On Kigali's Quiet

Kigali has diplomatic compounds like Geneva and bookstores with gridded French composition books. It feels like a Lego city. Smooth, smooth roads, streetlamps, reflectors between lanes. Perfectly poised police officers who, David told us, share English phrases like “I will punish you” and “I forgive you” if they pull you over. Since 2004, they’ve decreased traffic deaths by 32%. Visitors to Kigali from Nairobi or Kampala remark on how calm the city is, how quiet, how orderly.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial explains this order. Order is a coping mechanism for the worst disorder imaginable. At the Memorial, we read about the Belgian colonialists who decided one tribe was better than another, seeding violent resentment. About the way people turned this resentment into a careful plan to exterminate the other. About the small handful of international troops who escorted diplomats to safety when the extermination began, who instead would have been enough to stop it.

In the section of the Memorial for children, under a small, framed baby picture:

Francine (12)

Favorite sport: swimming

Favorite food: egg and chips

Favorite drinks: milk and Fanta

Favorite friend: Claudette

Death: hacked by machete.

East Africa Notebook Scraps

I’m still a sucker for the names of places.

In Addis Ababa, the flight boarding to Asmara

A guy walked past in a white tunic with pink vest and a pillbox hat. There were the veiled ladies cracking themselves up and the guy in a natty blue suit with a Burberry bag and the family where the Dad would have fit in at the Battery in San Francisco, Chelsea boots and a tweed blazer. The mother wore a full black hijab, and the daughter wore a sweatshirt and shiny sandals with her hair in many braids. She giggled with glee as she played on the floor. I watched a group of Italian tourists playing cards and started to remember what it’s like to travel, and why.


I was scared to leave Ana’s house to go to my first meeting so I just left without checking my map, walked through the gate with my heart pounding. I got red dirt on my new sneakers, which are technically just recycled waterbottles well-packaged by Silicon Valley. At the supermarket with chickens in front I started breathing again when I asked for directions and remembered I’ve been the one who looks different before.

Being a passenger on the back of a boda boda at rush hour in Kampala may be the best way to reach a state of equanimity and enlightenment. Do you have control of your fate, of your body in space, of how close your driver gets to the car next to you? Nope, so you might as well enjoy the view and hope for the best. I watched the women with bananas on their heads, the barefoot kids, a guy running with weights, the high school students walking home wearing Beats headphones. In my mind, that city is hills, exhilaration and exhaust, clenching the back rail of a boda boda on the way home to Ana’s apartment.

Lake Mburu

It started raining on our way to Lake Mburu, red dirt puddles and kids pulling their cattle. Eyes on the road and things to see, talking about UBI and impact investing, unspooling life, eating snacks. We got pulled over for “speeding”  – the muzungu tax, Eric said, 50,000 shillings. The officer had a smile around his mouth.

Onward. We stopped for food on the side of the road near a sign that said “corruption in procurement worsens poverty.” We watched an egg bubble and expand on a griddle, watched a chappati brown, watched the quick hands of the men who must stand there all day. One guy had small gold glasses and tried to charge us 6000 shillings when it should have been 3000. “No no no, my friend!” Ali exclaimed. He smiled sheepishly, but wouldn’t go lower than 4000. “You requested salt,” he said.

Worth it - a Rolex may be better than a breakfast taco. At the park the next day, I woke up from a bad dream and ran into zebras on a muddy road.


To get to the gorillas in Mgahinga, we took a matatu to a bus to a taxi. On the matatu, a woman suckled her baby with Mountain Dew. On the bus, we watched music videos on loop over a rich soundsystem and it felt like a tropical vacation, steel drums and bananas trees passing by the open windows. We talked about the midterm elections. Ali said the US was tense and violent, which certainly feels true if you compare the view out any Greyhound to the view from this bus. The Earth heaved in amazing ways, making mounds of black dirt dressed in green. There were men selling sheets when the bus stopped, women sitting with their cabbages, babies getting haircuts. Inside the bus, the music videos played over and over, women in love and done wrong with their head wraps and their hips telling the story.

When we arrived in Kisoro, it was dusk and everyone was walking along the road, a few women in jeans, but mostly in dresses, long skirts, and shawls so bright I realized I may have never seen color before them. The little girls had short hair and party dresses. One smiled at me huge and said, “give me money!”

Kisoro to Kigali

Breakfast in Kisoro was $3, plaintain and potato and green bean in a spicy sauce while kids were walking to school in the mist.

We drove to the border crossing listening to Bosco’s radio, airy songs which he told us were mostly Rwandese. “This one, it’s for angels of the genocide,” he said. The volcanos are lavender before the sun has risen. So many people killed so many others here. You can’t help but thinking that as you cross the border into Rwanda.

We took another bus, along roads lined with straight rows of trees like a French estate. The lady next to me sang for most of the two hours and helped her friend swipe through what must have been Rwandese Tinder. Wind through the windows, up and around hills that I imagined chiefs surveying long ago until we arrived in Kigali, where the Radisson conference center marks the skyline like a sentry for a new economy.

Dinner in Kigali was $23, a weird mélange of ginger cocktails and avocado fries in a big lodge room full of expats. The evening streets quiet, no one walking.


On the plane to Nairobi, more men wore suits and read the business section, and a pastor asked me if I were Christian. The city pulsates in my mind still. My five-block radius encompassed three malls, mobile money, a swimming pool, transit strikes, laughing colleagues, local founders, expat founders, carrot cake, Chinese noodles, and ginger juice. At the Indian supermarket in the mall next door to my hotel, Africans, Asians, and blonde girls bought yogurt and peanuts and curry. I learned how to walk on sidewalks that sometimes disintegrated into dust, how to dodge cars when I crossed the road, and how to call my Uber driver with directions. On the drive to Ruiru to see BURN’s factory, there was a woman sleeping by the tomatoes she was selling at midday, reclined like a Manet subject except exhausted.

Hell’s Gate

I went to Hell’s Gate Park by myself on Saturday morning after it turned out I would not, in fact, be able both to crash a wedding in northern Kenya and make my flight out from Nairobi on Sunday. In an obstinate quest for an adventure, which turned out to be very hot and a little underwhelming, I spent four quiet hours in a car, which was in fact was the adventure, expanding my understanding of Kenya beyond a sexy Nairobi that’s using technology to change the world. This Kenya was green forests and trash-lined red dirt roads, small mobile money kiosks painted with Safaricom ads, monkeys on the median, butcher-shop-hotel combos (who stays there??), long-strided runners, Masaii kids in t-shirts and flipflops shepherding goats, and a valley whose expansiveness made it feel like the floor of the whole world.

