On Solidarity, or What ‘90s Rap, Role-Playing Games, and Labor Activism Can Teach Us in Times Like These

One of my earliest exposures to the concept of empathy came in the form of Everlast’s 1998 one-hit wonder “What It’s Like,” a slow rap on a backdrop of folksy guitar with all the requisite sound effects and turntable wiggles of the era. It’s no masterpiece, but it was overplayed on the radio beyond all measure of sensibility when I was in middle school, meaning it’ll stay lodged in my head for the rest of my days. Still, with its lyrics about the pain of addiction, poverty, and loss, it was among the first times I can remember hearing and thinking about the phrase “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes.”

This article is not about the bizarre pop hits of the late ‘90s, though hit me up if you ever do want to have that discussion. I bring up “What It’s Like” because, musical merits notwithstanding, it has an important lesson to share: empathy isn’t possible without understanding. And understanding isn’t possible without the story, detail, and background of what someone else is going through. The word “narrative” serves as a good catch-all for story, detail, and background. In society writ large, certain narratives get more airtime, representation, and discussion than others. The system of U.S. higher education is no exception to that, nor is Olin as a particular location within that system.

Because we live in a society, the narratives of certain groups do not tend to get attention at our institution.1 But we need information in order to empathize, and because the narratives of certain groups do not get attention, information that could lead to empathy for those groups goes unheard. Without that informed empathy, people become akin to non-player characters (NPCs)—characters in games that are not controlled by a human player, like the iconic “Hello, my friend! Stay a while and listen” guy from Diablo.2 They are creatures without agency that do not exist as ends in themselves but rather as a means to an end for others, perhaps moving one narrative along while not having a narrative themselves. It’s also tempting to assume you know what’s going on with NPCs when you don’t, because it’s easy to stereotype someone or assign their motives when you don’t consider them to be fully human.

Understanding and empathizing with each other takes effort, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have a surplus of right now, it’s energy. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation with students about the cognitive dissonance between acknowledging that people are burned out and over capacity and needing to try harder than we normally would to be patient and understanding with each other. A friend at another institution who serves as a vocal labor advocate in her faculty union suggested to me that the extra expenditure of resources—if it’s truly in the name of supporting one another—is worth it, even (if not especially) when we’re this exhausted. It’s a rare case of pushing ourselves in a way that does not have to be exploitative, but instead can lead to what labor activists and sociologists call solidarity. Quoting the Wikipedia3 entry: “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes4, which rejects the class conflict.” You could think of students, staff, and faculty as separate groups or classes, and you could think of what might unite them as solidarity. To know what might unite these groups, you need some amount of understanding about what each of them is experiencing. Without that, you’re prone to start seeing members of groups other than your own as NPCs.

As I’m writing this in late November, there are abundant reasons to be annoyed, scared, and furious at larger forces in the world, at the U.S., at late-stage capitalism, at the criminal justice system, at tech giants, at the construction of pipelines on stolen land, at the COVID cases ticking back up yet again, at the effing Omicron variant. Not one of us asked to be living through history, and here we are, muddling through a watershed event with no end in sight. It’s valid to feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of these things. That said, if we work to build understanding, empathy, and solidarity, we might find ourselves with a way forward. This is not a solution, nor is it a new construction, but instead is a common ground we might be able to stand on if we try to find it.

There are many barriers to solidarity at Olin, as there are anywhere (again, we live in a society), but the big one I want to leave us thinking about is the compartmentalization of students, faculty, and staff. These roles have a meaningful functional difference and this is no argument for dissolving them, but true solidarity can and should overcome categorical distinction. If we can find no solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, this effectively denies the potential, and perhaps the very existence, of higher education. We also need solidarity between faculty and staff because as we try to walk the walk of incorporating ethics, inclusion, and humanities into our mission and offerings, we cannot deny the importance of expertise and lived experience of all kinds in this work. Not to mention, a lack of solidarity between different types of labor in any workplace is a liability when any one of us wants to push for better working conditions.5 Many members of our three groups want to see a better world, and many of us have quite similar visions of a better world, and that looks like a path to solidarity. This is not healing, or resilience, which asks us to impossibly return to a “before” state that can no longer be accessed and often negates our experience. This is not turning a crisis into opportunity. Instead, solidarity asks us to find a shared reason to come as we are, broken and mistrustful, from different levels of the system and with our pain validated. It’s a shift away from deficit logic, not toxic positivity6 or a denial of what we’ve been through, and therein lies its power.

