We’re All In This Together

18 05 2018

Today I’m completing the second year in the M.Div Program at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary. My second year of field study at the Humanist Hub is drawing to a close for the academic year. Because of the contextual education model, I have learned more about leadership development in two years of divinity school than I did in two years of business school.

The Humanist Hub is  a community of atheists, agnostics and allies. Non-theists, empiricists and religious naturalists. We were founded as a Harvard University chaplaincy that also spoke to the world. We became a community of town and gown and world. And now that our Executive Director, Greg Epstein, serves as Humanist Chaplain of both Harvard and MIT, our gown is of many colors. Pale blue, like our pale blue dot. And Harvard’s crimson. AND MIT’s cardinal and grey.

As student minister, working directly under Greg’s supervision, I’ve had an inside view of how we serve the Hub mission. All my work with Greg and our community seems to revolve around some kind of leadership development.

Leadership development is the common denominator of everything we do:

  • In community, we educate each other on how to lead our best lives and create containers where we can connect with like minded people, act together to make the world a better place, and evolve as human beings.
  • Through our outreach to the media we educate the leaders of today.
  • Through our work with university students, we educate the leaders of tomorrow.
  • And we also educate aspirants to secular humanist ministry, like me.

I want to share the key learning from my two years under Greg’s mentorship. There is no one right way to do humanism.  “Humanisms,” he says, “Humanisms.”

The Humanist Manifesto is a guideline.  Humanism, like aloha, is practiced in community.  With other people. The people you don’t necessarily agree with.  Because we’re all people.  And this makes humanism intrinsically messy.  Like life.

Sometimes I really want to take sides.  The year I entered the Sloan School of Management at MIT, for example, MIT hackers blew up the 50 yard line of the Harvard-Yale game. There was an explosion, and a large weather balloon floated up out of nowhere, painted with the MIT logo. Many of us thought it was awesome. But other people were super irritated with MIT.

When I return to the Humanist Hub in the fall, I’ll begin my third year of field study right on the MIT campus. Only one thing is certain. It is going to involve leadership development. And there is no one right way for this to happen. In my own ministerial formation, Greg has encouraged me to work with all the humanist organizations.

Meadville Lombard is the epicenter of religious humanism. I am also enrolled in the Secular Humanist Studies program of the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education. A dean of the American Ethical Union serves as a member of my Internship Committee. I learn from the religious humanists at First Parish in Cambridge. I learn from the student leaders of the Secular Society of MIT and from the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics and agnostics. From the Greater Boston Humanists.  And of course, from my Hawaiʻi ohana.

But most of all, I have learned from the Humanist Hub community leaders.  I have worked on mutual leadership development with the Internship Committee, and the Committee on Humanist Celebrations.  And I’ve watched the development of the leaders of the Discussion Groups, the Values In Action Committee, the Ambassadors, and the Healthy Humanists.  I’ve learned not to judge myself by how messy my ministerial formation feels at any given point in time. We must all find this patience with ourselves and others as our lives unfold. We are ALL developing our ability to lead lives of good both individually and in community.

Where do we go from here?  Greg always reminds me that there is no one right way to do humanism.  No one size that will fit all.  But we’re all here together on the pale blue dot. We are the ones making meaning of our lives. We are the ones creating the organizations and institutions that shape our society. So, however we’re doing our various humanisms, we’re all in the human project together. Whether we are people of faith or people are no faith, we’re all in this together.  May we find the eyes to see our interdependence.  Aloha!


Protest Songs for Science Marchers

22 04 2017

Preparing for the Boston March for Science, members of the community put together a some protest songs for science marchers. This video is the unofficial anthem, STAND UP FOR SCIENCE (#11 below), composed by Dr. Thomas Michel.

For participants in #ScienceMarch and #ClimateMarch, sharing new lyrics*
by Amber Houghstow, Nina Lytton, and Adam Hasz
or others as indicated below.

Here’s a PDF of the March for Science Songbook

#MarchForScience and enjoy the day!


1) The Tide Is Rising

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman
and Yotam Schachter

G                                         D

The tide is rising, and so are we!

D              C                        D

The tide is rising, and so are we!

G                                          D

The tide is rising, and so are we!


D        Am                             Bm

This is where we are called to be,

Bm       C                D            G

This is where we are called to be!


Science Verses* (each 3x)

The task is mighty, and so are we!

The facts speak boldly, and so do we!

The truth shines brightly, & so do we!

The world is ready, and so are we!


2) Keep on Moving Forward

Pat Humphries

Gonna keep on moving forward

                                              Clap,clap,clap. Clap,clap

Keep on moving forward

                                              Clap,clap,clap. Clap,clap

Keep on moving forward

                                              Clap,clap,clap. Clap,clap


Never turning back

Never turning back

Science Verses* (with clapping)

Gonna stand and sing for science

Stand and sing for science (2x)

Gonna keep on doing research

Keep on doing research (2x)

Yes, all of us together

All of us together (2x)

Gonna face those facts together

Face those facts together (2x)

Gonna keep on moving forward

Keep on moving forward (2x)


3) Singing for Our Lives

Holly Near

We are an introverted people  ;->


And we are singing, singing for our lives!

