365 Project 2018 – Introduction

I know I’m vastly overdue for a blog post about my time here in Berlin so far, and I promise I’ll get around to it once I get a breather when I land in Los Angeles tomorrow. But for now, I want to set the stage for a side project that I’ve decided to pursue in 2018: a 365 Project!

For those that are unfamiliar, a 365 Project is a photography challenge where someone is tasked with taking one photograph everyday for the entire year. The last (and only) time I’ve done this was back in 2012 (Jesus that was six years ago). Back then, mobile camera technology was not nearly as good as it was today, so I took my DSLR around with me everywhere. That was admittedly very difficult, and I’ll admit now that I cheated…a lot.

Phone cameras have significantly improved since those days, and that coupled with the fact that 2018 promises to be a transformative year for me as I finally finish my dual-degree program and go back into the “real world,” led me to decide to pursue this project again this year. I also feel that I’m not doing as much photography as I did in the past, and I want to get my photographer’s eye back and push my creative side a little more as I reach another milestone in my life, and I think this project will really help me in that regard.

Taking one photograph a day doesn’t sound like a particularly hard task, however, having done this once before, I know how challenging this is going to be, especially if I want to avoid being monotonous and repetitive. The prospect of expanding my vision for composition and subject choices is what really excites me about this project. However, I will warn you now, be prepared to see a LOT of photos of food.

Logistically, I’ll be hosting the photos that I take throughout the year on this blog, under the category “365 Project 2018.” In order to avoid publishing posts everyday, I’ll publish posts on a weekly basis, but will update each week’s post daily with a new photograph. Week 1 will start tomorrow once I land in the States, so look forward to that soon!


On Krakow and Confronting Evil

I had the immense privilege of spending the last weekend visiting and having an amazing time in Krakow. However, in light of the devastating tragedy in Las Vegas, it feels a bit inappropriate to talk about how much fun I had. But my weekend getaway was not all fun and games, and I believe that learning about Krakow’s history has done a lot to help me conceptualize things that are happening today.

Krakow is home to two very important historical sites: Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, both of which I had the opportunity to visit when I was there. Needless to say, they were each very powerful experiences, however, what really struck me was contextualizing the past with the current state of affairs.

Our tour guide at Auschwitz put it very eloquently: humanity has been killing each other since the beginning of our existence. This is nothing new. However, the Holocaust was something entirely unprecedented. With the Holocaust came an entire bureaucratic and institutional structure that was created for one goal: the extermination of an entire ethnic group. Genocide is an evil born of modernity.

That’s a word I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: evil. Generally, my personal philosophy can be categorized under the broad umbrella of moral relativism. That said, I do believe there are instances that an overwhelming majority of people can agree to as morally repugnant and evil. The Holocaust and yesterday’s shooting in Las Vegas fall under that category, I believe.

There is so much that can and needs to be said about the shooting in Las Vegas. As someone that is neither from the city, nor from Nevada, I do not believe it’s in my place to try and articulate the collective grief and heartache that we all feel. I believe that is best left to the voices of those that have a sincere connection to that place and community, and to the victims. What I can talk about, perhaps really the only thing I know how to talk about, is action.

When faced with such an overwhelming act of barbarism and cruelty, one in which a single person rained hell down upon a group of innocent people for literally no apparent reason, it’s easy to feel helpless, that nothing can be done. This isn’t even the only horrible problem we face today. Right now, millions of Puerto Ricans are still suffering without access to basic necessities (click here for different ways you can help). And as I walked through both Oskar Schindler’s factory and Auschwitz, it terrified me to think that we’ve regressed to the point where white nationalist and neo-Nazi sentiments can be freely expressed in the United States.