The last line of the bridge in “What It’s Like” is this: “You know, where it ends, it usually depends on where you start.” We might try to start from a place where we acknowledge there are many larger and smaller intersecting systems impacting us inside and outside our Olin bubble, where all the players are seen as human, where we’re patient with each other’s mistakes, where solidarity helps us keep going as a group even when individuals feel as if they’ve got nothing left. In the uncertain times of COVID, we are all “stuck in a route of confusion, changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all.”7 So let’s try to walk it together, if for no other reason than that the forces in the world we want to stop and reverse would like nothing more than to see us breaking off alone.

  1. See “Olin: An ‘Alien’ Perspective” in Frankly Speaking vol. 14, issue 3.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2alFLXjty9o
  3. Spoiler alert: Librarians actually love Wikipedia, and many of us help keep Wikipedia entries up to date.
  4. Note that this is an oversimplification; of course there are many subgroups of identities, class years, job types, and much more within these three, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it zoomed out.
  5. https://www.upbeacon.com/article/2021/11/university-of-portland-faces-staffing-issues-beyond-the-labor-shortage
  6. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/toxic-positivity
  7. I’m quoting a Swedish death metal band here in hopes of balancing all the Everlast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhohQNdSt7g

Quiz: Is This QEA, or a Scene from Inception?

  1. People keep repeating certain numbers and you don’t know why.
  2. A team is working together to solve a near-impossible task.
  3. You have no idea what’s going on.
  4. People keep falling asleep.
  5. Some things feel purposefully ambiguous.
  6. Time feels like it’s moving much slower than it actually is.
  7. You have to keep track of so many confusing things that you feel like you’re losing it.
  8. People are constantly asking themselves “how did I get here?”
  9. You’re still confused after someone tries to explain what’s happening.
  10. Things are happening very quickly and you feel that it would benefit from slowing it down so you could understand it better.
  11. You think you get it. Wait, just kidding, no you don’t.
  12. Even after the end of it, you still have so many questions.

Answer Key:

QEA: 1-12

Inception: 1-12

The New NATO Phonetic Alphabet

First of all, the NATO Phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet, and not a phonetic alphabet at all (if you want that, look into the International Phonetic Alphabet on Wikipedia). In case you don’t know, the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is the system of using the words Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and so on to spell out words (typically over the radio).

However, while it is not a true phonetic alphabet, real phonetic alphabets exist to provide symbols for every type of sound that humans make while speaking. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. Want to learn an accent? Simply go to something like www.dialectsarchive.com, which attempts to collect every common accent of the English language. From there, you can listen to real people talk and go through each word replacing the sounds in that word with a symbol. Compare your own speech with those symbols and practice the differences. If you made your own symbol you’re well on your way to making your own real phonetic alphabet. However, try to use the NATO Phonetic alphabet to sound out words, and you will sound like you’re one of those crazy theater people.

By the way, the NATO Phonetic alphabet isn’t even its official name. It’s officially called “The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet”. The IRSA went through many revisions before it landed in its current state. By the way, why they landed on spelling Alfa with an F and not a PH I will never know. Words were swapped out and it was worked to be optimized to include distinct words and sounds common to all languages. The last update to this system, devised to clear up pronunciation misunderstandings, was on 1 March 1956. Because of the lack of an update, I have taken it upon myself to propose an update that is clearly superior in every way. Please use only this henceforth.

Symbol                Code WordTraditional International Phonetic AlphabetPronunciation
BBuscemi,Stevebuːˈsɛmi, stivboo-SEM-ee, steev
CChesterˈtʃɛs tərches-ter
EEcstaticɛkˈstæt ɪkek-stat-ik
FFuddle-dum-rumpleyˈfʌd l dʌm ˈrʌm plifuhd-l duhm ruhm-plee
JJabberwockyjab-er-wok-eeˈdʒæb ərˌwɒk i
LLigmaˈlɪg məlig-muh
MMancy ˈmæn siman-see
OOrwellˈɔr wɛlawr-wel
PPneumaticsnʊˈmæt ɪksnoo-mat-iks
SSchadenfreudeˈʃɑd nˌfrɔɪ dəshahd-n-froi-duh
UUranusyoor-uh-nuhsˈyʊər ə nəs
YYeastyˈyi stiyee-stee
ZZaddyˈzæd i-zad ee

An Open Letter to Current and Future Olin Improvisers

As this semester comes to a close, I find that I do not have time to teach all that I know about improv. I write this to impart some last bits of knowledge to you, the reader, in the hopes that it helps you improve the quality of your improv performances at least a little. The following are things that I have picked up from either books, or other improvisers, or my own experience that I feel I must share.

