Humans of Scout
The colorful intersections of empathy, identity, and design.
I recently had the pleasure of watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film about the late Mr. Rogers and his encounter with a journalist writing about Rogers’ public identity as a “hero”. For those unfamiliar, Fred Rogers was a beloved television personality, and the creator and star of the program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, an educational children’s show dedicated to helping children contend with their emotions. What continues to amaze me is Mr. Rogers’ capacity for near limitless kindness — the embodiment, in his character and demeanor, of an uncommon devotion to the practice of empathy. But to hail the man a hero is misguided, as the film is quick to point out; it suggests that that kind of empathy is unattainable.
I found that pretty cynical.
Ultimately, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood prompted me to ask: who do I know that embodies empathy in the design world? And how can that affect that person’s design process? So I directed my attention to the members of Scout, our student-led design studio here on campus, and to the intersections of empathy, identity, and design. These are radiant personalities that I had the joy of photographing and writing about, and they spoke with great deliberation about the role of empathy in their design work. Now, I’d like to introduce them!
Nathan Hostert spent his childhood in Wichita, Kansas, and grew up with visions of improved civic engagement and voter empowerment. He now helps create the reality he envisioned: as a member of Scout Labs, he is working with the City of Boston to improve their website with the intention of giving high school students access to City Hall for civics projects. At his last co-op, he helped mediate communication between architects, the city, and Boston citizens to satisfy all parties in the development of new urban spaces. The impetus for these projects aligns with one of his biggest personal goals: to help people live in the kind of environment that they want to live in. All this came across in an incredibly lively conversation, and it was clear to me through his attitude and engagement that Nathan is somebody who practices empathy wherever he goes. What we consider “home” is constantly in flux, a truth that goes double for college students. Nathan works to make that process easier by giving us the tools to shape the spaces around us, and for us.
At the intersection of Nathan’s identity and his passion is more than kindness — it’s an empathy for belonging and for participation.
I found myself nodding along to his points and to the simple wisdom they were built on — why not take an active voice in shaping this thing that we call home?
Jocelyn Zhu grew up in Arizona after her parents immigrated to the United States from China. As a child, she and her family travelled across the country visiting national parks and spending time with each other in the outdoors. This is something she describes as instrumental to developing a deep respect for the natural world, which characterized a huge part of her childhood. I couldn’t help but think to myself about what a beautiful environment it must have been at an early age, and I saw the truth of that reflected in our conversation. She had difficulty contending with a religious environment that was intolerant of her sexuality. After discussing this aspect of her early life in tandem with her interests and passions, a common thread came to light. Jocelyn is majoring in industrial engineering, having found that the program gives her a practical knowledge base that she can apply to a broad range of disciplines and to protecting the environment. She balances her Scout workload with a full credit-load of classes, mentoring underclassmen in the Asian Student Union, and being a full time RA, among other things. She recently hosted a safer sex program for her residents with the intention of helping students, especially those part of the LGBTQ+ community, understand consent and safe sex. Have you caught the thread?
Jocelyn’s passion lies in empowering people to feel more confident in their skin, and to bring light and safety to the process of understanding yourself. It’s an empathy of comfort and an empathy of acceptance.
Listening to her speak about this desire to bring comfort to identity felt natural and powerful, and I was left scratching my head at the simple grace of it all.
Gino V. Jacob has lived quite the life. Having immigrated from Indonesia as a result of the financial crisis, he spent his late adolescence in California before moving across the country to study Computer Science and Design at Northeastern. He described the extreme change in lifestyle from an environment in Indonesia with little financial security to a more comfortable position in the States — a transition that he continues to be mindful of in his studies and work. Having lived between such distinct worlds has left an indelible mark on his conception of empathy, and that contrast has been foundational to his worldview. About halfway through our conversation, he shared something with me that had me grinning full-faced behind the camera. Gino likes to make people feel heard — whether it’s in the minute terror of going unheard in casual conversation or empowering individuals through user experience design. Previously, he has spent his work-study time designing virtual reality games for physical therapy, which he describes as his turning point between pursuing software development and becoming engaged with designing for users.
“I need to be building things that really matter to people”, he said, and this is what helped me understand the intensity of Gino’s passion. It’s a need that derives from his experiences between countries. It’s an empathy for access, for giving people the tools they need to be successful with digital applications.
And if you’ve ever had a conversation with Gino, you know he carries forward that sentiment. In his behavior, his attitude, and his words, you’ll know this: you are what’s important to him at this moment. And if you weren’t convinced about the strength of his character already: he’s also a competitive ballroom dancer. Doesn’t that just speak for itself?
What has surprised me the most about the humans of Scout is the color — the color in the minds of Nathan, Jocelyn, and Gino where identity and design are concerned, and the color that exists in the kinds of empathy they embody as well as bring to the design world. I was with them as a witness to not just who they could be, but how they could be: how convicted, how receptive, how unconditional. It’s a spirit that I’ve seen while sitting in HQ, at team meetings, and at Club Scout. The capacity that Scout members have to wield empathy in their design work is limitless. I think back to Mr. Rogers, and the dilemma of appearing inaccessible because of a wholehearted devotion to practicing empathy. At first, it was confounding to think about how anyone can lead by example so completely and with so much confidence. How can that be done? After talking to Nathan, Jocelyn, and Gino, it’s become clear to me that these people exist all around us, and in all kinds of capacities.
They are not only our fellow Scout members, they are the people we’re around everyday.
They care about making people feel comfortable in their environment in the same way Nathan does at Scout Labs. They care about bringing comfort to identity like Jocelyn in her work as an RA. And they care about improving the quality of life like Gino does in his work with user experience design. I’m now less concerned about deifying empathy in practice and more concerned with recognizing it and elevating it.
And I think there’s a powerful simplicity to how truly universal — and universally applicable, including to design — that spirit of empathy is.