After the Womens March: What I’m Committing to Politically

It’s been a wacky, amazing week. I’ve been away from home for the better part of ten days—first in DC for the Women’s March, with a night at home to catch my breath—and then off to a client convening on urban infrastructure reuse parks.

When the march was announced I had a strong sense that I had to go. I didn’t know that there would be a huge sister march in Boston, my hometown, at the point. It just felt like I needed to be in DC and to be counted—with my body.

If feels like I haven’t had the time to really process what feels like a historic moment I took part in—the March itself and the moment of political consciousness in its wake. Detractors on both the right and the left are saying that the march wont do anything, that it was a nice show but it will ultimately be futile.

And I’m finding that I just don’t believe it.

And that choosing to believe that the march wont have an impact makes that cynical view more likely to be true. That said, choosing to believe that the march will have an impact means creating, and actively living an alternative narrative. The march changed things—it changed me. And it puts a burden on me to make that change real.

I am socially conscious, but I can’t say that I’m politically aware. I’ve voted in every presidential election, but my last city council election was the first time I tried to get educated on local politics—state or municipal. I’ve had the right and privilege of voting for over ten years, but a few years ago was the first time I tried to be an educated local voter. And it’s a process. I have a mental frame now that I’ll build out over time; change doesn’t happen overnight.

I knew that if I was going to make this March mean more for me, and to create and live into that new narrative, I’d need to make some changes in my life. And I wanted to write it down and make it public to hold myself accountable.

So here’s what I am doing:

Making monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the New York Times. This is something I decided to do the day that Trump was elected—and let slide. I told myself that I was waiting to finish my 2017 budget to add it in. But in reality if something is a financial priority—you pay for it and then figure out what other wants and needs need to shift around it. Overthinking leads to inaction. I also debated for a while (inaction!) about whether to give to ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center (or to the Equal Justice Initiative whose work I also really admire) but ultimately decided that despite the large-scale attack on human rights in general going on in the country—it was important for me to explicitly support racial justice at this time. I’ve also planned to subscribe to the New York Times for some time—they are my homepage! But I hadn’t gotten around to it. It’s so clear just how important journalism is to the existence of democracy and it’s time for me to vote with my wallet.

Practicing democracy by communicating with my representatives. I have had a lot of conversations on planes in the last ten days and in one of them, a grandmother and hunger activist from New Hampshire encouraged me to get active and informed on state issues. I have no clue what’s going on at the state level or what my state reps are doing on the federal level but it’s time for me to pay attention and to start the process of expressing my will—beyond the ballot. In truth, I don’t really know what that means. It will be a process, and that’s ok. I’ve connected with the website The 65 which puts out a strategy and call-your-representatives campaign every week. It’s where I’ll start this week. And I’ll evolve from there. There’s a personal goal and a political goal here, overlapped by a short term goal and a long-term goal. The short term goal is political action. The long term goal is that my eyes are set on the mid-term elections in two years. A lot of damage can be done in two years but the people in power need to know that they will lose their seats if the carnage (and yes I used that word) on the environment, the poor and human rights proceeds with their ok. That means we—and I—wont stop paying attention. And for me the goal is to spend the next two years—and beyond—making myself a more educated voter and citizen.

Showing up—in person. So many people were wowed by just how many people showed up for the Women’s March. And I was so moved but just how kind and courteous the crowd was to each other and people officers, and how intergenerational, racially diverse and gender diverse it as. Showing up in person matters to the heart—and it also just matters. This past weekend while I flew back home from Houston, Copley Square in my hometown of Boston filled up with people protesting the Muslim ban. My best friend Jenica spent her Saturday night at San Francisco Airport protesting the ban and was there until the early morning hours. In combination with the important work of civil rights lawyers in local courts these protests put a little chink in the armor. Showing up in person matters. It is a little inconvenient and those cynical voices say ‘what does it all do’  but what we do with our bodies affects our minds and connects us with other people which reminds us why we do this—for the society we want to live in. What does this mean for me? Being willing to go, being willing to show up. In the big protest but also in the little moments, such as the political salons that my friends have been telling me about—sort of a biweekly coffee clatch to take action together. I spent a lot of time a few years ago trying to have local friends who weren’t just landscape architects or from my religion. What better way to make connections than by practicing citizenship together?