1. Freedom, Power & Responsibility

First, there was nothing. Then, there was improv. When two people initiate a scene, the person who speaks first, whether through words or actions, has the freedom to do or say whatever they want. When the stage is empty, you could walk on and say, “Shit, that was a wrong turn,” or ,”Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” to quickly establish part of a platform (Who’s there? Where? And what’s happening?). Actions like digging or fishing can also help establish who your character is through the use of body language. As the improviser to initiate the scene, you walked on and had the freedom to make the empty space your own.

Now, the person who responds has the power to interpret your words or actions and establish a direction for the scene. For example, in response to the wrong turn line, your scene partner may respond, “Oh! The scenic route!” or, “Jackie, at this rate, we’re going to miss the wedding!” Even an audible huff establishes that your character often misses turns and that your partner character’s patience may be wearing thin. Responses need not always be words. Let’s say that you begin a scene by digging. Your partner walks up, crosses their arms, and watches. By not helping (and with their body language), they are saying that yes, you are digging, and I am supervising. If they were not helping, but were holding a shovel too and wiping sweat from their brow, then they have used their power to say that you two are coworkers, allowing the scene to have a very different set of interactions.

The initiative now shifts back to you. After your freedom to do anything and your scene partner’s power to interpret your anything, you now have the responsibility to continue the scene using that same interpretation. If your scene partner responds to you saying, “Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” with the statement, “I am a cardiologist. I barely know what a face is,” then you have the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction, wherever it goes. In this specific case, we’ve established a precedent of asking for help in all the wrong places, which is a very funny pattern to continue in the same scene or future scenes with that character.

To summarize, the first person has the freedom to do or say whatever. The second person has the power to take that and establish a direction for the scene to go. The first person then has the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction. This is the idea of freedom, power and responsibility.

2. Give gifts, generously

In improv, giving a gift means giving a scene partner something to work with. The general suggestion is that you should give gifts as much as possible, and that the best improvisers make their scene partners look amazing through gifts.

Gifts in the context of improv do not need to be physically handing someone an object. Usually, a gift takes the form of an idea that can be further explored. Take, for example, a scene where two improvisers are talking over lunch. They may touch upon the minutiae of their day to day or describe the food they’re eating or restaurant they are in, but that is world building if anything. The scene really gets going when one person says something like, “Let’s get down to business. You say you want my house?” This question has the obvious, interesting answer of, “Yes, I want your house,” and gives the other improviser both a strong motivation and the power to answer the question of why their character wants the other’s house. Giving gifts tends to take the form of statements or questions with obvious, interesting answers that elaborate upon motivations, shared history, or other relationships a character may have. Good gifts help further the development of the scene, the characters as individuals, and their relationship with each other.

Newer improvisers sometimes struggle with establishing strong characters or inserting themselves in larger group scenes. A gift in their case may be a strong and clear character trait to help them find their footing in a scene. Easy characters to gift are spouses/ significant others, bosses/the president (of anything) or business partners. These characters are easy to support and explore around, allowing for other gifts to be given during the lifetime of the character.

3. “Yes, And” means agreement between actors, not necessarily characters within a scene

The backbone of improv is the idea that actors must agree with each other to fully create and explore a scene. The quickest way to do this is by agreeing to ideas your scene partner brings.

For example, say there is you and another person initiating a scene. The other person approaches and says, “Mother, I wish to attend a party at David’s.” If we apply the idea of ‘Yes, And’ to the characters themselves, then the Mother must acquiesce the request. The child gets to go to David’s party.

But if we apply ‘Yes, And’ to the actors and not the characters, then the mother has the power to say, “No, Honey. I’ve never met David or his parents.” And can respond like a mother. This allows the improvisers to explore and resolve the conflict that has been presented, exploring the world of the child and mother along the way.

4. The performers are in charge, not the audience

A long, long time ago, we held a show that did not go well. We as performers gave the audience so much power that it hindered our ability to perform and our general consensus after the show was that it could not have gone much worse.  For complete transparency I will name this event as the rotten food show from 2 years ago. The best thing that came from that show was a decision to never do it again. But I think it’s worth saying why it didn’t work because that topic comes up in other places.

As improvisers, we learn how to bring ideas from our head onto the stage. We also have a filter for words and topics that the audience does not. To that end, and for the comfort of the actors and general audience, the final say of what happens on stage is in the hands of the performers and no one else’s.

