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Season of Change

My last day at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) was two weeks ago. Working for local government was never something I dreamed about, but the experience was a surprising blend of all that I love: cities, innovation, media, politics.  Truly, it was an unparalleled opportunity to learn the ins & outs of a system where all of these elements converged.

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One of our communal kitchens at NYCEDC displayed Mayor Ed Koch’s mantra, a perfect encapsulation of what drew me to work everyday. With a budget larger than any other in the US, NYC is literally and metaphorically, one of the most dynamic and complex metropolises in the world.

When at NYCEDC, you can’t help but speak the language of economic development – creating jobs and developing neighborhoods – which includes a lot of technical jargon and municipal processes that I never wish for anyone’s vernacular (“Did you get LMDC approval to extend the RFEI deadline pre-ULURP, post-CEQR along with the DOT MOU?”)

More broadly, I took away some important life lessons during my 4+ years at this quasi-city agency. Most are in the context of running a city, i.e. seeking Council and community stakeholder approval for public land use projects, which admittedly is very different from running a profitable company in a market-driven society. But I’ve found that work in the public domain mirrors our personal lives in more ways than we think, especially as we grow towards a more open society.

In no meaningful order, my top 7 takeaways:

CHANGE IS INEVITABLE.

We must learn to embrace it. EDC is one of the biggest agents of change in NYC. The city has many levers at its disposal to implement change at scale through zoning policies, tax incentives, and workforce development programs. These mechanisms can also change the fabric of communities in immediate and tangible ways. You see the change with each new condo building and bourgeois office & coffee shop, along with rising prices. Resisting this change is futile, for it’s not all bad. Courting major companies and building large infrastructural projects increases connectivity and brings jobs & activity to formerly disinvested areas.

The work shouldn’t stop here.

Real economic development doesn’t just build and raise property values; it invests in the people of the neighborhood. Real economic development works with communities hand-in-hand to create double bottom-line metrics that not only measure the number of jobs that are created, but the number of local jobs, small businesses retained, permanently affordable housing units, open space, and sustainable community programs. Insomuch that the new development builds capacity for members of a community to sustainably adapt to the changing environment, its a win-win. 

PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS – It’s everything. 

The difference between a tourist and resident is that a tourist sees only the Times Squares and Magnolia Bakeries – the final outcome, packaged in all its pretty glory. The tourist does not have to see who is driven out and who moves in, the businesses that shutter because of rising rents, nor do they reap the consequences of city decisions that might have been made from the top-down. Fully engaging community stakeholders at all levels of any major new development (not just when they are needed for a vote) is key to ensuring that the plan captures all of the neighborhood’s basic needs.

A ONE SIZE ALL APPROACH DOES NOT WORK. 

Neighborhoods, just like people, are different. Don’t expect the same strategies to work for neighborhoods mere blocks apart. Manhattan north of 96th Street is totally different from the Lower East Side, or East 95th Street for that matter. A neighborhood strategy is most comprehensive when you seek the input of those who know the neighborhood best – its long-time residents – and not just urban planners or developers drafting plans from their ivory tower.

IT HELPS TO HAVE AN ADVOCATE AT THE TOP.

If you’re just starting at the bottom of the totem pole, a brilliant idea won’t go anywhere unless someone at the top can vouch for it. It’s stupidly hierarchal, but you can either spend time complaining about it or strategize about how to best work within the system & get buy-in at the top (hint: the latter saves a lot of time and disillusionment).

Robert Moses learned this in his early days working for the City, and after a couple botched ideas blinded by his own idealism, shifted the strategy for his ambitious development ideas around getting to know the people in power whose approval could actually make them happen.

YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE FAKING IT. 

I was very underqualified for my job as Manhattan Borough Director at EDC and frequently experienced impostor syndrome. I was never sure if what I said would unleash a cascade of angry words, eye rolls, or nodding approval. It was a state of constant uncertainty, but I soon realized that most experienced professionals were never 100% sure either. That’s the beauty of a job where there is no recipe for success. We’re all just trying to make the best decisions as we go. And that’s the way it is with life as well, right?

