AND WHAT HAS SHE BEEN DOING SINCE BAKERRIPLEY?
…answering all the questions I am most often asked about what I’m doing…
YOU WERE WITH BAKERRIPLEY FOR A VERY LONG TIME. DO YOU MISS IT?
I miss the people, not the position. I was ready — like a baked cake — it was time to get out of that particular oven. I had begun to feel keenly the call to the work I am doing now. People often confuse position and purpose. I had a purpose long before BakerRipley found me. For decades, my purpose intersected with an agency with a rich history and profoundly expansive mission. My intention was to be a good steward, to grow the organization into an institution equal to the challenges in the Houston region. That work will never be complete and the leaders in place now must continue. I trust that they are doing so.
I am still living out my purpose. Even more so now. When you are without a “position” then all the superficial people disappear in search of whomever they think now possesses what power you once held. It’s both painful and marvelous. Suddenly the room of your life is not cluttered with superficiality. There is space for deep conversation and the tender satisfactions of being understood and appreciated. And useful. So, now my advisory and teaching work looks like supporting leaders, helping those who want to build and rebuild communities, and guiding developers and civic leaders who want to do the right thing in cities. A great way to live.
I think there are really only two things we can do for one another. We can help one another to realize our potential as human beings. Identify and use our gifts. The second thing we can do is eliminate unnecessary suffering. This ain’t Heaven. It’s Earth. We are all vulnerable creatures on a common journey and suffering/upheaval is a part of it. But, some suffering is unnecessary, within our power to alleviate, and we must do all that we know how, with everything at our disposal, to eliminate what useless suffering we can.
WHAT’S YOUR PASSION NOW?
Disasters. Let me explain what happened. I had been using all my vacation time since Katrina to work and study in disaster impacted areas. Following my prime directive: Go where you’re invited. Do what you’re asked to do. Accepting invitations took me to a lot of unexpected places. Six continents. A dozen countries. Gathering the wisdom and experience of people who had survived the unthinkable became a passion project. Soaking up stories of desperation and rebuilt lives. I was on speed dial next to disaster. This happened gradually without my realizing it. Like rising water. In the Houston region I was working with long term recovery teams after specific storms; Allison, Katrina, Rita, Ike, Harvey… But I was seeing something universal. Finding kindred spirits around the world who were witnessing emerging patterns of disaster and displacement. War and weather. Loss of health and wealth. Combining to cause profound upheaval. This is all riveting to me. Now, guilt free, I think and write and study these themes and patterns of displacement and response, with similarly inclined folks. And go where I am invited. We share what we learn, in the hopes of alleviating as much unnecessary suffering as possible.
SO ARE YOU WRITING A BOOK?
I hesitate to say that I am writing a book, as I am not sure what form sharing will take. Right now I am assembling stories, photographs, audio and video files I’ve collected. Fitting stories to themes and lessons. Still accepting invitations and staying connected to those in the immediate after-disaster arenas. (My Australian and Puerto Rican friends are on my mind today.) Thinking about how to best make lessons shareable. I need help with this. As a friend regularly reminds me, “you can’t go every place where people need to know this.” I know. I tried.
Also, a book is finite. Part of the joy and sadness of reading is immersing myself in another world, another viewpoint. And then it ends. But these disaster stories keep coming. Faster and faster. There are so many millions of people now grappling with the unimaginable. Listen again to Hamilton’s “It’s Quiet Uptown,” a beautiful piece of music and poetry. It begins this way:
There are moments that the words don’t reachThere is suffering too terrible to nameYou hold your child as tight as you canAnd push away the unimaginableThe moments when you’re in so deepIt feels easier to just swim down…
It may seem crazy to want to be all the time with people who have faced the “unimaginable” and didn’t swim down. But that’s my tribe and that’s where I know I belong.
YOU’VE WRITTEN ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF GROWING A NONPROFIT. WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU FACE NOW?
In terms of challenges I share with everyone: refusing to give into panic or fatalistic thinking when faced with the unthinkable. We own our lives and the responsibility to conduct ourselves in alignment with our values no matter what’s going on around us. Being a full grown, ethically driven person means I am responsible for my choices in every situation, and while I don’t always get to choose the situation, I do get to choose how I show up.
Becoming a more effective instructor, finding new ways to share and learn. I often don’t know what I am doing. When I feel completely lost, it’s usually about the time I return to Houston and work on something tangible, with deadlines and budgets. My work in Houston involves bricks and dollars and that certainly focuses one’s attention. It also satisfies the practitioner in me that needs something to do.
