Presenting on Making the Women’s Bill of Rights Inclusive of Trans and Non-Binary Residents + Why There Haven’t Been Human Services Commission Updates

Tomorrow morning I’ll be presenting at Foothill College on my work as Chair of the Human Services Commission on the Women’s Bill of Rights, San José’s implementation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. You can see my presentation here, filled with wonderful free stock photos of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer folks from this collection.

Normally, tomorrow would be a day when the Human Services Commission would meet. I would love to meet. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to meet since January because half of our commission seats are unfilled, leaving us with 6 of our 13 seats empty. Those of you familiar with quorum rules know that means we need 100% of our members to attend a hearing to legally to allowed to meet. But every month, at least one commissioner has had a commitment that kept them away, so we have not met.

Below is a description of the process issue we’ve been going through, in the hopes that writing it out will help other commissioners facing the same issue resolve it more quickly. It gets long and wonky and technical and I want to say something about criticizing people vs processes before I get started.

I know the city is understaffed. I’ve worked in state government in two states. City workers are doing their best under difficult circumstances. But there are also some clear technical, process, and communication improvements that could be made to this system and I think the best way to help get them made is articulating them here, since 4 months of quiet advocacy that hasn’t worked.

The Process Issue: As far as I can figure out, the City Clerk’s office closed applications to the Human Services Commission (HSC) on January 3rd and didn’t tell us they were open until March 1. Here’s the timeline as far as I could find out:

  • December 2018: City Council does not fill the 4 vacancies on the HSC. The commissioners are asked at our 12/20 meeting to help recruit to fill them. We recruit from our networks. 
  • 2019: 1/3: the City Clerk’s office stops allowing people to apply to the Human Services Commission. They removed the HSC from the drop-down on the Granicus-run application system. 
  • 1/3 – Present: the City Manager’s office, through their commission staffer, encouraged the members of the commission to recruit from our personal networks to keep our commission alive. Here’s one such post.
  • Mid-Jan: We realize there’s an issue with the application system, don’t know what it is, and our staff secretary from the City Manager’s office reaches out to the Clerk’s office to fix it. They say they are understaffed and it will take about a week. At least 2 people I recruited to apply are unable to do so. I can’t tell them why. We’re still being reminded to recruit for the commission. 
  • 2/22: It’s the day after our February meeting, which we canceled for lack of quorum and the Clerk’s office re-opens the application. But our staff secretary — and thus the commission — is not told. So we have no idea applications are open. 
  • 3/1: The City Clerk’s office tells our staff secretary the application is open. But there’s some issues, so the staff secretary requests all recruited applicants reach out to her by email. You can see this language here in this tweet from Councilmember Khamis.
  • 3/8: I call every single council’s office with a vacancy plus the Mayor’s office (whose seat is also vacant). Those are: Mayor Liccardo, Vice Major Chappie Jones, Councilmember Lan Diep, Councilmember Devora Davis, Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, Councilmember Johnny Khamis. None of the frontline staff who picked up the phone knew their districts had a vacancy and most had no idea who on their staff handled board and commission appointments. I also made social media images and wrote sample newsletter/social media text to make it as easy as possible for busy staffers to recruit. You can see my image and text in Councilmember Khamis’s tweet.
  • 3/19: I hear from our staff secretary we have 9 new applications for the HSC. Which, to me, implies that council offices hadn’t known to recruit for these roles before and when council’s offices reach out, they get responses from their communities.
  • April – May: We struggle to get answers about if the applicants have been reviewed by the committee on appointments, whether their conflict of interest review by the City Attorney’s office had been done. We don’t meet either month.

I’m very much hoping we can meet in June. I wish I could tell the Foothill community college students and their families a story tomorrow about government moving quickly to solve a problem tomorrow, but instead we’ll talk about wielding inertia and that the arc of the moral universe does not bend alone; it bends because we bend it.

Sierra Leone: Wrapping Up

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.

I got back late last night after about 42 hours of travel, beating my 2010 record of 31 hours of continuous travel by a handy margin. It was long, but the company was good, and I think I still have a brownie from Heathrow carefully wrapped in my jacket pocket (the itinerary was: Makeni->Freetown->Monrovia->Brussels->Heathrow->LAX->SFO->Home in San José).


I spent the weekend in Makeni, seeing many but not all of my friends from when I taught there back in 2017. One of the most touching moments was when I was presenting about how to give an elevator pitch and then I paused and asked the students there to raise their hands if they already knew me. Half of the room raised their hands.

To be known so far from home, to be so thoroughly remembered by people with busy lives and complex obligations, means more than I can say. I remembered them each as well — Fatimata who wants to be a Modern Day Bai Bureh, Abdul who wants to be a rapper (and who swaps new Jidenna tracks back and forth with me on Messenger), Joseph who is an incredible leader and just graduated, and Ibrahim, who is getting his MBA in China now. They and dozens of other students live with me every day and I usually assume — just like most people who teach do — that I remember more of them than they do of me. It meant a lot to see that wasn’t the case this time.