However, we cannot let fear lead us to inaction. Stephen Colbert eloquently stated that “doing nothing is cowardice.” This reminds me of another quote by Edmund Burke, which I’m sure most of you know, but I believe bears repeating: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” But as I tie the history of the Holocaust and WWII to the present day, I am also reminded of the fact that we were ultimately able to defeat fascism. In hindsight, these outcomes always seem preordained, when at the time, the exact opposite was true; for some time, Hitler seemed poised to conquer all of Europe. Despite the initial odds, we continued to fight because that is simply a reality that we could not accept. It is vital that we cling to that notion as we confront the evils of today.

It’s easy to believe that solving the issue of gun violence is a pipe dream. But shedding that cynicism and fear is the first crucial step needed to shift the conversation from if to how we can begin to reduce the amount of gun violence that exists in the United States. Gun control regulations are simply one piece of the puzzle, but we can only begin to think about what other pieces are needed if we believe the outcome is achievable in the first place. The NRA wants us to believe that daily mass shootings are simply the reality of living in a free society. That is a reality that I refuse to accept. And there are a number of great organizations like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, The Brady Campaign, and Americans for Responsible Solutions that are on the long and difficult path of working to ensure that fewer Americans die from senseless gun violence. If you also believe that America should not be a country where tens of thousands of people die each year from firearms, then now is the time to take a stand. Remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

For this post, I’m only including the photos I took from Auschwitz-Birkenau. For all of my photos in Krakow, check out my Flickr page.

From Momo to Currywurst

This is it.  By the end of today, I’ll be boarding yet another plane and off to explore yet another new city and country.  There are so many thoughts to try and parse that stem from my experiences here in Nepal and the work I’ve done, to how I feel about moving (again), to my incessant need to self-reflect (partially stimulated from a number of deep conversations with good friends over the last few days).

I’m a very intense traveler (those who have traveled with me can attest).  I like to pack as much as humanly possible in the time that I’m in a new place.  But I also recognize that it’s impossible to completely learn a new city in just a few months (even after 8 years in the Bay Area, there are still an untold number of secrets to discover, I’m sure).  With that in mind, I tried as much as possible over the last 7 weeks to strike some kind of balance of getting out of my comfort zone, exploring new locations and having a great time, while also just taking time for me (whatever that might mean).

On the whole, I think I was pretty successful.  I could have perhaps taken another day/weekend trip or two, but between one day trip and my 9-day field visit, I definitely think I got my fill of adventure.  I also managed to see most of the major landmarks in Kathmandu (including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites).  Aside from the exploration, I’m really proud of all the work that I did over these past 7 weeks.  I actually managed to exercise a lot of the skills that I learned while at Maxwell, writing and implementing a program evaluation survey, and then conducting a Theory of Change exercise with the staff of Aythos.  It’s validating to take the things you learn in class and realize “Hey, I actually know how to do this stuff.  And other people actually find it useful!”

On top of my contractual work, I also managed to make a lot of progress on a big personal project of mine: that’s right, the Radical Bureaucrats.  A couple of us have been working on a plan for what we want to do long-term, and while there are still a lot of details to work out, we have some interesting stuff planned for the horizon, so stay tuned!  If it wasn’t blatantly obvious, this has been something I’ve been incredibly passionate about since we started it back in November, so having the opportunity to try and build it out this past summer has been really rewarding.

Finally, these last two weeks have really been a time of reflection for me.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 14ish months, it’s that time moves quickly, and the year that I have for my last degree is going to pass by in a flash.  With that in mind, I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I want to be doing when I’m out, and researching organizations and positions that I want to be applying for.  I’m waiting to hear back about an internship in Berlin, and already have a few job postings for next year that I’m going to begin working on, so I think I have a good start on things.  I also need to remember that I have a tendency to let thoughts of the future keep me from fully enjoying the present, so once again, it’s key that I find a way to strike a balance.

So those are my meandering thoughts as I relax and enjoy my final hours in Kathmandu, under the watchful gaze of Boudhanath, the Buddhist stupa that has served as an anchor to my time here.  These last two months have been an incredible journey, full of excitement, wonder, and growth (professionally, mentally and psychologically).  I’m going to miss this place, and all the people that have made this experience so special.  But as always, chapters close while other chapters open.  This chapter might have been brief, but it shined brilliantly.

