Mourning for Orlando

Early in the morning of Sunday, June 12th, at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL at least 49 people were killed and another 53 were injured in the worst mass shooting in US history. This attack may be geographically distant but it hits close to home. Let’s not mince words: the shooting in Orlando was an attack on a gay nightclub, on queer people of color, on all LGBTQ Americans, and on the entire country’s ability to live and to love freely and openly. This was an act of terror, yes, but it was undeniably a crime of hate.

In the words of Michael Walzer, “It is who you are, not what you are doing, that makes you vulnerable; identity is liability. And that’s a connection that we are morally bound to resist.”

I pause here because I have been reminded of this quote far too many times in recent years, but I’m not sure if I fully grasped it until now. When I was struggling with coming out my biggest fear was being reduced, that this one new detail would become the only thing the world would see. There’s a certain level of privilege in that; I wasn’t growing up in existential fear of HIV/AIDS, physical violence, or being left homeless – all of which remain sobering realities for a disproportionate number of LGBTQ people in this country and around the world. I wasn’t facing these obstacles directly, but I see a clearer connection now. I was still living in a world where these were the singular narratives of gay identity. We saw them in popular culture, in media, in conversations, and in comedy. The consistency of these portrayals painted one narrow caricature of what it meant to be gay.

While in some ways the images of gay life have evolved and grown and deepened, this reductionism is still the root of many of the policies we see today. In this fear of being reduced, I see a fear of being legally fired in 28 states for my sexual orientation or gender identity – but that doesn’t warrant protection. I see a fear that LGBTQ people are the most likely minority group to be victims of hate crimes, yet 33 states do not have hate crime laws that cover both sexual orientation and gender identity – but that doesn’t warrant protection. I see a fear that 84% of LGBT youth report verbal abuse on the basis of sexual or gender identity, yet 24 states do not have laws prohibiting this harassment – but that does not warrant protection. I see a fear that over 55% of transgender youth have experienced physical attacks due to their gender identity or expression – but that doesn’t warrant protection. I see a fear that in 45 states, it’s legal for parents to force their kids to attend “conversation” therapy – but that doesn’t warrant protection. I see a fear that 72% of victims of hate violence homicide in 2013 were transgender women – but that doesn’t warrant protection. I see a fear that in 41 states, it’s legal to discriminate against LGBT parents in the foster care/adoption system – but that doesn’t warrant protection.

This mismatch between policy and reality is only possible with such consistency when our society sees LGBTQ people as less than full citizens, as less than fully human, as justifiably and righteously deserving of the qualifier “less than.” This mismatch is only possible when we reduce someone to one facet of their identity alone, rather than seeing them for the dazzling fullness of their humanity. When your understanding of ‘who I am’ is consumed by a myopic and unrelenting focus on ‘who I love’ it becomes easier to devalue a practice than a person.

I need you to listen. I need you to understand that while discrimination and mass murder are substantively different acts, they both have roots in the same attitudes. It feels easier to blame religious extremism and terrorism because then it is “their” hate, not ours, that bears the blame. Yet we live in a society that not only gives permission to views that circumscribe the humanity of LGBTQ people, but also gives them the legitimacy of being codified in law. We live in a society that does not yet believe that LGBTQ people deserve full human dignity and respect, and then feigns shock when we are victimized and treated as if our lives are worth less, are worthless. We live in a society that treats LGBTQ people as less than, and then acts surprised when someone takes us at our word. We see this same pattern with nearly every marginalized group – race, ethnicity, gender, etc. It happens again and again and again and again and yet so many continue to deny that these things matter, that they even exist. If we share in grief, it’s time we recognize our shared responsibility.

It is who we are, not what we are doing, that makes us vulnerable; identity is liability. And that’s a connection that we are morally bound to resist.

Why must we choose between our identity and our humanity? Policy should preserve and restore our humanity, not tear it apart. Policy should treat us all equally, not divide us further. Policy should provide opportunity, not condemnation. After this week, I can no longer stomach the dispassionate debate and discourse.

Our humanity is not a question. We are equal. We are equal. We are equal.

On Protest, Dialogue, and Social Change

I’m usually a pretty calm and even keeled person. I’d like to think I handle crises, family emergencies, and challenges pretty well. But I’m honestly getting pretty upset. Upset with the tendency to call protestors ‘disrespectful’ and ‘loud’ and ‘entitled’ and ‘ungrateful;’ the tendency to dismiss the demands without reason as ‘overreactions’ and ‘whiny’ and ‘frivolous’ and ‘catastrophizing.’