For example, take the game of Pillars. Audience members are sat onstage and tapped on the shoulder for words and phrases to fill in the blank. Let’s paint ourselves a scene where a parent and child are cleaning out their car. The child finds an object that they do not recognize and are unsure where to put it. They ask their parent. The parent says, “Oh, that? Just put it –” and then taps one of the pillars, an audience member, for a suggestion. Let’s say the pillar replies with the phrase, “in my ass.” While the response is funny in a non-sequitur sort of way, and the improvisers may be able to continue after the audience calms down, there is nothing wrong with hitting the pillar for a second time and saying, “again,” or, “another one,” to get a different word or phrase. One of the joys of working with an audience is not knowing what you’re going to get, but I dare say the experience is so much better when it’s collaborative in nature and no one is trying to trip up the other.

Remember this and remember it well: the word of the audience is not law. Do not chase the audience’s laugh. You can control what is brought on stage.

5. An improviser is a storyteller

Again, improvising is hard. There are soft boundaries everywhere that you hit and have to bounce back from. Sometimes, especially when improvising with individuals new to the world of improv or experienced with a different troupe, these boundaries will appear within improv scenes.

Sometimes scenes will begin or move in a direction that you, as an improviser, will not like. Maybe your character is pushed in a direction or given qualities that hit you personally. Maybe the scene is delving into a topic that is making you increasingly uncomfortable and you know is heading in a bad direction.

Change it, I say. This is not real life. This is a story in your head. Your character is an ass? A bully? Not anymore after a quick personal epiphany. Now they’re nice and work to lift up others. Stuck in a bad situation? Feel like you have no control? Good thing you’re the undercover boss. The secret audit officer.

There is no reason you should be trapped in a story you are helping to build. Improv scenes are a collaborative storytelling medium. A good scene partner can recognize discomfort and help shift the scene away from that direction.

Final Thoughts

I swear this was supposed to be light-hearted. I started writing it that way and then realized there were other things to say.

Like many things in life, there’s so much knowledge you only gain through experience and I just wanted to share these tidbits as a parting gift. I wish you all the best of luck going forward and am glad I got to be a part of your journey.


Luis Francisco Zuniga

I’m A Guy You Just Met, And I’m Already Mansplaining Python To You

Hey, it’s great to meet you. Did you know that Python uses whitespace instead of brackets? I’m sure you didn’t, because even though the internet exists and there are thousands of tutorials out there, I must be the only person in the world who has ever taken a Python course. 

Isn’t it so amazing that I know basic information about Python syntax that anyone would get from a W3Schools tutorial? Having opinions on the relative merits of camel case and snake case makes me feel like a fully formed human being.

What do you think about the latest Python release? You haven’t thought about it? You must not be a real engineer. I, of course, read the Python changelog on a daily basis, and I tell everyone I meet about it because I think it makes me a well-informed citizen. 

You know, I really feel like being able to use Git is a defining personality trait. Yeah, I’ve only ever used Git to write commit messages like “asdfjkasldflaksdfj i hope this works” and “changed something”, but being able to type two-word commands into a terminal shows that I am a very intelligent person.

Sometimes I feel threatened by the fact that software engineers that aren’t white males exist, but then I go to my room and read the James Damore memo and tell myself that I’m special because I once read the first few chapters of a book on object-oriented programming and then I feel all better.

What’s that? You’ve used Python before? You’ve used Git too? That can’t be right. If you’re not spending all of your time on r/programming, how can you even call yourself a coder?

Well, I just checked your Github account, and my contributions graph has more commits than yours does because I don’t understand the concept of rebase, so I must be a better developer.

Have I told you how cool Elon Musk is? Wait, where are you going? Come back so I can tell you my take on the Cybertruck!

This article was inspired by fun moments as a woman in STEM.

dASSember Whoreoscopes

Very chaste and conservative predictions for the Franklin Walter Olin College Family.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Among the most oily fries lies a piece of gold. It’s your destiny calling, pick up! If you don’t, they’ll call again soon, but man are they going to be pissed. It’s not every day that destiny calls, and you can’t even get yourself off the toilet to answer. Is this because of the oily fries?

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Have you ever built a snowman? Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let’s go and play! If you make a mess, that’s okay. Self-forgiveness is important, but make sure to buy some Clorox wipes! And definitely use those wipes to clean your laptop screen. Also, join ASs club.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

When the SolidWorks file crashes, you will crash with it. Beware of zero thickness geometry and always have a license on hand. When the circuit shorts, supply power again and again. The circuit just needs some time. Give it some time!!! Try plugging the USB into your belly button.