Fueling my spiritual life. I’m hearing a lot of people saying “I’m angry.” “It’s time to get angry.” “It’s time to stop playing along.” And I can’t help but think—political extremism, and anger and the inability to compromise is what got us here in the first place. (Although—in truth what got us here is the failure of political leadership on both the right and the left to make a global economy and an increasingly automated economy work for the have-nots and the have-a-littles.)

So I don’t quite know not just what to do but how to be in this political moment. Is there a strategy for anger today, when I believe that the long game is one of compromise and connectedness? What’s the right stance?

This weekend someone gave me a copy of the book March. It’s a three volume graphic novel that depicts congressman John Lewis’s life as a young activist in the civil rights movement. I think that sometimes the millennial generation looks at the civil rights era and thinks ‘It was so easy back then.’ It seems to our eyes that issues were simpler and things like marches actually worked. But reading this comic, it’s clear to me that issues were just as complicated. There were divides between young blacks and the older black establishment. And the consequences were high—if you stood up and became a plaintiff in a court case your home could be bombed, your family and neighbors targeted—and in a county in which the police would not be on your side.

I also read in this book the importance of spiritual life and conviction. Churches were central to the civil rights movement and not just as third sector home bases for political action but as homes for individuals’ and communities’ spiritual journeys.

A strong moral compass is, I have come to believe, central to how to be politically for me. And a moral compass is not something you just have, it’s something you continually build through an active spiritual life. For me this year it means study and prayer but it might also mean volunteership. I’ve spent the last six years hustling—in an all-encompassing grad school and then building my businesses. I’m finally, thankfully, in a position where it’s all working for now, and it’s time for me to step it up. I’ve been thinking I might want to work with middle-school or high-school aged youth who come from different backgrounds than me—both to mentor and to expand my worldview. And to give myself perspective that my generation will only be part of the chain of what I hope is positive change and progress in the long term.

Jews around the world divide the old testament into sections and read them weekly—completing the cycle yearly. This week and last we are reading the exodus from Egypt. In the beginning, the people don’t believe that God wants to take them out of Egypt. And who can blame them? The status quo is powerful, and faith does not require passive looking on from the sidelines but active participation in building the future you see. A few faithful Israelites take the first steps into the water of the Red Sea before God parts the water for them.

Redemption is not something that is done to us or for us. It’s not something we do alone. It’s something done in partnership with a higher power if we believe in one—and each other.


Bring Your Intuition to Work Day

There’s a thing I do that I call gut listening.

I do it in client meetings when I’m trying to understand what the client really wants and how that might be different from what they are saying. I do it with my Build Yourself+ coaching clients as I seek to understand the challenges they face and to compose personal challenge tasks that will move their goals forward.

Gut listening actually happens in my gut. When I know I need to do it, I move my awareness from my brain to my belly and try to be as receptive as possible to both what I’m officially hearing, and to reading between the lines.

For me gut listening is a physical thing. And yeah, it’s pretty woo-woo. It also works.

Gut listening has helped me identify the core issues in a project early on, and has led to asking the right questions that pull out key findings. It’s led to breakthrough moments with coaching clients, identifying the unique knot of dynamics that are getting them stuck.

And it’s not something I’ve always done consciously–I recently picked up a performance review from a job I had in my early twenties. My boss wrote, “She has great instincts. I think if she learned to trust these things a bit more – and accept the failure that may come from time to time with the occasional misfire – she would truly have the freedom to pursue the more challenging tasks and journeys that I believe she’s capable of doing.”

Last spring, when I read Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big I was surprised to come upon her concept of the inner mentor. The inner critic, sure, I knew it. I’d been working on not being held back by my inner critic for years. But the idea that there was another side, a positive force who’s voice I never considered turning to had never occurred to me before.

