I heard about a small bright spot coming out of the Cambridge community this week: Danielle Geathers just became the first black woman to serve as Student Body President at MIT. In the article linked above she reflects on the importance of prospective students seeing their own culture and background reflected in the student and staff community - especially in leadership positions.
The Greater Boston community has a long way to go though. I work in an MIT-owned building in Kendall Square, a Cambridge neighborhood and business community often criticized as an ivory tower exponentially driving up property prices and rent largely due to the presence of Google, Facebook, Amazon, plenty of biopharma companies, and more. My company’s main function is to provide affordable and flexible workspace and accessible networking opportunities for startups and innovators, in an otherwise expensive, exclusive, and densely occupied business neighborhood. But, as the price of rent continues to sky rocket, the company ends up having to charge more per square foot just to cover our own rent, which works in direct opposition to the goal of accessibility and affordability. (Note, we offer free events and donate space to/partner with various community-oriented initiatives and nonprofit orgs, but this is obviously not enough to fix the issue of inaccessibility overall.)
With the current exclusivity in our neighborhood in mind, last year, the Kendall Square Association kicked off a monthly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion learning community bringing together local KS business leaders. The focus of this discussion group was "Can Kendall Square pilot and scale ways of building inclusive institutions, by applying its [Research & Development] mindset to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue?"
Since that group started, it sounds like there has been a lot of openness to accountability and self-criticism and lots of thoughtful ideas for future changes and initiatives to support the goal of making KS a more equitable and inclusive community. But of course there is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of those ideas are far from being rolled out. (Read more on the KSA DEIB initiative here.)
Because it’s easy to point to everyone else and whether they are/are not doing enough, I’m trying to turn the mirror on myself as a cog within the greater Kendall Square wheel. My big questions for myself within this context are:
1. What can I do as a member of a Talent Acquisition team in a Kendall Square business to make sure I am helping create a company that provides a welcoming, safe, worthwhile, and engaging community for existing and prospective BIPOC staff?
2. How can I work with my company to bring more BIPOC into positions of leadership and other parts of our work that are not accurately reflecting the community and population within which we operate?
Given that my team works in hiring and HR, DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) naturally surfaces in our work every day and it's something we always address up front when hiring for the Talent Acquisition department. But I am challenging myself with the questions above because my professional identity has always felt secondary to me; I've often felt like my individual identity is that I like to make art and that my professional day job is a way to pay the bills while I also work on creative things during my free time. But I'm recognizing that with my line of work, that's a place where I can make a tangible impact in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here's some sobering context: Boston was recently voted last in a survey on how welcoming eight major US cities are to people of color. Last. In a region of the world know for being extremely progressive and liberal. On average, I interview anywhere between 5 and 25 people every week, have worked on entry-level to C-level searches, and my team reviews hundreds of resumes and applications from all over the world each month. We are responsible for finding valuable contributors who reflect the fabric of the community around us. And right now, we have a number of ongoing initiatives to keep ourselves accountable... but we are continuing to listen and learn and admit where we can do better.
Layla F. Saad held an Instagram Live lecture on the topic yesterday, titled "The Revolution with not be Colonised... by White Business Leaders" and this has been a nice resource to make sure I am pointing the finger back at myself and my company whenever I think about racism. She reminds me that it is a shield to simply call out others who are not doing enough when the most effective calling out should be happening within myself and my immediate sphere. View Layla's full session here.
Some helpful words written and emphasized by Layla that white business people like myself should keep in mind:
“The revolution will not be businesses, brands, and leaders who have silenced black voices for all these years, only now to post a black square and proclaim “Black Lives Matter”. The revolution will not be white-washed into a movement where people with white privilege get to feel like benevolent white saviors once again. The revolution will not be slotted into capitalism and used to sell white supremacy back to us.”
Over the last couple weeks I've been thinking about how I'm adapting to working from home and what has been working for me. My job normally keeps me quite busy when I'm onsite, so working entirely from home has been a relief. I know it has gotten old for a lot of folks who are able to do their jobs from home, and for various reasons, but I'm still feeling really positive about not needing to leave the house. This got me thinking about how much solitude I can handle, and I think it's quite a lot. Even as a kid, on the weekends I would keep to myself in my room doing crafts or reading while a lot of my friends were doing sports or going to parties, so I think I've just been restored to factory settings.