One Week in Kathmandu

Holy hell, what a week.

When I said before that I could barely even conceptualize what my life was going to be like once I left the States, I didn’t realize just how accurate that statement was.

Let me start by thanking Ian, Isaac, Taylor and Toby for housing me/showing me a great time during my brief stay in Singapore.  For many of you, it’s been a long time since we saw each other last, and it was great to spend time with each of you, even if it was for just a few hours.

Kathmandu…what a place.  It’s so difficult to describe how I’ve felt since arriving because it’s been such a whirlwind of emotions, but I’ll try and lay it out chronologically.

The first few days were rough.  If I haven’t mentioned, this is the first time I’ve spent a decent amount of time living in a developing country (China occupies an weird space in that spectrum, and having spent most of my time in China in major cities, I don’t really count the experience).  The internet at my homestay is pretty garbage (it doesn’t go longer than a few minutes without disconnecting), I kept discovering cockroaches in my room (which terrify me each time – I hate bugs), and I felt constantly lost because there are no such things as road signs here.  As someone that likes feeling in control of situations, I couldn’t help but feel like I was utterly out of my depth.

But having these experiences is precisely why I chose to come here in the first place.  Aside from the work that I wanted to do at Aythos, the NGO that I’m interning with, I chose to come to Nepal in order to get out of my comfort zone.  It had been 6 years since I last left the United States, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with the feeling of being away from the familiar and comfortable.  After six days of being here, I can definitely say my plan is working.

It’s taken a while, but I finally think I’m beginning to get my bearings.  Aside from just being able to get around with less trepidation (not being stingy with my mobile data definitely helps), this place is finally starting to click for me.  I’m finding a couple of go-to spots to relax, enjoy strong WiFi where I can actually get work done, and have a great cup of coffee (there’s good food everywhere, so that part is easy).

Work is also starting to make more sense to me.  I’ve found what I can really bring to Aythos that will make my time here worthwhile.  I’m thoroughly impressed and inspired by the small, but mighty team that I’m working with here.  Most of them are young, local Nepalis with an incredible amount of passion and motivation for supporting the economic development of rural farmers.  How I can help is supporting their organizational management, and teaching them skills so that they can run the NGO more effectively.  Being able to support them in this fashion is fulfilling, along the lines of the type of leadership development work that I love so much (not to mention that they all are interested in getting photography lessons from me).

And I’ve done a fair amount of sightseeing for just one week.  There is so much beauty here in this country, but the beauty is inextricably intertwined with the country’s state of development.  For every temple or palace that I visit, I take taxis and buses on dilapidated roads to reach them.  I walk past half-constructed buildings on dust and pollution-filled streets to get to my office.  In the most extreme case, just today prior to publishing this post, I spent a good five hours standing on a bus hanging on for dear life as the bus went up and down the mountainside through slick mud in monsoon rains.  These factors live in conjunction with each other, and is a helpful reminder that there is so much work in the world that needs to be done.  And ultimately, that’s why I’m here.

Here’s just a few photos from my adventures of the last few days.

Our triumphant selfie after surviving a harrowing bus ride up and down the mountainside.

There and Back Again?

It’s the question mark at the end of the title that terrifies me.

I’ve done a fair amount of moving around; certainly less than a lot of other people, but enough to have a strong grasp of what the process is like.  The moving isn’t what bothers me, it’s the coming back part.  This is the first time that I’m moving somewhere, without having a good sense of what’s coming next after the period ends.

It feels weird thinking about that when I have such an amazing opportunity ahead of me.  I have the incredible privilege of spending two months in Kathmandu, working with local farmers to try and improve their livelihood, and then an entire academic year in Berlin.  The experience is so phenomenal that I can hardly conceptualize what it’s going to be like after I step on the airplane.  The best I can do is just take things day-by-day.

