WDYDWYD?: Why Do You Do What You Do

When I came to the end of the third year of my Kellogg Fellowship, my then seven-year-old son said, “Daddy, What are we going to do when the Kellogg Fellowship is over?”

I never cooked for kids, as the chef of a white table-cloth restaurant. One of my worst fears was when a waiter or host walked in to the kitchen at 8:00 PM on a Saturday to tell me that they just sat a six top with four hungry screaming children.

I try to find interesting projects working on food and agriculture that bridge culture and business and that promote environmental sustainability and prosperity at the community level. That’s a mouthful in more ways than one.

Some students shuffle across the stage in unlaced sneakers, some totter in high heels. Some stride across with high fives. But my favorites are the ones who carry their children. They remind me most of all why I do what I do.

In 1752, my family sold their land in County Wertheim, Germany and purchased passage on the aptly named ship, the “Phoenix” to escape war and oppression. They desired a place to freely express their faith in God.

Some students shuffle across the stage in unlaced sneakers, some totter in high heels. Some stride across with high fives. But my favorites are the ones who carry their children. They remind me most of all why I do what I do.

I grew up a Cuban refugee in Chicago in a family of five kids. We lived in a run-down neighborhood with gangs and prostitutes parading nightly outside my bedroom window.

I grew up in Southbridge, a small New England town. Its motto was “Eye of the Commonwealth” because at one time in its history Southbridge was the largest manufacturer of optical lenses in the world.

Mostly, I do what I do because it is fun and I get to create stuff. My job lets me combine activities that fascinate me and bring me satisfaction. This includes designing, writing, teaching and a being a student of how people and groups interact and learn. 

I do what I do because it needs to be done, and because it makes a difference in the type of society we pass on to future generations. Despite a 30 year low in crime, nearly 25 million people were victims of crime last year. That’s unacceptable. Many of those 25 million were children and youth, and that is even more unacceptable.

I want to set people on fire—ignite their leadership ability.  I do this through a community leadership school that I created in 1995.

I see a reflection of my father when I look into the eyes of migrant farm workers. I see the long hours of hard labor in unforgiving conditions, the pride in a job well done even though the pay is intolerably unfair, the hospitality of a migrant farm worker family sharing what little they have with friend and stranger alike. 

The birth of our children and now the joy of experiencing grandparenthood have revealed to me a deep motivation I have not really articulated before. It is a sense of hope that we can make the world a better place for the next generation.

I’m a link in a long line of ancestors who have carried a responsibility to protect our people, our land and our way of life. As a young adult, I was fortunate to be mentored by elder medicine women.

I didn’t have $25 to apply to college. I am the 5th of 9 kids. My parents had 2nd and 3rd grade educations and, growing up, I never met anyone who had gone to college.

When I was a child the outdoors was my classroom, with all its mystery and wonder, it taught me oh so much.

A boy died in his father’s arms, and another was buried by his father after dying in combat. A girl escaped from one tormenter, only to encounter those that live inside her. A man broke a woman’s spirit with his fists.

It was the kind of smell wafting up from the backside of my 11-month old that signaled a distinct color and deplorable consistency. People were packed tight in a convention hall.

Once upon a time, my wife and I were stranded at Heathrow Airport because of an extremely dense fog that had settled over much of England. All flights were cancelled, and thousands of people camped out in the airport for up to twenty-four hours.

Walking through any major urban community in the world—even in those environments that we might call “home”—one common thing can be noted. There are people who call this home, yet, they seem out of place.

I do three rather different things, but being an integration freak I have managed to bring them together.

I live and work in South Central Los Angeles where the wail of sirens, the crack of bullets, and human images outlined in chalk on sidewalks often over shadow the beauty of the people and wealth of my community.

An innocent question changed my career. In 2000, I arranged a tour of a juvenile court and youth detention center in Oakland, California for a group of Eastern European youth-justice professionals.

I remember vividly the day my grandmother took food to two elderly women living in a shack in rural Missouri. I must have been 7 or 8, and I tagged along. The two women were dirt poor. I was stunned to see their toilet – a chair with a hole in the seat and a bucket underneath.

A congregational minister, I’ve encountered families created by love, necessity, and surprise.

One of my parishioners, who survived childhood incest, asked me, "How do I forgive?" I was appalled that I had no answer for her; although I talk about forgiveness, I could not say how to forgive.

The genesis of my passion for health care started when I was very young and represents a continuous thread throughout my life. I think it may have started because when you truly help people, they often smile.

I discovered my kuleana in 1994—the same year both my grandmother and my best friend died. My grandmother saw my kuleana long before then, when I was a teenager.