Science Verses*

We are a research-loving people

We respect the laws of nature

Our research defends our country


Original Verses

We are a justice-seeking people

We are young and old together

We are a land of many colors

We are gay and straight together

We are a gentle, loving people

4) Michael Row the Boat Ashore


Michael row the boat ashore



Science Verses*

Michael’s boat is a science boat

Michael’s boat is for everyone

Learn and share the facts freely

We’re in this boat with all of you

Rowing toward a more just land

Where scientists take a moral stand

Keeping air and water clean

Science protects you and me


5) Revolution in You

Adapted from SGI-USA Student Divisio

Close your eyes

And imagine your home.
Walls and pictures

Of people you know.
Well the world is my home,

So your house is mine too.
And if you look to the heart,

These words will ring true.

Chorus A:
Time to say goodbye to the fear within you
It’s what you do, a Revolution in you!
Aim to change yourself,
And trust that I will, too!
It’s what we have to do
If you only believe

In the things that we don’t share,

Then you’ll only see a people without care!

If you only believe in the things we don’t share,

Then the future will be a world without us there.

Chorus B
Take my hand; put down your arms
You can change the world
No matter who you are.
Determination takes hold of resignation!
Come and join us in a global transformation!
Cause if you really believe

That the world is ours to share.

And you really respect

The hearts of everyone there.

Cause if you really believe

That the world is ours to share.

Then believe me you’ll see

A world with less despair!


Chorus B

Chorus A


6) The Same Thing

Rachel Schragis

Oo wah oo, wa oo, wa oo (2X)

There are some places I’ve been

That you have not been to
There are some places I’ve been

That you have been to too
There are some places you’ve been

That I have not been to
There are some places that we

Have not been to yet.
There is one question
With a thousand answers
Or perhaps only one answer
To a thousand things to ask
But hey, don’t you know,
There’s no need to feel dejected
All of our grievances
Are connected

Oo wah oo, wa oo, wa oo (2X)
Everywhere I go

I see a different situation,

But everywhere I go

I see the same thing.

Everywhere we are

We see a different situation,

But everywhere we are

We know the same thing.

7) People Gonna Rise


The People gonna rise with the water,
We gonna calm this crisis down,
Hear the voice of my great grandaughter,

Singing ‘Science Funding Now!’

Singing ‘Climate Justice Now!’


8) Down by the Riverside

Adapted from traditional*

Gonna come outside of my lab

Down by the riverside (3x)

Gonna lay down my sword and shield

Down by the riverside

Be silenced no more


Chorus (2x):

Ain’t gonna be silenced no more,
Ain’t gonna be silenced no more,
Ain’t gonna be “fake news” no more!

Gonna shake hands around the world

Down by the riverside (3x)

Gonna shake hands around the world

Be silenced no more.

Chorus (2x)

Gonna stand up for my research

Down by the riverside (3x)

Gonna stand up for my research

Be silenced no more.

Chorus (2x)

Gonna lay down my fear and hate

Down by the riverside (3x)

Gonna lay down my fear and hate

Be silenced no more.

Chorus (2x)

Gonna put on my starry crown

Down by the riverside (3x)

Gonna put on my starry crown

Be silenced no more.

Chorus (2x)

9) When I’m Gone  

Phil Ochs

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be running from the rain when I’m gone
And I can’t even suffer from the pain when I’m gone
Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

All my days won’t be dances of delight when I’m gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I’m gone
Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.


10) If I Had a Theory

To the tune of If I Had a Hammer by Lee Hays & Pete Seeger
New Lyrics: Elizabeth Weinbloom, Claire Paulson, Andrew Ross and Jeremy Simon,
on behalf of Vocal Opposition.

If I had a theory

I’d test it in the morning

I’d test it in the evening

All over this lab

I’d test out danger

I’d test out a warning

I’d test out love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this lab

If I had some data

I’d plot it in the morning

I’d plot it in the evening

All over this lab

I’d plot out danger

I’d plot out a warning

I’d plot out love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this lab

If I had funding

I’d publish in the morning

I’d publish in the evening

All over this lab

I’d publish danger

I’d publish a warning

I’d publish love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this lab

Well, I’ve got a theory

And I’ve got data

And I’ve got the funds to test

It all in this lab!

It’s the theory of knowledge

It’s the light of reason

It’s a song about truth for all

My brothers and my sisters

All over this land

It’s the theory of knowledge

It’s the light of reason

It’s a song about truth for all my brothers and my sisters

All over this land


11) Stand Up for Science

To the tune of This Land is Your Land by Woodie Guthrie
New Lyrics: Dr. Thomas Michel

Stand up for science

No time for silence!

The cure for cancer-

We need an answer.

Hear our entreaties,

Cure diabetes.

Science is good for you and me!