IT HELPS TO PRETEND LIKE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THOUGH. 

One of the best skills to have (aside from coding) is persuasion. If you can sell, you have the keys to unlocking people’s stubborn, change-resistant minds. Sometimes it’s less a matter of what you’re saying than how you say it. At several community meetings, I literally just memorized the same key talking points, and kept repeating variations of the same message. Over time, I began saying those lines with more confidence and felt like I gained greater trust (confidence coupled with consistency is what did it).

CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.

It’s one of my biggest frustrations but we’re all guilty of it. We enter any given situation with preconceived notions about people, communities, what they are capable of and what they are not. How do we know what people want? Maybe they are happy with the same bodega and old historic district, maybe they aren’t, or maybe they want to keep a valued institution and demolish something else…you just never know until you ask, so ask (unless you are withholding for some larger negotiation tactic).

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Government is not without its flaws. Certain regulatory measures are inefficient and things get stuck in the bureaucracy, but working at NYCEDC has reinforced my belief in the need for a strong public sector. We cannot rely on the private behemoths of the day to have the public’s best interests at heart. The irony of an Apple town square open to all except for those who can afford their $1000 iPhone pains me. Local government, on the other hand, is beholden to the public across a wide range of subsidized amenities – parks, roads, schools, utilities, public housing, hospitals, etc. – to build a better life for ALL.

I am leaving NYCEDC for personal reasons. I want to take time to explore & see what else is out there. Maybe I’ll go and learn some best practices from the private sector. But my enthusiasm for the public sector remains and I do hope to go back at some point. If there’s anything that I learned during my time at NYCEDC, it’s that innovation is disrupting industries left & right, and no one is immune to the impending change. Government needs to moderate and soften the change, so it is not an apocalyptic hell of tech-haves and have-nots.

I’m not sure what this next chapter means for me, but am open to the possibilities and ready to take the plunge. As Part I of my ‘sabbatical’, I’m traveling to the Middle East 11/23 – 12/6! If you’re in any of the following cities, let me know:

  • Dubai, UAE
  • Amman, Jordan
  • Wadi Rumi, Jordan
  • Jerusalem, Israel
  • Tel Aviv, Israel

Thanks to all who have supported me on this journey thus far, and cheers to the open road.

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Greetings from my new stoop. Fall hasn’t officially begun, but it feels a lot like the end of summer. Cooler weather, a return to regular work hours, evening showers, and finally! – an excuse to hole myself indoors.

It’s been a busy summer between surfing in the Rockaways, upstate hikes, and eating drunk noodles at 2 am. My liver might have aged a few years, but I am reminded of the blessing it is to be young and alive and eat/drink/dance ’til the sun goes down.

I am also really freaking exhausted.

Last month, I moved into a 1 bedroom in the East Village which is the first time I’ve lived alone since…well, ever. It has been an empowering, frightening, dare I say life-transforming experience. I’ve had roommates since college. In NYC, it’s been 6 apartments across 6 different neighborhoods over the last 6 years. I’ve shared space with 13 wonderfully unique characters, many of whom I still count as dear friends. There are unforgettable stories: the roommate who accused me of using her precious Kiehl’s shampoo without her permission, passive-aggressive exchanges with sleep-talking roommates, a post-modern Chelsea loft straight out of an IKEA catalog (cool in theory, but a bit too close for comfort between sliding glass doors). One of these days, I will write a book about that special time in my life.

Living alone is a paradigm shift. My decision was both pragmatic and misanthropic. I’m starting a yoga teacher training program later this month and want the space to stretch out in the middle of my living room for extended periods of time without feeling like a parasitic sloth taking up others’ shared space. Plus, after 6 years, I can afford it! (You know you’ve made it in New York when you can live in a box of your own…)

But the bigger reason is to remove the distractions that come from constantly being surrounded by people. Call it stubborn individualism, getting old, or just a need to repair years of catering to others’ whims and desires.  Whatever it is, it’s something that I can only sort out in a space of my own.  I can’t pour from an empty cup and lately, it’s been running a bit dry.

