About Me

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I co-scope challenges with project sponsors, engage stakeholders to understand all points of view, highlight insights to reframe perspectives, generate alternative solutions and find moments to test ideas, iterate, build in feedback loops and develop plans of action to execute on ideas. Currently I am an experience designer for Kaiser Permanente. Previously, I was the Associate Director of Design for America where under my leadership the program grew from 40 college students at one university to 1,000 students at 29 universities throughout the US where interdisciplinary teams used creative problem solving for local and social good. My past work and students have been discussed in publications and blogs such as Fast Company, Chicago Tribune, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Core77 and more. I have given talks at conferences such as TEDx, IDSA, IxDA, Better Word by Design, and given workshops at college campuses across the country. I earned my masters in Organizational Change from Northwestern University and a BFA in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design and have taught design and engineering at both universities.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If Your Motives Aren’t Slightly Selfish, I Would Be Slightly Worried

I just read this article, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” (thanks Winstin Mi for pointing me to it)

Having just come back from one of the Least Developed Countries in the world, Nepal, where I made no attempt of participating in humanitarian design which is quite contrary to my background, I found this article to be extremely thought provoking and a good opportunity to put many of my recent feelings on paper.

It’s been kind of a crazy year to say the least. Within the last 12 months I’ve been to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Kathmandu, Nepal, Washington DC, Chicago, Toronto, New York, San Francisco and drove cross-country with two girlfriends to boot. I’ve studied for and taken the GMATs twice, applied to 4 business schools and turned down one partial scholarship. I taught at the graduate level without having a masters, was an extra in a Nepali film and as the kicker, ran a healthy home makeover summer program for inner city teens exactly one year ago.

When applying for business school I had to answer Stanford’s question, “What is most important to you and WHY?” It’s most certainly the “why” that made this question so darn hard to answer. I had a really hard time finding what felt like the core to my answer and am not so sure I ever really found it (which is probably part of why I didn’t get in this year). I was raised Baha’i which is a religion most people have not heard of, and grew up believing that my life and my work should be a form of service. I technically stopped practicing as a Baha’i five years ago, and so when I push religion aside and still ask myself “why?” I am hard pressed for an answer deep down inside. I can’t help but to feel that perhaps it’s just human nature or perhaps a privilege for those of us who don’t have enough problems of our own that we have the luxury to think about other people’s problems.

So what would my life be like if not one of service? I guess you can say that was the experiment of the year and let me tell you, it was a lot of fun. This is the first year that I learned how to really have a good time. And yes, I think this statement says a lot about my social life while in college. This year I travelled, I partied, I danced more frequently than ever before- at least while in public-as I won’t count sessions in my room. I enjoyed life, lived selfishly, and embraced the chaos of the everyday- of course still trying to be a good person along the way i.e. please, thank you’s and opening doors for people is always in good form.

Now that this year is coming to a close and I am getting ready to move back to my homeland of San Francisco, I am feeling ready to put my head back on straight, focus and work a job where I can have the stability I want (being a nomad for a year will do that to you) and ready to try my hand again at working towards the greater good. I can still say that I have a burning desire to contribute to humanity and although I don’t really know why, I’m still going to do it but I have a few new thoughts about it.

As a middle-class American Caucasian female, I often can’t help but to feel like I don’t belong in the circles and communities I am inclined to “help” i.e. low-income at risk youth, underserved women and etc. I am an outsider and always will be. (If I am from San Francisco and working with communities there, does this make me more of an “insider?”) So where then is my place in contributing to the world I live in?

I’ve been asking the same question since my senior thesis when I thought my role in all this was to make white people aware of their white privilege. I’ve learned a thing or two since then and strongly believe that awareness and change doesn’t come from guilt tripping but from fun and self-interests. (thanks in part to my classmates for this!) As Paul Polak discusses in his book, Out of Poverty, he sees his clients as customers not as benefactors. It’s this mutually beneficial relationship that I believe allows us to avoid Neo-Imperialism, which inherently relies on subordination for its propagation. Don’t get me wrong, being the boss is fine and good, but a systematic unequal distribution of power is not. Nor is it appropriate for “outsiders” to come in to a community that is not their own and say or think things along the lines of, “I have the solution for you. Can’t pay for it? Well I’ll give it to you then because I really know what’s best for you and you just can’t see it yet.” Undoubtedly, we all know things that other people don’t and vice versa and it’s great to share these expertise, but it’s the attitude and expectations going into it that often makes the difference.

After working for a social enterprise in Kathmandu, Wild Earth Nepal, which locally produces herbal cosmetics, I see the simple yet powerful notion of employment and job creation. Starting a business that earns ourselves a buck and gives others jobs is a direction I see myself going in, in the not too distant future. If all parties are equally invested, motivations are more clear and you’re not telling anyone what’s best for them, but giving them access to figure that out on their own from a pure economic development perspective. Sustainable Health Enterprises is probably one of my favorite examples of this.

As a result of this year and years of thinking about this stuff there are a few principles I feel comfortable extrapolating: Find something you love, DO IT, and in turn, you will find ways of giving back to your community. For example, I love sewing and apparel design. After the Haiti earthquake I hosted an “Upgrade Party,” where women brought in their old clothes to trade, they paid for the clothes they wanted from other people and the money raised went to Paul Farmer’s Partner’s in Health for disaster relief in Haiti. In addition to this, with the clothes left over, I redesigned the garments and sold them, making a few bucks for myself. To me it was a win win win. Women got new clothes at cheap prices, money was raised for Haiti, and I got to have a creative outlet while making some cash. Is this Neo-Imperialism? I think I can safely so “No.” It’s this type of thinking and line of work that I hope to do as I move forward in my career: Triple and Quadruple Wins.

If one tries to play it off like they simply want to do good for the sake of being a good person, it makes me wonder what the motivations really are and what type of guilt one is trying to work off (but if you admit that you want to karmically work off some guilt, I think that would be okay). I just think we have to be real, we have to be authentic; we have to be nuanced as we try to be good people in the world. As you never know what type of unintended consequences there will be. (William McDonough’s project in Huangbaiyu is a great example of how design can go very wrong)

Some questions I now use as a compass while moving forward:

· What do I enjoy doing?

· How can I make a living at it?

· Can it benefit my surrounding community?

…So this where I am at right now. These thoughts are not conclusive. It’s an ever-evolving journey anyway right? And I welcome people’s thoughts, feedback, criticism, and whatever you wish, thank you Bruce Nussbaum for sharing yours.

Let’s just keep the dialogue going…


Jae Hahn said...

wow what a year for you!!

cam said...

Hey Sami,
Loved the post. I'm so happy I met you during your nomadic year. I always enjoy reading or hearing about friend's experiences- whether its inland or abroad. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the adventures of sami in the years to come!