Speaking exclusively of the Princeton context, my frustration is exacerbated by the fact that the group unequivocally condemning the protestors’ tactics and substance seems to bear a striking overlap with the group who would not shut up for a solid four years about the indignity of one-ply toilet paper. Sit with that for a minute. I say this comically, but also seriously.

How do we engage in debates of entitlement when black students seek protection from marginalization – as if that’s unreasonable and presumptuous to ask – yet we do not have the same scrutiny for creature comforts like toilet paper and waffle fries?

More importantly, as a student who dedicated the majority of my time at Princeton (and since) to the betterment of the student experience, I take issue with the suggestion that any student does not deserve to fight for their own educational experience; that we do not have a responsibility to shape our community for the better, rather than simply shape ourselves to fit the imaginary standards of that community; that anyone should simply be grateful to be in the room. That is not an education, and that is not Princeton.

Ruth Simmons, the former President of Smith and Brown, made a crucial point when relating a story of her outrage at the underfunding of what was then called the Afro-American Studies Program: if we strive to be the best in every endeavor as a university, how dare we tell some departments, some people, some fields, that they should simply settle for ‘good enough.’ So I pose this question to you, if we expect, demand, and aspire to excellence in this university, how dare we tell black students that they must settle for good enough? That they are overreaching by calling us out on an environment that fails to even meet the standard of ‘good enough’?

I have never known Princeton to abandon its quest to do better. I hope it never does. And I hope each and everyone one of us, whether students or alumni, constantly strives to push the University and our community to pursue a type of excellence that enriches and lifts us all.

Further – no, I am not done – it upsets me that so many in our community are comfortable calling out the protestors for not ‘listening’ or ‘engaging,’ for not exercising their free speech the ‘right way.’ Students around the country, and at Princeton, have repeatedly asserted that they are not being heard. Considering the deep history of inaction on these issues, it’s frankly more comforting to believe that administrators have not heard the concerns rather than that they (we?) have been willfully negligent. I take this use of heard to not only denote a physical act, but also to include a notion of understanding and appreciation. I think we must ask ourselves what it looks like for administrations to show that they hear students (beyond simply acquiescing to all demands) and why it might be the case that this hearing is not perceived to be taking place.

I think there is something important we need to recognize about dialogue. Dialogue is a two way street, but the lanes are not always equal. The notion of an authority gap is well demonstrated with regard to marginalized identities, but it seems equally apt to describe the relationship between students, administrators, and faculty in deliberative settings.

To treat students and administrators as if on a prima facie even playing field fails to recognize the underlying inequalities in authority. I’ve been on a number of committees as a student and staff member, and I am certain that nearly every one of my colleagues deeply cares about and prioritizes student needs and voices. However, in those spaces, I would scarcely say student voices are always equally valued, or at least valued in the same way and for the same reasons. Administrators and faculty are the ones with the academic credentials, life experience, and deeper understanding of institutional history and structures that allow for quick judgments of feasibility and effectiveness. To provide balanced (point-counterpoint) speaking time often leads to student concern matched with administrative justification or rebuttal, making it easy to talk past one another. In this space, the opinions of those with authority take on the weight of finality because students do not have the wealth of experience that facilitates anticipation of all responses.

As a result, I fear we unintentionally create situations with facial equality but substantive inequalities in authority and impact for students and administrators. To adjust this balance, I’ve hosted separate student-only committee meetings to prepare ideas and responses before presenting to administrators and asked even the most well-meaning of administrators to temporarily refrain from speaking in meetings to allow for periods in which student voices are at the forefront without immediate response. While these tactics are not a panacea, my point is this: sometimes being heard requires extraordinary measures.

To me, truly respecting someone’s concerns requires neither rote dismissal nor blind agreement. The ability and desire to seek out and identify underlying concepts and concerns, to modify and enrich ideas in ways that address the deeper meaning – that is a skill built by our treasured liberal arts. Yet it is also one we do not always practice as educational institutions. You need to be heard in order to have a dialogue, and in order to do that – as we teach RCA’s and others – you need to listen deeply and actively, so let’s start there.