For global warming,

The facts come swarming.

Climate denial-

It’s suicidal!

You might deny it-

We just don’t buy it.

Science is good for you and me.

Don’t de-fund science-

Join our alliance!

New forms of energy-

It’s time for synergy.

To protect our planet,

Science- don’t ban it!!!

Science is good for you and me!

You huddled masses-

Come take our classes.

If you are yearning-

Come here for learning.

And after college-

Please share your knowledge.

Science is good for you and me!

Our Muslim brothers,

Sisters and others:

We stand beside you

And won’t deride you

Banned immigration-

Bad for our nation

Science is good for you and me!

Healthcare is our right,

For which we must fight.

Our vision’s global

Our cause is noble.

It’s our insistence-

Join the resistance!

Science is good for you and me.


How Can Liberal Religious Educators Support the March for Science?

22 03 2017

In this age of divisive rhetoric, the need for collaborative work between groups from different faith traditions to heal ailing society is indeed growing stronger every day. Words and deeds of the 45th Republican administration have already got the Humanists, UUs and the Christian Left mobilized.

But consider the religious naturalists. These wild lilies may or may not be found in any church or humanist organization. They may or may not spin their stories or clothe their mission in the language of theism. But they are nevertheless engaged in deeply religious work.  In the words of Sophia Fahs, “life becomes religious whenever you make it so.”

For example, on November 29, 2016, MIT professors published a statement recommitting to shared values at the core of the university’s mission: rejecting every form of bigotry, discrimination and hateful rhetoric and action; endorsing open, respectful discourse of ideas from the widest variety of intellectual, religious, class, cultural and political perspectives; and upholding the principles of the scientific method, of fact- and reason-based objective inquiry.[1] More than 600 faculty and many more MIT community members have signed the statement. When we recommit and bind ourselves (religare) to our highest principles, this is a religious act.

Astrobiologist David Grinspoon recently recalled the words of Carl Sagan’s wife, Lynn Margulis.[2]  She challenged the notion of evolution in the small and in the large, and spoke powerfully about the role of symbiosis and cooperation in our understanding of how the world has come to be as it is. When we reread and reflect on (relegare) our sacred stories, this too is a religious act.

This Earth Day—April 22, 2017—the Earth Day Network and the March for Science are co-organizing a rally and teach-in on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[3] This is a vital moment for clergy and religious educators to join the effort to educate the public that health, quality of life, and the state of the world we leave our children all vitally depend on science.

Many clergy have already planned sermons around Earth Day. It is important to realize that 2017 is not a year of advocacy as usual. For one thing, the #ScienceMarch takes place on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. The #PeoplesClimateMarch takes place the next weekend, April 29, 2017. Satellite events will be happening on both Saturdays and during the week, organized both locally and in connection with #FaithClimateActionWeek.

In addition to sermonizing about science and climate action, 2017 presents a singular opportunity for liberal clergy and religious educators to minister to the science and activist communities.

In this pivotal moment, we can:

  • Hold space for and respect the leadership of Native Americans, on whose land we are guests and whose activism predates our own
  • Provide spiritual care to the organizers of and participants in the March for Science—for many this is a stressful first-time exposure to intersectionality[4]
  • Name religious naturalism, demonstrate that it flowers right in our own communities, and welcome religious naturalists into our congregations
  • Be mindful that many scientists are non-theists: If we #PrayForClimate, we must invoke and affirm reason, too
  • Provide a counter-narrative to the Right’s dismissal and demonization of “godless scientists”
  • Rally the environmentalists within our congregations, and renew the ties of allyship with activist groups that support science
  • Make new allies with activist groups at local universities
  • Invite congregants to make Brain Caps for the #ScienceMarch, and contribute unifying gestures, such as carrying the American flag, or waving a sign saying “Truth, Justice and the American Way!”
  • Put our bodies on the line—in Washington and in our local communities—by offering a ministry of presence in support of the scientists
  • Educate ourselves to provide community ministry at protests[5]
  • Witness the anger of the scientific community
  • Advocate for those who may be targeted by the police
  • Offer a ministry of hope, through words, gestures and songs that inspire love, courage and healing for the beautiful world we share
  • Discern a way forward beyond the March for Science, by engaging people in ethical conversations—using reason in relationship—about how we want to treat each other and the earth

Let us bind ourselves in love to all our relatives in the interdependent web of all existence. Let us reconnect with the story of science, and see the dedicated humanity and patient work that has illuminated and continues to illuminate the workings of this web. Let us choose to make a religious commitment to supporting justice through the human endeavor of science.

[1] http://www.mitvalues.org/press/

[2] https://eapsweb.mit.edu/third-annual-william-f-brace-lecture-david-grinspoon

[3] http://www.earthday.org/marchforscience/

[4] https://www.statnews.com/2017/03/22/science-march/

[5] Download The Protest Chaplain’s Handbook, by Abigail Clauhs: http://bit.ly/2njE0DE

Fossil Free MIT Sit-In Ends with Progress

3 03 2016

Let the bells ring out and the banners fly! After almost 4 months peaceful protest, the student-led Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) has reached a meeting of the minds with MIT VP of Research, Maria Zuber, on some real world changes MIT can make!