But perhaps it’s precisely because of the fact that the next year seems so opaque that my mind is focusing on the only point of clarity: when the program ends; and to me, the day I receive my degree(s) feels like the edge of a cliff.  For now, I have nothing lined up after that, and if you know me at all, then you’ll know that I don’t handle uncertainty well.  Everything from what I’ll do, to who I work for, to where I’m going to live feels completely up in the air, which is a difficult thing for me to deal with (also, don’t tell my mother that there’s a possibility that I won’t be returning to the US).

I’m notoriously bad at following my own advice.  I often tell others not to worry about things that they aren’t in control of, which is clearly not what I’m doing now.  And that tendency has made this blog post dramatically different from how I originally envisioned it, so let’s refocus back to the main message (if you couldn’t tell, my posts often get lost in a stream of consciousness).

I stand before a tremendous series of opportunities.  I often feel bad talking about it because I get the feeling that I’m bragging.  But I would not be where I am today if it were not for a gaggle of amazing family, friends, colleagues, teachers, and mentors that have supported me as I progressed to this moment.  To list out every single one of those people would test your patience with my writing more than it already has, but suffice it to say that you know who you are.  Thank you for having a positive impact on my life, and I can only hope that I’ve had a somewhat positive impact on yours.

And now here’s a random collection of photos that I’m sharing just for shits and giggles.

End of an (Exceptionally Short) Era

Time is really fucking weird.

When you’re looking ahead, it literally seems endless.  A year seems like an aeon.  As you live it, it crawls day-by-day.  And finally, looking back, you wonder how it all went by so quickly.  As we approach the end of our last class on Executive Leadership and our convocation ceremony, I’m definitely on the last part of that spectrum.

I was talking with a few friends the other day about whether or not we felt different compared to when we first started the program.  I think at this point I’m old enough that my core personality and values won’t change much (barring exceptional circumstances).  However, with that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize how much I’ve developed as a person over the course of this year.

It’s almost impossible to articulate all the different sources of learning I’ve benefited from throughout this program, but I’ll take a crack at it.  I guess I’ll start with the easiest, but far from the least substantial: the faculty.  Between the brilliant academic professors, to distinguished professors-of-practice, I have learned so damn much from all of my classes here.  I’ve also engaged with so many inspiring public servants with careers that I could only hope to emulate, that have reaffirmed my decisions to pursue a life of public service and come to the Maxwell School, that I can’t imagine having made any other choice.

Then there are all the individual experiences that have pushed me forward professionally.  From teaching basic English skills to refugee adults at SUPRA, or facilitating workshops for the Conflict Management Center; to the vast number of amazing speakers (former ambassadors, policy experts, heads of government agencies, NGO leaders) I’ve had the privilege of hearing; to my Capstone project consulting for the Department of Justice, all of these have further enriched what has already been an incredible year.

And finally, there are my peers.  This year has exposed me to such an amazing group of colleagues and friends that I can still hardly believe we’ve been together and known each other less than 365 days.  I say this all the time, I’ve learned and grown as much from you all as I have from our classes.  Your variety of personal and professional experiences, subject-matter expertise, passions, motivations and other just weird esoteric knowledge have made this year so incredibly rich and meaningful that it’s difficult to put into words properly.  I have to put a special shout-out to every single person that contributed in some way, shape or form to the Radical Bureaucrats.  Working with you all on our teach-ins, volunteer, and fundraising events have made an otherwise shitty year in terms of global events into a positive experience.  To everyone that has had a positive impact on me over the last year, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Over the course of the year, I’ve tried to capture pieces of this whirlwind experience in photographs.  Here is just a small sample; for more, check out my Flickr page.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a photo of my two roommates and me.  I guess I like these guys after all ;D.  Photo credit goes to Shweta Gulati.