Gemini (May 21 – June 21)

After today, never eat chickpeas unless peeled beforehand. It will thank you. Embrace your inner child and you will receive 20% off your next purchase. If you call 1-800-CHILD right now, you’ll get two for the price of one! Now that’s a steal! DO NOT try this for jlcpcb.com purchases unless you are willing to lose a finger.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

In seven years look towards the sun. Close your eyes, though! But keep your third eye open. But if you keep it open for too long, it might get cold! Get some warm green tea and then feed it to the birds. They get cold too. If your corporeal form gets cold, try sitting in the 3rd floor endcap of the MAC.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Your elbow grease is leaking. Get a hold of yourself! It’s going to get all over your Cup Noodles™. You wouldn’t want that to happen– your Cup Noodles™ are so delicious all on their own, now with 50% less sodium! When life gives you lemons, make a battery. But don’t eat it.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

It seems they are watching you eat that cookie. Is it good? Do it for yourself – not others. What if you put a little bit of peanut butter on it? For yourself? Or maybe, you can eat it with ice cream. Or, if you are dairy-free, just stick to the peanut butter. Have you tried jelly on a cookie? Be open-minded. For yourself.

Scorpio (October 24 – November 21)

Call your mom. You need her. Like a servo motor, you spin when someone tells you to. Like an Arduino, you can be programmed. If you would like to opt out of being programmed all you have to do is let us know. Scream “妈妈” really loud in the dining hall. That’s the best way to reach us.

Libra (September 23 – October 23)

Scratch those armpits while you contemplate why you are alive. It’ll be a fruitful meditation, as long as you scratch those armpits. Whose armpits? We’ll never tell! If you say AC instead of MAC, we will tell. That’s unacceptable. One day Olin will consider naming a building after you.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

How do you wipe? You need to figure this out ASAP. Even if you think you know, you should definitely double-check. Once you find out, please let us know because now we are invested. Speaking of investing, the stock market is down <3 i hope this helps :) Now is the time to buy!

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Turn away from your demons at your earliest convenience. That spinach in your fridge is going bad. Eat that pie too! You need to clean out and unplug your fridge or else you will have a stinky surprise (metaphorically). When you are done with the cleaning, take a look inside? Are you clean? What is clean? I have a mop if you want to borrow it.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)

Hey partner, have you been suffering? Colony Care is a free resource for all Olin College students, and you should reach out if you want someone to talk to. Email Laura Kinney at laurakinney@colonycare.net to schedule an appointment with a Colony Care provider today! Also, tell the person to your left their shoe is untied.

Olin: An “Alien” Perspective

At Olin College of Unspoken Privilege, we don’t have enough open, honest conversations about the culture that makes you feel out of place for feeling out of place. And a lot of people feel out of place at Olin, a lot of people don’t vibe with the conversations in the dining hall, a lot of people feel awkward, left-behind, lonely – far detached from the caring, close-knit community they were promised at Olin. We need to recognize this, and we need to understand why.

We need to talk. Here’s an international student perspective. 

Over a month ago, I interviewed four international students, each from a different country. Those conversations were some of the most honest and powerful I have had so far in my life, and they made me realize that there are so many powerful stories hidden unexpressed behind these inspiring people, each with rich, unique sociocultural backgrounds. 

I suppose that’s why I’m doing this. To raise awareness that at Olin, there is a small community of students legally labeled as ‘aliens’ by the US government. These students leave behind most of what is familiar to them and fly across the world, and many of them struggle. I’m writing this to help unpack those stories, and to help unpack my story.

I don’t claim to speak for all international students. The opinions in this piece are my personal perspective, with reinforcement from my four interviewees, each of whom come from diverse countries and backgrounds and have vastly different views on America and Olin.

Olin’s work culture for example – coming from the hypercompetitive, scarce work environment in India, Olin initially seemed like a dream to me. People were living their life to the fullest and creating space for hobbies, clubs, project teams – things that brought them joy! But three of my interviewees had the opposite take – they felt that compared to their countries Olin, and in their experience, America in general, has too strong of a workaholic culture. One of them called it ‘internalized capitalism’. Neither viewpoint is incorrect. However, the sharp difference in perspectives was eye-opening, and it made me question my generalizations about my international student experience.

But we, international students, do have many shared experiences. One of the biggest challenges I faced when transitioning into Olin was simply being able to hold conversations. I was not at all prepared for how difficult it would be to engage with people. One of my interviewees spoke about not understanding the references from movies, the conversational contexts, baseball – it all fed into the imposter syndrome, the lingering feeling that they didn’t belong here. It’s often difficult to realize that American insularity exists, especially because of the tiny size of Olin’s international student community. While 28% of Babson’s undergraduate student body is international students, Olin is at around 8%. International students at Olin lack the cultural support communities traditionally available at other, larger colleges, and that can make settling into Olin’s environment significantly more challenging. An interviewee even suggested making an America ‘cheat sheet’ – a list of cultural elements international students need to be aware of before interacting in social settings at Olin. It’s important to recognize that the process of adapting to Olin’s cultural space was, for me and a lot of my interviewees, slow, embarrassing, and occasionally even hurtful. An interviewee shared how hurt they had felt when they got attacked for not knowing what Indigenous Peoples’ Day was – all they wanted to do was understand and clarify. They said, “Give us more slack – assume positive intent. We’re trying to adapt to a new way of life, it’s not always easy.” 

