“The New York-based Justice Mapping Center has been providing those kinds of visuals for more than a decade. By mapping the residential addresses of every inmate in various prison systems, the center has made vividly clear a concept it calls "million-dollar blocks” — areas where more than $1 million is being spent annually to incarcerate the residents of a single census block.“

As reported by NPR.

I live about 10 blocks south of the largest red chunk in Bed-Stuy.  My zip code is expensive for all the wrong reasons.

Estimating the number of census blocks within the tall red chunk (3?), in 2009, between $3-10 million USD got spent on incarcerating my neighbors.  Imagine all the better places that $3-10 million could go.  How many foreclosed homes, community gardens, schools, small businesses, and salaries that could have contributed to instead?

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent.

—  Nicholas Kristof in the NYT.

What do we call it when people in low-income communities ask questions, participate in decisions and hold decision-makers accountable in their ordinary encounters with public and publicly-funded institutions such as their children’s public school, the welfare office, job training program, Medicaid-funded health care service, and public housing?

All those public sites are actually outposts of democracy that exist only because of decisions made further up the democratic decision-making chain. The outposts are already considered as public terrain. They could also become democratic terrain. But that depends on what happens there.

—  “Microdemocracy”, from the Right Question Institute.

The third iteration of the Social Security Card guide I’ve been working on.

Download the full PDF here

Features I introduced:

  • A name!  Get Set #1 is for social security guides. Get Set #2 – when I get there, will be NY state-issued ID.
  • Color wayfinding system
  • Added a chapter for birth certificates
  • Rearranged 35 pages of content so that you can only skip forward in the guide.
  • A “what to expect” section for each stage of the process, which includes expected wait time and cost to get documents.
  • Getting reminders about your personal checklist texted to you.
  • The possibility of scheduled trips, from potential partner organizations or between friends, to application sites.

Features I kept from previous prototypes:

  • A choose your own adventure approach to teaching applicants what they need to bring and do to apply for a social security card
  • Personalized checklists of necessary documents and to-do’s based on your situation.
  • As little jargon as possible in the copy.
  • Pictures

My next prototype will be print guides and SMS-based reminders for Reconnect volunteers and crew members to use to navigate the process of getting government identification. Sketched out on the left page is a version of the experience I plotted out last week.

On the right, is how a specific quests like getting a social security card, fits into the broader Reconnect program. Drawing from the needs and motivations of Reconnect crew members, I sketched out 4 main missions, made up of quests:

  • Bank Missions (Getting your shit together): These are pragmatic and tactical quests to get government identification, learn basic financial literacy and accounting, and establish financially responsible behaviors
  • Peace Missions (Chill the fuck out): These activities guide the practice of conflict resolution, personal accountability, interpersonal communication, and emotional resilience skills.
  • Discovery Missions (Check out what’s out there): Reconnect crew members have had little exposure to possible futures. These missions encourage them to shadow professionals and entrepreneurs, reflect on their own interests, and connect with resources to help plan their next educational goals.
  • Make Missions (Get your hands dirty): At the end of the day, Reconnect is a cafe that relies on the quality of its product and its customer service to stay open. These missions train crew members with tangible creative skills: baking, barista-ing, and producing digital media.

Obviously any of these mission areas are a lot to take on for the remaining 8 weeks of thesis that I have. I plan to focus on designing one question within one mission well, while giving Reconnect stakeholders the tools and framework to set up future quests.


Mapping out the shortest and longest paths to getting a social security card.


  • For US citizens, the shortest amount of time to get a social security card is 1-2 days. This is if you show up at the office with a current ID to replace your card.
  • The longest amount of time to get a social security card is 3-4 months. This is for US citizens without a current photo ID and an original version of their birth certificate, who have to go through long alternative processes to get a birth certificate and verify their identity through a certified medical record.
  • Some information is necessary for several steps. Lists of free legal services, and examples of valid ID to bring could live as reference pages in a print or interactive guide.
  • It’s quite difficult to tell how long each step takes, whether it involves showing up in person, and how much documents cost, but these are all pieces of information that are very important to an applicant.
  • Showing someone how far along they are during the process and what to expect next is key to improving the current experience.

This week, I’m focusing on designing a service that helps people navigate the byzantine system of getting state-issued ID documents (photo IDs, birth certificates, and social security cards), inspired by my 5 hour wild goose chase across Brooklyn helping a Reconnect crew member replace his social security card.

I knew that not having a state-issued photo ID was a barrier to applying for Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, which is a job training program Reconnect is currently transitioning its crew into. Above is a list from, showing all the other, arguably fundamentally necessary, services for which a state-issued ID is required.

Long story short, getting a current state-issued ID unlocks a lot of doors.


A brief field trip into the future of identification systems

Top and middle photo: US soldiers in Afghanistan scanning the irises and fingerprints of Afghan civilians. See: neo-colonialism. See also: the white male gaze. See also also: the NOVA article I lifted these photos from, which describes biometrics as: “sufficiently advanced to be almost unremarkable. ”

Bottom photo: India has implemented a national ID system called Aadhaar. The prime objective of Aadhaar is to provide Indians with a lifetime digital identity which is verifiable instantly with biometrics, in a paperless way. Each person that is enrolled is assigned a unique 12-digit identifier, called the Aadhaar number, has their biometric information scanned (fingerprints, photo of their face, and iris images) and demographic information recorded. All of this information is digitized, and is stored in a centralized database. At its current rate, 1.25 billion people in India will be enrolled in the Aadhaar system by December 2015, rendering it the largest centralized database of biometric information, ever. Indian newspapers report that the system is not without error – thousands of people have reported receiving IDs with pictures of trees or dogs in place of their own. 


