How did I become a future architect? Someone who aims to position humanity to thrive amid systems-level challenges compounded by ever-accelerating change? Who actively designs and builds the future we want to live in — kinder, more just, more connected and more inclusive? A voice inside me wants to say, “I don’t know,” because I’m astonished to find myself at 42 years old with a lifetime of cultivated mastery in a discipline that I didn’t know existed, one that didn’t yet have a name for me. Especially, when I started out my life as a dancer.
My passion for dance led me to hundreds of stages over 29 years — from rickety table tops in Hong Kong’s Vietnamese refugee camps in the late ’80s, to New York City’s Orpheum Theater as a cast member of STOMP in the ’90s, to international tours and a Mission District Theater home with my own company in the 2000s. How did I go from that to sitting on a panel at the World Economic Forum across from the President of Baidu, one of the most powerful men in China, discussing the merits and challenges of “unleashing” artificial intelligence?
In 2008, my life took a turn from the world of live performing arts and physical visual arts to an increasingly more virtual engagement with arts and creativity. I went from a primarily analog world to a primarily digital one during a period of rapid innovation and fundamental changes to the architecture of human communication. This transition into a tech-driven environment of emerging media made me feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. First, I became a producer and artist on a landmark transmedia art project now archived at the Smithsonian, then a producer for the top transmedia production studio in Hollywood and then the director of the New Frontier Lab Programs at the Sundance Institute.
It was a huge adjustment to be the outsider turned insider — not just because I transitioned from engaging with some of the oldest art forms to some of the newest, but because I have an intersection of identities not well represented in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, gaming or corporate America (some of the fields that converge around emerging media). As an insider, I’ve noticed a lot of details that seem curious, both in the awesome and fearsome sense of that word. Now, in 2019, I can tell the story of a woman of color, social justice advocate and single mother of three who stands near the epicenter of a media paradigm shift and has a front row seat to the process of power replicating itself.
It has been a cherished and privileged journey, but also a disturbing one that has shaken me at my core. I’ve been witness to the pitfalls of new technologies born into systems of oppression, which caused me to deeply question whether justice and equality could ultimately prevail — though there have also been profound moments where small interventions made a significant impact on furthering inclusion and the fair distribution of power.
This long journey might explain how I became a future architect, but the truth is this identity started way before I was even born. I bear a rich and deep legacy of ancestors (biological and kindred) who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a just, kind, connected and inclusive world. They imagined me into existence, protected me with ferocity so that I could thrive and now call me to do the same for future generations. For as Zora Neale Hurston reminds us, “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.”
I think of the photograph my brother-in-law found after twenty years of searching. My three-times-great-grandmother, Eliza Bobo, who was born into slavery in 1844, stands with her hand on a sturdy straight-backed chair in front of a thicket of flower bushes as tall as her. In her other hand she holds a leather-bound Bible. She stands there, captured for all time in a pose of dignity, and I wonder: What did she dream of for me? I think of another ancestor, Sarah Johnson, who worked nights for a decade during the Gold Rush in California, scraping together enough to buy herself and her family out of slavery by 1852. Did her vision of a more just and beautiful world shore up her back as she worked?
It may be that I am their most ambitious dreams manifest — global travel, extensive education, leadership in powerful institutions, overall well-being . . . perhaps my reality goes beyond the limits of what they could ever have imagined. Still, other aspects of my life may be the tragic antitheses of their hopes for the future. As a member of the post-civil-rights-era hip-hop generation, I’ve seen more black men become prisoners through mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow than were enslaved in 1850. Given this constant and essential tension, it is my job to stretch the limits of my own imagination so that generations to come are born into a reality that I can barely conceive — one made beautiful by true and sustainable justice, well-being and equitable prosperity.
My father, a black man born in Watts in the ’40s during segregation, and my mother, a white woman born in the post-World War II Irish war projects in Brooklyn, stretch the limits of their imaginations. They radically imagined a future beyond their circumstances to make me. They formed a union that was illegal in some states and taboo in the others. They bore me into a daily creative practice of imagining a better future and surrounded me with an intentional community of intersectional artists. Together we made work to reflect on the past, shift norms in the present and speculate on a just and unified future. Ideas that were perhaps inconceivable for my ancestors.
So, when I met Sharon Chang in 2017 and heard her vision for a discipline that would couple our shared ethos of radical imagination with rigorous experimentation and positive action, I knew that we came from a common lineage. When she then handed me an object, representing her belief that I too was a future architect, I felt my heart and soul align. A rite of passage. In that moment, my heart embraced this vocation and this community of imagination committed to creating a more beautiful world for more people.