The West End

At GSB, I saw just about every play and musical performed from 3rd grade through high school. It became something of a tradition. Yet in college I rarely prioritized taking time to see shows and other performances. Wishing I had done that more often, I arrived in London determined to take advantage of London’s West End, a cultural capital of the world known for its dense collection of theatres and performance spaces. After seeing 8 shows over the course of the year, I’d like to think I succeeded: Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Mousetrap, Matilda, Blithe Spirit, The Lion King, Once, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Book of Mormon:

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Wicked:

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The Mousetrap:

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Matilda the Musical:

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Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury:

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The Lion King:

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Once the Musical:

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

IMG_6018 IMG_6283 IMG_6294(Fireplace in the small lounge that accompanies box seats! Not bad for day tickets.)

Springtime in Paris

For my second international trip, I took the surprisingly easy two-hour Eurostar train ride from King’s Cross St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. The next four days involved unforgettable food, sights, and sun. After so many months of traditional London grey, the weather itself was a welcome break. Overall, there’s simply nothing like experiencing Paris for the first time.

My Hotel:

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Fabulous Food:

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Shakespeare and Company Bookstore:

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Literary Cafes:

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Rodin Museum:

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Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre:

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Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Hotel Invalides:

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 Casual Strolls:

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After walking continuously for 4 consecutive days, I still only managed to see a fraction of what Paris has to offer. Next time, my first stops will include Versailles, the Sacre Coeur Basilica, and many more. Between Paris and Prague, I feel incredibly luck to have taken such a breathtakingly beautiful pair of excursions.

Harry Potter Studio Tour!

While my fascination with England predates my introduction to the Harry Potter Series, my mild obsession with this magical series certainly didn’t discourage me from spending a year in the UK. When I found that UCL was running a subsidized bus trip to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in March 2014, I signed up immediately. Seeing the detail and care that went into every aspect of the movies–down to something as small as the letters sent to Harry about his acceptance to Hogwarts–really brought this whole world to life.

The Official Tour:

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Thanksgiving in the UK

Another experience that is preserved more clearly in my memory than in photographs (sorry for the blur) is hosting Thanksgiving in my flat. With a few modifications to the traditional spread, the final menu included Roast Chicken, Stuffing with Sliced Apple, Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potato Casserole, Cranberry Juice, and Pumpkin Pie. Thanksgiving has always been a holiday full of family, food, and togetherness. Being 3,000 miles away from home, I never expected to be able to experience this holiday in the way I was used to. Thanks to a group of friends from UCL, I was pleasantly surprised!

A UK Thanksgiving:

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Fairy Tale Holiday in Prague

After a month back in the US, I can’t help but reminisce about the fantastic travels and experiences I had during my year in London. Now that I have a little time to sit down and reflect, I look forward to sharing the highlights with you!

During our fall break (Nov. 2013), my cousin Allie, her (now our) friend Annie, and I took a four day trip to Prague. The experience was unforgettable in no small part thanks to the people, the architecture, the views, and the beautiful lighting that gave the city a mesmerizing glow at night. Prague is a city that will take your breath away, and it will always remain in my memory.

The Cast of Characters: IMG_3821IMG_3822IMG_3825

The Views:IMG_3780 IMG_3800 IMG_3786

The Architecture:IMG_3698 IMG_3708 IMG_3870 IMG_3876

Thc City at Night:IMG_3767 IMG_3746

Visiting Prague was simply a dream come true. From finding beautiful art in little shops hidden away on side streets to discovering “La Casanova,” an Italian restaurant with an entirely Italian-speaking staff and clientele, the trip was better than I could have expected. No matter where we went, we just couldn’t escape the beauty (…inside joke). But who would want to? I, for one, cannot wait to return.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the Importance of Awareness

Why Should We Care?

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which has exploded on facebook pages across the country, is a viral awareness campaign for ALS. According to the ALS Association website, ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that paralyzes its victims, eventually taking away their ability to breathe. Currently, with no cure, it has a 100% mortality rate. Yet, ALSA estimates only 50% of US citizens are aware of the disease. Both of these statistics need to change.

Over the past month, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised $31.5 million in donations from 637,527 new donors, but does that mean it has worked? Not necessarily. I don’t think money is the whole story, but it seems like one heck of a start. 

How Does Awareness Help?