This isn’t just “women’s intuition.” A former boss once told me that he makes almost all of his important decisions through gut instinct. Your subconscious mind is smart, he told me, and it has access to everything that your conscious mind has processed. So do your research, make your pros and cons and whatever else you need to do, and then just trust your subconscious, which is a powerful processor. it will do the nuanced analysis that you need.

Confident decision making is one of the things that I think separates boss ladies (adjective, not noun) from the rest of us. It doesn’t mean that decision making is easy or that we should shoot from the hip wildly, every chance we get. But when I see promising women who struggle over every choice and waffle in indecision I know that we’re missing out on some of her power. We miss out on her great ideas that don’t get voiced until they’re perfected, and they are less relevant and timely when she finally contributes them. She will miss out on the power of speed to drive progress, and on learning from things that don’t work and the things that do.

We don’t always make the right decisions, there will be misfires, but how long will we wait? How many missed opportunities will we have until we start to build a relationship with our instincts?

Smacking down the inner critic only takes you so far. Start listening to that inner mentor. Take her out of the dark, and listen to that small, quiet voice. Give her a platform. Take her to work with you. Let her help you solve your problems, and identify opportunities. Let her drive sometimes. She’s actually pretty good at it. She’ll bring you a feeling of freedom and confidence, And she’ll get better.

This is a lifelong relationship. The more you work together with your instincts, the better you’ll work.

And you can do great things together.


I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit

My First Built Landscape & Plants in Technicolor

Today I got to see one of my first projects realized.

Symphony Park, which I worked on through construction documents while at GroundView landscape architecture opened today.

I primarily worked on the customer site furniture and the planting (although we all worked on everything) which stayed pretty similar. I like how the benches turned out.

I LOVE how the planting turned out.

I love the plants’ color, the patterning, the textures and heights, the spacing. I just love it.


What’s New: Harvard Energy Feedback Sculpture Finalist, Blessing of Busy

The summer is winding down, the fall is getting going. The sound of rustling leaves seem to have intensified–perhaps the leaves are drier as they slowly undergo the transformation that will lead to their vibrantly visible transformation soon–I don’t know.

Its been a busy summer. I’ve been blessed with good, meaningful work–from Made with Love, a ‘cookbook’ of recipes for community change, I dreamed up and produced for a client, to a small branding project for a local organization, to my research on business models of social impact design.

I plan to take a little time “off” next month–although my consulting work is creative and visual, I miss using my hands, making. I plan to take about a week to play with some new materials–plaster, paper pulp, thread and fiber, be in Chicago, where I grew up, and explore some ideas related to the Chicago River, which I’ve been fascinated by. I don’t know what I’ll create (that’s kind of the point) but I hope to take some time for more right brain, less left brain, and let some ideas simmer.

In the meantime, exciting news, my team made it to the finalist round of the Harvard Energy Feedback Sculpture–an interactive installation to be installed next year on Harvard’s campus to reflect freshman energy use and be a motivation for more sustainable living. I’m on the team in particular to work on the community engagement aspect of our proposal and to come from the landscape architecture perspective.

Side of the Road Summer: Curating Your Own Beauty

I had a friend in grad school who had a beautiful aesthetic (you can see it here.) When our class would go on field trips this friend would return with armloads of branches, leaves and mosses. I loved going to her for critiques a) because she was talented and b) because her desk felt like a piece of the forest.

Back in March the Creative Somerville Series that I curate hosted Rose Mattos and Erin Heath of floral and event styling studio Forêt Design Studio. The duo was asked by an audience member how to start with floral arranging and they were given a simple answer: Find things you love and practice by arranging them in your own home.

There’s a lot of reasons why we have the selection of flowers in our lives that we do–and I know this from being in the landscape architecture business. We generally don’t plant Shagback Hickories because their taproot makes them too hard to transplant (although there’s hope!) We don’t plant Tree of Heaven, because even though they were hip in the 1800s, we consider them weedy and invasive now. I don’t know much about the floral nursery trade, but I assume similar factors apply there–a combination of shelf-life, transportability, and taste concerns determine what’s commercially available, and by the time you’re a regular jane stopping in her local florist’s shop, there’s only so many options.