I have always wanted to know what’s beyond the mountain. As a child living on the edge of Old Pascua, a Yaqui village in Tucson, Arizona, I often enquired as to who lived on the other side of the mountain, and if the people there were like us or different.

I am a map maker … a facilitator … a figurer outer.  I bring people together around central ideas that they can embrace with passion.  I will never retire—God created me to do this work.

“But you’re not a dirty Mexican.” Although those words were spoken to me in the Fall of 1979 in a late night freshman dorm setting, I still hear them, and their not-so-subtle message that I’m unlike most Mexicans, who presumably are dirty.

I chose medicine as the best, most tangible way for me to give back to others. I was lucky enough to be accepted into medical school at a time when women in medicine were considered, at best, a novelty, and at worst, a mistake in the profession. 

I am the son of a pipefitter and a substitute school teacher. I grew up in Inkster, Michigan, a predominantly black working class suburb of Detroit. My friends growing up were bookworms, athletes, bullies, and felons. 

I write. It is something I have done since I was a child though it was not until I was an adult that I recognized that it was a gift. Having early learned to read, I recognized in the written word a special quality. Words are varied, beautiful things that are, in their own realm, like notes are to music.

The course of my life was determined by the flip of a coin. My father came to this county in the 1930’s with papers that were “imperfect.” During World War II, he was given a choice between being deported or joining the U.S. Army. 

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true” – these words of Michael Faraday, a 19th century chemist, describe my glorious and fortunate life. I have been truly overwhelmed with opportunities.

Neither of my parents has ever read a book. My mother went as far as second grade. My father never went to school. Born in the U.S., and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I sensed that growing up could be easier than my own childhood had been.

Teaching is in my soul. It is a gift from my late father, a teacher whom students always remember.  Dad taught physics, and my memories include countless occasions when I was with Dad and he ran into former students. 

When my mother died in 1997, I found in her possessions, a letter I had written to her in 1963, when I was a college student. In it, I promised I would make some contribution in my life to the integration of science and spirituality... 

In July of 2002, while driving home on a lonely county road, a drunk driver turned left into my lane. My eighteen month-old son was in the back seat and I, eight months pregnant, was driving. They tell me the impact was 104 miles an hour and there were no skid marks.

My brother was not an only child despite his claims to the contrary.

I was born in an adobe home in a village less than a square mile. We played carefree in the open spaces, and felt safe in our close-knit indigenous community. Once we went beyond our boundaries, everything changed; we were marginalized. 

I was born and raised in a mid-sized southwestern Georgia community (Albany, Georgia). I entered school a few years after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in education unconstitutional.

I am a community psychotherapist who likes to have fun creating with the ever changing materials of people, problems and institutions.

“I don’t know Miss. I think this year I just got stupid and nobody really cares anyway.” This is how a seventh grader Marisa responded, when I asked her to talk about why she was struggling to make the grades.

“What the hell are you doing? Are you making the world a better place?” I had this epiphany one day when I was driving my sports car from the “nice” University of the Pacific neighborhood to the “barrio” south of town.

They see a discarded item or a piece of garbage on the sidewalk they feel compelled to pick it up and find a garbage bin to throw it into. I do not wait for someone else to come along and do it. I do it myself.

Because I have not cut the cord with the past. It is time to change.

No, I’m not just a frustrated actress. I did start acting in plays when I was eight. I kept on doing theatre in elementary, junior, and high school. I’m not sure I knew why I was doing what I was doing.

I used to teach photography to blind and visually impaired students. One student made photographs of the cracked sidewalks at her school and sent them to the superintendent as “proof” of the damage.

From early in life, I have felt a call to serve. Among my first opportunities was in working with the homeless in Denver in the early 1980’s.

My three-year-old nephew loves to sneak. As we act out the many physical gyrations of sneaking up on each other, he enjoys the kinesthetic fun of acting out the feelings associated with such a silly word as “sneaking.”

I grew up inside the Washington Beltway during the 1960s and, as a result of my experience there, I have been fundamentally concerned about the extent to which people (including myself) practice what we preach.  

I smile a lot because my happiness makes other people’s faces light up.


This essay and portrait is part of a community-art and leadership project called “wdydwyd?” Tony Deifell (KNLP-16) invited his colleagues in the Kellogg Fellowship to reflect on what motivates them to follow their personal and professional paths by answering the question, “Why do you do what you do?”

“wdydwyd?” has reached over 1.5 million people worldwide and it has been used for team-building at Google, Twitter, many colleges and universities, nonprofits and K-12 classrooms. And, according to Wired Magazine, “In Silicon Valley, that question has been the hottest team-building meme since Outward Bound – and it’s spreading.” For more information: http://wdydwyd.com/leadership.

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