Here are 10 of the students who attended that session, giving their elevator pitches:


I presented for 3 minutes in my Japanese class about why I missed class last week, at the request of the sensei. I spent probably more time thinking about how to explain this entire week in 3 minutes than I did studying my hiragana (which may explain the resultant quiz grade). How do you sum-up an entire country in 3 minutes?

I talked about freedom of faith. I talked about technology and brilliant scientists. I talked about the deep, centuries-long relationship with the US, good and bad. I talked about why it’s vital to know the monetary value of the help you’re providing before giving some European airline $2000 to go to a country where that money could send a young person to college for a year, including room and board. I talked about the power of the US exchange programs and how the US citizens and the international students (who are about 50% of my class) could get involved.

My sensei asked what I taught that week. I listed it on the board:

  1. Coding on a Loom
  2. Pitching
  3. Finding Funding ($$$)
  4. Public Speaking

A student asked how I taught coding on a loom and I showed her with my fingers; she’s also a CS student and we ended up talking about what classes she was taking during the break, and the fact that CSU East Bay only offers C++, no Java.

While I spoke, I passed around some of the fabrics, I bought and a skirt I had made. This skirt, in fact:

I also included a mahogany sculpture of a woman reading and a wood-beaded bracelet I bought when I was there in 2017.

I talked about where the fabrics were from, about how different countries have different styles.

The first day back is always hard. The food tastes wrong, all of the colors in our cloudy California skies are too dull. I, who usually wear black accented with additional black and maybe some dirt on it for color, found myself wearing pink plaid and feeling as dull as an unvarnished door. Campus was so quiet, no call-to-prayer, no children running around me. My skin felt strange with no one tapping my arm for attention or brushing against me in crowded classrooms. I had my American personal space bubble back and it felt cold.

But every time I sat down to get my computer out, I got to see a bag full of Sierra Leone and suddenly the colors, the smells, the textures, the sounds were around me again, if only for a few moments.

One of the things that makes TechWomen so powerful is invested I get in the lives of women who live all over the world. When the women I know through the program have incredible professional wins, I cheer online along with them. Since they’re TechWomen Fellows, those major wins come regularly:

But the flip side of this is that I am invested in the lives of women who live all over the world. Women who I rarely get to hug, rarely get to smile at except through the mediating technology of Skype or WhatsApp. When things go wrong in their countries, which happens, then I hurt too. I get worried for them every time I see their countries’ names in the headlines.

Even when elections happen as planned, even when the airstrikes are called off, I miss my friends.

I love making friends around the world, women who know me, women whom I am honored to know.

But it is hard to know they are so far away.

I will miss Sierra Leone.

I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends new or old during the delegation, only: “See you later.”

Sierra Leone, I will see you later.

Sierra Leone: Day 5

Photo courtesy of Molly Fiffer of IIE.

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Morning (8-9am): Visit St Edward’s Catholic Boys Primary School

Maybe having an impromptu footrace with a group of, oh, 25 primary school boys outside of their Catholic school wasn’t on the agenda. But it was a wonderful way to start an early morning.

Here is some more context on why we were at this school in particular:

Before the official assembly began, I had asked a small group of students hanging-out with me what their favorite song was. They started singing this:

(The teacher and the boys themselves said it was alright for Mom to post the video on YouTube.) We normally would have posted it on Twitter or IG, except, when I asked that group of boys how they liked to spend their weekends, their activities were (in-order):

  1. Study hard
  2. Watch the baby
  3. Watch YouTube

When I asked what they watched on YouTube, one boy answered: “Children’s programs.”

When I asked who were in the children’s programs, he said: “Mostly American children.”

I asked if he’d like more Sierra Leonian kids to have shows, and he said he did. So Mom asked them if she could record them singing their favorite song and promised to upload it to YouTube so there would be at least one more good children’s video with Sierra Leonian kids in it. It is above.

One thing I loved about this morning, aside from the footraces and the 3 Rs program, was the amount of forma; group singing the boys got in before school started. They spent a solid 10-15 minutes singing prayers, national anthems, flag songs, good morning songs — as a singer, it was a joy to be surrounded by so many cheerful, curious voices uplifted in song.

Day (9:30 – 4pm): Hands-on STEM day with students, Buxton Memorial Methodist Church Hall

On my way into Sierra Leone, I had 2 checked-bags: a duffle bag I’ve had for about 25 years at this point (I like to think it’s stains have protected it from avaricious TSA workers through trips to a dozen countries); and a black hard-sided suitcase that Mom didn’t want anymore. The duffle was full of my clothes for a delegation where every day’s dress code started with the word “Business.” The black hard sided bag was half-full of STEM educational materials one of our Fellows in Nigeria bought, shipped to my house, and which I handed-over to another Nigeria Fellow early in the week.