This has come up before the pandemic too. Last year I learned about a personality type called “highly sensitive person”. As the name suggests, this is a personality classification that indicates a high sensitivity to various triggers in daily life. I'm not totally bought into the idea that personalities fall into one bucket or another and imagine that for most traits there is a broad spectrum on which people fall. But in reading about the idea of 'high sensitivity' there are definitely some highs and lows that I can identify with. For instance, when I'm engaged with a project I'm often submerged for hours if there aren't any distractions. And when I hear a story from a friend I feel like I can visualize it with them. On the other hand, throughout my childhood I was constantly told that I was “too sensitive” by adults because I would cry over little things and I often felt like the emotional parts of my personality were weak and fragile. I'm also very sensitive to criticism and I may take a simple offhand comment as a lack of trust in me as a person. Small disruptions like misplacing an object really get to me too, and I sometimes agonize over certain kinds of violence in the media.
On top this, three years ago as part of a work offsite meeting, I took the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is basically a personality test with 16 different classifications. Again, I try not to put too much stock in personality tests and think they should only be used to better understand your personal motivations and tendencies. Much like astrology, these things are pseudoscientific, but I think if there is something you can relate to that is inspiring or causes more self-reflection, that's great. In this case, I was classified as an "INFJ", which is basically the highly introverted bucket. The pillars of this classification are a gravitation toward meaningful connections + guarded personality/aversion to superficial connections, lofty goals + need to socially withdraw/recharge, creative nature + unrealistically high expectations and stubbornness, and compassion + oversensitivity. In reading through all of the material on INFJs, I felt like I had identified the source of a lot of my hangups and felt a little more comfortable in my own skin.
A few months later, I read Debbie Tung's graphic novel about her decision to leave her tech job and pursue a creative career. At the end of the story, she takes the Meyers-Briggs and is also classified as an INFJ. It was comforting to read through the experience of someone feeling the push and pull of managing the demands of a day job with the creative impulses of a personal career. Fastforwarding to today and the circumstances that the world is currently experiencing with COVID-19, I find a lot of her thoughtfulness about the sanctity of solitude and the value of chasing one's passions to be reassuring. Society is being told to stay home, so finding ways to cater to your defaults eases that adjustment.
When life is normal and we are not in the middle of a pandemic, things like a stressful commute, lots of meetings, and professional commitments are all out of my control and I find I am generally quite sensitive to all the hustle and bustle. I compensate for the sensation of being carried by the tide by building in subtle illusions of control in other parts of my life. I haven't done this consciously, but I tend to create order whenever I can: I use the same products everyday, make my bed the same way, organize my clothes by style and color, heavily use a label maker, and generally live by the "everything has a place and everything in its place" mentality. I have a high bar for order in my apartment, and get more upset over the messes of others than those of my own making. It's comforting to come home and feel that my environment is predictable.
With self-isolation/working from home, my daily life is free from a lot of my normal sources of stress and so I've been able to embrace routines even more. Despite being at the mercy of a global crisis, with small routines in place and without the need to navigate outside my home I feel a lot more centered. The catch phrase right now is "stay home", and because that is where I feel most at ease, the expectation is comforting in a way. I am lucky to still have a job and financial security and my health, and while I fret just as much as the next person about family members getting sick and longterm personal finances and the collapse of the economy, these little illusions of control allow me to let go of my existential worries.
The way things have been the last couple of months, I don’t have a commute, I don’t have to interact with strangers out in public outside of the handful of trips to the market around the corner, I don’t have a large part of my brain occupied by spacial awareness while I’m in a busy office, and I'm making less surprise small-talk. The roads are quieter, I can spend more time with my guinea pig, I have my own kitchen at my disposal, and I can be alone to recharge when I need to be. I still have virtual places to be at certain times during my work day, but meetings feel more under control when taken from my room and my desk, both meticulously programmed to my optimum comfort levels. I am also able to work by a window and out on my deck, whereas in my office, I usually don't see daylight. During a period when the passing of time has become quite imperceptible because each say is so similar to the last, I'm hyper aware of the weather (can I crack my window?), the quality of the sunlight (do I need to draw the blinds to avoid a glare?), and the change of seasons (does that tree across the street always bloom so slowly?). This helps me feel more at peace with the world outside - as scary and as unpredictable as it is.
