February 2013 Archives

Shaka and Joi

Shaka just released his book, Writing My Wrongs that you can buy on his website. It's an amazing book and an amazing story. I just attended the book launch party earlier this week and have posted some photos on Flickr. Shaka is one of the MIT Media Lab Director's Fellows, a Knight Foundation BMe award winner and one of the most inspirational friends I have. I was honored to write the following foreword to the book.

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On July 1, 2012, the MIT Media Lab announced that we would be creating an Innovators Guild-a team of scholars, executives, and designers that would go to communities around the world using the power of innovation to help people. Our first focus for this was Detroit.

Three weeks later the Knight Foundation, which was funding our trip, organized a meeting with Detroit community leaders. We gave presentations about MIT and the Media Lab and about how we had come to Detroit to explore how we could create innovative solutions to long-standing problems.

Then, during the Q&A, a tough-looking black man with dreadlocks stood up and spoke. "Many well-meaning people come to Detroit with a missionary mentality. Then they get discouraged when they realize how just how tough our problems are. If you want to make a real impact you have to go out among the people in the communities and not buy into the romanticized view of Detroit based on Midtown and Downtown." Although there were other comments expressing skepticism, this one stood out. We realized, for the first time, that we were looking into the face of reality-The Truth.

After the formal part of the meeting, the man came up to us and introduced himself as Shaka. He said that if we were willing he would show us the real Detroit. We immediately accepted the offer. On the next trip we avoided Downtown altogether and went straight to Brightmore on Detroit's West Side, a neighborhood full of burned-out, vacant homes and liquor stores fronted with bulletproof glass. Shaka told us stories that had none of the romance, but they were real.

We quickly realized that we couldn't just fly in, do good, and go home. We needed to introduce ourselves to the community, learn about the people who live there, and build trust. If we wanted to have a positive impact on Detroit we had to be there for the long haul.

In the following weeks, my team from the Media Lab and creatives from the design firm IDEO flew to Detroit, working with Shaka and others to come up with a plan for how we might be able to join the community and work together. We then invited Shaka and the Detroit team to the MIT Media Lab to meet students and faculty and see and learn about what we do. Bonds began forming between the Lab and the Detroiters.

In October, we all converged on Detroit-setting up a base at the headquarters of OmniCorpDetroit, a vital, local organization. We were a team of community leaders, chief innovation officers, students, and designers. Each of the teams started working on projects ranging from solving the streetlight issue to urban farming. Shaka emerged as our natural leader, keeping the energy high and the teams working together.

By the end of an insanely productive three days, I had a plan. I would make Shaka a MIT Media Lab Fellow and he'd be our man in Detroit-our connection to the incredibly important world he represents. Since then, Shaka and the Media Lab team have started to work together extensively, and Shaka continues to inspire and challenge us.

In December, Shaka emailed me that he had a rough draft of his memoirs and asked if I was interested in reading it. I read the entire book in two sittings, riveted. Shaka is, among his other talents, an amazing storyteller. The book is funny and moving and astute and by the end I felt as if I had been the one convicted of murder, as if I'd spent seven years in the hole, and gone through the dramatic transformation from angry, scared young boy, to enlightened teacher and leader.

And by the end I could begin to see how a generation of bright children full of promise are channeled into a system that sees them as little more than felons-in-waiting. Yet again, Shaka has inspired me to help right the wrongs by, in this instance, helping him "write the wrongs". The book may be about Shaka's past, but it points to a future in which we all take the next step to build a more just society.

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