But the thing is, there’s natural beauty around us–and somehow we think we should fill our houses with flowers from someone’s refrigerator (on special occasions only.)

Local Greens Bouquet
Local Greens Bouquet by Tricycle Gardens for an event I ran for a client this summer. And yes, it’s in a sugar canister.

We’ve stopped being the curators of our own beauty from the world around us. We play by the rules of what should go on the mantle, what should go in a vase.

A former professor of mine wrote a book on wild urban plants of the Northeast. It’s basically a compendium of what we call weeds (he prefers to call them spontaneous vegetation, ahh wordsmithing.)

But the thing is, some of them are quite gorgeous, and many of them have ecological roles they play, and they are all part of the changing scenery of fullness and color that tells you ‘midsummer has arrived, live it up!’ and ‘summer is waning, harvest joy while you can.’

Items from nature are beautiful. They teach you about form, they teach you about pattern, they teach you about color, visual transparency, scale, multitude, curve, angle, brightness and darkness, contrast. I read a graphic design book and it was broken into sections on visual concepts such as these.

I could have taught an entire graphic design course drawing on examples from the natural world.

Smokebush. An Object Lesson in Transparency.
Smokebush. An Object Lesson in Transparency.

As Rose said in her Creative Somerville talk, “If you understand the principles of design you can transform them into another medium.”

I spend this summer looking, capturing things I liked through my camera, my pen, my memories. I stopped at the side of the road and gathered things I thought were lovely and then gathered more that would look nice with them. I didn’t worry about convention–an overgrown lot filled with grass was as gorgeous as a manicured front yard. My room was filled with flora (and sometimes even flowers.) I documented it on Instagram with the hashtag #weedsareplantstoo (well, they are.) And it’s been fun to realize I’m not the only one using it.Weeds are Plants too-01

Sometimes my arrangements only lasted a few days, sometimes they left fine powder on my shelf.

And sometimes they dried into fine structured skeletons that reminded me to enjoy the summer while it passed.

Between Submissiveness and Defensiveness: How To Walk The Middle Path Of Confidence

Have you ever worked with someone whose personality turned you into a yesman? Whether they meant to or not, they came on so strong that you felt bowled over, your boundaries evaporating?

I once found myself with a client with one of those personalities. A visionary, high on confidence but low on time he would swoop in to hand over a vision and then peace out. His employees struggled– I’d watch them do backwards flip flops to stay true to his vision–one that needed to adjust to the realities of implementation.

A few weeks into my contract with this client I was feeling a sense of unease deep in my gut. The 50,000 foot view I’d been handed didn’t suit the reality on the ground, and even more troubling, I’d leave every meeting with him feeling like I’d been run over.

Taking A Calm, Confident Stand

At our next call I took a deep breath and told myself, “You may have more years of experience than me, and be an expert in your field. I may not know as much as you but I am your intellectual equal.”

I knew if we didn’t adjust the project’s big aim we wouldn’t achieve our goals. So I steeled myself and confidently proposed how I thought we should do it differently and laid out my argument for why. There was no trepidation, no persuasion, just a calm explanation of why I thought his organization should use his resources differently to achieve his stated goal.

And you know what? It was a game-changing moment in our working relationship. To my surprise the client considered and then agreed with my suggestions. Even more importantly, from that day forward our relationship changed. Gone was the nervous, people-pleaser energy I’d brought into our interactions, and in its place was new mutual respect.

As I’ve written about previously, we’re often in situations in which we may not have the status, experience or prestige of those we interact with, but it’s essential that we go into these interactions with confidence and grace.

The Middle Path of Confidence

A lot of women struggle both with answering to authority–and with owning their own authority. We flip flop between submissiveness and defensiveness, as if waiting for someone to unmask us and prove that we shouldn’t have been invited to the table.