The agreement focuses on three areas:

  1. Aspiring to reach climate neutrality ASAP, a grand challenge to our community
  2. Establishing a climate action advisory committee that will aid the implementation of MIT’s industry engagement strategy
  3. Convening a forum aimed to explore the ethical dimensions of the climate issue

As a proponent of engagement who has been engaging with Fossil Free MIT on a daily basis – roughly 90 of the 115 days – I have developed an enormous admiration for the vision and character of these principled young leaders. I am also amply aware that engagement is not their preferred Theory of Change. I give them enormous credit for being willing to remain open minded and hang in there negotiating until they achieved a comfort level that “engagement with teeth” is worth a try.

I also give MIT’s administration enormous credit for being willing to engage meaningfully with student protesters. I happened to be on the Yale campus last year just after 19 students were arrested for calling for a conversation on divestment. Quite the conversation topic for Admitted Students Day… Smooth move, Eli!

Administrative engagement with the protesters does not end today.  Far from it!  “FFMIT will be involved in the new climate action advisory committee, as will many other members of the MIT community,” reports The Tech. By rising from the floor, Fossil Free MIT has a won seat at the table and brought about broad input and oversight for climate action at MIT.

I pledge to do everything I can to rally the Sloan network – faculty, students and alumni – to engage with the problem that threatens us all, and to provide ongoing mentorship to the skeptics in the ranks of Fossil Free MIT.

For two reasons, I am also eager to engage with the ethical discussion. First I believe that it is logical for the Institute to engage in moral reasoning before taking ethical action.   Second, I believe the ethical discussion will give people like me a fair chance to be heard.

I believe that ethics significantly derive from identity. When the Rockefellers divested from the source of the family’s wealth, it sent a highly credible signal to the investment community. This is morally wrong. When the Pentagon and Zurich Insurance declared climate change a clear and present danger, the world took note. If MITIMCO is not aware of this, I would be surprised.

MIT has a different identity with respect to fossil fuels. For better and for worse, MIT scientists helped create the means to locate, refine and transport fossil fuels. MIT contributed to powering the people. As an unintended consequence, MIT has also contributed to endangering our world. Hence, I believe the MIT community has an ethical obligation to align around cleaning up the mess and straightening out the system.

The world knows why we need to change. The world does not know how. This is where MIT comes in.

The MIT community has the scientific and business knowledge to accelerate system-level change toward renewable energy. As the world’s leading university with an alumni network in positions to make change happen, MIT has a unique identity in climate action. We can innovate AND act – creating AND realizing solutions.

Given our can-do on the how-to front, my personal belief is that it would be irresponsible to disengage. For example, if we don’t help coal country to change its ways, who else can?

I am asking the entire MIT community to connect with our shared humanity and work together to change hearts and minds, assumptions and business models.

I am calling on the entire MIT community to be as big and brave and determined as Fossil Free MIT. Step out of your the familiar habits of mind, engage with us, and let’s get the whole system into a new gear.


Thank you, Fossil Free MIT for great strides forward in energizing the entire community!



Tribalism, Aloha and the Sit-uation at MIT

18 02 2016

Like many universities around the country, MIT is at a moral crossroads with the #Divest and #BlackOnCampus movements.  Students are demanding their educational institutions actually take action to deliver on the promise of a beloved community, an inter-tribal we.

With respect to climate action, I have experienced this firsthand. I am a core team member of MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership (MITacal).  I am the MIT community liaison to the Humanist Hub, acting under the supervision of Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain.  And I am a secular humanist chaplain in formation, educating myself with the Humanist Institute and at the Meadville Lombard Theological School’s Master of Leadership Program for community builders.

On October 22, 2015, FFMIT began a sit-in outside the MIT president’s office to protest lack of ambition in MIT’s much-anticipated Climate Action Plan. Among their demands, the students want MIT to “Divest!” from fossil fuels. The administration wants to “Engage!” with industry and government to take climate action.


Valentineʻs Day was Day 100 of #ScientistsSitIn


As an MIT Sloan School of Management alum, I know that “engagement” is a code word for organizational alignment – time for the proverbial huskies to wake up, step into harness and mush the sled forward

As a proponent of the engagement model, I suited action to the word and went over to the sit-in to engage with Fossil Free MIT.  I wanted to reassure the students that they would soon begin to see the hallmarks of engagement — a cross-functional team with an empowered leader, then appropriate organization and consensus building exercises, then delegation and funding for a series of deadlines and deliverables. I also wanted to provide a realistic perspective on how long alignment might take in an organization as siloed as MIT — more like herding cats than harnessing a dog team.  What a great opportunity for a mere Muggle from Sloan to help out the young Wizards of MIT!