The other half of the black bag was full of the materials I prepped for today’s workshop. I was teaching my Coding on a Loom workshop, incorporating a few lessons-learned from when I taught it in Nigeria. Those lessons included:

  1. Plan kits ahead of time for teachers with all of the materials
  2. Laminate the instructions so they don’t degrade as fast in a tropical climate
  3. Make the looms smaller/easier to fabricate
  4. Use color-contrasting yard and needles to make it easier for students to distinguish between the two while working
  5. Include other STEM hands-on items in the kits

1 and 2 I was able to handle before take-off; I accomplished 3 by buying these pre-made looms, though if I do this again I think I’ll just cut them myself out of cardboard. The notches were too tight in these and they looked snaggle-toothed when strung.

4 was mostly easy enough, though the fact I warped all of the boards in green (since it’s on the flag and for the Muslim students, it can signify good luck because green is known as the prophet’s favorite color) and many of the plastic needles and balls of yarn were green wasn’t ideal.

For 5, the other STEM items I included a make-your-own mobile solar system kit I found for $1 each at the dollar store (thank you Crayola); dice from a DND-playing friend who was KonMari-ing, so teachers can give students another way to practice probability; a loom or three, several plastic needles, and several balls of yarn; my business card if they had questions.

Each student also got to take-home their materials: these included a small cardboard handloom, a plastic needle and a ball of colorful yarn, the instruction sheet with information about the math behind binary on one side and an ASCII letters-to-binary chart on the other side, and a little toy or keychain from the US.

I designed this workshop to include gifts for a few reasons: getting a gift to start the lesson off can help the students decide to engage even in an unfamiliar setting, with teachers who accents may sound strange, and a topic presented in a way they aren’t used to. Also, I believe students integrate information more quickly when it directly connects to them and knowing that they physically own the object they’re working this might help them dive in.

The basic structure of this workshop is to start by talking about natural languages — I wrote my name and my co-presenter Soniya Goyal of Twitter’s name in English Arabic, Japanese, Binary, Morse code, the first letter in musical notation. Soniya wrote both of ours in Hindi, which was a special treat. These went-up on the board with colorful paper and we talked about how sounds and letters are represented in different ways — in Japanese, sound combinations have one consistent character, while in Arabic, English, and Hindi, we spell-out each letter.

Here’s what that sounds like:

Then I asked the students to flip-over their handouts and read me the binary for the first letter of my name, which I then wove into an 8-ribbon warp hanging from the blackboard.

Then I let them get started.

Most of the time, if I’ve explained clearly enough, 3/4 of students will be able to get moving with the project immediately. By pre-threading the needles, we probably saved a half-dozen stalled-starts.

The remaining 1/4 will usually raise their hands and ask: “Actually, what is it we are doing?”

Then Soniya and I explain again, trying to group the confused quarter into small groups. They always get it after that. I’m not sure if these students weren’t paying attention, learn better when someone is speaking directly to them rather than to them in a group, need to see something demonstrated on the object in front of them rather than an analogous one, or needed a bit of repetition. But it works out fine.

The next set of questions come from students who have a repeating 1 or 0 between the beginning or end of their names. This makes the thread slip, if they don’t know how to anchor it. We usually do a quick loop, which damages readability but keeps the flow going.

Once everyone has gotten their first two letters on their boards, I go back to the blackboard and start explaining the math behind binary. We started with what numbers are (16 is 6 ones and 1 ten, 116 is 6 ones, 1 ten, and 1 hundred), then what numbers are in base-2. I used the usual: “What if you were an alien with only 2 fingers, how would you count?” I’ve never found this thought-experiment particularly helpful, and think it often leads to un-fruitful classroom daydreams about ET, but it’s the most common metaphor here. Then I converted a decimal number to binary on the board, then a binary number to decimal.

The students seem to enjoy call-and-response math, so I asked for their help with my powers of 2 from 0 to 7, then with the addition after we’ve converted each number’s place from binary to decimal.

Because lunch was running a little late, I got extra time with my second group, which led to this:

I also got to show them my math magic trick, drawing a big long line on the board and dividing it in half over and over and over again as we worked our way down the binary search tree. I added some theatrics to this one. I asked one girl to choose a number between 0 and 1,000,000.

Then I said I was going to run out of the room and she should tell the whole class while I stood outside with my ears covered. I did this, with lots of flouncing, and then proceeded to work through the numbers. I believe she’d chosen 7 and it took me 18 guesses.

(In the two times I have done this so far, the children have picked “random” numbers between 0 – 1,000,000, and those numbers have always been less than 20. A new definition of the edge cases where a linear search would be consistently faster than a binary search tree algorithm.)

I love this workshop because it lets me combine music and math and weaving and coding and performance and the history of women in computer science and the history of computer science and physical play and colorful materials and crafting all at once.

Evening: Goodbye Dinner

This was colorful and sad and yummy and heartfelt and oh, I wish that so many miles and borders did not keep us apart.

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