Saying “no” to stuff I don’t need or want to do. Huge change. Here let me practice. No. No. No. No. No. Hell no.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
My son. He’s got all the Blanchard family initiative and determination with a healthy amount of street smarts that he sure didn’t get from me. He behaves courageously in the face of harsh realities. I call him when I need a reality check, because he’s honest to the core. I always thought it was my job to protect him. Typical mom. But he’s a strong, capable man who takes care of himself and others. From him, I’ve learned what it takes to persist in something when you are the only one who cares about it. And how to hang on to your integrity when your world falls apart.
WHAT ABOUT TEACHING? YOU’RE AT BROWN UNIVERSITY.
First, teaching is a true joy. It’s a pleasure to work with curious motivated people at the stage of their lives when they question everything — as we encourage them to do. So, when I am at Brown, I am teaching about work I spent my life doing, in a daily dialogue about how these policies, programs, structures etc came to be, and how we might build them better and for whom. What’s not to like?
Then there are my Brown University colleagues. Set aside the stereotypes about academics. They’ve been welcoming, nurturing and appreciative. I am not a scholar. I won’t ever be. I am a practitioner. Heart and soul. But, I am here because of their curiosity, their intellectual discipline, their hard work — all of which I respect. And in the moments when we understand one another it opens up the possibility that better questions will be asked, better research will be conducted, and that our practice will come to reflect that knowledge. There aren’t enough conversations between people who study and think and those that do and deliver. We don’t live by the same rhythms. So it takes a bit of sampling. Laying tracks and covers. To make a tune. It won’t work without respect. And cynicism kills creative collaboration. So, I tune out all cynical noise.
RHODE ISLAND IS A LONG WAY FROM TEXAS. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?
Near Rhode Island — well, everything around Rhode Island is near. Nearness is kind of a thing about this tiny state. But close by is a place called Purgatory Chasm. A kind of political, economic, and demographic Purgatory Chasm separates Texas and Rhode Island. It feels to me like the whole country now lives in this Chasm. We are all praying novenas and lighting candles for the poor souls in Purgatory. Ours.
There is more to size than size. The great, flat, expansive horizons of Texas encouraged me to have ambition. Even if I lack the personal kind, I learned to have ambition on behalf of my city, my community, my state. I do love that Houston, Texas “get shit done” culture. A lot. I’ve been labeled a “pragmatic idealist”. I am getting the T-shirt.
A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with Doug Pitcock. Doug’s company, Williams Brothers, made money building Texas freeways. He also went broke a time or two and came back. For many years, Williams Brothers had a slogan captured in an acronym, embroidered on gimmie caps. G.A.S. Give. A. Shit. Simple and clear to the people that worked there. Doug talked about how hard he fought to get the contract to build the Fred Hartman Bridge. He described how he felt after he won the contract, as he stood in a room seven stories off the ground, looked down and realized that he was going to build a completely new bridge design — about six times the height of the building he stood in. No one had built anything like it at the time. And he thought, “My God, I hope this works!”. That bridge took a really long time but it got built. I think about Barbara Jordan, who built another kind of bridge, laying brick by dignified brick to hold a place of fierce integrity, calling leaders to account. And Emma Tenayuca, who stood up on the front lines of the labor movement and demanded wages and rights for farm laborers. Ms. Tenayuca began as a teenager and when asked if she was afraid, she said, “I did not think of fear…I thought in terms of justice.”
I don’t know what to do with scared people who can’t commit to anything unless they’re sure of the outcome. If I’m going to trust you, I need to know that at some point in your life you grabbed hold of something important and wondered if it would kill you. In Texas, we will do this over and over again. Grabbing the literal and figurative bull by the horns, hanging on for dear life, pretending we knew what we were doing all along. On the East Coast, I’ve found they are inclined to think a bit more. I know that’s sometimes frowned upon in Houston, but I do really appreciate thoughtfulness. Reasoned debate. Ideas. Bit of analysis.
Life’s not all steer wrangling. Sometimes, if we thought about it, we would leave the bull alone. Go the other way.
WHAT ABOUT RUNNING FOR PUBLIC OFFICE?
See bull lesson above.
*Special appreciation to Rima Bonario for guiding me through these questions. And to everyone else who asked “where in the world are you?”