What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
Dr. Sandra Chapman, who goes by “Chap,” has a memory of human connection, anchored in her matrilineage and a birthday she shared with her mother. “When I was young, growing up as the child of afrolatino immigrants in New York City, I used to ask my mother to tell me stories about my relatives back in Puerto Rico.” Chap smiles.
“When I was about 10 years old, I began to ask questions about my grandmother, who I never met because she passed away before I was born. I asked her to tell me stories about her but she said she had none because her mother died at her birth, on Oct 15, 1934.” This was the first time Chap realized their shared day of celebration was also the anniversary of her grandmother’s death.
Birthdays have a powerful human connection in Chap’s life. In 1998, her mother called her from the Dominican Republic, where she was living with her father, both retired now. “She called me on October 13. We chatted briefly but I chided her for calling me long distance two days before our birthday. She told me in Spanish in her sweet voice, ‘Oh don’t bother. I don’t want to bother you, I know you are busy.’ To which I told her she was being silly.”
Two days later, it was Chap who made the call. “We sang happy birthday to one another and I asked her what she was going to do. She didn’t have big plans and I shared that I also had no plans. (Unbeknownst to us, we had people planning a surprise birthday party for us). She shared that she was not feeling so great and I told her to go to the doctors, that I would call her again over the weekend.” After coming home from work that evening, Chap discovered that her phone wasn’t working.
Chap then went to bed and around 3am the next morning there was a loud banging at her door. It was her brother-in-law who shared that her sister had been trying to get in touch with her by phone since midnight. “He would not tell me anything else while I got into his car and we drove to my sister’s apartment. When he opened the door, my two sisters greeted me with intense tears and told me that our mom had passed away, close to midnight on her / our birthday.”
For Chap, the human connection of this experience is deeply spiritual; her story shows that her grandmother – a person neither she nor her mother had the chance to know – has had a profound impact on her mother’s life and death, and on their shared ancestral memory.
Rachel Godsil’s earliest moment of human connection was also linked to her grandmother. Rachel’s parents were very young when she was born and while they were trying to finish school, her grandmother helped with her early childhood care. “I don’t remember this, but I was told throughout my childhood that my grandmother gave me baths in the sink.” Once Rachel’s parents moved away from St. Louis, where she was born, to Milwaukee, the connection to her grandmother continued.
For two weeks every summer, starting at around age six, Rachel took a bus to visit her grandparents. “Both of my parents were activists and deeply engaged in that work. The marches and meetings were constant and everything felt very intense. My grandparents’ home was really calm,” Rachel recalls, “and I have to admit, I was happy to get a break from my mother’s super healthy food.” Rachel’s grandmother created an oasis focused on providing care for Rachel. That was not something her grandmother had been able to do for her own children in the same way. “My father tells me he has only sat on my grandmother’s lap once, but my memories of her are of such warmth.”
What values guide your work?
“I’m a collectivist,” Chap says, emphatically. “This is a cultural value learned from family and my Latine heritage. This core value of caring for the community is so ingrained in me that I can easily see and name the ways I am challenged by individualism. What guides me is my value in providing for the needs of others around me..” Chap learned early from her Latinx family, mentors and neighbors that taking care of each other was a key part of being an active member of a thriving community. Rachel’s political activist parents had a similar view. “From the time I was conscious, the goal was to be in partnership, collectively striving for an idealized, more just world.”
The team at Perception Institute is similarly guided by a robust values framework they call BRICK:
B – Belonging. All staff feel that they are valued as an individual and can be themselves.
R – Respect. All staff feel that their perspective and contributions are valued.
I – Investment & Individuation. There is equal investment in all staff, and in their growth. All staff feel seen as an individual, rather than through group-based attributes.
C – Conversation. There is open communication, and most critically, all staff are comfortable talking about identity differences.
K – Kindness. All staff treat each other with genuine kindness.
“These values guide how I engage with our team and with our clients,” Chap says. “Sometimes I have to remind myself to put my own mask on first,” Chap says with a laugh, “but it’s profound how these values help our team care for each other.”
Rachel sees these values as central to the work of social change. “My parents raised me to focus on structural change, which is part of why I became a lawyer. What I’ve learned over many years of doing this work, is that law and structures alone are not enough. That’s why the work at Perception is anchored in empirical research and kindness.” What’s special about Perception’s BRICK framework is that it doesn’t just serve to guide their team internally, but their work with clients and partners, too.
What are you working on right now?
