Sierra Leone: Day 0

This is a first in 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 stoop down low as I step into the finished-pine hallway; it gives a feeling of enclosure, of a passageway build for another time. I emerge and stare-up at the high ceiling, painted with winged faces connected by banners, the name of the moon great and centered above the stage. Dozens of candles light the space which was designed to be lit in that way, gilding catching the wavering, liquid light.

The floor of the stage is divided into 5 spaces, like the play I’m here to see. The surface alternates rough, rubber-textured panels with semi-polished un-welded copper. The metal throws back every twinkle of light that falls on it and sometimes in odd moments doubles the players who walk upon it. The stage sits about mouth-level for my seat in the pit.

My mother sits grinning on the narrow red wool-padded bench in front of me, her blue eyes rapt and about level with the stage. We are running late for our delegation to Sierra Leone, using an unavoidable Heathrow layover to see Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe. ‘Running late’ because According to the official schedule we were supposed to be in west Africa by Saturday night, the very night we were sitting in that candle-filled, gilded playhouse. But I was scheduled to chair a San José Human Services Commission meeting that made earlier flights impossible; my mother, traveling companion, and fellow TechWomen mentor teaches classes in the jail and hates to miss more than she absolutely needs to, since her students don’t have the luxury of cutting class and have often been abandoned; and neither of us had the budget necessary to make the shorter, more timely itinerary favored by the other members of our delegation. So we took cheap flights with long layovers. Then, rather than staying in our airport hotel and luxuriating in sleeping horizontally, we took ourselves on the Underground to Mansion House station, wandered across the Thames, and kept the water company while we ate sandwiches begrudgingly boxed by a harried teller.

The Sam Wanamaker playhouse is part of the Globe complex and it is a space smaller and more holy than most churches I’ve been in.

The production company for Richard II is made-up exclusively of women of color. The play co-directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton; Ms Andoh also stars as the titular King Richard. The production design draws not from some picturesque reenactment of the time of the playwright, but from the lived histories of the actresses. The costuming (Rianna Azoro), the etiquette, manners of physical address and discipline, setting (design by Rajha Shakiry), the music (Lois Au directing and Dominique Le Gendre  composing), issues of hair and eye-level shoes are all promised to be drawn from the traditions of their specific ancestors. Photos of a dozen of those specific ancestors hang enbannered on linen, hanging from the balustrades of the upper gallery.

This trip to Sierra Leone will be my happy third to west Africa in the past 3 years. I’ve walked through the frantic streets of Lagos filled with men in skin-tight singlets and heavily-starched shirts; driven through the self-satisfied professionally-planned boulevards of Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal capital built in a place no one tribe could claim as their homeland; I’ve pressed my feet into the same sand British and American slave boats shoved themselves into to steal people for the fields of their colonies and Empires; I’ve danced with a performer/the spirit/god Joli in Makeni as Temne performers sang their parts in strong unison; I’ve learned to tell the sound of Krio from other west African Creoles from South African accents from Kenyan language patterns; I’ve developed a firm taste for groundnut stew. One our first day in Nigeria during the delegation in 2018, we toured a major art gallery; the top floor of which was unlit but also unbarricaded, so I explored the religious items and carvings and statues there, seeing in their faces the same rituals of marriage and life and death which Shakespeare lays-out as the pattern of the lives of his people. I saw a traditional Yoruba horse-hair scepter/fly whisk, which tribal leaders can use to anoint people during specific ceremonies, including throwing water far into an assembled crowd.

The program we purchased for 5 pounds at the Globe reminds me that Shakespeare wrote “on the heart beat.” As I sit in the theater, I press my two fingers to my pulse point and recite Sonnet 116 to myself as the audience fills-in, setting the iambs to each throb. Those assembled hush on an unseen but thoroughly-felt cue. There was a feeling between each of us like we are vesicles in the same lung, every breath contributing to the shared air, powering the action that was about to leap to life around us. 

Then: a sudden singing, women’s powerful voices filling the liquid space in perfect unison. The language was not English; it sounded like it might be west African, though I could not be sure.

The court of Richard II entering through the same low pine passage I’d entered, tunics and saris and wide pants brushing against my shoulder as they stride along the aisles to ascend the stairs. The King wears a version of what I saw tribal leaders in Nigeria wearing, embroidered long jackets designed to be worn open in the front with extensive gold embroidery. Her crown is an array of stiff rays of gold with a gold human figure nestled above her high brow; her eye-shadow is broad and gold. 

