"Architecting" institutions
Life in Melbourne: My first few days

Gratitude and Mentorship

Every morning, I read from Deng Ming-Dao's 365 Daily Taoist Meditations. Now that I have moved to the Southern Hemisphere, I am off track to my friends and family in the Northern Hemisphere with whom I share them. Today's meditation for the Northern Hemisphere was Gratitude.

When you drink water,
Remember its source.

Being spiritual means not taking things for granted. Quite the opposite, you remember how everything that comes to you fits into an overall scheme. You acknowledge the precious quality of everyday things. And you maintain a gratitude for both the good and the bad in your life.

--Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Taoist Daily Meditations (Harper San Francisco: 1992, p. 195)

This meditations sends my thoughts in the direction of mentorship based on an op-ed piece about Supreme Count Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “life” by David Brooks, entitled The Way We Live Now. There are three aspects of his description of her that deeply resonated with me.

The first is the fact that she had, as well, lost a parent at the age of nine years. Brooks goes on to say, “It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.”

The second is the sacrifices in relationships she has had to make including her relationship to her ethnic identity.

The third is the most important and one that colors my sense of gratitude. I will quote Brooks directly to capture it, “Her ascent wasn’t a maverick charge against the establishment. Instead, at each phase her talents were noticed by a well-placed member of that establishment — a famous law professor, a revered D.A., a partner at an elite firm. She was elevated and guided.”

Mary Pratt, the partner of Renato Rosaldo my dissertation advisor, once said to me, “You have a knack to attracting powerful allies.” I have never really had the arrogance to believe that any of my achievements have been mine alone. I have always been aware and had a strong sense of gratitude for the long list of those who have “elevated and guided” me:

  • Mr. Selvy in 7th grade who was the Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle, and thus taught me to be a gifted presenter and nurtured my inner-linguist. Every time I get up to do a presentation, I thank him for those Saturday speech competitions reciting Soujourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” and Rotary Club presentations.
  • Mr. Allen in 8th grade who suggested that I be interviewed on a series desegregation and its after effects, which was my first blush with “fame.” From that experience, I learned that I “represent” many positive things to people (in terms of being black, female, and smart) who also share in my successes.
  • Mr. Foster in high school, who gave me my first set of acrylic paints and taught me the discipline and appreciation of form.
  • Mr. Reed in high school, who opened up the world of great literature for me and pushed me to express myself in words eloquent, beautiful, and most importantly, true.
  • Professor Kilbride, who gave me my first fieldwork experiences in Kenya while a wee undergraduate. 
  • Professor DesChene, my first real female mentor, who would never allow me to rest on my anthropological laurels and supported me in the most untraditional of anthropological topics, phone sex, because she knew that I could not be bound by anthropological conventions. And to this day, I cannot be bound by anthropological conventions.
  • Professor Rosaldo (Renato), who ran some much interference for me at Stanford that while other people think of graduate school as this infantilizing process, I think fondly of it as where I learned to circumvent barriers in order to make manifest the most bizarre and unusual of your ideas. From him professionally, I learned the importance of having a powerful ally who will allow you to...skip the proposal writing course because you had already completed the output of it, take your qualifying exams one year earlier (which saved me from disaster when he had a stroke), win an NSF grant, and write and accept a dissertation whose form and content he did not completely understand, yet supported anyway. From him personally, I learned the importance of being attuned to your own spirituality, which is what allows you to really circumvent all barriers.
  • Dr. Rick Robinson, who gave me my first non-academic job at E-lab/Sapient and opened an entirely new universe of possibilities and understanding for anthropological knowledge.
  • Parrish Hanna, who is more of a big brother than mentor, per se, but I’ve learned how to always seek my next challenge and has become my model for how to handle, in the future for me perhaps, “mind-blowing” success with kindness, humility, and grace, and thus remain a down-to-earth person.
  • Ric Grefe, who is the first person that I’ve ever directly asked to be my mentor because there were aspects of his character that I actively wanted to acquire: compassionate leadership, progressive long-term vision for an organization, supreme skills of persuasion/manipulation if necessary, and boundless curiosity about how the world works and how to make it better. He is given me the most opportunities to cultivate my leadership skills with Design for Democracy, the German Marshall Fellowship, and even the U.S. Design Policy Initiative, in which I have learned to truly trust my own leadership and vision.
  • Dr. Roberta Feldman, who has guided me through two very difficult professional situations with DforD and UIC.  She epitomizes “strength of character” for me, because throughout the bullshit she has been put through in her career, she remains focused on what matters, which is “the work.” She has taught me that if you preserve and focus on doing what is necessary to sustain “the work,” then you will always triumph over the political BS. Institutions come and go. Power individuals with personal vendettas against you come and go. Recognition is fleeting. In the end, what remains is your personal integrity and the work itself. In both of these is the power one never cedes to another individual and institution.
  • Dr. Ken Friedman, who will become my primary mentor in guiding the next few years of my career. It is rare that someone says “Write down your dream job” and hands it to you. I have been given such an amazing platform by which to grow almost exponentially in the next few years. Even yesterday, it was fun to watch him “work it” with the Victoria State Ministry of Innovation and Economic Development. The fact that I was present in the meeting at all demonstrates his desire to elevate my work. And what makes this situation so ideal is that I will help him achieve his goals by just doing what I do (exceptionally well).

One can see from this long list (which is just the career, semi-non-personal list) that the sources of my flow of “success” are very wide and deep. The act of listing it out this way makes me heart overflow with gratitude for each and every one of them.

What would your list look like? Who is part of your flow? For whom do you feel gratitude for guiding and elevating you?


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