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I often fantasize about going to India and meditating on the top of a mountain in serenity.  I tell myself I’d be a little Buddha – brilliant, kind and utterly loving – because there would be no struggle or glimmer of discontent. I’d be contained from the highs and lows of this world, unphased by its demands and steady in my gait.

The present-day version is me sitting in my lovely, cheap NYC apartment with no Friday night plans, no people, just books (and maybe a good Netflix show or podcast). Self-confidence, health, happiness, the equanimity of the Buddha: all could be mine. And yet 30 days into this new life, that scene is so far from my reality. I even tried a social media sabbatical in August to cultivate a more intentional approach to presence and the way I spend my time. Rationale >>

  • Eliminating Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter would surely bring less distraction and more focus to the things that really matter.
    • Reality: I just went out and drank more.
  • Instead of perusing filtered images and carefully pruned status updates/tweets, I’d read and write more quality literature.
    • Reality: I have yet to finish any book, and this blog post is the sole thing I’ve written.
  • I have more time to buy groceries and cook, so I would never be tempted to hang with other dilettantes in the heart of the East Village, a mecca of bars & restaurants.
    • Reality: Of course not. 

All this reminds me of a passage from writer Sheila Heti:

Why do we go out? Because if what we want more than anything is to attain self-confidence, health, energy, and peace of mind, we should stay in.

I’m always super-aware of how whenever I go out into the world, or whenever I get involved in a relationship, my idea of who I think I am utterly collides with the reality of who I actually am. And I continue to go out even though who I am always comes up short. I always prove myself to be less generous, less charming, less considerate, not as bold or energetic or intelligent or courageous as I imagined in my solitude. And I’m always being insulted, or snubbed, or disappointed.

And yet, in some way, maybe this is better. Each of us could suffer the pangs of withdrawal from other people and gain the serenity of the non-smoker. We could be demi-gods in our little castles, all alone, but perhaps, deep down, none of us really wants that. Maybe the only cure for self-confidence and courage is humility. Maybe we go out in order to fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to be people.

For those of us who search so fervently for our calling, perhaps this is it: to be in this world, to be immersed in others’ lives – engaged, overzealous, and exposed to all its flaws – that is, to be people. Tempting it may be to hide under the covers, I’m realizing that the isolation I crave is merely an illusory antidote, for the instant I step back into the world and encounter a single person, the chaos of life will flood back, along with all its self-doubt, anxiety and fear. A beautiful mess that I better learn to love.

I’m excited for this new season, not so I can hole myself in my apartment for a never-ending book party, but so I can address all these inhibitions head on, alone or in community. I can lie in my living room in shivasana as long as I want. Or I can go out, dance, say embarrassing shit, and move on. The choice is mine to make – until it isn’t – so carpe diem.

Simple Civility

Two weeks ago, I checked a major item off my life bucket list: running the New York City Marathon.

img_0074Words can’t quite capture the experience of running through the streets of New York City with 50,000+ other runners. What I can say is that running through the five boroughs — from the mass exodus in Staten Island across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn (admittedly, my favorite borough), followed by Queens and a stampede of supporters on 1st ave in Manhattan, into the toughest miles in the Bronx, and then concluding with the final stretch along Central Park West — evoked a powerful sense of unity.

Somewhere in the Bronx between miles 21 and 22 when my legs began to give way, I also began to meditate and pass the time by drawing a line of comparison between the race itself and the race of life. (This is what happens when your neurotic brain calms down!)

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Though I am far from seasoned in either race, here are a few racing takeaways that emerged along the path:

  • Pace yourself. You’ll burn out by going full blast too quick, too soon. As an all or nothing type of person, this level of control is something I’m still trying to learn in life.
  • And yet, you’ll inevitably get tired regardless. It’s ok to stop and take a break when you need it. Recognize when to stop because it’s not about crashing and burning; it’s about finishing the long game.
  • Be prepared to lose some shit along the way. I threw out an old hoodie and a jacket as it started to heat up, and allowed my headband to fall to the ground. Some things you’re better off without, for no better reason than to simply lighten the load.
  • Go with the (ebb) and flow. There are various phases along the course: times when you’re riding high and filled with determination, and times when you’re on the major struggle bus near drunken stupor. During miles 3–9 in Brooklyn, I felt like I could run forever, as well as miles 17–19 along 1st avenue in Manhattan. The energy on the streets was infectious; when you see people from all walks of life cheering, you can’t help but feel like the whole city is on your side.
    Reality hits during what I call the ‘desert miles’; these were miles 12–15, while crossing the Pulkalski bridge into Queens, and miles 19–22, while crossing the Willis bridge into the Bronx. The crowd peters out. You’re alone and doing everything in your power to not give up. The going gets really tough.
    We all get by a bit easier with a little help. That said, we don’t always have the luxury of a personal cheering squad which means we ultimately need to rely on our own beating hearts to charge towards the end goal.
  • Get over yourself. Just when you think you’re struggling hard, you’re reminded that everyone else is running the same race while facing a battle of their own. People are overcoming challenges beyond what you could ever imagine. Towards the later stretches of the marathon, I found myself running next to a a group called Achilles International. Not knowing who they were, I was a bit irked when one of the runners ran into me. I think I gave her a look, only to realize that she was blind and guided by a volunteer with Achilles International (awesome organization btw, they pair those with sight with the sight-impaired so that they can participate in marathons and running events). Life is filled with humbling moments like these.
  • Everything is in your head. We are capable of more than we think. Running a marathon is highly mental. During those moments of immense pain and perspiration, the only thing that kept me going was sheer will, not athletic ability. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is easy compared to quelling the brain’s desire to quit. Conquer the mind’s restless chatter and truly, anything is within reach.
  • Have fun. A marathon is not something people generally do for leisure. But willpower is in short supply. As with all things in life, if you opt to train for something, you need to do it not because you “have to” but because you “want to”. Develop a strategy to make it fun. It will make the journey a lot more enjoyable.

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The marathon is one of those milestones that puts everything in perspective. I actually wrote this post two weeks ago without publishing, in between the marathon and our presidential election, but decided to post now because its lessons seem particularly trenchant to our current state of affairs.

Two main takeaways:

  1. What a gift it is to be alive and healthy. Training and completing the marathon makes me more cognizant of the gift of the human body and all the elements that allow me to move, particularly my 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 eyes, and healthy lungs.
  2.  Unity is possible. If people of all backgrounds can show up on the streets of New York and cheer a simple act of human endurance and resilience — running — why are we so divisive in other areas of life?
Which leads to one final thought about the topic on everyone’s mind –

 

Though we may not all be on the same page politically, may we aim for simple civility in the days to come. As we enter a potentially transformative time in our nation, let us remember the freedom we are afforded and use it wisely. Fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. And just like the long and winding path on the marathon, press on towards the victorious finish.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

2016: Presence > Presents

My favorite marketing campaign over the holidays was Sweetgreen’s clever play on presents.

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Accompanying this was a promotion: bring a friend and his/her meal would be on the house. Business-savvy move, since most fast healthy chain consumers are probably dining alone.

Beyond the benefit to Sweetgreen’s bottom line, there’s immense value in the social capital this taps into: an age-old desire to break bread with others.

This got me thinking, now that the ‘season of giving’ is over, what if we continue to give simply by being present?

Easier said than done. Time is a valuable resource, and surely it’s a lot easier to gift someone a $50 gift certificate then to expend 2 hours of time with them. Think of all the other things we could be doing!

In some ways, money has become a subordinate currency to time: a band-aid solution to a lack of time. “Sorry I can’t be PRESENT but here’s a cool thing. See ya later!”

Which is why attention may be the greatest gift we can give, no matter the season.

I’m not trying to be self-righteous. Presents – the materialistic kind – are wonderful things and I love receiving them. It’s when they become our sole focus that perspective gets warped. How many times have you been asked, “What did you get for [Christmas/birthday/Valentine’s Day/insert consumer insert holiday name]?” as if receiving a present is a given.