Finals Procrastination Thoughts

I have a term paper due tonight, and a final for Quantitative Analysis tomorrow, so naturally I’m procrastinating with music and the never-ending pool of my own thoughts.

I’ve talked a lot about how my experience at the Maxwell School has been over the course of the last almost-year.  And sure, I’ve got about two months before I’m done with the first part of my joint-degree, and then another whole year of schooling after that, and I’m sure I’ll have another blog post with my thoughts more well-established at that time.  But with the way this semester is winding down currently, it already feels like a particular chapter is closing, which is insane because it also feels like it had just started not too long ago (it doesn’t help that a lot of my close friends in the IR program are leaving in the next week or so).

As I’ve been (trying) to work on this final paper, a song from The Shanghai Restoration Project came on from my playlist titled “Last Night of the Dynasty.”  It had been a while since I had dug into SRP (I had discovered that album several years ago as my former co-workers at the time can attest to, since I played it incessantly at work), and so I stopped my writing to listen through the lyrics.  It struck me just how perfect they were to the current moment.  I have the full lyrics posted below, but as I write this, this verse is particularly salient:

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate

“Last Night of the Dynasty” by The Shanghai Restoration Project, ft. Julie Ann Sgroi

‘Round the clock we battled hard all year
Soaked ourselves in sweat, our blood and our tears
Conquerors we end up gathered here
Unified but soon we say goodbye
When tomorrow becomes today

Some wanna change the world
Some just want the fame
Some might choose to disappear
While the rest of us remain

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate

Sentimental air becomes so thick
Movers, shakers, wanderers in our midst
Commit to memory every single face
Wish the best and leave the rest to fate
Say farewell tonight

Some try to face the truth
Some would rather live a lie
Most of us will spend our years
Treading both sides of the line

When the night gives way to morning
We will go our separate ways
Let’s make this
Our night to celebrate

One round, better drink it all down
Try to live it up now, don’t wait for another day

My Life Soundtrack

Anyone that knows me well knows I’m an introvert.  I may not act like one, and I really do enjoy the company of people, but my social tank is only so full, and after a while, I need to recharge.  There are a lot of ways for me to find my personal space.  Sometimes it’s reading, or writing, or video games, or photography, or dancing, or cooking.  But when I’m particularly exhausted, it’s music.

Which is kind of funny, since I can’t actually play music.  So that means either singing, or more often, just listening to music.  The ability for me to just listen to music for hours on end comes from my brother.  When I was a kid, he’d lend me CD’s.  One at a time.  And I’d listen to them, thoroughly, for a week until that music was ingrained in me.  And then he’d lend me another.

So I’ve learned to love just diving into an album, with focus, uninterrupted.  And very little in the world makes me happier than finding an album that is perfect for thoughtful listening.  Where some combination of time and space, lyrics, music, and composition makes it effortless for me to get lost in the record.

I just found one such album, which is perfect timing because this semester has been a sprint from the very beginning.  I had a final for my winter course the second week of class.  I jammed a full semester’s worth of credit hours into six sessions over a month.  I’ve been trying to stay up-to-date with every single awful Cabinet nomination, piece of legislation, and executive order that is now part of Trump’s America.  And I’ve worked with some of the most dedicated, competent and amazing friends to put together a campus teach-in that exceeded all our expectations.  Along the way, I also marched in Washington DC, showed solidarity at an airport and saw Hamilton on Broadway.

It’s been exhausting.  Entirely in a good way (at least…as good as things can be), but exhausting nonetheless.  So when I discovered Gallant’s album Ology, it felt serendipitous.  It suits my mood perfectly: each track is thoughtful and layered.  It confronts insecurity, doubt and struggle, while maintaining hope and faith.  I can’t make a decision on which song is my favorite.  It’s the perfect soundtrack to help me slow down and process the last few months.