At the sit-in headquarters, it was apparent that my prepared points were completely irrelevant to the existential distress — or, more plainly, rage — students were feeling. They did not want a lecture on industrial selling.  They needed to be seen and to be heard.

The first weeks were particularly rough. Students were alternately furious at what they perceived as the administration’s mutual-back-scratching relationship with the fossil-fuel companies, and dismayed to tears by the disregard for their reproductive futures and their families in vulnerable places around the world.

Immersed at the time in the Humanist Institute course on moral psychology and ethical development, the sit-in floor was a perfect vantage point to discuss FFMIT’s demand that MIT explicitly consider the ethics of its engagement with fossil fuel companies.

As time wore on, I began to see things differently.  It appears that MIT is in a liminal state on the issue of ethics, stuck in a grey area somewhere between “science is morally neutral” and “it’s wrong to knowingly harm others for money.”  Making an ethical decision about MIT’s posture to the fossil fuel industry would require the Institute first to admit the possibility of moral reasoning, and ask for help from another of MIT’s inferior tribes, the Squibs at the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, SHASS, the Radius Technology and Culture Forum, or the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.

Why Leis?

Weeks ground on into months.   To keep up my own morale, I imagined myself on the lanai with my Hawaiʻi ohana, talking story with my Aunty and cousins, singing, fingers busy with crafts. Unable to be with them in body, I engaged in spirit and began making leis.

In Polynesia, we make leis to encircle loved ones on special occasions, to mark accomplishments, to distinguish leaders and to welcome strangers with the Aloha spirit.  Aloha is not just a greeting. It is the core principle of an ethical system that enables people to live and work harmoniously together under stressful circumstances.

Aloha originated from a pragmatic response to the rigors of open ocean navigation. The Polynesian Triangle – extending from Hawaiʻi to Aōtearoa (New Zealand) to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) –is an area roughly the size of the surface of the moon.   Ocean crossings were the major challenge and opportunity of Polynesian life. Voyaging, say, from Tahiti to Hawai’i meant people had to live more than a month in close quarters in a fragile wooden canoe bearing livestock, plants and everything else necessary to survive. Crossings demanded tremendous courage, terrific teamwork, and epic self control.

“Othering” at sea was rookie mistake for open-ocean navigators, often fatal.

There were no maps or books. All the Hawaiian cutural knowledge – from the star map that guided the navigators to the ethical system that guided productive behavior –passed from generation to generation via memorization. Hawaiian culture is rich with practices that serve as mneumonic devices.

Just as aloha is not just a greeting, a lei is not just a gesture. A lei is a mnemonic device. For example, the circular shape of the lei symbolizes connection and relationship. The many flowers and colors symbolize the beauty of interdependence.

Individually crafted for each recipient, a lei represents a circle of love. In the old days, leaders wore leis made of red and yellow bird feathers, the brightest colors available. Today, faux feather leis – made of soft, sparkling yarn in beautiful color combinations – commemorate special accomplishments.

A Hawaiian cultural practice is way out of context on MIT’s Mahogany Row, and it makes a great conversation starter. The colors catch the eye and invite a closer look: each lei is made by knitting together two or more different colors: one plain; one sparkling or variegated. The finished lei is always more visually interesting than either ball of yarn. A faux feather lei is a literal demonstration of the beauty of diverse community.

“Save your lei to wear when we celebrate,” I’ve told each recipient, students and administrators alike. “Until then, keep it by your mirror. Every time you see it, remind yourself to be strong and kind.”   By sharing aloha in this way, I the spirit of love working inside me, making me stronger and more patient. “When you see these lei,” I tell the passers by, “know that we are all connected.”


Lei small file

A lei is a visual reminder of the beauty of diverse community


The more leis I made, the more conversations I had about leadership and theories of change. I realized that climate action leadership has a lot in common with ocean voyaging.   Climate action requires crossing from a mindset of “us vs. them” to a mindset of “everyone in the same canoe.”

The words of John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the pilgrim ship, Arbella, came to mind:

“For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities.”

Somehow, the MIT climate action community must bring its separate schools of thought into a human relationship strong enough to carry the discomfort of a free and responsible search for truth, then marry this truth with institutional power.

At MIT we have the usual dividing lines of religion and politics, ethnic origin and home culture.  And because MIT is, well, MIT, we do tribalism even better!  Students, faculty, administrators and alums are either Real Scientists or lesser beings.  MITʻs response to the sit-in says to me that the Institute idolizes science to the extent that engagement with SHASS, Sloan and the chaplains comes only as an afterthought.  As a corollary, those who could be most capable of helping  resolve the sit-uation at MIT appear to be those least likely to be asked.

So, it’s well past Day 100, and I’m still sitting.  As an alum, I’m sitting for engagement with and by Sloanies.  We have not been invited to help align MIT, but our knowledge of organizational engagement is needed.  As an undergraduate social scientist, I’m sitting with SHASS professor Sally Hashlanger  for engagement with the moral reasoning — under what ethical standards do we engage?  And as a seminarian and member of the Humanist Hub, I’m sitting for engagement with the human spirit, calling on MIT to recognize that students facing an existential crisis strong enough to keep them in the corridor for more than three months are students who require a different kind of pastoral care.