The program reminds us that people of color and women are “at the bottom of Empire,” and that was the perspective that the directors wanted to explore without losing the grand and powerful language of the text. They succeeded in that first scene.

The lords of the court all wear gold embroidery on costumes that are tied to their performers’ family histories: Ayesha Dharker as Aumerle wears variations of Indian traditional dress; Sarah Lam as Bushy wears variations on Chinese traditional dress. There is much double-casting — enough that I was occasionally confused if I was hearing lines from Nicholle Cherrie as the Green, Percy, or the (400 year old spoiler!) murderous groom.

The connection to the actress’s family histories played out in more than clothing. Two of the most visible examples came when lords prostrated themselves in the copper ground before their king or pressed a hand to a friend’s foot in greeting. These seamlessly replaced the more traditional British aristocratic gestures for those moments: bowing and shaking hands. But because these gestures come from complete and complex cultures, they hold within them all of the potential for disrespect and dissent present in all forms of etiquette. In a particularly powerful moment, Indra Ové as Northumberland touches the ground before the king, but rather than pressing her whole palm on it, she touches just the delicate tip of her middle finger, showcasing her distain for his avaricious, capricious, and soon to be foreshortened rule.

Gold is the dominant color in the scheme as it should and must be: one of the central conflicts of the piece is Richard’s overspending on Irish wars and his lovers. As her greed grows, so does the amount of gold embroidery on her clothing until she wears a long coat that is more gold than cloth.

In her final scene, after she looses her crown to Bolingbroke — whose clothing is also extensively influenced by west African traditional fashion — the deposed Richard is almost unrecognizable. Crownless, imprisoned and abandoned, Richard wears the kind of pale singlet I saw in Lagos, paired with a dirty dhoti. Richard is constantly in a state of self-defined martyrdom in the play; the martyr Shakespeare had in mind was of course Jesus Christ, but that was before the rise of Empire and occupation of the Indian subcontinent. In this post-Empire production, a king in dhoti reminded me most strongly of the survivors of Empire and those who, despite their own personal failings, campaigned successfully against it (see: Gandhi).

At the intermission, as I gulped down scalding tea at the nice cafe inside the theater complex, I told my mother that this was the best plays I had ever seen. She thought I meant the power of seeing women given complex, powerful roles and we began arguing about Anthony and Cleopatra vs Richard II. But what I meant is it was the most powerful performance I had ever seen.

Seeing women of color in every role, wearing clothing personal to their histories, speaking words common to their shared nation, was boneshakingly profound. The lessons of the play — about how to re-form a nation when the habits of entrenched power become intolerable, that we can feel sympathy for leaders who can no longer lead us, that coalitions are necessary to upending power, that every sea change will also bring to a the it regrets — are built into the text. Shakespeare is brilliant.

But whose voices sing that change into being; that was the power of the play. Last night, women were the cowards and the kings, the flirts and the fighters, the power-mad and powerless — and because this is Shakespeare in all his observational complexity, the same women were each of these in turn. Just as women are. Just as we always have been.

Beyond Open Door

This is a repost of a blog post I wrote back in 2016 for Emerge California and that it looks like has been recently re-organized off of the blog.

The elected officials I most admire constantly talk to their constituents. They talk to them on Twitter, on the street, at community meetings run by others and at neighborhood gatherings they pull together themselves. Their constant openness takes energy. Sometimes, it can confuse constituents who aren’t used to access, as U.S. Senator Booker (D-NJ) found a few years ago when a resident of Ireland reached out to him to for help filling a ditch:

Before I came back home to California after 7 years of school and advocacy work on the East Coast, I spent a year in Seattle. I started out volunteering and then working for local campaigns. I was constantly talking. Everywhere I went, I chatted with people in my community, breathing in their concerns and breathing out potential solutions. After the election, I had the opportunity to staff the chair of the state House budget committee during a constitutional crisis centered around K-12 education funding.

One day, during my first few weeks in Olympia, I overheard my boss was going to give a speech that evening. I asked if I could attend. I was told not to by a trusted caucus staff member. She said I couldn’t go to community events during the legislative session, because they might benefit the Representative in his next election. With long experience in the capital, she was concerned that having a state-paid staff member at the event would be an improper use of tax-payer funded time. Everyone I talked to agreed: as staffers, we should stay in our cubicles.

A week or so later, I floated the idea of knocking some doors in district to ask constituents how they felt about a bill; I was new to area and wanted to help inform my boss’s work. The senior caucus staff let me know that was not allowed because reaching out to constituents was too close to campaigning. I later discovered legislative aides and assistants were also not allowed to use Twitter to respond to constituents who tweeted at the Representatives, because most elected officials in Washington state only have one account for their campaigns and do not maintain a separate one for official work. 

The caucus staff did incredible work within these rules, using caucus resources to get information out to constituents and report back to legislators. I could understand how the caucus got to each policy and would never want to cross official and campaign work. But the practical result of the rules was that we were distanced from constituents. Campaigns got all the innovative grassroots tactics while elected officials were left to limp along using the tools of bureaucracy to achieve the ends of representative democracy.

It was like leaders in elected office had to hold their breaths between campaigns, not meeting constituents where they lived but waiting for them to make an appointment. The good legislators I came to know always had an open door policy for constituents. But to take advantage of that policy, a constituent had to take time off work, find a car to drive or time to meander on the bus, and find the office before she could walk though that door and be heard. That is a missed opportunity.

We can do better in California as leaders in Emerge. We can decide to meet our constituents where they are—not just at community meetings that require tickets or nice clothes, not just at functionally-closed-door club meetings, but at their front doors, on their commutes, walking in our parks, on the phone and online. Our communities cannot hold their breaths between campaigns, hoping to be heard only in the months leading up to an election.

I answered most in-coming calls to the office during my time in Olympia and I found the people who felt most secure making their views known were those who had met the Representative in person. I got calls from constituents who recalled that he had knocked on their doors last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. People remembered and that memory made them feel like their he was a person who was responsible to them. Not in an abstract, civic-lesson kind of way, but as a reliable figure in their lives. That was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted for all residents to have.

As part of the Emerge 2016 class, we get to decide what kind of elected officials we want to be for our future constituents. Do we want to be welcoming, present in their lives, and truly accessible? Or do we want to sit back in our chairs and wait to see who can get through our doors? 

I vote we get out and breathe the shared air of our communities, not just to get elected, but to stay connected to the people we wish to serve.

Tenth San José Human Services Commission Meeting

Our first meeting of 2019! And we have serious forward momentum on a number of key issues. Hooray!

As a brief aside, this is my 1-year anniversary on the commission. 5 moments that stand out for me:

  1. Elevating the voice of a Silicon Valley De-Bug activist, Anthony T. King and having a serious conversation with SJPD and the Housing Department about how the property of people who are homeless is treated. The Housing Department said they were planning to change which vendors manage the belongings of people caught-up in what most people call “encampment sweeps”; this is the change I was advocating for and I look forward to following-up with them to make sure that people who are homeless are treated better.
  2. Re-writing the Women’s Bill of Rights to explicitly include transgender and non-binary residents. The City Attorney asked that I reformat it as a comparison table between the old bill and the new one. That seemed like busywork and another way to stonewall, but I did it; we’ll be discussing those changes at today’s meeting.
  3. Drafting a Request for Information, the first step the City Manager’s office says the need to take before they can put out a Request for Proposal to hire an independent consultant to manage the gender analysis survey required under the Women’s Bill of Rights. This is a huge deal, something we’ve been fighting for all year, and if I had to write it on my birthday, well, it’s a good way to start my 30s.
  4. This is a lot less formal, but a lot more colorful and joyful — I loved the Children’s Rights Showcase that the Human Services Commission put on, where dozens of children from our community shared their talents and learned about their rights. I did the important work of painting faces — popular designs included Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Cats.
  5. Getting elected Chair of the Human Services Commission in my first year. It means a lot to me that my fellow commissioners trust me to lead and it’s been a joy helping move all of our goals for our city forward.

When I first starting writing these updates, they were an attempt to understand an agenda drafted by staff and the then-chair, to share my views on issues, and organize my thoughts. But since getting elected chair, I don’t have to divine authorial intent, because I am, in fact, the author of the agenda. I think it’s made these updates shorter, more focused, and more in-the-loop. But I also miss the longer attempts to get my arms around the wide range of issues we face in the 10th largest city in the United States. I’m looking forward to seeing how these posts grow and evolve as the commission continues to do its good work.

Now, onto the agenda.

First Thing’s First: 

Report from the Chair

I’ll be reporting to the commission on 3 things:

Recruitment: Given our quorum issues at the tail-end of last year, I’ll be asking folks to try to reach into their networks to recruit not-only for our commission, but for the Planning Commission that, as I understand it, staff suggested an appointment to without reopening the application process, and council required they recruit more for in the name and reality of transparency. So, apply!

Monthly Letter to Council

This letter is lighter than usual because, well, council didn’t really do much between 12/20 and last week, when I drafted the letter with the help of some local human rights activists.

Ad Hoc: Womens’ Bill of Rights

At the December meeting, our commission was asked to provide input on a Request for Information they are hoping to put-out at the end of the month. During a meeting on December 20th, they asked for a 2 week turn-around — and we made it happen. Here is what we proposed. As of writing, the agenda hasn’t been updated with the final version of the RFI and I am excited to see and discuss it.

Ad Hoc: Ending Domestic Violence

I have work I need to do for this ad hoc and am glad we will have a bit more time to work on it, since per staff at the last meeting, we can continue to work on these ad hocs until April.

Ad Hoc: Protecting the Rights of People with Disabilities

One of our commissioners helped arrange for a presentation on accessibility for people with disabilities from the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, and I am hoping to ask the following questions:

  1. What are the 3 biggest challenges people with visible and with invisible disabilities have in being fully engaged in the civic, social, and professional life of San José?
  2. What are 3 successful policies which have worked in other cities that you believe San José City Council should enact today?
  3. Do you believe we need a separate Disability Services Commission? For the record, I absolutely do.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Environmental Sustainability Rights

I expect we’re going to talk about Community Choice Aggregation, as well as follow-up on the pollution concerns from the last meeting. Both of these issues are sub-facets of the environmental justice issues our city is facing. For those not familiar with the term environmental justice, it refers to using economic and racial equity lenses when discussing environmental issues.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Justice-Impacted Children’s Rights

There is some fascinating research about how to improve juvenile justice for youth with disabilities that I believe will play an important role in this report; I’m looking forward to hearing more!

Ad Hoc: Protecting Immigrants’Rights

I will be asking the commission for if they have heard specific updates or concerns in their communities about ICE activity. I have not gotten a call as a Rapid Responder in a few months, but I know there is still real and substantiated fear in our community right now.


An informative note on quorum: Quorum is the number of people needed for a body to be able to be empowered to act. It’s a fundamentally democratic, majoritarian tool, requiring 50% + 1 of the members of the body, because in democracy, majority is supposed to rule. There are various small-r republican institutions (like the electoral college and the US Senate) which are designed to further representative representation, rather than democratic representation; that’s a civics debate I would love to have anytime, anywhere.

In practical fact, our commission has 13 members (1 seat for each of the 10 council districts in San José, and 3 special seats for different issues that required special voices on the council, like disability services and domestic violence). That means quorum is 7 people (50% of 13 is 6.5, but there are no .5 people, so call it 6, then + 1 = 7).

We are going to be tight on quorum today, since we’ve had a birth (yay!) and major medical issues (upsetting) for 2 of our commissioners. In addition, Councilmember Dev Davis, Councilmember Lan Diep, and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas have not yet filled their constituents’ seats on the commission (Councilmember Davis’s seat has been empty since June, and the perspective of Willow Glen residents is missed). With 3 empty seats, and 3 seats where the commissioners cannot attend, we have exactly 7 people left and that’s how many people we need to arrive by 6:30pm.

We used to be able to start as late as 7, but then the Clerk’s office reinterpreted the rules unilaterally and informed us that if we don’t have quorum by 6:30pm, we are not allowed to meet. So the Vice Chair and I have taken to madly texting ever commissioner the day before the meeting to ensure quorum, after we didn’t meet for 2 months because of a lack of quorum. It’s a frustrating, time-consuming issue that is not the fault of individual commissioners, and much more the fault of the councilmembers who have not filled seats; this is one that I am hoping to resolve this year.

How you can help: If you live in Councilmember Lan Diep’s district (District 4), Councilmember Dev Davis’s district (District 6), or Councilmember Sylvia Arenas’s district (District 8) and have read this far down in this post, please apply to join the commission!

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