To explain my sense that there is more to the story, I’d like to use my nomination as an opportunity to examine why I think awareness campaigns, in general, are so important. To me, they are a crucial foundation for a greater cycle of impact: Awareness, Advocacy, Action.

Awareness campaigns allow for advocacy with urgency. People tend to judge the importance of a cause based on its proximity  or impact on their own life. By employing social networks (their friends and family) to do the work for you, it brings this cause closer to home. Suddenly the rest of the world can see that people care.

This is so important because Advocacy is not only about what you say, but also how it is heard. Visibility for a cause creates pressure on larger donors, researchers, or others in a position to take long-term action. Their reputation is on the line. As a result, it makes them listen; it renews motivation; it focuses eyes on their reactions. For a public official, the realization is that it’s time to act. 

Ultimately, the goal is to inspire meaningful Action, not simply by participants in an awareness campaign, but also by society at large and authority figures in particular. Call me cynical, but I think advocacy backed by awareness is meant to capitalize on a sort of strategic altruism often employed by public officials. This higher-level attention then generates further awareness, drawing even more people into the conversation and starting the cycle over again.

If awareness campaigns are designed with an element of advocacy built in, the better they will be at inspiring concentric circles of action rippling out from the initial participant. The sooner we realize that the goal of awareness campaigns is something bigger than ourselves, the more likely they are to have an impact.

Who’s Next?
In the spirit of awareness, advocacy, and action, I’d like to nominate: Carmina Mancenon and Carla Javier from the #BestMentorshipGroupEver, along with Tom Dunne and Joe Ramirez #ODUSForLife to join me in contributing to all 3.

  1. Raise Awareness: Share your own video/post/etc.
  2. Be an Advocate: Email your local representative in support of increased funding for ALS and other medical research
  3. Take Action: Donate an amount of your choosing to the ALSA.

If this campaign, and others like it, can accomplish all three, perhaps we will be one step closer to telling ALS, #3StrikesYoureOut!

Remembering the Legacy of a Legend: Robin Williams

Hook, Jumanji, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Flubber, Dead Poets Society

It is hard to imagine a set of movies that more defined my childhood. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Robin Williams’ death feels more personal than other celebrities who have passed away in recent years, yet I can’t help but think that there is something more. Long before the era of Harry Potter, Robin Williams invited us to take part in the magic that he created on screen. What was so unique about many of his characters was that they transformed in front of our eyes. From Mrs. Doubtfire to Jumanji, we watched him not only act within the confines of one character, but also create a whole new identity in the moment. From shaving a beard, to changing an accent, to donning a face-mask, he transformed himself on screen while his audience watched. Whether watching as a child or adult, that was pure magic.

It felt like a privilege to watch as his characters came to life, an intimate window into something deeper, which most people reserve for a select few. I think that’s why people can still identify so strongly with the characters he created. People mourning Robin’s death (myself included) almost uniformly felt compelled to quote lines from his movies. At least for me, I think this comes from the sense that these characters are in some way a part of him that was sharing with us. These were no longer simply lines crafted by a screenwriter, but expressions of something deeper within the actor himself. We did not simply observe his performances; instead it felt like we participated, in some small way, in the art of creation. In the end, each of those moments feels a little bit our own.

Looking back, what is truly remarkable is that many of these films could make you both laugh and cry in one sitting. His moments of vulnerability, fear, and defeat, remaining steadfastly genuine amid a barrage of raucous laughter. Unlike many comedies where danger and discord all seem like part of the farce, never letting them get too real, Robin Williams’ characters allowed those emotions to take over in a powerful way. They say art imitates life. If that is the case, I hope Williams’ art and his life have taught us all a valuable lesson: we as humans are not trapped by genre. Humor can come out of pain, and genuine sorrow can affect the most jovial among us*. When we stereotype, when we make assumptions, when we only engage with the superficial, all we are doing is reducing the complexity of the human condition to one dimension. Life is a performance, and it can make all the difference to let others join you on stage in the never-ending journey of practicing your craft.

*Trigger Warning: This is not meant as a comment on or analogy with depression or suicide. It is simply a reaction to many newscasters’ surprise that someone like Robin Williams could feel/express anything but joy and laughter. It is a reflection on his life, not his passing, which would require a far more complex narrative than I can provide. That being said, if you are seeking help, please consider using the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).