Right now, all I’ve got to work with is aloha and a pair of knitting needles. While sitting on the side of love with #ScientistsSitIn, I have knitted my thoughts together about STEM university chaplaincy and my studies at Meadville Lombard.  A secular humanist chaplain’s main job would not be to create a new tribe but, rather, to foster an inter-tribal, cross-creedal sense of we.

When we engage our diverse community in border-crossing conversation, we can practice and help others learn new approaches to acting and thinking.  I’m envisioning a community capable of:

  • Respecting both self and other while looking for the shared interest
  • Being open to new information even and especially in times of anger
  • Tackling challenges with both strength and kindness
  • Acting with both urgency and patience
  • Participating as both learners and teachers
  • Fusing idealism with practicality
  • Joining care with justice
  • Marrying truth and power

As the forces of heart and spirit begin to work with its mens et manus, the MIT community’s best days lie ahead.  Change takes everyone.

Finding the Moral Compass at MIT

3 11 2015

The MIT community is full of people who care deeply about the world we share.

In January, when I heard about Elon Musk funding the Future of Life Institute to mitigate existential risk to humanity, I was not surprised to find MIT’s Max Tegmark at the helm.


In June, when I heard about “Silicon Valley’s Bold Call for Reform,” I was not surprised to find out that the idea for the Open Letter on the Digital Economy began with the MIT Sloan School Initiative on the Digital Economy’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee.

With the SolveMIT Conference in October, MIT began promoting itself as a force for the good. MIT President Rafael Reif threw down the gauntlet: “We will do more than talk about the greatest problems facing our world. We will set the course to solve them.”

And these are just a few examples from the national news headlines of 2015.

What Do We Stand for as an Institution?

Over the last few years, there have been calls from various corners of the MIT community to up-level the moral and ethical discussion beyond individual conduct to institutional conduct.   Many students, faculty and alumni feel that the Instituteʻs current code of conduct does not go far enough.

The issue of institutional morals and ethics came to a flashpoint on October 22, 2015 with Fossil-Free MITʻs sit-in to protest the Administration’s Action Plan on Climate Change.  As the positive press from SolveMIT wafted its way around social media, sentiment was different on the home front: some of its students and more than 100 faculty publicly gave MIT’s plan a failing grade.

It was the sit-in that first engaged my attention to the subject of institutional ethics at MIT.  I have learned that a calls for change have been coming for years, and that there appear to be at least three threads in the discussion of institutional morals and ethics:

  • How do we engage with the world?  To what ethical standards do we hold ourselves and our partners to account?
  • How do we educate our students?  What moral basis coheres our remarkably diverse community?
  • Should MIT’s moral compass be based on an appeal to authority or an appeal to principle?

Ethical Engagement

In the May/June 2007 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, outgoing Faculty Chair Steve Lerman asked a key question about the Instituteʻs core values: Does MIT need a statement of ethical principles to guide our teaching, research, business practices and professional interactions?

A call for an investment ethics policy at MIT was first raised in the January/February 2008 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.   Authors Ali S. Wyne and Alice H. Amsden argued that MIT should establish a Standing Committee on Investment Responsibility. They envisioned “(s)hareholder engagement includ(ing) – among other measures – proxy voting, letter writing, and resolution filing, none of which involves altering investment strategies or moving money.”

Was this suggestion adopted?  A look at the Endowment Survey in MIT’s Green Report Card for 2011 (the last year of publication) reveals that MIT reported there is a committee that includes student representatives deliberates and makes recommendations or decisions on proxy votes.  I believe this is an ad-hoc committee, not a standing committee.  (Nothing would make me happier than to hear I am wrong about this!)  MIT also reported that it uses the guidelines in The Ethical Investor to make investment decisions with regard to environmental/sustainability factors.  This statement refers to the guidelines developed by Yale University.

Fast forwarding to 2015, the MIT Faculty Review published letters with a good discussion of the ethics of divestment.  In the January/February 2015 issue,Professor Charles Harvey encouraged faculty members to sign the divestment petition.  The March/April issue contained a rebuttal from Alexander Slocum and a response to the rebuttal from Professor Harvey.

On June, 15 2015, the Climate Change Conversation Committee submitted the report, MIT and the Climate Challenge, that encouraged the Institute to establish an Ethics Advisory Council and to start standing up visibly for science and truth. The authors of the report “reject the notion that ethics should play no role in investment.” (p.13) In a post-script to the report, Fossil-Free MIT’s Geoffrey Supran personally challenged the notion that it is acceptable for MIT to support business models that would lead to humanitarian catastrophe in the name of short-term profit.” (p. 50)

According to The Action Plan on Climate Change published by the administration on October 21, 2015, the solution to climate change:

“(D)emands an aptitude for hands-on problem solving, the power to convene leaders from many disciplines and sectors, a willingness to engage with diverse communities in designing the future—and a humane grasp of our moral responsibility to the Earth and its creatures, including our children and our fellow, and future, human beings.” (page 5)

There is no further mention of morals or ethics in the Action Plan.

