An excerpt from the upcoming “Rocket Scientist: The Posthuman Memoir of a Futurist Artist”
As my beloved life partner, Nima, and I walked toward my Class of 1997 Santa Clara High School Reunion, I feared the reactions of former classmates to me after 10 or 20 years. I thought I had meditated well. Then, I started feeling butterflies in front of the Golden State Brewery. We were in my hometown in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls was bumping on the sound system.
Ancestor, you went to your 20th anniversary high school reunion? In person?! Yes, descendant, on August 5, 2017. Would you like me to narrate this memory? Yes please, ancestor! My old classmates and I meet up through our avatars in the metaverse. But of course you do. Couldn’t you have just checked Facebook, ancestor? Yes, descendant, but it wouldn’t be the same. Plus, two of my friends did an amazing job as organizers. It would be nice to see them and other longtime friends. I hadn’t been socializing much in the tumultuous 2017.
Okay descendant, I’ll take you back to 2017. The first year of the 45 administration. This is how I felt things then. One week before Charlottesville exposed White Supremacy to mainstream society. Two weeks before the Great American Eclipse. Three weeks before the waters of Harvey would ravage a city I’m grateful to, Houston. Four weeks ahead of 45 jeopardizing 800,000 “Dreamers” simply for callous political points. Five weeks before a Category 5 epitome of Climate Wrath called Irma.
Before these events, 2017 had been troubling enough. To those I hadn’t stayed in touch with, would I be a disappointment at my reunion? I’d said as a teenager that I would become an astronaut. I’m an actor and writer now. As a former Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer, this is practically rebellion in many Asian-American families. To further my own model minority mutiny, I’m not married nor do I have children. Not to mention, I’m a Vegan and Atheist. Though, I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one out of place. How would the reunion fare for any single people? Disabled folks comfortable? What about LGBTQIA folks?
To add intrigue as we encountered smiling yet perplexed faces, this is 2017. I happen to be among those who not only dedicate time and energy to “The Resistance” but have a class reunion this year itself. Going to events with people we hardly see can be difficult enough. Now, I feel even more socially out of touch.
I’m one of many who have sacrificed and risked much this year challenging the March for Science to sharpen its vision to defend Science. It has been traumatic for we activists of color. “Alt-right” digital spaces provide cover for white supremacists and talking points that cast spells on many moderates. Such men and women operate even within the scientific community itself. 1920’s Eugenics anyone? Our Earth Day marches were seeds. The continuing March for Science movement evolves. Particularly for my focus: the reform of Science and of scientists to uplift marginalized communities. Dr. Stephani Page created the hashtags #BlackAndSTEM and #MarginSci to give voice, especially to Women of Color in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. As we defend Science from budget cuts and “climate deniers,” we challenge Science’s response to those who’ve faced systemic inequality.
With all this, how would I answer the classic reunion question, “What have you been up to?” Would old classmates be wary of topics many still consider sensitive? If anything, tackling economic inequality across race could unite us. How would we define American?
The hosts told us about the great beers inside the brewery. Nima and I got excited. I felt surprisingly calm. Nima and I had done some acting Improv the weekend before to prepare. We thought we had anticipated every possibility. I’d overcome much worse since my last reunion in 2007. Before we would salve our social nerves, an old friend asked, “So, what have you been up to?”
Sharing many political views as this fellow Progressive, I let my P.O.C. (Person of Color) guard down with a white man I consider an ally. I answered him, “I’ve been acting, writing, and involved a lot in The Resistance.” After that last part, I felt a twinge of burden I have felt so often this year when chatting with many nervous allies. The sting of his sardonic deflection hit me, “You gotta do what you gotta do!”
My body seized in tightness and my stomach sank. My brain proclaimed only to itself, “Dude, people like me are being targeted! This society was built for you. We P.O.C. can’t carry the burden of reforming it for everyone.” Instead, I chose the quiet acquiescence of diplomatic silence.
Nima and I then gave each other looks signaling that we would go grab those beers.
My reunion experience was off to a rocky start. Nima, a fellow activist and artist, and I really needed a fun night.
She and I saw friendly faces as we made our way inside the former Memorex consumer electronics facility. A few I didn’t recognize. Large metal beer vats to our right. The bar with quite a menu selection to our left. And a solid number of former classmates and their guests packed in the middle. Behind us projected an excellent Santa Clara High Class of ’97 slide show!
I hoped to grab drinks to celebrate rather than while still feeling rattled by the initial exchange. By serendipity, the first former classmate to greet us near the bar was a fellow social justice activist. “You get us.” All smiles. Nima and I learned more about the proper use of gender pronouns. Our friend also shared powerful insights into the prison industrial complex.
Then we opened up further to our fellow activist. We discussed how far more has been suffered by those who’ve been reforming our society longer than we have. The great Women’s March and Indivisible leaders have expanded activism. This was only possible due to years of brave work by the misunderstood Black Lives Matter. They build off of decades of work going back to the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King. Many, like me, still have much to learn. Fellow Asian-American activists and I encourage our own communities to more honestly fight anti-blackness. Many non-profits continue to work diligently toward this in various sectors of society: medicine, education, criminal justice, etc.
Having bonded over social justice, Nima and I were able to toast our beers with a renewed sense of ease and motivation for the flurry of conversations to come.
Next, Nima and I scanned the room, at all the people we wanted to talk to. She had so graciously agreed to attend knowing how daunting the task at hand might be. In spite of this challenge, I felt more confident to live in my truth.
