firmly on my integrity than my ability to be diplomatic. Admittedly, it’s scary position for an urban planner, a field that’s been as celebrated for its bold wins as it has been marred by its bold mistakes. As history shows, balancing everyone’s idea of integrity is a difficult task. However, as a planner, my personal focus is on how technology is translated to, driven by, and affecting marginalized communities, and I do think the field could use some new voices. In this class I’m hoping to get some legs to stand on, to be able to evaluate what being a good navigator, steward, translator, and participant in this space looks like. But mostly, I’m aiming to kick the quiet in me, turning that instead into thoughtful action that is both democratic and illustrative of the good values that I hope can drive us into the future. If research taught me anything, it’s that at some point, it’s worthwhile to take an action, just best that the action is a good one.