Due to the cultural force of the USA in global media, there’s an assumption in the USA that everyone must be informed of US history, geography, and liberal political contexts. That assumption is simply not fair on international students, who, for example, never learned US history or learned an inaccurate version of it. Moreover, that lack of context can make it difficult to understand prevailing attitudes at Olin.

For example, when I first got to Olin, I was struck by the sheer amount of US-bashing by Americans. “Yeah, America sucks,” was assumed to be the default attitude. Why would anyone like this country, with all of its flaws and inequities? Yet my first reaction was, why would anyone not like this country? There’s so much here – money, resources, jobs, dialogue, freedom of speech.

There’s a very American-centered conversation in the US around empowerment. It recognizes that despite the country’s championing of democracy, a significant number of Americans don’t have access to the aforementioned privileges that dominant groups in the country do. Olin has made some progress in creating a space for this conversation, and I also believe that we have much, much further to go. However, significantly more unrecognized is the fact that many international students come from countries that systemically lack the opportunities available in the US. All that US-bashing can get hurtful – yes, the USA has massive, entrenched problems, but there is so much privilege in being able to complain. And yes, while the criticism should not stop at all costs, it is important to recognize this privilege especially in front of students who have left behind so much – family, familiarity, and a sense of belonging –  to attend college in the USA. There’s so much privilege to be fearless; the last time I expressed significant dissent against India in my high school, I was physically dragged aside and yelled at by two high school teachers in front of my entire school for nearly an hour – an experience that left me disgusted, emotionally exhausted, and terrified. It’s still unbelievable for me to hear people at Olin effortlessly and casually criticize the USA.

Olin, by design, is a privileged space. I recognize that my entire ‘American’ experience has been an Olin experience, and Olin, by any stretch of the imagination, is not representative of the USA. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about privilege at Olin, often through many of the traditional American lenses such as race and gender but also about the privilege of simply being American. All of my interviewees expressed frustration at the lack of recognition of that privilege at Olin – the privilege of being able to return home for Thanksgiving, the privilege of being familiar with Thanksgiving in the first place, the privilege of not being branded as an ‘alien’, the privilege of understanding cultural references, the privilege of not being anxious about your limited time in the USA, the privilege of belonging. And yet I recognize that some American Oliners don’t have these privileges either.

When I first thought of writing this piece, I had initially set out to rant all about how international students feel like they’re left out, in a place of privilege where their time is ticking, unsupported in an unfamiliar culture at Olin by virtue of their background. But a lot of American Oliners feel this way too! People of color, people from low-income families, and many others – and we don’t talk about this enough.

There’s value in making connections, so that diversity and inclusion efforts on campus have another voice. Yet there’s also value in differentiating – international students come from a unique, different place compared to other minority groups at Olin. Supporting the experience of being an international student should be both merged with and distinguished from diversity efforts at Olin. The first step is recognizing that international students should be getting more support.

Thank you to all the faculty, staff, and students – both international and American – who helped me with this piece. You know who you are :)

It’s (Still) Time to Talk About Divestment

The following article2 was published in the May 2016 edition of Frankly Speaking by two Oliners (and now alumni), Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison. They were part of a group of students who ultimately presented a proposal for fossil fuel divestment to the Board of Trustees in the spring of 2018. The conversation about divestment, mediated by Patty Gallagher (formerly the CFO), ended with students being told to wait until a new president settled into Olin.

Divesting Olin

By Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison on behalf of GROW

So, What is Divestment?

According to Wikipedia, “Divesting is the act of removing stocks from a portfolio based on mainly ethical, non-financial objections to certain business activities of a corporation.” One of the first times that divestment was used as a means to promote a social change was during apartheid, the extreme system of racial segregation, in South Africa. Companies, universities, organizations, local governments,  and individuals took their money out of apartheid-affiliated businesses and are partially credited with helping to dismantle the system.

Today, there is a new divestment movement. Five hundred and seven institutions and 3.4 trillion dollars have been divested from the oil and gas industries. The goal of this movement is to put financial pressure on the largest contributors to climate change and other environmental disasters in an effort to get them to behave in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner.  Sixty-one colleges have already divested in some meaningful way, and we hope Olin will join the movement.