Addis Ababa Again

When we arrived in Addis, a stewardness was sobbing. The first customer service desk was in Chinese. At 11 pm, a motley crowd of safari-shirted Americans, Italian couples with matching backpacks, and Kenyan businessmen drank Ethiopian coffee, which is served with popcorn. We boarded the next flight.

I want to be like the people who still stop on the gangway to take a picture of the plane, approaching the world with wonder, seeing not a plane but a giant metal bird preening its wings before flying around the world. When I woke up, I was in Paris.

Interview on "Negotiating the Terms"

If you scrolled back to the first essay on this site, from 2015, and read through the rest of the words stored here - on social activism, on writing, on ranchers, on nostalgia, on language, on Benefit Corporations and educational equity and sugar highs and road trips and cities of innovation and oceans and grinding poverty all combined - maybe you'd immediately suggest that I look for a role with an impact investment fund. (Or maybe not). 

However, since we are *all about the journey*, it took me three years to figure out the right direction for a career I'd want to dig into. I'm sharing an interview I got to do with a young woman whose made it her side hustle to interview young women in all sorts of investment roles. It answers a lot of questions about what the heck impact investing with Acumen means, and, I hope, it can be useful to anyone thinking about a career in social impact, or a career without a clearly defined title.

The original is here, and I highly recommend checking out the other interviews Nikita has pulled together. 

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

It’s a long story, but each chapter was important. In some way it began in my childhood kitchen. My dad is a business owner - he runs a chain of weekly local papers with my aunt. Our kitchen table was always covered in advance copies of the paper, and I loved visiting the small businesses downtown that advertised because it felt like we lived in a strong community. My first job was writing for The Bernardsville News. I interviewed local characters and I loved learning about who they were and what they were working on. That desire to share people’s perspectives led me to major in  American Studies and work for student publications at Yale. I was specifically interested in the intersection of journalism and activism. After I graduated, I started working for NationSwell, a social impact media startup.

I was a jack of all trades on a staff of 3 working to crack the problem of telling stories that motivate readers to take action. We started a series of in-person sessions in NYC with innovators like General McChrystal and Andrew Yang (the founder of Venture for America) to bring service-minded people together and create solutions. Over that first year, I helped build this series of monthly gatherings into a membership community, the NationSwell Council, that became a key revenue stream for NationSwell’s media platform and has now expanded to 7 cities across the US.  

I was doing this on the side while I had a full-time job in consulting. There are so many different ways to work with startups, be that as an intrapreneur at a corporation or a scrappy founder or something in between. I loved building NationSwell, and it gave me the opportunity to use skills I had picked up from journalism and consulting. When I was considering my next move, I knew that I was interested in social enterprise. I also strongly believed that I needed to live in the communities I wanted to work with. So I signed up for Teach for America and taught on the border in Pharr, Texas for two years. I started noticing things that were too systemic to solve as a teacher. Intergenerational challenges - lack of job opportunities and financial empowerment. I wanted to work for a fund that was investing in companies providing these fundamental rights to low-income families. I am proud to be at Acumen now.   

What makes Acumen different than other social impact funds?

There’s been a proliferation of impact investing funds in the last few years, which is generally a great thing. But in South Texas, I also saw a lot of companies with an impact mission that didn’t actually prioritize what families needed.  I only looked at funds that clearly tracked the impact of their investments. Acumen has Lean Data: a mobile-based methodology we built to collect customer and business insights in 2-8 weeks at low cost. Lean Data helps us understand what’s important to customers and how our portfolio companies can implement that feedback for their next quarter. Because it’s a standardized way of collecting data - now being used by other impact investors, too - we can benchmark across business models, geographies, and stages of business. We believe it makes us better investors.

Here’s an example of how Lean Data works. One of our investees, BioLite, an energy company that sells smokeless cookstoves in East Africa and India, wanted to understand how they could help sales agents improve their pitches to better reach women. The Lean Data survey asked customers what motivated them to make their purchase and spoke to BioLite’s sales agents to understand how they targeted their customers. We found that BioLite’s core value prop of saving money on fuel resonated for male and female customers, but that men and women were motivated by different secondary factors for purchasing a stove. BioLite’s sales team has been able to pilot different sales methods based on this feedback, and we’re about to conduct a follow-up survey to understand if sales and conversion rates have improved.

The last thing that makes Acumen special goes beyond the dollars. We’re developing leaders in the markets where we work. We have five regional fellowship programs which are like mini-MBAs for early-stage entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and activists to build both hard skills like financial modeling and softer skills like storytelling. It’s a powerful community of social entrepreneurs that pays it forward and that we see as essential for building the social impact ecosystem - Acumen Fellows have even started companies together.  

How does an impact fund differ from your typical institutional venture firm?

Every impact fund is a bit different, and Acumen has a unique position as a non-profit. One big difference obviously is that I fundraise philanthropy, which our investment team then invests in for-profit companies. We aim for a 1x return across our entire portfolio and any return from exit is re-invested in our fund. Because of our structure, we can take risks on new business models or markets that an institutional investor or even another impact fund might not be able to stomach. We see our investments as catalysts for whole sectors, creating investment opportunities for other funds.

One of my favorite examples is  off-grid solar company, d.light. We made a $200,000 investment in 2007, when its prototype was the cheapest available solar lantern in the Indian and E. African markets. We made the bet that it could be transformational for the entire off-grid energy sector. As the company grew, our additional equity and debt investments attracted investment from larger impact and institutional investors. This spring, d.light raised $50M in debt funding and reached their 82 millionth customer.  Over ten years we’ve invested $5M in d.light - if we had donated the equivalent in solar lanterns, we would have reached only 250,000 customers.

How did you find and recruit for this role at Acumen?

I reached out to everyone I knew in the impact space after my teaching job. I created a Google Drive with social impact jobs and relevant funds. At that time, I was also considering joining an early-stage, mission-driven company. A founder at one of the edtech companies I spoke to connected me with a women at Acumen America who is now my colleague (hi Stella!), and we had a great informational conversation about what she was seeing in the workforce development and financial inclusion sectors. But at that time there were no openings at Acumen.