In a guest column published in The Tech on October 29, 2015, MIT’s Climate Plan doesn’t add up. So we’re sitting-in, Fossil-Free MIT reminded the Administration that the Report of the Climate Change Conversation Committee “unanimously endorsed the creation of an Ethics Advisory Council to ‘explicitly combat disinformation and avoid inadvertently supporting disinformation through investments,’ with the possibility of ‘disinformation-based divestment.’”

In addition to explaining the ethical basis by which MIT will engage as a shareholder and disengage with those who spread disinformation, it may also be useful for the Institute to consider explaining the ethical basis of engagement in basic research. For example, under what circumstances does the world need more nuclear weapons?

Ethics Education

Education is the second of three elements in the moral conundrum at MIT. In a letter to The Tech on November 15, 2013, Gregory Kravit ’15 asked, Mens et Manus…but what else? He called for an explicit approach to ethical education and moral development at MIT.

On November 21, 2013 the Preliminary Report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education echoed this sentiment. The report noted a need to better develop students’ ethical skills, not only in academe – possibly via an MIT honor code – but also in the context of their work as industry researchers and as business practitioners. MIT graduates “should understand the societal impact of their decisions and appreciate the ethical considerations that guide those decisions (via) an education that remains rigorous but emphasizes the connection to and the value of humanities.” (p.31)

On November 22, 2013, President Reif responded with a letter to The Tech on Ethics Education at the Institute.  He wrote:

“We owe it to our students — and the world we send them out to serve — to provide a deep, effective ethical education. Can we really say we are teaching problem solving, if we leave ethics out of the question? Surely right and wrong should be among the explicit boundary conditions in solving any important problem. If we aim to give our students the intellectual tools to solve real-world problems, we must also give them the ethical tools to understand the real-world consequences of their choices — and the moral tools to do the right thing.”

Should MIT’s Moral Compass be Based on an Appeal to Authority or an Appeal to Principle?

Where do ethics come from? From on high or from human hearts? This question is the third element of the moral conundrum at MIT.

In a letter to The Tech on April 18, 2014 Aaron Scheinberg, PhD ’15 stated The Case for Removing Official Prayer from the MIT Graduation. He argued that the dogma of any one religious tradition is not an acceptable substitute for a moral charge from a secular institution to its remarkably diverse graduating community.

On October 6, 2014, MIT opened the SOLVE Conference with an invocation by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The invocation covered both bases, appeal to authority and appeal to principle:

“To MIT President Rafael Reif and all who played a role in conceptualizing SOLVE, I want you to know that you are doing God’s work.

Your work is infused with what I believe to be the most fundamental human truth: our inter-dependence. We have a special name for it in South Africa: Ubuntu. It says a person is a person through other persons. “

(Ubuntu, the African approach to humanism, asserts that community, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity.  As a corollary, it is community, not a transcendent being, that holds people to moral account.)

Faith-based communities have a lot to contribute to a discussion of moral and ethical development at the institutional level. For example, MITʻs Baha’i Chaplain Brian Aull, a scientist at MIT Lincoln Labs, advocates a focus on service, learning and community building in his book, The Triad: Three Civic Virtues That Could Save American Democracy.

The Ethics Initiative of MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, hosts “a series of free-spirited conversations between students and leading experts and faculty, that center on ethical issues, the societal responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and the complex problems we face in technology, economy, education, engineering and science in today’s modern world.”

In his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Dalai Lama Center fellow Kentaro Toyama recommends for the right way to use technology and to stress the central importance of human change. Toyama is speaking at MIT today on technology’s Law of Amplification “a simple idea that explains why gadgets alone consistently fail to deliver social progress, and why in an age of advanced technology, it’s all the more important to focus on nurturing human wisdom.”

Secular thinkers also have a lot to contribute to a discussion of moral and ethical development at the Institute. From the Presencing Institute and the Initiative on the Digital Economy to the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Sloan Sustainability Initiative – and others I have yet to encounter – MIT leaders can speak from deep study and experience on the moral and ethical basis of systemic change.

MIT is a secular institution. An appeal to principle would serve its diverse community more inclusively than an appeal to any particular authority.

It will require open-minded collaboration to surface the principles that should guide MIT’s engagement with the world, and real courage to put moral principles into action.  As Paul Richardson reminded the community in Moral thought brings tough choices, a letter to The Tech on December 3, 2013, “The consequence of a serious inquiry into ethics will be a heavy burden to bear.”