Everyone is responding to the virus in their own way depending on their line of work and what helps them cope. Some are in an essential line of work and are keeping society running and as healthy as can be, some feel called to act through volunteerism, and others are learning something new or finding comfort in what they know. I'm certainly not an essential worker and in terms of volunteering, have only signed on to run errands for people in my community but have not actually had the opportunity to do so. So my area of expertise is mostly in "staying home" and finding ways to be productive, I'm going to try and share what has been working for me over the course of the next week.
Here's a little slideshow of what I've been working on since mid-March... the images are terrible quality because I haven't scanned them in or anything, but you get the idea.
Social distancing in response to COVID-19 has been a strange experience for me so far, as I'm sure it has for everyone.
I'm lucky that 1. I still have my job and it can be done 100% from home and 2. my natural default is to stay at home working on quiet things. I know that considering oneself an "introvert" is all trendy right now, but being in the comfort of my own home working on quiet things is where I'm happiest. I've slowly realized that it's how I recharge, so being able to do that every day - even take work calls from the comfort of my personal desk - means that my social battery is full much more consistently, and a fuller battery means that I have more energy to work on projects.
My company asked my team to work from home the week of March 9th, which was fairly early in the Boston area, and so it's been almost a whole month already. Time slips by pretty imperceptibly and the days melt into each other without the normal commutes and different surroundings to break up the day and mark the time. But I'm really grateful to have an activity that keeps my mind so occupied during such a scary time. I save at least 10 hours per week not having to commute, I get more sleep, and I can still stay up a little later working on projects without worrying about being tired at work the next day (I'm naturally a night owl, as much as I've tried to be otherwise).
In the last 3 weeks, the only places I've gone are the grocery store around the corner a total of four times, and the local Blick art supply store, which I rollerbladed to for a curbside pickup order of art supplies. That's it. Otherwise I've gone for walks around the neighborhood, sat on my deck, and stayed in my house. There are moments where I'm a little concerned about how much time has passed with me moving within such a tiny radius for days at a time - mostly because it's just strange - but for the most part I feel in my element being tucked away in my room with my guinea pig and headphones and a very clearly demarcated 8 hours for work each day that end exactly at 5pm. Then I usually eat dinner with Chris and spend 4-5 hours working on art.
I've made so much progress in the last month and it really knocks me on my butt how productive I can be when I'm not feeling tugged in every direction at work and getting deflated by the rough commute. It's like art school again, where the main expectation I had of myself was to be at my desk getting things done. The more I do that for my day job, the more I can build a routine for it on my personal time and it feels less intimidating to sit at my desk.
Obviously it's not all sunshine and daisies; there is a different kind of stress always looming, you know, the big, lumbering kind that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and economic crisis and dread that I have the virus and am asymptomatic. When I go to the store, I've started wearing a mask that I use for oil paint mixing, just in case. And I know I'm lucky that I still have a job and that I can put myself at minimal risk and that Chris is still working, while so many people in my life have been furloughed or laid off entirely or have to put themselves at risk. Chris works as an electrician and technically falls under the "essential" category of work, but he also works with his dad and stresses every day about either exposing his dad to the virus or his dad being exposed on a job site. They just applied for a small business loan to keep them afloat so that they both have the option to stop working and stay home. Chris might even stop at the end of this week just to reduce the risk that his dad is facing, even though they tend to go everywhere together anyway and are exposed to the same people and surfaces. But he worries that if they don't get the loan, they won't have any income.
But it is a relief to carve out a quiet part of this bizarre period to work on something I cherish. I started working on much bigger paper, and am really invested in the idea of working with colored pencils all the sudden. I may incorporate watercolor washes still, but I do love simple contour drawings. That said, I kinda feel like the crayon/colored pencil look with monochromatic shading has been done a lot lately (especially with digital drawing platforms) and it's a bit uninteresting; I don't just want to choose to do it that way because it's popular right now and I know it will be accepted fairly easily. I still don't see that much watercolor out there in the graphic novel world and it's one of my favorite mediums because it can both be extremely bright and extremely subdued without feeling all over the map. I may still push to see if there is a way to incorporate it. But the last thing I want is to make unnecessary work if what I have stands on its own, or to trash something by incorporating too many ideas.
Looking over the year so far, I've made a ton of progress with thumbnailing which is a huge relief. It's not the most interesting thing to post about, but I've tried to force myself to chip away at that and now only have maybe a quarter left to thumbnail somewhere in the second half of the book. It still seems like a lot to go, but I was worried if I didn't start allowing myself to dive into the finished product, I would stall out and get discouraged.