I decided to move to San Francisco last summer without a job, but a role at Acumen actually opened up the day I started driving West. My informational interviews ended up being really helpful - my now-colleague was able to speak to my cultural fit for Acumen, and, in having had conversation after conversation, I had refined my why for impact investing as well as a clear narrative of how my skills were a fit. I was coming from  non-traditional investment background but I had thought carefully about the abilities I’d honed as a journalist and teacher. I was able to draw connections between everything I’d done and how they led me to Acumen.

What are some investments that you’re excited about in this area?

EveryTable, a chain of grab-and-go restaurants that provide healthy meals at affordable prices across L.A. from Beverly Hills to Compton, is actually in our health portfolio but has a really cool workforce development component. The company hires staff from the neighborhoods where it works, in partnership with local nonprofits serving formerly incarcerated individuals, foster kids aging out of the system, single mothers, and more. They pay more than minimum wage, but are exploring a franchising system that goes far beyond that.

In the traditional fast food franchise world, there’s been something like redlining, where a franchise owner in a low-income neighborhood doesn’t have opportunities to open stores in more affluent areas. The vision for Everytable’s franchise system is that it would train employees in entrepreneurship and provide them a path to ownership in any neighborhood that the restaurant serves. If you think about the size of popular franchises like Subway and McDonalds, the opportunity for low-income and minority entrepreneurs with a re-imagined system is huge. It looks like breaking down structural inequities.

You are researching strategic partnerships while managing events and relationships with existing Partners. How do you manage all of these responsibilities?

I am learning something new every day, especially around how to manage my workflow! I’ve just started using a 1-3-5 system to keep track of priorities - one main priority for the day that must get done, three medium-sized tasks to complete, and then 5 little things - say, an email, or registering for an event - that I could even do on my commute. .

Because my role is all about sharing Acumen’s work, I have to be on top of everything that’s happening around our organization. I I try to capture my thoughts on what I’ve read or heard in tweets; knowing that I can succinctly summarize my work is a great way to help the information stick.

I also practice my pitches however I can! The better I know how to tell Acumen’s story, the more successful I can be in meetings with Partners and prospects. I like to do rapid fire pitches with my office colleagues as well as my friends. I’m grateful they let me use them as guinea pigs!

What are some challenges you face as an operator in vc?

That pesky imposter syndrome, which for me stems from my non-traditional background. I know I’m the right person for this role, but I think because we live in a culture of “experts” and I tend towards the generalist, every month or so I question my own authority. I have a few solutions to these brief existential crises. The first is to be up front about the areas where I need to grow - be that in terms of skills or mindset. My manager is all about growth and she pushes me in the right ways. We do coaching sessions, for example, to think through next steps for a strategic project or pitch. The second solution is a little more meta, but it helps me - I think about how my training as a journalist gave me tools to parachute in anywhere and learn quickly. Especially in a rapidly-changing field like impact venture, this skill is as important as expertise on a particular topic.  

Any advice for young women who want to enter venture capital - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

If you’re interested in impact investing or social enterprise, the best thing you can do is - and I’m borrowing this from author and activist Bryan Stevenson - get proximate before you think systemic. If you want to have impact, you have to think about the community you’re impacting - and you have to know it. Listen to the people you’re serving.Find out ways to work within that community. Teaching was an extremely formational journey for me. I wouldn’t be at Acumen if I hadn’t driven past my students’ homes and developed relationships with their families - if I hadn’t seen on a day to day basis what a better loan term or job opportunity could have done for them. When I’m fundraising, I draw on these stories and they remind me why this work is so important.


What You Can Do After a BBQ

In San Francisco last night, we gathered to raise money to help RAICES reunite and assist the more than 400 kids who are still separated from their parents in the aftermath of the administration's "Zero Tolerance" immigration policy. It was deeply awesome to see different circles come together with the goal of doing something about an issue that has, despite its urgency, fallen out of the news. We celebrated goodness and we talked about action. The vibes were good. And now it's up to us to build on those vibes and find ways to keep coming together. To engage with issues that are not comfortable. To push our own thinking and our own doing, to find ways to make change in our city and afar. 

A note for you, if you were there in presence or in spirit:

Thanks to your generosity, we raised over $12,000 for RAICES.

Depending on RAICES’ clients’ key needs, this will bond out nine parents, reuniting them with their kids while they go through asylum proceedings, and/or it will bring full legal assistance to moms like Raquel, who is still waiting to be reunited with her sons.

If you couldn’t make it but would still like to contribute, we’ll be shipping the gift on Monday, so there’s still time!

Feel free to Venmo Phil directly - @phillip-yang-5 - or email Charlotte to work out alternate arrangements (charlottevparker@gmail.com).

$12,000 is amazing, but there’s more we can do. Let’s keep the momentum going.

What else can I do?!

  1. Hang out again. See you next time. A bunch of you had thoughts on what’s next (I see you, Loek, Michael…). If you have ideas, contacts, event spaces, heck, a vision of a cover-band karaoke party for a cause, be it what it may, add it here.  

  2. Get informed. This week’s Latino USA is a good primer on what is happening to families still separated. Sign up for this weekly newsletter from the National Immigration Forum for a bipartisan perspective on immigration reform. Texas Monthly, the LA Times, the Texas Tribune, and Neta all have strong coverage of border issues. Here’s a small library of good articles on immigration, family separation, and what you can do:

    1. Interview with an immigration lawyer in McAllen

    2. Root causes of the crisis

    3. More on RAICES and why their work matters

    4. Why your gift last night keeps giving

    5. An Interview with Charlotte and Dave Willner, who kickstarted the campaign that raised $20M for RAICES and inspired this party.

  3. Not to get all political, but get political. Fixing the systems that caused these problems in the first place is going to take movement from our elected officials.  

    1. 5 calls has easy scripts for calling your reps on all sorts of issues, including immigration.

    2. Vote!

    3. Campaign for the candidates you care about, like Jessica’s been doing for Gina Ortiz-Jones in a key swing district in TX.