The thing is–whether we’re in a powerful position or not in any given situation, whether we’re insiders or outsiders, we can remind ourselves that what we do have is our sense of intelligence and inquiry, and we are entering into the conversation as full intellectual ‘citizens.’

In that way, we come to every conversation and subtle negotiation in emotional “neutral.” We come, not to defend our position or to people-please, but curious and ready to solve problems.

We may not know everything, we may not have the years of experience or specialized insight, but we come ready to participate and to grow by showing up fully.

I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit

Farmers Markets and Fluff: MaryCat Chaikin of Relish Placemaking Consultancy

A few weeks ago, the Creative Somerville Series welcomed MaryCat Chaikin, co-founder of Relish, a project management and consulting practice for placemaking through food-based and creative economy initiatives. While Relish itself is still in its infancy, Chaikin, along with her partner Mimi Graney, have been doing their work in the Somerville community for more than a decade. They’ve established several local farmers markets, founded Union Square’s renowned Fluff Festival (a celebration of Marshmallow Fluff, which was invented in Union Square), and were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood through creativity and inventiveness. On a lovely night at Aeronaut Brewing Company, Chaikin took us back and told the story of how she came to co-found a placemaking consultancy and what it’s like to run one.

From Food and Science To Farmers Markets

With an undergraduate degree in geology and a strong interest in local food, Chaikin’s early career was a collection of jobs—for restaurants including the acclaimed Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) and The Blue Room, in exhibitions and natural history for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and eventually through her own catering and personal chef business. The common thread, she said, was an ability to organize and a desire to curate.

She connected with Mimi Graney, who at the time was Founder and Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, and they began to work together to run the Union Square Farmers Market—a proving ground for Chaikin and Graney to develop their working relationship and their unique approach to placemaking, events and economic development. Chaikin and Graney—who was organizing events like the Fluff Festival at the time—sought out local talent—musicians, school groups and businesses to participate in their events.

Chaikin and Graney were attuned to dynamics of social equity—they developed a token payment system so that farmers market patrons receiving food assistance were not singled out and received matching funds for more purchasing power. They took a proactive approach to their market’s socioeconomic diversity, by marketing its food assistance program through promotional materials that asked, “If you know anyone who can use this service, please help us spread the word.”

Relish: From Storefront to Consultancy

While Chaikin and Graney worked together on the farmers market, a short-term storefront rental in the neighborhood opened up and Relish (version one) was born. The venture was a seven-month urban agriculture pop-up where the team hosted a retail store and classes in home-based food production including beekeeping, chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, pickling and more. Chaikin said, “We started with no money and ended with a little bit of money … that gave us the confidence to move forward.” Although Chaikin and Graney ultimately decided against the storefront business model, it raised their level of ambition and solidified their vision for Relish.

In the spring of 2014, with the Relish Storefront behind them, Chaikin and Graney decided to team up and form Relish 2.0. The approach: Provide consulting and project management services for placemaking and creative economy initiatives, with a special focus on food. Why food? Chaikin explained, “so many local businesses are are food-oriented, so it’s a great place to start.”

The Relish Model

Farmer’s markets are still Relish’s bread and butter—Chaikin described them as the “flywheel” of their practice, providing the base income for their business. In addition to the Union Square Farmers Market and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, Relish helped establish and runs a market at Assembly Row and nearby Watertown’s first farmers market. (Want to visit Relish’s Somerville farmers markets? Here’s the schedule.)

Relish also provides consultancy services both for clients and to cities in Massachusetts as MassDevelopment’s placemaking “house doctor.” The cities Relish works with are struggling with economic decline and urban disinvestment, and are looking for “their Fluff Festival.” Chaikin loves the process of getting to know each the city, the local players and discovering the city’s unique opportunities and story. “A community’s perceived weakness can actually be their greatest strength,” she said.