A couple weeks ago, I decided to illustrate a full chapter as a test-run: working speed, efficiency, practice with different faces, level of detail, color pallet, material, size, and texture. So far I have three pages done and I'm loosening up. I'd like to have this as a proof of concept by the end of the summer (I know that seems far away but I'm still learning and drawing comics is still foreign to me). Then by the start of 2021, I'd like to have a couple chapters to start shopping around and see if this could go anywhere. But that's not really the important part. Regardless of where it goes out in the world, I need this story to be on paper and not just in my brain, so it will always be something I'm working on even if people don't appear interested in reading it.
Anyway, yesterday I accidentally messed up some shadows in the last two panels of the third page and they really felt like eye sores to me... so now I'm going to spend the next couple hours tracing everything. Womp womp. At least I can fix some other little things that were bugging me I guess.
PS: I think I can actually draw a bike now without the need for a visual reference! I love the feeling of being able to invent something in my brain and put it on paper without needing to crosscheck Google images; though I do have a rich collection of bike images and other tricky-to-draw things on a Pinterest page, not gonna lie. Reference photos are always super important, but it's a relief when you can stop relying on them all the time and trust your own brain. The easier that becomes, the faster the drawing goes!
Here's some cool light cast on my wall, a bunch of panels, and a weird office safari look that I wore to work because it's too damn hot.
Rotterdam was lots of fun, though rather rushed. My coworkers and I flew out of Warsaw Sunday night, and arrived at our Airbnb around 10pm. We worked the next three days, and then left Thursday morning.
The Airbnb was very sweet; a charming Dutch home with lots of eco-friendly touches, a cozy living room nook, steep stairs, and several bedrooms. There was even a back patio, but it was quite cold while we were there, and we often weren’t back until after dark.
One thing that was interesting to compare between Dutch and American culture is that Dutch shops are often not open after 5pm, and many restaurants are not open until lunch time (especially on Monay morning). We figured we might find a restaurant that morning to grab a snack before work (we hadn't had dinner the night before), but nothing was open. I kind of like this - it means the people who are staffing these places are not expected to get to work super early, or stay late after normal business hours.
Though it did make it hard for me to go on a mission to find the Harry Potter series in Dutch :D I ended up ducking out during lunch on Wednesday to find a book shop. I had also hoped to find Chris a Virgil van Dijk national jersey (he plays for Liverpool FC), but it was tricky to find a shop that sold jerseys that was open after work. I did get the books, but not the jersey. I’ll have to write a separate post about my growing multilingual Harry Potter library.
On Monday night, we went to an excellent restaurant close to work called Mangiare (we’re in Groothandelsgabouw, next to Centraal Station). They don’t have menus, and just share what they’re making given the ingredients that are in season and available. I immediately was taken by this mouth-watering process being done over and over: putting freshly cooked pasta onto a giant wheel of cheese, swirling it around to absorb the cheese, and then serving it. I did not hesitate with my order. We also got a vegetable appetizer, wine, and I had a chocolate lava cake for dessert.
On Wednesday morning, I also went for an early morning walk to the kubuswoningen (cube houses) and Markthal (Market Hall), which was a refreshing way to start the day. I was able to get a few photos of the architecture not at night. I am also flummoxed by the cube houses. It seems like there must be a lot of underutilized space along the sloping walls? But it still seems really neat all the same. Like, you could attach a chunk of wood at the base of a wall that is sloping outward, and stack/lean books along the wall (until you get to a point that is out of reach).
That evening, we explored the interior of Market Hall and had dinner, interestingly at an American restaurant. My coworkers are Polish, and the server happened to be Polish as well, but a lot of things around us were in Dutch, and I was heading to France the following day, so I was very disoriented.
On Thursday morning, we left our Airbnb and carried our luggage to Cafe Booon, where we had pastries before hopping a train to Amsterdam. We were very down to the wire with timing, and just barely made it onto a train in time to still check in and make our flights. I got on the train very sweaty and uncomfortable and irritable, but a nice ride through the Dutch countryside, passing windmills and farmland, was helpful in cooling me down.
I parted ways with my coworkers after checking in (they were flying back to Warsaw), and picked up a couple of souvenirs for my niece at one of the airport shops. I actually almost missed the flight because I got distracted writing work emails and only heard them calling my name over the speakers as they were closing the gate. Oops. We had a really time-sensitive interview process happening back in the States, and I was putting some finishing touches on that before the US team arrived at work.