    4. Help other people vote in the midterms! (Great date idea FYI).

4. Keep giving. Think about making a recurring gift to an organization like RAICES. This ain’t over until the fat lady is done singing, or whatever they say. Fixing the system takes time, and will need our support. Make a recurring donation and ask your HR department about your matching policy while you’re at it. Amply is a great plug-in to help with this.

5. Get involved locally. Here’s a list of organizations in the Bay Area that can use volunteers who speak Spanish, know how to do taxes, are lawyers, etc. That means so many of you!

One more big thanks to our hosts with the mosts, Ben, Gavin, and Nick. You guys rock.

Here’s to more fun and finding ways to get uncomfortable,

AT, Charlotte, Christine, Kat, and Phil

P.S. Our friends at Imperfect Produce love you as much as we loved their veggies on the grill so they’ve gifted you free produce. Use code BRFUND at checkout to get 50% off your first box of delicious fruits and veggies.

What Happened Next in San Francisco


These are sentences from my notebook from the last 8 months. I’m putting them in their place, shuffling my cards so I can make a new hand.  Two-thirds of a year. I’m not old enough, yet, to count time too closely. But I moved here on purpose. I shifted my storyline with so much intention. I’m curious to find out what happened next.


When the tide goes out at Ocean Beach, I learned in September, the Bay is emptying like a bathtub. We drank beers in the haze and the boys surfed. Don’t get used to this, everyone said. The city steamed in the day but by evening was like the cool side of the pillow. I loved California already for its peaches and plums, stayed up too late baking pluots into pie.

During the heat wave, I saw homeless San Francisco at the San Francisco Public Library, washing in the public restrooms and napping in the corners. I saw startup San Francisco at Uber, eating beet chips in the cafeteria and holding meetings in backlit spaceship chairs. Hayes Valley felt like a chic French village at night and the Mission felt like McAllen’s tough cousin, muscled with murals and garbage. The city smelled like eucalyptus and pot and urine, a city of dreams and dreams deferred or never even dreamt.

Right after I got hired, I pretended I was comfortable holding an old fashioned at a fancy restaurant under the highway in SoMa, asking the Mayor of Charlottesville for his unvarnished stories while picking at a cheese platter. 24th Street was better. Sage, drums, girls in feathered headdresses riding slowly down the street. Hair salons making an extra buck by painting faces. The small of pan de muerto in fluorescent-lit bakeshops where the grandma only speaks Spanish but the grandson prefers English. You’re welcome.

I came back to SF in January to skies that turned pink before rain. I came back to the sunrise cracking over the Transamerica tower, late to work. I came back to weekends golden and liquid. I bought a wetsuit and surfed, noticing when I breathed into the wall of water and stood up, and when I just said shit. I biked up and down Golden Gate and Folsom and Oak. I spoke in meetings. I walked in and out of bodegas and fish shops and Chinese grocery stores. I owned a view of San Francisco from a second-story window. The whole city spread below like a picnic blanket and the Salesforce Tower was a delicious rainbow fish.

“You can see why people stay out here,” my east coast parents said, after a day of riding bikes through the Presidio. We took a ferry across to Alameda like a late-night vaporetto ride in Venice. We ran through Golden Gate Park like it was our New Jersey loop. But we ate in the Outer Sunset and I told them how this city felt like nowhere else, like something I could only build myself.

Spring: the rain that makes everything green, exhilarated. The rain that highlights the homeless. Everyone with a place to go evaporates, and everyone in tents or bus stations is left on misty streets like a soggy paper bag. Spring evenings still felt soft like in high school. Days felt bright and raw and the surf was choppy and the coast south was jagged, new.

It’s baseball season now and I run after work. I run along the Embarcadero, I run past the stadium, I run into electric scooters on the sidewalks. I found a place by the Bay where the water is still and the path peters out like writing you’ve erased. I keep running. I haven’t been here long enough to own anything. From my house, you have to run up a hill in either direction to get a view. Then the sun drops into the Pacific and mist rolls across the mountains in Marin like you made it happen.

From the Archives, More Than Sky

I had heard the story. A woman bought the unfinished framework of a one-story house in a field and started to build it higher and wider. The wind-bleached wood looked like bones against the blue February sky. As she scrambled between the ribs of the top floor she whistled, the neighbors say—continuous whistles, as if she only ever breathed one breath. When the season spread into spring, and then summer, she became quiet. She ran out of songs, one neighbor said, but I bet she just wanted to listen to the heavy hum of cicadas. She bought a harness and belayed herself up and down each of the six outer walls to shingle them with cedar. By the end of the summer she was brown, and her hair had turned blonde. She painted the cedar shingles white. In the autumn, when the frost stiffened the fields, the neighbors didn’t see her anymore. They could hear hammering from inside, and sometimes a drill.

No one else ever touched the house’s bones, they tell me, though when I climb up the stairs years after they say she began it seems incredible. The rooms are complete and smooth. The second floor is made out of windows. There is no furniture. To the right of the staircase, on the third floor, there’s a small hexagonal room. The woman has a low, square table set on top of a Turkish carpet, and stacks of paper, and a jar of yellow pencils. It’s February, and the water in a clear drinking glass is frozen. I look up and notice there’s no ceiling. The woman looks up from a sheaf of lined paper. Such a pleasure, she says, to wake up to that blue sky.

New places


A nap I don’t want to wake up from.  A quiet I don’t want to break. A hum, testing out the sound of my voice under an archway. Wondering why I set an alarm. Wanting to go back to that quiet but wondering, too, if I need to wake up. Wondering if I am awake already anyway.

I'm learning California by smell. Pot and eucalyptus in the dark on my bike ride home. Pine in the Presidio in the morning, oranges midday, fish in the afternoon where the Bay meets the Embarcadero. By sight sometimes I don't believe it. Twin Peaks hovers over Market, resting quietly under the moon. Streets near the Battery still speculate on gold and Bitcoin. Bolinas shelters a girl with long hair and a giant skateboard moving her hips down the hill like she’s dancing.

The House Last Summer

This summer, the last summer I could spend at the house where my grandmother had lived in Massachusetts, I knew that I was moving soon to San Francisco, where maybe the mist would be similar but the water couldn’t be the same. I tried to remember everything that had been in Beverly because I knew that I was moving to build something all mine. I thought it might be something like a future and that I would want some company from the past.