Thought Experiment:
First Engage with Our Best Institutional Self;  Then Invite Others to Step Up

If, for example, we agree with Einstein that, “Those with the privilege to know have the duty to act,” one has no choice but to be morally uncomfortable with the Climate Action Plan.  As Fossil-Free MIT points out in a guest column in The Tech on October 29, we are not leading the world to safety:

“If all developed countries followed MIT’s emissions reduction plan, a simulation run by Climate Interactive projects that global warming would drastically overshoot the 2°C danger limit, with a most likely temperature rise of 3.4°C by 2100.”

If MIT as a scientific community has good reason to believe that this is insufficient, what does this say to the world about our collective morality?  That we are fiddling while Rome burns, caught up in a quibble over the precision of a model vs. the importance of acting on its diagnosis?  That MIT is agnostic about the social impact of science to the point where we would knowingly allow harm to others more vulnerable than ourselves?

Worse, why are we promoting ourselves as a world leader telling others what to do when we are not setting a good example with our actions back on the ranch?  What does this say to the world?  That MIT is a coin-operated institution?  That the fox is guarding the chicken coop?  Or, quite simply, that we are hypocrites.

I do not believe for a minute this is the impression the MIT administration meant to create with the Climate Action Plan.  Nor do I believe the discomfort with the plan is isolated to some stubborn students sitting on the floor in Building 3.

Clearly, we can fix this.  If engagement with industry is not intended as a synonym for green-washing, letʻs define what our intentions actually are.  If we take some time to examine the moral compass that guides our work together at MIT and with industry partners and governments, we can indeed set the course to solve the worldʻs most challenging problems.

I also believe we should fix this.  Onto the strong shoulders falls the burden, and our burden at MIT is our disinformationist friends.   To open their minds and hearts to the inhumanity of their actions, we must be morally strong as well.   If we do not step up to this challenge, who else can?

Letʻs begin to connect our many points of light.

What I’ve learned from engaging with Fossil-Free MIT

29 10 2015

This is a tough nut to crack.

In times of difficulty, I often look to this wonderful song by Leonard Cohen.  There is a crack in everything: that’s where the light gets in.  Our job – and joy – as humans is to look for the crack in a difficult situation.

I have a spiritual practice of “sitting with discomfort.”

It isn’t easy to sit beside someone in pain, suffering systemic injustice, or experiencing an existential crisis – especially when I could have been finishing up a project and skipping off to a Harry Potter reading group. It takes a bit of backbone to cope with the emotional contagion, the feelings of guilt and shame – especially when I could have spent my lunch break in yoga class stretching to lovely music.

But for me, sitting with discomfort is the best way to connect with the cord of basic humanity that connects us all. It widens my aperture on the world, and helps me to be strong enough to be kind.

Sitting with Fossil Free MIT has been a particular challenge. The discomfort is not only metaphorical, the discomfort is literal. Dang, that floor is hard. And cold. With the level of physical discomfort it’s hard to get anything done. Harder still is to watch people walk by, gazes averted, or with eyes of stone. I feel stressed by the pressure of work undone. Missed workouts and expedient nutritional choices are turning me into human veal. And this is only Day 8.

So why am I sitting? I am sitting to demonstrate the power of the e-word, engagement.

As an economics major who wrote her thesis on pricing market externalities in 1978, and as a member of the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group, I share with Fossil Free MIT a burning need to lead and urgency for effective action.

As a Sloanie, I have seen that intra- and inter-institutional engagement is a prerequisite to systemic change. As a member of the MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership, I want to engage with and support the other groups at MIT who are “fighting for all of us.” Through the power of example, I hoped to inspire the consideration of a new kind of engagement with the energy industry and the public sector, not the business-as-usual variety, but institutional engagement with a moral charge and milestones to match.

As a humanist and interfaith leader, I know that institutional engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. Interpersonal engagement is also required to open hearts and minds of the people working at the front lines of systemic change.

People must lean together into the future before institutions and systems can change.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with people diametrically opposed to engagement has given me the gift of understanding what is behind their rationale for divestment. The steady diet of courage and cold pizza has made me aware of factors I had not previously considered.

Motivated to look and listen more widely, I stood, then sat in a packed, swelteringly hot room at the Massachusetts State House for 4-1/2 hours on Tuesday listening to the testimony on Sen. Barrett’s carbon pricing bill, S. 1747, before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy.

Last night I sat through the third Republican Debate, waiting in vain for a substantive discussion of action on climate change. There was more air time on religious beliefs and skills in fantasy football.

I’ve come away from this experience with an awareness of factors that the MIT administration may not already have considered. Ordinary citizens are not just looking to MIT for leadership, they are relying on MIT for leadership.   And not just in Massachusetts.

I believe the MIT Action Plan on Climate Change needs to go further.  I invite the administration to consider reopening the conversation around this question:

How MIT might address the public need for an internationally credible:

  • Secular leader to demonstrate moral resolve at the institutional level;
  • Scientific leader to communicate the urgency at the symbolic level?

I recognize the groundbreaking nature of this request. This is scary.  But the public is crying out for this. Literally. Crying.

It appears that MIT has been thrust into a daunting public role. What can the MIT community do – together – to rise to this historic occasion?