I did some drawing on the plane, and then when I arrived in Paris, got pretty turned around. I have a terrible sense of direction, and although I had brought my Navigo card (reloadable train pass), I couldn’t get it to register at the airport kiosk, so I just purchased paper tickets. It’s always a bummer when you feel like you should know something by now, a local sees you struggling, and then helps you. (This is what happened.) I think it’s less the language barrier, and more that I am terrible with trains and maps. I’ve definitely gotten lost in NYC and Boston and Warsaw, not just Paris...
I got off at Gare du Nord, and let me tell you, if you’ve never felt the panic of feeling trapped *inside* a train station, then you haven’t known panic. This would only happen to me, mind you. I did several laps of the entire shopping area, trying to find a kiosk to buy tickets for the regular train, but kept running up against the turnstiles that require you to validate a pass before passing through. I was ready to hop something and make a run for the street level, and just lug my terribly heavy luggage a couple miles to Bastille (where I'm staying), when I made a breakthrough. Really I just discovered an escalator that led to a ticket kiosk.
I had also remembered that Parisian train stations almost never have escalators. While this shows how old the city is, it is not accessible to people with different levels of mobility. Another fun note: I was wearing heeled boots and a giant sweater and coat because my suitcase was so filled with books by this point that I could no longer fit my clothes. It was also a beautiful spring day, about 70 degrees. So by the time I had lugged my luggage up and down and up again (btw it was rush hour at this point), I was extremely sweaty and miserable.
When I arrived at my hotel, the person at the reception desk could not find my name in the reservations, and I had a moment of further panic where I thought I didn’t even have a place to stay. But luckily, with me trying to explain the best I could in my rusty French, we located what was needed. The key wasn’t ready, but I was able to conduct a successful conversation with the manager on the phone later on (second languages get way harder when you’re problem solving) and get one set up. PHEW!
I’ll leave the rest of the Paris trip for another post, but figured the split Rotterdam/Paris day was a bit of a blend so that should stay together.
Sketchbook pages here!
It was crunch time at work this week which meant staying late and finding new places to focus and get things squared away during the day. I worked from 7:30am to 9pm today to tie up loose ends and have at last put up an out of office message! I also thought ahead and packed yesterday, so now I can relax tonight and go to bed early.
Also tacking on a random photo of my room, which looks very organized since I tend to clean everything before going away.
The company I work for recently added another building to our Kendall Square campus; we now have five floors in the former Microsoft building. My parents and I toured it recently (read: I walked them around without knowing where I was going) and it is pretty swanky! I also enjoyed the gender neutral bathroom options and the very clear signage about this choice.
Also including a couple photos of buildings downtown, back when it was still light when I got out of work. And a photo of me as Han Solo during our office trick or treating event. Some of my friends call me Han, but I don't think many people got why I chose it because Star Wars is once again a big sensation these days. One of my roommates was also Han Solo this year and it was totally unplanned.
Another busy weekend ahead! I’m taking off tomorrow to head to New Haven to babysit Juliette. Yay baby time! Today I was really behind on a bunch of work, but we were also having an annual summer work outing/celebration, so I somehow still dropped everything and did that. I imagine my inbox on Monday will retaliate, but I think it was worth it otherwise. We all went kayaking (it was a bright, warm day for it) and then had food at a rooftop garden in Kendall Square. Also, I won a souvenir blanket from a raffle, so that was pretty great.
Earlier this week I helped inflate some balloons for a proposal on the MIT campus, the proposee (?) is a former coworker who worked in HR before I started working in Talent Acquisition. The proposal went well and she said yes!
Also been trying to bike into work more, now that it's warm. We have a new bike garage at work which is pretty cool. I store my bike on my deck and have to lug it down the stairs and up the stairs whenever I want to ride though. It really hurts my wrists because of the awkward angles.
Fun fact: my friend Thomas lives in Detroit and sold me this bike a couple years ago. It has a sticker from a bike shop in Geneseo, NY, where my parents met, went to school for their bachelors in history/political science and masters of Library Science, and got married - almost 40 years ago. As a kid, they took us there every year to walk around the campus and get subs at Aunt Cookie's Sub Shop. As a teenager, I started putting a notch with my fingernail in the sub shop's wooden-framed order window to track my visits over time. When I stopped by last month after my sister-in-law's baby shower, I found they had replaced the order window with a new one. But I added a new notch to that one.
Anyway, this bike is kismet.
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Mansfield, MA.