Even in the land of charitable giving, undue emphasis is sometimes placed on material exchange or donations. When people asked what my short-term mission team did in Mumbai, by default I ticked off the gifts we brought: books, supplies, money, food, a computer, and a motorcycle for a pastor in the slums. Never mind that we also taught Bible Study, financial literacy classes, and held devotionals. But by lauding our funds and gifts, I (unintentionally) perpetuated the notion that short-term missions are non-committal, swooping in and plopping their gifts like Santa Clause. What happens to Santa at the end of the night? He returns to a distant faraway land never to be seen for another year.

Presents can bring tremendous value. But they can also distract, absolving us of a responsibility to be truly involved in the lives of others.

If the value of a mission trip lies not in its material gifts, where then does it come from? Here’s what I believe: the benefit of giving a week of your time to fly across the world and partner with vulnerable populations in less explicit and more implicit. It sends a message. A message that the poor, sick, and needy are not forgotten. A message that they are loved. Most of all, a message that they are worth. our. time.

Time is the real value. It’s not the books, the computer, or even the motorcycle we gifted to a pastor to ease his travel to and from the various slum communities (though it’s pretty badass).

Time spent listening, empathizing, and seeing beyond what a rigid caste system deems as untouchable (and therefore, unworthy) is both a palpable and impalpable gift. You can’t package it into a pretty box, but you feel its impact. This doesn’t just exist in the third word. Think about what our aging parents would prefer: a perfectly-wrapped present, or our full and devoted presence (sans buzzing phones – scarce commodity!).

As we return to our post-holiday routine, there will continue to be multiple distractions, obligations, and stressors  fighting for our attention. The best we can do is intentionally focus our attention on the things that matter: our friends, spouses, parents, children, or whatever it is we value most.

In a world where attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, it’s as simple – and difficult – as that.

Mumbai Dispatch

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Photo Credit: Brianna Johnson

 

In late November, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a week-long mission trip to Mumbai.

The trip was part of Redeemer Presbyterian’s short-term missions program, which coordinates dozens of trips each year to assist and serve international nonprofits and NGOs in various capacities.  Thanks to the generous support of family and friends who contributed financially and prayerfully to the cause, I was able to embark on this eye-opening journey into the heart of India.

Words can never adequately describe the full experience, but I attempted to share some highlights and takeaways. The following is adapted from an email I sent to supporters shortly after the trip:


 

IMG_9956With open hearts and minds, the Mumbai mission team traveled into the heart of India for Redeemer’s 4th mission trip centering on human and sex trafficking issues.

Our team of 13 doubled down on efforts to bring light to the victims of sex trafficking through spiritual, educational, and artistic activities. This was made possible thanks to a blossoming partnership with 2 partner organizations on the ground: International Justice Mission, and another organization (whose name must remain hidden for security purposes).

Our team split time between two locations: 3 days in Mumbai, and 4 days at a school/shelter in Badlapur (a small town about an hour outside of Mumbai).

Below is a day-by-day summary of how our time and dollars were spent.


 

Day 1: Context

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We started our trip in the Red Light District of Kamathipura, Mumbai, arguably the world’s largest hub for sex trafficking (it is reported that 40% of the world’s human slaves live in India).

It’s an ironic truth that within the sprawling confines of Mumbai, there’s a booming industry – one that runs counter to the city’s moniker, “City of Dreams” – where thousands of women are stripped of their dreams through violence.

After worshipping at the Red Light District Church alongside women (some of whom still work in the brothels), we drove through the Red Light District’s noisy and winding roads. Though we were shielded from view in a car, the scene was a harrowing glimpse of the reality that some 300,000 women experience daily in Mumbai.

Women stood wistfully on the streets, platform-heeled & sari-bedazzled, while men casually eyed ‘goods for consumption’; it was an image reminiscent of a meat market. Grotesque as it was, what we saw doesn’t come close to capturing the full situation. All-told, the Red Light District houses more than 1000 brothels, with most hidden from sight within the District’s dark alleys.


 

Days 2 – 5: Badlapur 

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

We traveled to the ATC Village*, a recently-built educational facility an hour outside of Mumbai, where approximately 40 rescued children of women in prostitution receive a free, high-quality education.