“Perception Institute focuses on what we call targeted systems change,” Rachel explains. “We look at systems within society that have the most impact on humans who are deeply underserved by them.” She clarifies further. “We’re trying to understand what’s getting in the way of achieving the BRICK goals across systems, in health care, our legal system, education, media and narratives, and the organizations that affect those systems, like philanthropy and mission-driven organizations. We’re constantly looking at how the mind sciences can have impact on striving towards altering how these systems and people within them operate”
For Chap, the thrill comes in adapting foundational findings that underlie their work to each of these different groups. “How we deliver this for a group of educators is not the same as what we would deliver to a group of judges, or how we would work in the arts or the medical field. What excites me about the work is that we get to tap into our creativity to adapt the concepts and their delivery to the audience.” Working with people the New York State Unified Court System, a city-wide hospital system, or an entire school district demands different forms of engagement. “Using research about interactions between teachers and students, versus dynamics between employees and supervisors, has relevance in different contexts,” Chap explains.
The ideas that the Perception team applies in so many different situations are also part of their work.
“We’re extremely fortunate to be part of a research network,” Rachel says. “Being in partnership with social scientists across the country, we’re constantly learning about the latest research,” which in turn informs the ongoing work. “We’re both using qualitative feedback to assess the effectiveness of our work in individual contexts and also getting broad quantitative feedback on the work through randomized control trials and citywide studies.”
Perception’s relationship with social science cuts both ways.
“We also have the ability to provide guidance to researchers, to point to the questions that don’t have scientific answers yet.”
One example: “‘Gender’ research has often been default white. In a recent study we were able to be more intersectional to ensure that our findings hold true for women across lines of identity. We’re taking research and bringing it into application, so we also have to be evaluating whether that research should be applied. We can’t bring gender research that is only evaluating the experience of white women and expect it to be relevant to people of color.”
Rachel admits that all research is inherently limited by its sample and central question, but Perception’s core mission advances both the research and its application. “To have the capabilities, funding, and interest to be able to identify the questions that don’t have, but need, answers, is profound. Attending to the gaps in the literature takes time. But it’s exciting to be in a position to do that.”
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
As the need for racial identity dialogue and systems change has expanded over the last 18 months, so has the Perception Institute team. “During the pandemic we grew exponentially,” Chap says. “We’re now a team of twelve.”
Managing that necessary growth was both difficult and exciting.
“When people are in their own homes navigating the stressors of home and work life in the same place. When there was a need for repair, there was inevitably a disconnect in how we were able to show up for each other. You couldn’t go down the hall or ask someone to lunch” Chap says. “Not being able to relate, except through a screen, was really challenging. We’ve learned how to more intentionally connect and engage via Zoom.”
The bridge between virtual and real-life relationships can be emotional.
“In spring 2021, we had our first live lunch. And I cried,” Chap remembers. “I cried when I got to meet some of my colleagues in person for the first time because all I had done was see them on a screen.” Despite their physical separation, this growing team of collaborators has shown enormous care for one another. “As individuals and as a collective team, these people have cared for my physical, emotional, and social health, or dropped what they’re doing to help me explore and understand a new structure we’re putting in place.” Chap’s overwhelming gratitude is palpable in her voice. “Being in person and experiencing their full essence was so emotional.”
“On the flip side is the challenge of the ongoing pandemic and the rise of Omicron – we had to cancel our winter break luncheon,” Chap says regretfully. “We sorely missed the opportunity for physical connection.”
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
In spite of the emotional rollercoaster of the last two years, their growing team is a source of both joy and hope for Rachel and Chap.
“The team we work with is absolutely wonderful,” Rachel says, echoing Chap’s previous explanation of the pandemic’s effect on the team. “We recently onboarded a new team member and one of our colleagues invited each of us to share some feedback on how to interact with our team,” she smiles, “And it was so great. Being in a place where people feel like they can be their true selves is really powerful. We’re onboarding another new person today, and I can’t wait for the meeting!”
For Chap, the team’s effective collaboration connects directly to being able to see the change their working toward in action. “What makes me hopeful,” Chap says, “is seeing or hearing about the changes that organizations and individuals make, these small and impactful shifts as new awareness and perspectives grow.” Chap shares, “People seem to be moving away from ‘I’m a good person, so why do I need to do this equity work?’ to ‘I’m a good person, and I still have to do something differently to benefit those in my organization and to align our organization’s values with our behavior.’ We don’t ascribe to a call-out culture, but letting people call others in, to do the repair work that’s needed, and create the policies that can mitigate identity differences, that brings me great joy when I see it happening. It’s not fast work, but seeing the ongoing progress gives me hope.”