I was born into community: I am a middle child between two brothers and one of an extended family of nearly 100 between Texas, the American southwest, and Mexico. My childhood was defined by large, raucous birthday and holiday celebrations around too-small of kitchen tables, frequent visits of relatives to our Austin home, and hours on end running around in the South Texas dirt with my gaggle of dark-haired cousins. We never had to build community - it was always just there.
Because of this, I never remember feeling alone at a deep level - even when I went to school 2,000 miles away from family at 18, or moved to NYC alone from Texas about a year and a half ago. Maya Angelou’s line in her poem “Our Grandmothers” has rung true to me: “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000”. I feel my family and the communities I’ve built over the years hovering around me wherever I go. They form the base of my many ambitions.
As I round out my 20’s, however, I’ve felt I’ve needed more.
My 20’s has been a process re-inventing of myself. In under eight years, I’ve worked in over six industries in vastly different functions. It’s been a practice of picking things up, then setting them down when they didn’t feel right for me.
This constant movement has caused feelings of impermanence - and honestly - isolation many times. I’ve judged myself as being a “flake”; I’ve been frustrated at a seeming inability to commit to one way to define myself professionally, while many of my friends are reaching senior roles in the company and functions they chose right out college. I’ve felt distant from the person I was in my late teens and early 20’s who - with immense clarity - rallied political communities and started and led organizations to which I fiercely committed.
Yet, as I’ve explored different paths, I’m starting to understand how this has set me up for success. It has let me “prototype” what feels right, and through it, made me realize some common threads I hope to amplify as I continue down my path.
As I turn 29 tomorrow, I’m reflecting on what I know for sure, what it means about belonging, and what I want to do with this:
Authentic connection and a sense of belonging must be built into everything we make:
While society is more digitally connected than ever, we are also feeling the loneliest we ever have in history. A 2006 American Sociological Review study found that one in four Americans report having ZERO friends to confide in or with whom to discuss important matters. Loneliness has also been linked to being harmful to our health as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as obesity - yes, a lack of community affects our physical wellbeing.
The recent prevalence of “Community Leads” in VC firms, blockchain communities, and companies like AirBnB, IBM, and WeWork are emerging as efforts to capture momentum between the quickly-scaling online and traditional analog worlds. Tech is realizing that, while it has allowed us to organize quicker, face-to-face, sensory experience must be brought back into the fold and re-packaged for maximum efficacy and adoptability. Our digital fatigue is leading us to want to meet the people who like our posts and beyond being our followers in Instagram.
I’m excited to be in a time where we are connecting quicker online, but are seeing the necessity to transfer this to the inimitable “real world” for emotional and societal sustainability.
Human-centered design is more important now than ever, and must go hand-in-hand with technology:
In our capacity to build faster, more addicting technology, we cannot lose humanity’s natural impulse to connect and “feel” authentic belonging. In a recent ZigZag podcast, sociologist Eric Klinenberg stated, “Efficiency is the enemy of social life”, in response to an argument for the deconstruction of libraries, post offices, and other traditional community tenants, in exchange for Amazon, Facebook, and Google distribution centers that could more quickly deliver on (superficial) jobs of these. These designs decrease human connection for the sake of transitory commercialization - and without authentic human connection and a sense of belonging, there is no community. We see platforms like the dating app “Hinge” do away with the swiping style that Bumble and Tinder made mainstream with the goal of giving people an experience to catalyze real-world connection. While it still has a way to go, it’s going in the right direction.
As one who works in human-centered design, though also a strong advocate of the power of technology, I want to build communities that assure true connection, and am excited to see companies starting to embrace this.
We cannot stay silent about social justice:
Millennials are ridiculed and celebrated for our desire for “social impact”. My good friend Nikita Mitchell’s Above the Bottom Line weekly newsletter (subscribe!) recently reported how 3/4 of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments in deciding where to work; 2/3 say they would not accept a job somewhere without a strong sustainability program.
“Sustainability” is being pushed beyond environmental discussions and into workforce wellbeing. This brings into account people’s lives - the social and political forces that influence them - and ultimately affect how they show up to work. This includes how employees may be affected by police shootings of unarmed Black men, a Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, or immigrant children being separated from their families and detained in cages, as well as realities like student debt and parental leave necessities.
Recent generations are becoming more critical of companies that don’t “give a damn”. Nike’s “Dream Crazy” ad with Colin Kaepernick is an example of when companies do this right, while Pepsi’s pulled Kendall Jenner commercial is an example of what happens when this is done horribly wrong.
While we cannot simply commodify causes, we are in a time where companies are taking note that they cannot stay silent about it. I’m excited to be in a time in which I can help push this through what we build and put out there to affect consumer behavior, and in turn, our global values.
Build bridges in a culture of tribalism:
While I’m a strong advocate for protecting your energy and your tribe for the sake of self-care, I also recognize the importance of thinking beyond your circle. Technology has made it extremely easy for us to exist in echo chambers - only follow the news we want and unfollowing those who think differently from us. (I’ll be the first to admit that I do this.) However, as we create the next world-changing products, services, and movements, I’m concerned how this will affect our ability to listen to others, as we self-select the voices to focus on.
I don’t have an answer for how to best do this, but in a time in which our country is most divided, I believe there are ways for us to come together for collective impact that is not from a zero-sum mentality. I’m excited to build on this and for emerging technologies like blockchain that aim to build more transparency into everything we do.
If I want one call to action for my 29th year, it is to “build community”. I’m still figuring out how this will look, but I’m deriving from the idea that “if we want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.
I’m incredibly grateful for all who have been my rocks through the ebbs and flows of these last few years. I’m also grateful for the luxury to learn how to say “no” and invest in essential introspection to pave a well-built road, so I could go faster on its smoother surface later.
I’m excited for what this will allow me to give back, and for you come along the journey of building with me.
Stay tuned for what’s next.