Tonight I kicked off Build Yourself+ the empowerment workshop I founded for women in design at the Boston Society of Architects.
The workshop is one of those things I created that I didn’t really sit down to plan–I just knew one day it was something I needed to bring into the world.
It’s funny though, now that I’ve been practicing as a designer and researcher/activist for years, I don’t really believe in the idea of design as a ‘flash of inspiration.’ I think that when we look back, a lot of ideas and breakthroughs that seem like they came all at once were actually in the works for weeks, months even years. I like to think of them as individual beads. We’ve collected them but they are waiting for a project. In a moment, in a flash of insight, we suddenly string them together into a strand, and they acquire a new meaning, but that meaning could only be created because we’d patiently gathered what we needed to make it.
So here’s the true story. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. Maybe it runs in the family–my mom is a sassy, empowered social worker single mom. Apple, tree, whatever. I was arguing about patriarchy in religious classes at 12, and in high school, struggling with the lack of female role models in my youth group, I decided I would do an independent study with the school nurse on gender. (Way to narrow it down, Mia.) And yeah….I read The Feminine Mystique for fun. And then tried to set up a discussion group on it.
In my first year college, I took “FemSex,” an extra-curricular workshop that had been imported to Brown University by a UC Berkeley grad. FemSex, short for ‘The Female Sexuality Workshop’ was intense: Our work for the semester was framed as ‘me-search, not research’ and assignments included a a speculum self-exam, and writing an erotic fantasy. But the most intense classes of the workshop were actually the body image unit, in which every student made a collage that expressed how it felt to be in her body, and the night that we talked about moments our boundaries had been crossed.
I was asked to facilitate the workshop after my class ended, and went on to facilitate the workshop for a few semesters. In FemSex I saw people both pushed and encouraged (and often it was a little of both) to look at really tough, internal issues. I saw them do it on their own but in the context of a group of women (and a few men) who were on the same journey. I saw them struggle–and I believe sometimes we need to struggle to grow—but they didn’t struggle alone.
Fast forward. I was about to start grad school, and somehow picked up the book Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever on women and negotiation (we initiate it less and ask for less when we do it.) It spoke to me and of course I gobbled up the authors’ next book, Ask for It in which they cover practical skills to up our negotiating chops.
In Ask for It, the authors include what they call a “negotiation gym,” a multi-week series of exercises that slowly ramp up your negotiating skills. You start off by asking for things you don’t really want, or by getting comfortable hearing ‘no’ by asking for ridiculous things you’ll never get, and move on to negotiations in which you have more stake in the game.
I loved this book. Why? Because I am a doer, and the researchers turned their insight and data into something I could actually do about it.
A Feminist Cheerleader
Grad school didn’t leave a lot of time for activism (it’s hard to do anything when a 12-hour day is on the relaxing end of the spectrum) but over time I became a bit of an unofficial empowerment coach for people in my class. I offered to coach classmates whose work I thought was stunning, but who were always flustered when speaking, and undersold their projects before their reviews. I just wanted their presentations to give their work the credit I thought it deserved.
I found myself in my last year, at a winter break get together with a lot of the women in my class. We started talking about the year ahead, and a number of women, whose work I envied, talked yearningly of firms they would love to work at–firms they were convinced would never hire them.
My hackles went up: “Don’t reject yourself before Kathryn Gustafson’s office has a chance to reject you….or accept you!” I exclaimed, exasperated. And then I issued a challenge: I told my classmates that they were going to write cover letters to their reaches within the next few weeks, and show them to me. “And if you don’t do it, I will be very disappointed in you,” I told them.
My moment came later in the semester. I was working on an application for a prestigious fellowship. My idea came together at the last minute, and I wrote the majority of it the night before. It was a horrendous process, because not only was I low on sleep, but as I wrote every paragraph, I was convinced my ideas were terrible, underdeveloped and the selection committee would just know how bad it was and how underprepared I’d been. I came into school that day ostensibly to print my materials, but really looking for someone to let me off the hook for applying.
I spoke to the wrong person. Caroline James, one of my studiomates looked at me when I oh-so-casually mentioned just not submitting after all and exclaimed, “Have you ever read Lean In?” You’ve got to do it.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you wont, but you’ll never know if you don’t, and maybe it will even open other doors for you.
It was a call to action, but I was also secretly ashamed. Here I was, telling talented people, mired in self-doubt to go for it, and I was looking for an excuse to give into that same self-doubt myself.
I rallied, and edited, produced and printed like a maniac, and came back after the rush, to thank Caroline for the kick in the pants I had needed. It was then that Caroline suggested restarting the then-dormant student group Women in Design which went on (under Caroline and Arielle Assouline-Lichten’s leadership) to launch the famous Pritzker Prize petition to retroactively grant Denise Scott Brown recognition under her partner Robert Venturi’s 1990 prize.
I published an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor on my experience as an accidental catalyst of the larger campaign, and as a personal encapsulation of the larger issues at hand. I laid out some nascent ideas about the importance of personal transformation linked deeply to larger campaigns for public change.
Later that spring, I attended a Women in Design meeting in which everyone introduced themselves and their goals for the group and saw that my interest in transformation on the individual level wasn’t resonating in the formal context of the meeting. Most people wanted to talk about campaigns and publications.
Bringing it Together
And suddenly, some time that spring or summer, the idea came to me. It would be a workshop in which women took concepts from the literature on women in the workplace and turned them into actionable steps they could take. The group would be that ‘tough love cheerleader.’ We would struggle, because personal change and confronting our inner resistance is really hard–but we would struggle together.
And because I was trying to take my own lessons seriously, and I was trying to up my tolerance for risk taking and asking I decided I would turn it into a workshop and pitch it to the dean of students.
I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop at Harvard for a year. It wasn’t the optimal setup: It was funded through the dean’s office, and thematically filed under ‘student mental health’ and while students have so many opportunities to ‘lean in,’ they are not the same set of consistent opportunities that someone in practice has. But despite the challenges, the workshop flourished. A vague idea about challenges-based learning turned into a robust educational structure, and my homegrown interest in empowerment skills turned into a well-researched curriculum.
I also just loved teaching the workshop. I often entered the workshop with a million things on my mind–I was balancing design practice, research and freelancing, and I would leave with my heart singing, feeling honored to be a part of a transformation in womens’ lives.
After a year of teaching at the Harvard Design School, tonight I started teaching it at the Boston Society of Architects. We have a full and diverse class–architects from multiple firms and landscape architects and planners. I couldn’t wait to meet the women in the workshop, to teach them and learn from them. To see them push themselves and each other…..and support themselves and each other.
And while the workshop format appeared to me in that flash a few years ago, the workshop continues to grow, integrating new concepts and flexing according to the needs of the women who are currently in it. I continue to live it out not just in the classroom but personally–I have had moments where I literally “sat at a table” because I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s voice in my head (it was an important table to sit at and it changed my life) or made career decisions based on Brené Brown’s advice to “show up and be seen.”
I also continue to dole out challenges–and you know that we’ve gotten to be close when I hand you a personal challenge and tell you I want to hear back from you on it in a few weeks (and tell you to give me one as well.)
I also have finally come to recognize that my design work, my educational work and my personal growth are in many ways the same thing. That sense of challenge, that optimistic belief in the possibility of change, the idea that massive change moments and breakthroughs are actually just the very visible tail end of a slow and sometimes silent process of collecting the pieces–those are central to my creative process and how I live in the world.
With joy, excitement, and a sense of possibility, I look forward to to the rest of this workshop.