Why Should Olin Divest?

Olin was founded on the principle of making the world a better place. Fossil fuels are unsustainable (they will run out), and are the single greatest contributors to climate change, so we believe it is against Olin’s founding principles to support fossil fuel companies  We believe that continuing to profit from the destruction of the environment through knowingly investing our money in companies that are accelerating the pace of climate change is fundamentally against Olin’s core values.

The scientific consensus is clear and overwhelming; we cannot safely burn even half of global fossil fuel reserves without dangerously warming the planet with disastrous effects1. Furthermore, as the market inevitably shifts towards more renewable energy sources, we believe an innovative institution such as Olin should be on the forefront of this change. 

We believe progressive action towards divestment will be a sound decision for the wellbeing of Olin’s alumni and current and future students. We deserve the opportunity to graduate with a future unimpaired by climate chaos.

What Have We Done so Far?

A little over a year ago, we started meeting with our CFO Patty Gallagher and Chair of the Investment Committee Doug Kahn to explore what it might look like if Olin were to divest. They were incredibly receptive, and we formed a close partnership. Over the past year, we have had many meetings and are making positive progress towards a solution that we can all get behind. In addition, we had a meeting with the investment firm that manages Olin’s money to get a sense from them about what divestment could look like while, of course, keeping the best financial interests of the school in mind. 

We are very fortunate that we are at a place like Olin where we can have meetings like this, and our collaborative approach has had positive results. The Investment Committee has begun to have discussions about the topic of divestment. We will continue to work with Doug and Patty to advance the conversation towards a mutually acceptable resolution.

Before we move forward, we want to be confident that this is something that Faculty, Staff, Board Members, and Students, can all get behind.  We are looking forward to continuing the progress in the fall and hope to keep the community updated.

It has been over four years since the article above was published. Since then, divestment from the 2003 holders of the most carbon reserves has been soundly rejected. Now, the Board is considering incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in our investment strategy. While a step in the right direction, this is essentially the bare minimum and is becoming, or has already become, standard practice4,5. This minimal acknowledgement of social and environmental realities casts them as mere externalities impacting our financial viability. Treating social and environmental issues as distinct and separable from economic issues in this way neglects the interconnectedness of the three. Olin, by continuing to profit on the climate crisis, is abjectly failing in its purported mission “to do good for humankind.” Olin is certainly not a leader among academic institutions in operational sustainability, nor in a holistic view of engineering. It’s time for Olin to recognize the contradiction of espousing leadership in integrating ethics into engineering while failing to take the action that so many of our peers (including Wellesley) already have.

Since the original article was published in 2016, the following U.S. schools have made commitments to divestment:

Interested in continuing Olin’s divestment movement? Questions, comments, or concerns?

Reach out!


Reply to Swing and a Miss: What are you Swinging at?

As I read your article this morning, I looked up and took a glance at several eager interviewees at the career fair this morning. I considered your plight: many of us aspiring engineers were drawn to the field in hopes of mastering powerful tools that will someday allow us to make enormous, tangible positive impacts on the world. Excited and a little disoriented, we took our swing—a first internship—and saw a terrible twist to our original vision. A lot of fellow engineers are working hard and building powerful tools, but many of those tools are ambiguous in impact to the world or perhaps seem detrimental long-term. A swing and a miss!

As engineers, we live to make an impact. This is our heart. Ethics often comes second. Even Leonardo da Vinci made his money by advertising and selling plans for his easy-build bridges to warlords. The distinction for da Vinci was that his bridges weren’t his biggest contributions to the world. After he had secured some money, he trusted his wits and transitioned to designing aspirational flying machines, studying biology, and making art. At the end of the day, many people will make decisions, even pivotal and life-changing ones, depending on how easy that option is to choose for them at the time. Right now, it seems that most engineers are finding it harder to build their future while holding on to their ethics, or perhaps easier to get straight into building their future if they let their ethics go. But that decision isn’t permanent for any of us. It just may be easier. Paradigm shifts happen as a whole society works to make ethical decisions easier for everyone. It is during those times that ethically conscious builders have it easy. They have a wide variety of opportunities to build a change they can be satisfied with in the world. Right now does not feel like a paradigm shift is happening. Nonetheless, we can sacrifice some amount of ease (or perhaps some amount of salary) in the name of good. Today, I also noticed stickers advocating a broader movement for engineers to refuse to build systems that they consider unethical. Refuse to Build may also become a tool for us to stabilize our direction and work towards good as engineers. 