Time at the house has been part past, part present, part future for some time now, at least since Nonna died. There is history in the house itself, which my grandfather rolled on logs from the woods to its position on a rocky point, and there is history on the bookshelves, in Nonna’s scrapbooks and signed first editions, and there is history in the floorboards, which creak with the weight of people who have visited and stayed but don’t live there anymore. The sea off the point is so changing that it demands your presence just to watch. And after swims in that water, we sit around the pockmarked wooden table where my grandfather wrote his thesis and spin out plans for the future.  

This summer, I paid attention to the living room, which is the heart and lungs of the house. I tried to memorize its lines and its objects and its space. Its two walls are mostly windows, floor to ceiling panes that cross over the blue of the sea right outside. What little there remains of actual walls radiates warm gray, the color of the sea on a cloudy day.

In the evening, after her bath, Nonna would close the heavy canvas drapes across those windows – to keep out the bad guys, she’d say – and in the morning, in her nightgown, she would pad across the worn wooden floor to open them. The sea and sky filled so much of the frame, and the sun’s radiation around 7 am was so golden, that it was easy to believe that each day really was a new day, something moving and open for me to hop into.

The low pegged walnut coffee table in the living room used to be covered with small Venetian glass ashtrays and Japanese lacquer coasters, a purse-sized sterling silver perfume vial, and a few engraved cigarette lighters whose fluid had long ago been lit. It was the neatly arranged detritus of interesting friends and late night conversations. On Sundays, we would cover that table with sections of the newspaper, until Nonna had finished the crossword; on Christmas, we would litter it with wrapping paper, blue and green Venini glasses of eggnog, and platters of cheese and crackers and taramasalata, which Nonna would eat with gusto even if some stayed on her upper lip for a few minutes before anyone told her.

There used to be a small wooden sailor’s trunk in the living room, too, a middle eastern spice chest with sharp corners, covered in sharp brass shapes. Everyone walked into it by accident, and that’s how we learned that the grownups cursed. Ellie and I used to build Lego there, count shells and seaglass there, leave piles of books there after Christmas when we’d read in the sun on the blue and white striped couch. The oriental carpet underneath was worn but its colors matched the blue and red silk pillows on the white canvas sofas.

Behind the fireplace, the walls are pickled wood, their color like a picnic table left out to weather. A sign still hangs above the grate in Nonna’s spidery handwriting, which looks to me like school in Venice, like War and Peace, like carefully balanced checkbooks. FLUE IS CLOSED. Open it before lighting.

Next to the fireplace, one wall behind the bookshelf is painted a red that matches the faded sofa cushions. It holds books that came home from Houghton Mifflin with my great-grandmother, an editor – Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a Julia Child first edition, a memoir called Mrs. Marco Polo with an enclosed typewritten letter from the author. We rearranged the shelves a bit after Nonna died and we sold some things. A bust of the my great-grandfather, a poet, watches over a clear hexagonal Venetian glass with a red rim, a conch shell that used to be in the kitchen, and the sense that we have tried to reincarnate this house as it used to be for the few more months that we have it.

On my last night in Beverly this summer, my brother and I walk to the beach to light a fire. I pass through the empty living room. So much is gone already, but there had been so much there to begin with that when I pass through the room I feel its warmth – the sun through sailcloth curtains, the evenings by the fireplace, the library full of Europe and art and the sea. I feel the weight of its loss double.

We walk across the cool grass of the lawn, avoiding the edges of the gravel driveway, and I’m not trying to remember more, but all of a sudden everything is there: every time my sister and I went to the rocks in the morning or twirled on the grass with our neighbors at dusk, every newspaper Dad bought and episode of Jeopardy that Nonna watched in the study with a sweating glass of Scotch; every time we arrived at night to the breeze or I Ieft for Gloucester in the morning to stillness; how we all read here, played cards here, swam here, relished in the breeze and rocks and sunsets; how many identical pictures we took of the sunset from the kitchen.

I want to remember everything right there so I won’t lose it when I can’t come back next summer, and so I go to write it down. One memory unlocks another, then, and I realize that the memories are infinite, that I can leave them tonight and find them for sustenance later.


3,480 Miles West

Lines from the car.

Leaving Fort Worth, Texas

I don't think I'll stop saying y'all, and I will always look for the reggaeton radio station, and the trumpet solo in a mariachi solo will always give me chills. 

Davis Mountain State Park, West Texas

If I were an artist, I would paint the Davis Mountains simply, like a Rothko. I'd scrape undulating lines of blue, green, and purple, blurring the boundaries, adding in only curves. I'd show the painting at a gallery where the only light comes from fireflies. 

El Paso, Texas

The mountains stand sentry over a valley that is neither Mexico nor the United States, just a valley, houses on streets and restaurants with neon signs and tire shops and Target. The border is fluid here, where people work in Juarez and live in El Paso, work in El Paso and live in Juarez. Until Donald Trump promised more deportations, the community trusted the police. 

Somewhere past Santa Fe, New Mexico

The road beyond Santa Fe feels like a shuttle to a place that got forgotten on an American trip to "progress." There's a NASA research stations and there are so many trailer homes. 

The road beyond Santa Fe is called the Paso Real, the royal road. Many small roadside crosses mark its edges, crosses festooned with flowers and grains and faded photographs. Monuments to roadside dead, memorials for unsolved murders of native women and Latino men. Along the Paso Real, a freckled guy in a Walmart parking lot scammed me for cig money, and then there were the most magnificent mountains I've ever seen. 

Boulder, Utah

You turn brown in the canyons of Southern Utah, toasted by the sun and reflective of the red and gold and purple rock. You stand on top of a canyon rim and feel like you're seeing the progression of time. You stand at the bottom of a rock wall with a row of petroglyphs and feel very small. 



Revise and Edit

     I see my flaws more clearly, having taught. I am a natural educator; I was not a natural teacher. My students understood big ideas, or they at least understood how much I wanted them to learn. But teaching isn’t just planning, or thinking, or dreaming; it’s execution. I struggled to become bigger than myself. I learned slowly how to act and put on armor while leaving some soft spot reachable. These kids made me grin, tear up, and feel warm with pride. Their behavior also made me feel more insecure than any adult has ever made me feel. I relished the days when they didn’t touch my sense of self and instead all of me was enveloping them, guiding them, nudging them forward. On those days, my doubt, fear, frustration, insecurities, assumptions, worries didn’t exist. I felt like a teacher and an educator. Other days, sometimes the days where I had my best lesson plans, my coolest projects - all those inhabitants of Pandora’s Box came out clear and ugly anyway. I judged my students, I felt mad, I raised my voice, I judged myself. 

