The lives under the labels

“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.” - Viktor Frankl 

I heart stories.  I absolutely love them. You can listen to them one person at a time, or feel them roll over you like the fog coming into San Francisco. They unite us in religion, culture and politics. They are the fairy tales, myths, and archetypes we pack our lives into, often without realizing it.

Anne at The Exploratorium's exhibit "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health". (Emi Kolawole)
Anne at The Exploratorium's exhibit "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health". (Emi Kolawole)

Our introduction as fellows to the d.school started with stories -- six word stories. Ernest Hemingway is said to have answered a challenge to tell a story in six words that was so good it would make people cry. His story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

We were invited to craft a story that described our anticipation of the year. We were storytelling immediately. I was in heaven.

In the first weeks of orientation, our class visited the Exploratorium in downtown San Francisco. The d.school’s Director of Community and resident “maker”, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, led us there to get our hands on science and observe how the museum invited its visitors to play. I, however, was attracted to the one place where I could stand back and read stories.

The Exploratorium is home to an exhibit called "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health." One of the exhibit elements features the belongings of 14 patients sent to the Willard Psychiatric Center, a mental institution in upstate New York that closed in 1995. The patients' belongings -- over 400 artifacts -- were discovered when the Willard was decommissioned, and range from books of philosophy to hand-sewn baby dresses and photographs. Many of the patients, after they arrived at the institution, never laid eyes on their belongings again. The suitcases and their contents serve as vignettes of their lives.

I stop for stories, and these stories -- these lives -- were no exception. That day, in a sea of living, vibrant people at the Exploratorium, I stood among the belongings of the dead.

Photographs rest in an exhibit at The Exploratorium. (Emi Kolawole)
Photographs rest in an exhibit at The Exploratorium. (Emi Kolawole)

Marshall Ganz, a longtime community activist and Harvard professor, asked, “Where do you go for hopefulness?  Where do you go for courage?  You go to those moral resources that are found within narratives and within identity work and within traditions.” In the first few weeks I have learned enough about design to know that it starts with empathy work.  How do we begin to see the world from another person’s perspective and then dive so deep that we take away insights in order to design something that meets their needs as opposed to our own?

We often want to label people or place them in a bin in lieu of taking the time to fully understand them. I have come to see real design work as the ripping off of labels to observe the messiness and beauty of an individual story underneath.

Take the residents of Willard mental hospital -- the books the chose to keep, the notes they made on the pages, the color of a tie they chose to take, or the photographs they wrapped in bits of lace. These objects represent the strength, humor and dreams that connect them back to us. They are what lie underneath the label "mental health patient", illustrating their essential, universal humanity.

Our uniqueness, strangely enough, is what we all share in common.

So, with that, here's my story. I loved the Navy, mostly because I got to lead and mentor sailors and midshipmen who wanted to better themselves and the world around them. Although I loved inspiring them to find their path, I never found my own. After starting four master’s programs that never lasted beyond one semester and taking organic chemistry and the MCAT’s (misplaced medical school dreams), I finally found my calling in design. Here's the problem: I have no clue how to go about pursuing it. That’s where this fellowship comes in. It’s a perfect mix of semi-organized learning and project-based application.

I am jumping into this fellowship as if it were a shit-cold lake. Thankfully, all the laughing kids are in the lake. So, come hell or high, cold water, I will be too.

My six word story: Party Starting:  Cliffs Available. Heroes Wanted.

What's yours?