Here we spent the next 4 days leading Bible Study, financial literacy classes, arts and crafts activities, and homework help. Most of the girls’ mothers are still enslaved or undergoing HIV/AIDS treatment. Despite their lack of parental figures, they were eager to learn: many speak fluent English and have dreams to attend university, have a career, and become financially independent.

At one of the shelters we visited, rescued women underwent job training and learned to make beautiful handmade quilts, jewelry, and handbags, with the ultimate goal of creating their own businesses.

To top it off, our Events team “made it rain” with sprinkles and glitter at each of the three facilities (including a shelter home for rescued women and their children as well as a dedicated home for HIV positive children). Dressed to the tee in fedoras, glowsticks, and fancy shades, the girls (and boys!) had a blast posing at our instant Polaroid Photo Booth.


 

Days 6 and 7: Mumbai Slums  

DSC00083If the first part of our trip was “service”, then our last two days were serious “education”.

On the final leg, we returned to Mumbai and served food to the homeless at a food mobile truck. We also met with International Justice Mission (IJM) to learn more about their unique 4-prong strategy to protect the poor from violence.

Not only does IJM conduct raids to rescue victims from sex trafficking, they actively work to change the system through prosecution of the perpetrators, legal advocacy, and policy-making. As of December 2015, they’ve trained 10,000 Indian police officers to more effectively enforce the law and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice!

Equally important is their rehabilitation work that restores current victims to their community through educational and health services. We were blessed with the opportunity to meet with a leader of one of these Mumbai outreach ministries, Pastor Guy. Guy is an inspiring and energetic soul with a heart for the poor.

He took us to a slum community where he ministers; there we met with a family who graciously welcomed us into their home and we then prayed over each other.

Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to purchase a plentiful stock of groceries for the family, as well as a new motorcycle for Pastor Guy! We hope that these gifts can nourish the family’s health and facilitate ease and convenience for Pastor Guy’s work in the slums.


 

Thank You

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Photo Credit: Teanna Woods teewoodsphotography.com

More than anything, this trip reinforced a nascent view of mine about simple grace and generosity. There were several moving moments, but one in particular stands out.

At an evening devotional with the girls, after prayer and worship, the group of 40 girls prayed over each of us. The fervor and depth of their murmurs were more heartfelt than anything I could ever muster! It hit me then: this belief that we came to “bless” was a misnomer, for along the way, I received more than I gave.

“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”

– 2 Corinthians 8

More importantly, I left Mumbai with hope that organizations like the ones we worked with are providing victims with opportunity to start new lives in a protected environment of love.

IJM provides a great overview of the human trafficking issue at large, if you’d like to learn more. While more healing is needed to restore the spirits of those affected by the scourge of human slavery, I am personally blessed by the “votes of confidence”: friends who listened to my doubts trusted counselors who nudged me to take this trip, as well as all who generously donated to the cause. Words never suffice, but thank you.


 

*Christian organizations like the ones we worked with, have recently been the target of hardline grassroots organizations who oppose spiritual freedom in India. A partner organization’s name and its facilities are hidden in this post to protect its identity.

I’m running the NYC Half Marathon

…in less than 2 weeks!

I’ll be carrying some winter pudge; nonetheless, I’m excited and honored to be running on behalf a charity team close to my heart, Apex for Youth (Apex).

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Apex is a mentoring organization for underserved Asian American youth that I’ve been involved with for 3 years as a middle school mentor. My mentee Melanie (pictured at right) and I have been together since she was in 6th grade, and it’s been a lot of fun to learn and grow with each other.

I am less than $500 from my fundraising goal, and accepting last-minute donations here.

Your donation will help me cross the finish line but more importantly, will help sustain the many youth enrichment programs that Apex runs. Anything you can spare is truly appreciated, even a simple word of encouragement!

Donate here and learn more about this wonderful organization.

Otherwise, if you’re in NYC the morning of March 15, please meet me at the finish line on Water Street and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. There is no formal reunion area, so if you do come let me know. We’ll meet and snap a sweaty selfie or something.

To movement!
– L