     My essential mistake, early this year, was wanting it all to be easy. My first year teaching had been so hard - 115 ten year olds, a state test on my shoulders, charter school expectations, all in a part of the United States that was, to me, a foreign country - that I just wanted a little space. I just wanted to leave school without my shoulders pinched to my ears in stress. I wanted the time to get to know my students, even though there were 113 of them. I wanted a few moments to pause the lesson and laugh with them. I wanted my days to flow with some calm momentum. 

     But you don’t teach because it’s easy. There's not much of anything that you should do because it's easy. I realize now that I needed to lean into the challenge of this group of kids, crack the code that would harness their strengths. This group of nine- and ten- year olds had some wild energy that shocked the rest of the school when they saw the kids grow into it. Girls who rolled their eyes at teachers. Boys who ran around the cars at drop-off in the early morning when the other kids sat sleepy against the walls of the hallway. But these boys and girls also had an eagerness to debate, a competitive spirit, a desire to push the limits. An experienced teacher would have known to harness that. I didn’t. There were early moments when I yelled instead of listened, sought control instead of respect, over-analyzed my actions but didn’t change them. 

     I had physical barriers, too; starting in September, I had sinus issues that affected my voice, whittling it down to a harsh whisper on some days and a cracked bullhorn on others, until I had surgery in March. But I can’t help but wonder if this broken voice would have mattered if I had started the year leaning into the challenge. Trying to de-escalate, engage, hold accountable. The disconnect between what I did, and what I recognize that I should have done, reminds me that teaching is a craft that takes years to perfect. With another year, I could have revised my style, edited it. 

     By the end of the year, I did find space at school. Not a lot - but some. When all four hours of state testing was over, I got to plan our days with intentions broader than multiple choice questions. I got to set up and see half my kids compete in a social entrepreneurship "shark tank." I got to stop my lesson and laugh with them when someone said something funny. I got to see them take the structure I gave them - find a problem, think of a solution, write a pitch, deliver it - and run, create shooting safety bracelets and litter collection clubs and anti-bullying apps. 

     One of the hardest things about teaching is forgiving the past - reflecting on but not harping on mistakes. The end of the school year invites so many questions that can drag you down. Have I taught my students anything? Have I been strong but kind? Do they feel loved? Your answers could pull you into your next future. The wedge of space I found after state testing made the idea of teaching another year whisper to me - do it.  I saw the things I fixed by the end of the year, and I understood what many circumstances I could not change.  I saw the mistakes I made, and I understand what I could have done better. But I saw, too, that my skill, my privilege, is in being able to connect worlds. To give my students and kids like them a bigger, richer range of opportunities, I can't stay in the classroom. I crave one more year of this thirsty challenge while knowing that it's not quite mine. 

     And so this essay is, in a way, a love letter to the teachers returning to the classroom. Cultivate that grit you want your students to have. Lean into the challenge. Revise, and then edit; reflect year after year on what you could do better, and then go back there and do it.

The Letter I Left

My dear Champion Readers,

            You’ve made it! You are at the end of your fourth grade year, and you’re a full 180 days smarter, kinder, funnier, and better at flipping water bottles (JK. I know none of you ever do that, right?). You’ve learned the stories of real-life heroes (MLK, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez) and fictional role models (Auggie Pullman, Matilda, Stanley Yelnats). We’ve also talked a lot, this year, about our voices. Not just our voice levels in class or in the hallway, but our words and opinions, what we say and why it matters.

            Some of you have grabbed the idea and run. You have investigated election issues and shared your suggestions. You have come to me at recess because you think something at school is unfair. You have shared with me your own ideas and worries about the news. Others of you have been less sure that you, ten year olds, need to learn and express your opinions about current events. We wrote letters to Governor Abbott about the border wall, which sits 3 miles from school. A few of you stared at your papers.

            “We’re too young for this, Miss!” you yelled.

            If you remember one thing from this whole year, I want it to be that you’re not too young. You’re not too young to learn how your country works. You’re not too young to learn what’s going on in our country and in our world. You’re not too young to build an app or start a Minitropolis business. You’re not too young to express your opinions to me and you’re not too young to learn how to do it respectfully. And you’re not too young to try to understand the opinions of others, especially when grownups in our country need some help doing the same thing.

            Remember the water bottle? How it looked different when we looked at it from different sides of the classroom? Your perspective changes what you see or understand. I want you to understand that you have a unique perspective. Many of you have two countries. You wake up and go to sleep in Mexico, but you spend your day in the United States. For you, alla, over there, means across the border. (For me, when I was ten, it meant across the room). You speak two languages so fluently that sometimes you forget which is which. You live in a place where speaking Spanish and eating menudo on Sunday is American. Our whole country is wondering right now: what does American mean? Your voices would add a lot of ideas to that discussion. You might persuade some people to change their minds.

            You know that champion readers read a little and write a little. They circle key words. They use their strategies on multiple-choice questions. But the most important thing that good readers do is listen. They read the author’s words carefully, and then they respond to add their own voices to the discussion. I’m curious to know what you think about all this. I will be listening.

            Even though I am leaving Pharr, I am not leaving you. I will always, always be available for anything that you need. You better stay in touch! Send me pictures, stories, questions; send me ideas and worries and funny thoughts. You all have taught me so much this year. I can’t wait to keep learning from you.


                                                            Ms. P


     In March, I bought a plant from a local nursery. It had a ruffled rainbow of flowers - red, orange, yellow, and pink - sprouting from one root system, colors nestled between brown and green succulent leaves. It's a native plant, the farmer told me; doesn't need much water, can withstand sun and heat. Nevertheless, a few weeks after I brought it home, I thought I had killed it. The first flowers fell; news ones still hadn't sprouted. I left it outside on our patio as April brought 90, 100, 105 degree days.

