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.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: