What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I didn’t realize it as a kid, but my dad was really intentional about spending deep, meaningful quality time allowing me to be a kid, and opening my eyes to his world in the Bay Area of California. He’s a SF native (we didn’t live there at the time) and he would take me to Golden Gate Park, and places that were meaningful to him and his childhood. Those extended moments we got to spend together deepened the connection between us. We did this regularly on the weekend throughout my childhood and adolescence up until I went to college. He worked as a baker and didn’t always have a consistent schedule, so sometimes he had to work all weekend. But anytime we both had time off, we’d be spending it together.
Spending time with my dad was light and easy. We were always having fun. Even during times in our life when things were stressful, I remember those moments as carefree. Some of the things we did were so simple. Like going to our favorite sandwich shop, buying one footlong sandwich, and splitting it between us, in the park. It felt like love. It gave us an opportunity to see each other without the clutter of the world. It almost felt like in those moments, time would stand still.
My dad’s perspective helped shape my life and work. He was a Black Panther, and there was a time in my life when I felt inspired to be militant. And he told me, “No, this is a new era. You can use your knowledge to motivate other people to join the fight for equality. Being militant isn’t the only way to make a difference.” He helped me realize that creating and amplifying knowledge is the best way I can help multiply the number of people who are engaged in social justice.
What values guide your work?
Relationships are how we grow. When they go well, we grow well. We’re meant to be in relationships with each other and we can use them to refine ourselves and support one another. I feel really lucky to get to focus on how relationships result in specific outcomes.
I have a deep faith that guides that work, which helps my understanding of why we are in our connection to one another. It guides my understanding of how I see other people. I don’t see people as strangers, I see everyone as being connected to me. I feel some spiritual connection with every person I interact with, which connects us in the greater web of humanity.
We are living in a world of such great opportunity, and yet there are things that can oppose that progress. But I believe that love does conquer all. If we build our house upon the rocks of love, we will be stronger as humanity. I believe we’re all meant to be in support of one another.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working as a research scientist doing applied developmental research, specifically looking at relationships between adolescents and the adults in their lives. A lot of my work centers on how to optimize those relationships, developing tools that help organizations that are seeking to improve their relationship with young people to help them reach their full potential and thrive. I get to do a lot of cool stuff, working on applied research, working with schools, and different youth-facing organizations.
I take an overarching lens of equity, but work in a few key areas. The first is sports as a channel for healthy development, looking at what supports young people in the sporting arena. I also support the work of youth serving organizations that utilize innovative, culturally responsive, methods to connect with the youth in their community. One project I’m leading in this area is focused on reducing gun violence in the Twin Cities in Minnesota through relationships and interactions with youth. We’re partnering with a few youth organizations that are trying to mitigate the environmental factors that expose young people to violence. They are present and connect with the youth relationally to reduce violent interactions and thus protect youth from exposure to violence. They’re partnering with my team at Search to understand how to best support healthy relationships with the young people they serve that can help shield them from that violence. We are helping them share their story with hopes that others will be able to model them, and they can achieve greater funding.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you?
I’ve got three little boys, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the world I want them to live in. Because of my children, the pandemic has definitely heightened my anxiety, wanting to keep them safe and illness free, not knowing how their bodies will respond to this novel virus. As a parent, I always want to minimize any pain they might experience. But that comes into tension with indoor opportunities, that could be developmentally fun and exciting, but might not be safe for them.
I had my third son in the fall of 2019, and in 2020, it was very challenging to not have consistent childcare, to get things done on the timeframe I would normally have. How do you finish a dissertation without childcare? The answer is, late at night. That was definitely challenging. In the midst of the pandemic, I finished my dissertation and signed on as a research scientist at the Search Institute as a permanently remote employee.
I’m so grateful that my two older boys are in preschool and kindergarten and we have full-time childcare for my youngest son. With only one of three of them being old enough to be vaccinated, there are always stops and starts when there’s an exposure and everyone has to come home and quarantine. I’m grateful to have employers and colleagues who get it, because they’re experiencing the same thing.
As someone who loves humanity so deeply and the connection we have to one another, I think about how this pandemic shows how connected we really are. We have friends who are severely immune compromised and it’s hard to hear them tell us about people not willing to make small sacrifices to make it possible for them to feel connection with others. The stress of this time is bringing up beliefs that can be warped and swayed by misinformation.
I’m convinced that if we can get relationships right, a lot of our social ills would fall apart. If we could see each other as interconnected beings, a lot could change. When young people feel deeply connected to the adults in their lives, they do really well. But we often miss the execution of that.
"I’m convinced that if we can get relationships right, a lot of our social ills would fall apart. If we could see each other as interconnected beings, a lot could change. When young people feel deeply connected to the adults in their lives, they do really well. But we often miss the execution of that."
To be in a positive relationship with someone, you have to be in a good place within yourself. If you’re struggling with your own trauma and challenges, it can get in the way of how you show up for others.
I’m committed to celebrating diversity and what we can learn from our differences. Some of my research is focused on Black youth, and what they’re learning in relationship in this post-George Floyd, pandemic society, and how it’s impacted them. I’m hoping that the research we’re doing on that right now can motivate others to recognize the inequitable places in our society and the difference in experience they produce, and motivate them to get in the trenches to help fix it. I hope that my research can help expose those things and motivate others to get involved, and like my dad said, to use this knowledge to reach many more people.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
My children give me great joy and they also give me great pain. I’m at a point of realizing both those things can be true. I worry so much about their development and their future, that I can lose the joy of the moment. When I embrace the present, I can fully experience their joy, and the joy in their discovery is incredible. Watching them experience something new is so magical. We recently got a second-hand piano, and watching my children bang away at that instrument so enthusiastically just gives me so much joy. Watching young people be themselves, and be comfortable in their skin, that gives me both joy and hope. I’m hopeful for tomorrow, if I can make even the smallest dent in this generation of young people, helping them see themselves and experience relationships well, being able to support that change gives me a lot of hope for the next generation. This pandemic has taught us a lot. I hope young people have been listening. I believe they have been. I hope the next generation, as situations arise, they’ll handle them differently. I consider it an honor to be helping them use the wisdom they’re gaining from these difficult experiences to make the world of tomorrow different from the one we have now.