     The heat has been rising; the past month or so has been testing season, five weeks of bootcamp for teachers and students alike. We're preparing for the state tests that determine our school's rating and our district's money and our students' passing to the next grade. Despite the stress of these tests, the preparation period can bring amazing gains. You figure out how to push things. You have no time to waste so classes become urgent, efficient, joyfully competitive, even just joyful on the best days. I've found trackers to be an essential tool for guiding and encouraging student achievement. I track my kids' growth, their behavior points on ClassDojo, and their percent passing by class and post it in real time on a big scoreboard in the middle of the classroom. They come into class fired up to beat the class before them and shriek with excitement if they win. On their own, they track their daily exit tickets, their weekly tests, the number of words that they've read, and whether or not they've completed their in-class assignments. The last is my favorite tracker. If they finish their work, I give them a sticker on a star for that day. I want them to know that effort, above all, is rewarded. On Fridays, a sticker on all five stars means ice cream and extra playground time. Just two children have left trackers incomplete over the past month. As a grade, our reading scores, which were low in March, have improved by one measure by 20%.

     But man, a month is a long time to be tracking a child's every move. A month is a long time to read nothing but test passages, no matter how many rounds of jeopardy or "prove it" we play. A month is a long time to quantify learning, to put percentages on understanding, to calculate comprehension to the decimal. The kids were dragging this week. I was dragging this week. Then I made a mistake. I forgot to make this week's copy of the star trackers for completed work. So I scrambled. I gave them blank paper and planned to plop the stickers down. But in a fourth grade classroom, paper isn't blank for long. They started sketching and doodling on the sly, in between multiple choice questions. Some drew their own five stars; I started seeing hearts, triangles, emojis, Gatorade signs, basketballs, trolls. Today, there were full-color envelopes with bubble-letter names and a zoo of different animals, each with a designated circle for the sticker. In my last of four classes, as I prepared to review the same story for the fourth time of the day, I marveled at the creativity sticking out from under black and white testing packets. 

     And just like that, I came home to find my little plant blooming again on the patio, a pink, a red, and an orange flower under leaves I thought had already shriveled dry. 

On a Bus

(From May 2016, edited)

     On the screens of their smartphones, their faces appear small, mostly wide brown eyes. They filter their faces with Snapchat and giggle when they add dog ears and wagging tongues. They smile broadly for selfies. They spend hours making music videos with an app called Musically. Somehow they’ve learned a language of hand motions and face gestures and that come together in a fluid particular dance, slightly different for each song but tailored to a cellphone screen. Their favorite goes like this: Hola como esta, she said konichi wa, she said pardon my French, da da da da da da. Each video that they film zooms around the bus on the other girls’ cellphones and they squeal with delight. There’s nothing sexy about these dances, but it’s them on the screens, ten and eleven years old, open to the world.

      We’re on a charter bus on our way back from a field trip to San Antonio, four hours away from home. Their faces against the seat cushions are flushed with sun and exhaustion. Their dark hair curls from sweat, from splashed water, from the spray of the water park. They re-braid each other’s hair and eat their hamburgers contentedly. The evening calm erupts when J. calls N. to tell her he loves her. (M. had already bought E. a stuffed animal Shamu). The phone gets passed around, different girls pretending they’re N. She takes a turn and calls back, pretending to be a pizza delivery man. How did you know it was me? She cries, when the gig is up.  

     When night falls around the bus, they ask us about boyfriends. Miss L. and I see an opening. Who sees these Musically videos? we ask. The app is also a social network. Just our friends, they chirp, but for the first time in my life I feel like my parents might have felt, like they might still feel – the girls are hiding the truth to protect me. F., tall already, long eyelashes already, a boyfriend already, still says with surprise – but Miss, sometimes random guys message you. It strikes me how much of what they do now, as children, is the creation of image. You might call it dress up, but their mirror is not just the one in their mom’s bedroom. The world that watches their reflection, beamed through cell networks and wireless, doesn’t see their innocence.

Two Kids


1. Jacopo*

Last year, Jacopo took great pleasure in running into homeroom during silent breakfast and cackling. He was a boulder thrown into the still pond of any classroom - not just ripples, but waves of disruption. He liked to joke around and throw pieces of eraser. I don’t know if he ever finished his work in my class. He told me I was unfair and mean regularly. “Usted es fea” he said in April. "You’re ugly" - a cherry on top. 

Every three months or so, we had a moment. “Can we do a project on the solar system, miss?” he asked me in October. He settled happily for making paper cranes when I could fit it into our district lesson plans. In January, he helped me build a complicated cardboard storage shelf. Somehow, on the last day of school, he gave me a hug, and this year he asked to join the fitness club I started. 

When I think of the growth that a child undergoes between 4th and 5th grade, I think of Jacopo. My view might be different because I don’t have him in class every day - but I don’t see him cackling in the halls. Instead, he has started channeling his enormous energy. He cheers for our slowest runners. He ran an extra lap around the school on Thursday. Yesterday, at our race, he told me, “I can win!” He didn’t win, but I saw him from across the park, pushing himself to sprint across the finish line. He might still yell when he’s standing next to you but he’ll look sheepish if you remind him to turn it down. His energy, once frenetic, has become happy. 

His family is from Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His dad runs a construction crew here. When I asked the kids yesterday where they would want to live if they could choose anywhere, he said Mexico. “There are a lot of kids over there who don’t have a lot of things,” he said. “I want to help make their lives better. I want to build a school.”

2. Julian*

Julian gave me some mean, mean looks last year. Talking with him when he acted out in class was like ramming into a hot metal wall over and over and over again. He shut me down every time with an imperious “No.” I didn’t know how to avoid power struggles, and this was a kid who would take power wherever he could find it. He’s chubby, doesn’t play soccer, never had new sneakers; when his mom invited me for his sister’s birthday, he showed me where they played, unearthing garbage from a dirt mound. 

His enthusiasm makes things happen. He was one of the first to sign up for the fitness club and brought 3 friends with him. He runs with a small smile around his lips, pushing round cheeks rounder. 

At the race this weekend, he started off sprinting, lost his breath, walked. Sprinted, lost his breath, walked. I walked with him most of the way, reminding him to breathe, encouraging him to jog slowly so he he could jog for longer. But it didn’t seem to bother him that most of his friends had already finished as we were starting the second loop. “I overheard this mom telling her son, it’s not hard, it’s a challenge,” he said. “So that’s what I’m telling myself.” I have a photo of him at the finish line, glowing brighter than the orange balloons in morning sunlight. When we got on the bus, he immediately told everyone what he had heard. “I thought you guys should know,” he said. “It’s not hard, it’s a challenge!”

