‘My transformation was really a recollection of my truest self’: Reflections from Kenya

Open Quest stories

Chad Rochkind

07 April 2017

My trip to Kenya came at a time of great challenge. I had overextended myself, felt swamped with work, was planning a high-profile event, and the last thing I should be doing at that time was fly across the world.

However, this turned out to be exactly what I needed.

I could recount all of the interesting people I met, from my fellow travelers to hosts to facilitators, and I could go on and on about the beautiful landscape and spirit of Kenya — though I fear that I will devolve into cliché if I do so. People expect to be transformed by such experiences. Perhaps what makes my experience different is that my transformation was really more a reclamation of my truest self. In a few short days, I cut straight to the heart of my own world, and into the heart of the world itself. I witnessed babies in the process of being born, I saw orphan children filled with hope, and I listened to Massai warriors in traditional garb play Candy Crush as the sun descended— the chiming sounds of the cellphone game clinking against the crackling fire and the stars shining above in the sky over Africa, which is the same sky that shines above me as I write this in a café in Detroit where the person next to me is playing the same game, or one like it.

However, such recollections cannot do this trip justice. To the people reading this, perhaps the best I can offer you is the text of an email I wrote to my friend and colleague Jessica Meyer the night I came back from Karura Forest. There I learned of the brave and scrappy effort to save this piece of land, which if there are places where a spirit beyond this life dwells, it dwells in that place and amongst those people. After hearing the tales of Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Green Belt Movement that saved this sacred forest, I came back to my room, opened my computer, wrote these words, and clicked send.

Subject: Purpose

Dear Jessica,

You have been on my mind a lot on this journey to Kenya. I honestly had no idea what to expect when I packed my bags on Friday, except for the vaguest intuition that this trip was something that I must do, that it would somehow be cleansing and catalytic, and that is exactly what has transpired, though not necessarily in the exact form that I had imagined.

Leading into this trip I have been feeling spread thin, tired, and frankly unsure of the purpose of the broader mission of the work we are embarked on together. Meeting people from all over the world (I’m the only American — and only person from the Western Hemisphere here) has forced me to confront the nature of my own motivation, the way in which I approach work, and how I value people who are engaged with me on this path of purpose.

I’ve met a lot of incredible people on this trip, and invariably the question of challenges and opportunities consistently comes up between us. A common theme I keep bringing up is the weight I feel about how Human Scale Studio scaled this summer. I feel deep regret that the majority of people came away from their experience with a sour taste in their mouth, particularly because I feel real and deep pressure to ensure that everyone has, not only a positive experience at this company, but also a transformative one. However, even as I express regret, the conversation always turns to you. How I found a real partner in work, someone who I can rely on no matter the task, and someone who lives deeply within the mission of our work.

Jessica, I know it can be overwhelming, and exhausting, but I can’t tell you how much it means to me that we get to wake up everyday and work together. If anything, we scaled so fast because I got lucky on the first one.

Additionally, I want to apologize if my overall demeanor has been rather morose these last few weeks (or months!). As you know, I’ve been having a real struggle with how much longer I want to stay in Detroit, and that’s really not a burden you should have to bare.

Here’s what I’ve realized about Human Scale Studio:

Our purpose is to flip the script on how urban planning and development gets done across the globe. We can be based in Detroit, and do work in Detroit, but our work is immensely relevant to the world.

I can’t tell you what it’s like to sit across the table from the person who runs education and health investment in sub-Saharan Africa for the World Bank, and have him ask me for insight on the flaws of contemporary urban development. It’s impossible to articulate what it’s like to have the daughter of Wangari Maathai, the first female African Nobel Peace Prize Winner, tell me that our work is aligned with the spirit of her mother.

Jessica, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let us never forget that in our work. There is a whole planet that hopes and dreams for the better world that we strive for on a daily basis. We are not alone, despite the simple-minded naysayers we encounter. And even for them, I am feeling deep compassion and sadness for the smallness of the world they occupy.

I’m only halfway through this quest, but I’m feeling confident that while we will continue our work in Detroit, we will soon become a company with global reach. The situation in the developing world is similar to Detroit in so many ways, but whereas we are running up against the regulatory framework of the 20th Century, they are writing the playbook today.

I met a man in the education space of Nairobi who told me that his dream was that his students would be able to look eye-to-eye with students at Harvard and Oxford. I’m coming away from this hoping that my children will be able to stand eye-to-eye with his.

The world is a big place, but the heart of humanity is one of unity. The voices of division in Detroit and elsewhere may be loud, but they do not represent the essence of what it means to be human.

Jessica, thank you for being you, for continuously stepping up, for taking a leap on me and on Human Scale Studio, and for the numerous other deeds you will do in the future for my benefit that I may not even notice.

I hope you are well. Please say hi to everyone and send them my love.