Such an opportunity to test myself then arrived. Who better than my friend who earlier had relegated my brown self to do what I “gotta do?” I was a bit nervous, especially as I was now enjoying the event. Yet his thoughtful, curious expression encouraged me to give my old friend another chance. I said, “Black voices have been saying it. 45 mirrors our nation’s truth. Black and Indigenous folks have been waiting 500 years. More folks need to have awkward chats on race, especially with their loved ones.” My friend was really listening to me this time. Like many others in the wake of Charlottesville, I know that he’s been further reflecting upon the efforts of those fighting the root injustices that mar these United States of America.
A rare moment of pause followed as he and I shared a sigh for our society. An eye of that social storm that was the frenzy of old classmates. I could enjoy my drink. The fact that I was watching a room full of people 20 years older was amazing. Given how scary this year has been, I felt a deeper appreciation for my reunion than I might have one year ago.
Then, something struck me. This wasn’t the first time I was among the first in our country to attend a milestone event soon after an increase in hate threats against we minorities. I was one of the first university graduates after 9/11, from UC Irvine. That timing impacted my choices in my 20s as I had earned degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. These fields had shifted toward the Defense sector by post-9/11 politics of the Bush 43 administration. In 2002, I was only 22 years old and the world suddenly seemed less open to a brown man of conscience. 15 years older, I felt history repeating.
I needed then to sit quietly in the back of the bustling brewery. For just a few minutes. I tried to center my emotions. As my old high school in Silicon Valley produced many people in STEM, I hoped to feel kinship with them. I may be an artist now, but my engineering past is always part of me. I’ve enjoyed bonding with those in STEM this year through my Science activism. As an Artist, I like adding A for Art to make it STEAM.
A chance to chat technology then found its way to me. I saw the exuberant smile of a fellow Asian-American. I felt welcomed by his generous spirit. He told me he is now in Tech. He asked me, “How can Artificial Intelligence be prejudiced? It can improve the lives of folks in every economic class.” This was an angle I hadn’t heard enough support for. It was compelling. So I asked, “Does your team do more than hire diverse engineers? What would “The Singularity” look like from the uploaded minds of Brown people? Would it help or harm Undocumented folks? And Refugees?” With gears turning as he pondered, he said, “Maybe I need to think more about these things.” I followed, “We’re learning from each other.”
Then we gave a hearty bro-hug to set the stage for our next high school reunion. Who knows. Maybe he and I should chat before 2027. We seem to be connected to important developments of our time.
That exchange encouraged me about my hometown. It continues to awaken to truth. Santa Clara doesn’t get a free pass because it votes overwhelmingly “blue” in local, state, and national elections. Silicon Valley is full of wealth and poverty, ego and humility. It has a big responsibility to folks coming from all over the country and world. As well as to those who grew up here.
I’ve seen throughout this country potential for similar change. My own horizons expanded on Earth Day of this year in The South. That was the day I was honored to give my March for Science speech in Memphis. Such visionary people in Tennessee fighting abuses of Science such as Eugenics in jails. I now think of another city in The South that suffers from abuses and neglect of Science: Houston. That great city’s Secular Social Justice Conference at Rice University in January 2016 propelled me into activism. Now, Houston faces a myriad of difficult challenges. This includes, flooded toxic Superfund sites and chemical plants near communities of marginalized people.
Whether in the San Francisco Bay Area or in the American South, it’s rarely too late for a person to open one’s eyes. More and more of us are facing the dire need to reconcile being a nation borne of slavery and genocide. The impacts from those brutal legacies persist today. Silicon Valley is no exception. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous folks are software engineers, in spite of not being fairly supported by society to be so. Their communities are impacted by Science and Technology, not always for the better.
Feeling quite tuned-in to society-at-large, I needed to center back in with my reunion. Then, a moment I couldn’t script arrived. A Progressive Jewish former classmate had flown in from Texas. He now lives in a “red” congressional district. He said with admirable relaxation, “Yeah, I just have to roll with it.” He went on to share how he got along with those quite different from him. We were inspired by his courage, patience, and humor.
By the end of my reunion, it was nice to hear about hobbies, inspiring work, good fortunes, and perseverance after the loss of loved ones. Resistance may be life, but life isn’t all Resistance. This year, many activists have sacrificed social time with family and friends. We’ve missed hearing how the closest of friends and their loved ones are doing. Their children inspire Nima and me to help aim for a better world. The future will be theirs after all.
Much had changed since my 10th year high school reunion in 2007. At that event, some of us masked our insecurities to salve our fragile young egos. Economic downturn would strike the globe in 2008. We had been only a few years out of college, the military, or other training grounds. Thankfully at my 20th year reunion in 2017, I felt a strong sense of folks having let go of what they can’t control. I’ll continue to aspire to do this myself. This includes not accidentally spilling my beer on my forgiving friends like I did at this year’s reunion after-party. What can I say? 2017 has been hella stressful!
The Monday after my high school reunion in Silicon Valley news of poor science used against women broke on major networks. This was about a now former employee at that heralded company, Google. As an advisor to both the Silicon Valley and San Francisco satellites (chapters) of the March for Science, I found it timely that sexism in the Bay Area tech sector was being exposed to wider audiences. A former classmate from the reunion messaged me later that Monday, “Bro, I see what you were talking about.” It seems that the number of people who face the painful realities of the U.S.A. continues to increase.
This is even more so as Charlottesville and Houston have startled a long slumbering nation.
So how will our rising numbers of those who fight injustice handle resistance to “The Resistance” during the holiday season? How will people have navigated reunions, weddings, graduations, baby showers, and other auspicious occasions in 2017?
More immediately, how do we face the people each of us interacts with on a regular basis?
Ancestor, if people didn’t start to answer these questions in 2017, the world of your future — my world — wouldn’t be better off. More people now have the privilege to enjoy cosmic eclipses.
Copyright 2017. Ravi Valleti. All Rights Reserved.