I can’t wait for his next race. The small smile around his lips when he runs will just get bigger and bigger.  

*Names have been changed. 

Negotiating the Border

On Saturday, I'll be taking my running club to a race in Edinburg, a town 30 minutes north of our school. The race is at another school in our charter network and I had imagined that students' parents could drive them. For five kids, who play on club soccer teams that travel around Texas, that was no big deal. For three of them, it caused some concern.

"Will there be a bus, miss?"  

Amanda's* mom lives in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. Amanda normally spends school nights with her aunt in Pharr but likes to go home on the weekends. Two other students live in Reynosa. Their parents drive them to the border bridge and drop them off on the Mexican side. They walk alone through the turnstiles and to an AutoZone across the street, where a school bus picks them up.

"Oh, it's ok, I'm normally with my cousins," Sofia* says. 

Walls and borders are a daily concern here. We can't see the wall from school, but I'd see it on my drive to work last year. Before sunrise, migrant workers picked lettuce or berries or tomatoes on the ranches around Military Highway. They lined their pickup trucks on the field with headlights shining south to the wall. It looks frightening but fragile from far away, a row of sharpened pickup sticks. 

This NYT article does a beautiful job of telling stories that unfold around, over, and under the border wall further west, in Arizona:

In Nogales, there’s a short stretch of border where the fence turns into a metal grille. At sundown one evening we watched as two women faced each other across the border, touched fingers through the grille, and wept. 

We managed to get a bus that will leave from school on Saturday. I hope all of my kids can get there. 

Poems on Words

At the beginning of May, our TFA training included an assignment to write a poem about the words we hear and use and want at school. We were forty first-year teachers almost finished with that first year and the forms our poems took were varied but so connected. You could hear the day 171 knowledge vibrating with regret at knowledge we didn't have day 1; you could hear the curse words our kids cautiously test out and the swears we drop over dinner; you could hear the humor and the hubris and the hope for next year when maybe just maybe we can use words a little bit better and take our kids a little bit farther. 

40-some of us read - only one sent me theirs (and a few OWE ME THEIRS ahem - email me and I'll add 'em), but I wanted to post them here because I felt they captured the rhythm of days here better than I could write. Having all forty would be best but two will have to do -  

(This is the first time I've posted a poem in a public place since I contributed to a, um, poetry blog during my freshman year of high school. I'm so sorry (*relieved) to inform you that the site is gone and you will not be able to read my free verse teenage angst). 

Poema de la Lengua

"Te la bañaste” - wide eyes

“Pinche negro” - blindly and smoothly said.  

“Ok, so does it mean…” - correct but unsure

“ahorita lo ago”- now


“Diache, y con jabon!” - low eyes

“not in my room” - slim stare, mountain voice

“hm, but you do know...” - soft eyes, cuddle voice, comfort pose

“ahorita lo ago” - later.


hope stands right with the water

still with no touch, splashed with the pressure 

speaks with different voices

the same words of patience.

-----Jogene Castillo -----



Miss, miss, I hear 

them saying, sometimes in 

my dreams, sometimes in 

the half sleep after

the alarm goes off and before

I drive to them again. 

Meess, meeeeeesss, Omar says - 

"Can I help today?" in English when

he's rested but

"Nombre porqueeeeee?!" in Spanish when

he's sad,

sharper but more 


I'd like to talk with

them about

books in 



Comparing and contrasting? They asked,

What's that ?

(Face palm, two days

before STAAR). Bueno, dije yo - 

Think of contrast as contra, and comparing as 

tu compadre - and a lightbulb went off, 

illuminating two worlds. 


Thank you, Miss, round-faced Nahomi says

on the way out the door. Thank you,

Miss Parker, Nickolas says, and when

those words

come out crisp I think  how

my name is unusual

here. My name is 

unusual and my tongue is

unusual, capable of 2 and 3 worlds despite my 

skin but too soft, still, too polite. I've

untamed and unteased it, tried to 

toughen my tone and tighten my words. 

They listen; I laugh; but still I

breathe most

freely when I can speak my age, let long words 

and swear words spill and 

roll across a dinner table,



There must be a middle ground, a 

frontera where I speak to children like

grownups and give them

the words they need, in

both tongues, for

both worlds. 

Around the Valley, Rain

Found words from October - 


The sun here beats so strong that my students sometimes don't even want to have recess. It's too strong to think or play - all you feel is heat. When it rains, a different place descends, calm and cool and reflective. Green shoots come up and the next day, it seems, they're ready to be harvested as cotton, corn, soy, sugarcane. Our backyard has sprouted bananas and avocados. The citrus is coming. 

It rained yesterday. I woke up at friends' house in Harlingen, a city known in the Valley for having the most white people and the most Winter Texans, retirees who come south for the winter (we spent Friday night at a soda bar watching 50 year men in bandanas play the blues). Saturday morning can be sleep or work in coffee shops - but we, Northeast transplants, chased the thought of a city. We drove to Brownsville because it promised buses and parking meters. 

Every city in this Valley has its own distinct feel. Brownsville moves at the pace of the slow-flowing Rio Grande. Coming into the city, if you forget to turn right on Washington Street, you'll end up in Mexico. When we arrived, we wandered slowly, lazily down sidewalks. We gloried in the paired luxuries of walking and accidental human contact. It began to rain and huddling under an awning watching steam rising from those rich sidewalks brought the smell of cities far away. 

In the late afternoon, I drove back to Weslaco. Brownsville is gritty wet sidewalks - Weslaco is a new housing development still tickled by the warmth of bordering fields.  I went to the bridal shower of a 3rd grade teacher at my school. We played wedding bingo and spoke Spanglish and ate small plastic plates heaped with desserts - cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, a mandarin cake the school nurse had baked for the occasion. I did my grocery shopping on a sugar high and by the time I was driving home, along the local highway, the clouds were over town.

When I got home it started thundering, then drizzling, then raining, that all-out downpour that makes this Valley one of the most fertile in the country. My roommate and I went for a walk at dusk around the citrus groves and marveled at the smell of new dirt.