This summer, I skipped my opportunity to work an internship and instead worked with a crew of 10 dedicated, smart people at a backcountry outpost at Philmont, a Scouts BSA camp. The work wasn’t easy and it didn’t pay well, but all of the people I met shared an eagerness to act straight from the heart. Our camp director, Ben, left his job as an engineer at Intel to work at Philmont one more time. He explained that he left because he didn’t feel like managing the 2000-step production process for Intel’s largest FPGA would get him anywhere in life. From 18 months of work, was able to pay off his student loans. He now works as a math and finance teacher. He lives in a souped-up mobile home with ‘bold and brash’ hung over the fireplace. He is a better rock climber than I will ever be, but in a way, he has put down the powerful ‘bat’ that we pick up when we become engineers. He is not the professional builder that can make an enormous impact on the world with his work. As an engineer, you’re still holding the bat. Now what are you going to do with it?

Cool or Good

A favorite pastime for me is to lay on the bare paint-chipped wood of my mom’s back porch and gaze up into the sky. When I stare at birds, planes and clouds as they breeze by, I can’t help but be fascinated by the way they move. And a lot of people feel similarly, which is why a fundamental motivation behind aerospace is that we can unlock such freeing and fascinating methods of movement with our minds. Other things in the pro column are the potential benefits like connecting the world, discovering new technologies, and a bunch of other cool things. But let’s emphasize that these are all cool things, not inherently good things, a distinction that I don’t think is made often enough. And this brings us to the key problem with aerospace: it’s too cool.

Aerospace is so cool that people are willing to ignore the con column for the sake of the pro column, and that makes it both cool and dangerous. We talk about these pleasant sounding pros like they are the main driving force, but in reality the main driving force is to continue consolidating power. The biggest indicator of this is the distribution of aerospace technology around the world. Looking around, we see the same nations that have been gaining influence through imperialism boasting the most success in aerospace and using that success to further their imperialist reach, which is riddled with violence and conflict.  And the nations on the other side of this reach are coincidentally the ones that benefit the least from the technological developments we, as engineers, make in aerospace.

So, if we continue to pretend the biggest pro for aerospace today isn’t the military power it enables but instead the great solutions aerospace could offer humanity, we must at least accept that the only people that will be experiencing the benefit of those solutions are the ones that live in privileged and comfortable countries. Two prime examples are the internet and GPS, two technologies that are born from innovation within the aerospace industry. 

Internet and GPS are incredibly convenient technologies that have made information available to millions almost instantly. I use the internet almost hourly, GPS daily, and both have become a cornerstone of humanity’s technological developments. But does the benefit we have from this small subsection of aerospace really offset all of the oppression that aerospace as an industry has contributed to over the past 80 years? I say no, based solely on the fact that many more people have been hurt or inconvenienced by aerospace, as an extension of the military-industrial complex that drives it, than those that have benefited from the internet and GPS. The internet and GPS are luxuries that can be acquired through a paywall, how can a luxury offset all the oppression?    

And what does it look like to offset this oppression? What’s the conversion rate from civilians killed to Google searches and directions to the nearest open McDonalds? I know that these technologies contribute much more than the mundane, but even considering all of the research and discoveries that the internet enables, how can we begin to quantify offset? Especially when it comes to environmental impact, a field that we could probably quantify if we put time and resources into learning how, or lives lost, where each is invaluable.

So while I stalk the birds as they fly above and jump from perch to perch, I quickly become overwhelmed trying to understand and think about aerospace’s role as a tool for humanity. There have certainly been an unignorable amount of lives lost and oppression due to the aerospace industry that continues even today. And while I agree there is a lot of potential, does that excuse the unignorable? It’s a lot to think about, and I wish that my experience in the classroom helped me think about this stuff but there are only a handful of classes offered that bother to touch on this for at least one class session. Why don’t professors teach us how to think about this stuff? I can count on one hand the number of class sessions I’ve had that covered these critical topics, and my schedule has not allowed me to take either of the two MatSci classes that critically discuss systemic oppression in our engineering supply chains. 

We need to have these conversations and introduce frameworks to think about these real and pervasive problems. As an ECE student, why is there no required class that teaches me about the impact of electrical engineering? That teaches about where our rare earth metals and other materials come from, and whose hands mine them from the ground, and how we contribute to that system. Is it not critical to understand how dirty your PCBs and components are if you are going to try to make something good out of them? This is a specific example, but one exists for every major and every class, regardless of how technical the subject is. If we don’t incorporate these crucial conversations into the classroom, then are we problem solvers or just consumers?