It also prompted me to make my first real recording in a long time.  I’ve included it below.  It’s not great: I’m rusty and nervous, and trying to reduce the vocals of the original song did some weird things to the backtrack.  But it’s there, and it’s me.  I’ve also included what is (as of this very minute) my favorite song of the album so you can get a taste of how the album actually sounds, as opposed to my bastardization of it.


2016 in Review

There are a lot of mixed emotions associated with the year 2016.  I suppose I should just get the obvious out of the way.  Myself and a lot of people that I know are still reeling from the results of the election.  I don’t want to get into politics too much, but thinking about what Trump’s presidency will mean for all of the issues I care about, and then seeing him fill his Cabinet with climate change-deniers, oil executives, anti-minimum wage CEOs, and other billionaires is more than a bit discouraging.

Trump isn’t even the only star on the list of “reasons why 2016 was a shitty fucking year.”  Brexit has thrown the global economy and the future of the EU in turmoil, Colombia’s referendum result was a step back for the peace process, and destruction continues to rain down in Syria.  By a lot of measures, this year has been pretty bleak.

And yet it’s more important now than ever to not give in to despair, to take a stand and fight for those things (and those people) you care about.  And that brings me to what has been amazing about 2016.  Earlier this year, I moved away from Berkeley and the Bay Area where I’ve considered home for the last 8 years.  Moving to Syracuse was a daunting task: I was going somewhere completely unfamiliar, surrounded by people who I had no idea if I’d get along with.

I had more than a little bit of trepidation when I started the MPA at Maxwell.  Everyone seemed so interesting, with incredible work and life experiences, and here I was, a glorified canvasser who was an organizer for a nonprofit working on a super niche issue.  And yet, over the course of just one semester (plus one summer), I’ve gotten to know so many people so well, it’s almost overwhelming.  Everyone here has that issue that they are insanely passionate about, and seeing the way their eyes light up when they get a chance to discuss it is nothing short of inspiring.

It’s this experience that has given me hope for the future.  To wake up every morning and learn with and from this incredible group of people, has been the greatest privilege I’ve ever known.  To everyone that I’ve met at Maxwell, thank you for making this the richest six months I’ve ever experienced.  I know there’s still a ton of winter left in Syracuse, but there’s no one else I’d rather spend it with.

And with that, I’ll end this post with some photos from the semester and a quote from my amazing cousin Timmy, who’s always an inspiration: “Happy holidays, watch Rogue One and dream of Rebellion.”

Time is Winding Down

T-minus two weeks.

I should really be asleep right now, but I’ve been tossing and turning for the last two hours to no avail.  The imminence of my departure has only really just dawned on me, as most of my possessions now sit in boxes, waiting to be moved back to Los Angeles and then to New York.  You know, sometimes I think I’m better at articulating complex social structures than I am my own inner thoughts, but right now, I’m making the attempt in the hopes of triggering a catharsis that will help settle my mind.

I’ve always thought of myself as a restless soul, and I’ve worked very hard to be in the position that I am currently in now.  I’ve spent the past three years thinking about what I wanted to do next, what my goals were, and how I could go about achieving them.  I always tried to appreciate the present, which I don’t think I failed at, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t constantly have an eye toward the future.

But now, being on the cusp has forced me truly confront what I’m leaving behind; and it’s a lot.  I’ve spent the last 8 years of my life in this place.  I’ve come to learn many of its nooks and crannies.  The people here are among the closest friends I’ve ever had, and for the last 3 years, I’ve walked into the same office every Monday through Friday where I know I do meaningful (if not the most lucrative) work.

There’s comfort in that familiarity, but it’s more than that.  These are people that I’m comfortable being vulnerable in front of, and that I know won’t judge me for my insecurities; they’re relationships that don’t come about everyday.  The thought of losing that is a little more difficult than I had originally anticipated.

At the end of the day, I know that I’ll be okay.  I know that my passion, ambition, and resilience will carry me through.  But as with everything else in life, getting to that point is a process, and laying this out has helped me work through it.  I should really sleep now.