Lastly, I stumbled onto a 2011 report called the Future of Identity, for the UK Government’s Office for Science, by Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at Oxford. He explores the consequences of identification given advances in neuroscience, genetics, surveillance, and personalized health.


“Identity-less people have no formal identity or rely on identities that are not widely recognized. This group includes illegal immigrants, the homeless, and people with no identity documents. Since access to many social functions requires stating an identity, such people are excluded or are forced to rely on others to provide access (and hence become vulnerable to the demands of these gatekeepers).

Gaining the necessary social identity tokens (a phone number, an address, an email address) often requires demonstrating other identity tokens: bootstrapping a legal and social identity is a major project." 

"Having a personal identity – being someone, with a past and a future – and having a set of social identities – being someone to other people – is an important part of the human condition. Limitations to this ability are fearsome threats to most people. It can be argued that our fear of death is actually a fear of identity loss. Many people regard as the worst part of Alzheimer’s disease the gradual loss of narrative identity of the sufferer. Loss of reputation has motivated people to murder and suicide. People are willing to undergo major trials – whether participating in Big Brother on TV, study for a Ph.D., or undergo gender reassignment surgery - in order to gain an identity that is meaningful to them. 

Future technology is unlikely to change this over the next 15 years. Even with truly radical future technologies it is unlikely that humans will want to use them if they involve unwanted changes to their identity. Instead, people will be interested in technologies they think will enhance their identities: broaden their social network and burnish their reputations, amplify personality traits they feel are valuable, and allow them to do things they consider to be expressive of their “true selves”.

Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased. As in Jobs’ Stanford speech, unlovable but socially necessary work is banished from the spectrum of consciousness altogether.

Yet arduous, low-wage work is what ever more Americans do and will be doing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two fastest-growing occupations projected until 2020 are “Personal Care Aide” and “Home Care Aide,” with average salaries of $19,640 per year and $20,560 per year in 2010, respectively. Elevating certain types of professions to something worthy of love necessarily denigrates the labor of those who do unglamorous work that keeps society functioning, especially the crucial work of caregivers.


A lot of the Reconnect crew transitions into other types of arduous, low wage work: construction, fast food, other barista gigs. Similarly, many existing skill-building programs out there graduate people into repetitive and undistinguished work. Is the question I am tackling, “How might we make ‘repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished’ work better paying, more secure, and more respected?” Or is it, “How might we improve access to 'creative, intellectual, socially prestigious’ work to people with less privilege?”

Or, is it a privilege to be thinking about this at all, and instead, should I stay focused on connecting the Reconnect crew to any secure job at all?

“ ‘Do what you love. disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and cosign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can self-righteously bestow DO WHAT YOU LOVE as career advice to those covetous of her success.

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores?

The answer is: nothing.”

—  A scathing critique of the work mantra, “Do what you love,” by Miya Tokumitsu of Jacobin Magazine.

I told at least three different people at a party this weekend about my thesis direction, and felt good about it, which means that I’m ready to blog about it.

Over the next 7 months, I will improve safety nets – institutional, financial, or social.  Over the next 2-3 weeks, I will explore opportunities to lower barriers of access to existing ones, or create new ways for communities to share existing resources with members in need.

Three possible directions:

  1. Continue my promising research with Reconnect Cafe, and create a replicable model for employing, educating, and mentoring young men from disadvantaged neighborhoods.
  2. Creating a service to share caregiving tasks between neighbors, or a similar tool that would benefit senior villages / people aging in place.  This expands upon a caregiving concept I developed for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
  3. Improving tools for “locavesting” / “citizen finance” – facilitating community investment in local small businesses.  This is the fuzziest direction as I’ve yet to dive into books or orgs.

Following up with thesis advice from Jerri Chou yesterday, today I sat down and sketched different identities Reconnect crew members have, and measurable or tangible characteristics that define each identity.

I’m interested in this question: how could the Reconnect program build up a crew member’s identity as a whole, beyond my current tactical focus of getting official government identification?

I mapped identities by brainstorming how crew members are seen and measured by:

  • Themselves
  • Other crew members
  • Their employer / future employers
  • Their friends and family
  • People in their neighborhood 
  • Government institutions

In yellow, I highlighted characteristics that came up in more than one sector.  In red, I circled characteristics that crew members have told or implied to me are important to them. In black, I underlined characteristics that their employer has deemed important to acquire.

My teachers were telling me I was capable of more than I thought, and making it clear their expectations were very high. That was disorienting. I’d never had any context for interacting with people who treated me like that. But the studio gave me the context, the clay gave me the context. Eventually I saw that all the kids in the class…had moved beyond the superficial characteristics that made them different, and were relating to each other as artists through the creative work they were doing. When I started working, I shared that rapport.

Suddenly I had something to talk to them about; differences became unimportant, as the art became a bridge that led me out of my narrow experience and opened up my world.“

—  A former student of Bill Strickland’s high school ceramic program at Manchester Craftmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, on finding a common identity and language through art.
You cure poverty by understanding that poor folks are human beings before they are “poor,” and by providing them with access to the fundamental spiritual nourishment every human heart requires: beauty, order, purpose, opportunity – the things that give us meaningful human existence.
—  Bill Strickland, founder of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell job training center,  in the book he wrote about his journey, Make the Impossible Possible.
Maybe it would be easier to navigate the dissolving boundaries between public and private spaces if we all had a variety of names with which to signal the aspects of ourselves currently on display. And maybe we should remember that our first glimpse of a person is just one small piece of who they really are.
—  NYT Op-ed by Stoya, adult film performer and freelance writer.