Although Relish focuses on urban placemaking, cities are often not Relish’s direct clients. “We see the city as an ally, rarely as a client,” said Chaikin, noting that the municipalities infrequently have the funding for placemaking projects. Instead, Relish is most often hired by nonprofits and developers. This means he “consultant life” involves a lot of time spent looking for and responding to requests for proposals.

The proposal process led to an early lesson learned for Relish. Chaikin showed us a Relish project she loves—”Kite Day Happy Full” is a zigzagging vending machine temporary installation for a vacant site in Kendall Square that dispenses local food. Yet the client, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, ultimately didn’t bite on the proposal that Relish had spent months working on. Chaikin says that the experience spurred them to learn to move more quickly on proposals, and also to wait before enlisting their vast network of collaborators, avoiding “burning out all our contacts immediately.”

It’s All About the Data

Since the range of experiences Relish can ultimately deliver to their clients is so diverse, the team has had to define the value they add in a sophisticated way. Chaikin said, “the level of community involvement and social capital” is the difference between event planning and placemaking.

Chaikin and Graney are always looking at the relationship between urban vibrancy tactics and their larger social and economic impact. They regularly collect data on their markets and have developed survey methods for customers and vendors that reveal the deep impact they have on the community.

The Union Square Farmers Market, for example, plays a pivotal role in the local economy—a study found that it generates $2.5 million dollars in economic impact per season. Chaikin cites data that says that farmers market customers on average spend $1 in surrounding businesses for every $1 they spend at the market—provided there are surrounding businesses to spend money in, of course. This data makes the vital connection between interventions that can seem Fluff-y (pardon the pun) and their role as urban investments. “If you have the data, you have the advantage,” Chaikin said.

When Chaikin looks ahead to the future of Relish, she hopes for longer-term projects and relationships, but their smaller scale projects and tests, and even foibles (like the sponsored chairs that they installed in Union Square that disappeared, “because they were really cool chairs,” she adds) have helped them build Relish’s expertise and point of view.

Her advice to both cities and creative placemakers? “The fun of experimentation is the flexibility with trying things on a smaller scale before moving forward.”

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

Mia Scharphie in August’s Landscape Architecture Magazine

This month I’m the subject of Landscape Architecture Magazine’s Backstory. The profile does a fantastic job of holistically covering the linkage between my social impact, design and research consultancy and Build Yourself+, as well as the linkage between social convictions and a professional life of meaning.

From the profile:

“There are ways that designers and artists can think about impact that isn’t necessarily qualitative or quantitative but that recognizes that scale matters. We need to be precise in our language, but if we only try to capture things that can be boiled down and verified, we’ll miss a lot of how change happens.”

Read the profile in the August issue, in print and on Zinio.

Color Palettes from Nature

I’ve been working on a project for a client that involves looking at a lot of photos of birds (really, I never thought I’d be one of those animal people on the internet but hey, at least it’s not LOL cats…)

I have been struck by some of the beauty of the color combinations I’ve been seeing and have been itching to create color palettes from a few of my favorites. Key findings: Nature is not always as subtle as I once thought. Lighting and mood mater. Enjoy.

Color Swatches from Nature-01Gorgeous swallows, amazing light and tone in this photo.
Photo by PsJeremy slowly waking from hibernation.

Color Swatches from Nature-02
Rainbow Bee Eater.
Photo by Jim Bendon.

Color Swatches from Nature-03
How magnificent is this falcon?
Photo by Stefan Groen.

Adding Love and Forgiveness to the Placemaking Toolkit: My Article for Next City

An article I wrote for a client, Enterprise Community Partners, is up on Next City. The article covers the unique approach Enterprise and their fellows developed to placemaking projects–one they call “collaborative actions” which takes the best of both community organizing, and its focus on working through tough issues, and the power of reimagining that comes with making and design.

From the article:

While the Tour De Farce may look like yet another tactical urbanism project, the frame of love and forgiveness gives community projects like it a different starting point than many other placemaking projects.

Centering a discussion on community development around love and forgiveness gives communities permission to talk about tough issues.

For more, read the article here.