Virtual Discussion with Steve Pemberton: His Chance in the World and Creating Chances for Others

Novels have the ability to transform, illustrate and even inspire a new beginning. Learning about a person’s point of view or life story can lead to unexpected opportunities.  For Judi Alperin King, founder of the Wily Network, her unexpected opportunity came after reading Steve Pemberton’s A Chance in the World. Having made the decision to launch the Wily Network, Judi was working on the program’s design. She was determined to address the key issues Steve outlined in the book for future Wily scholars. Motivated by the connection between Steve’s memoir and the nascent Wily Network, Judi tracked Steve down to ask him to serve in an advisory capacity for Wily. 

Each time they meet or Judi has the opportunity to hear Steve speak, she learns something new that informs her approach to supporting Wily scholars. On July 27th, the Wily Network hosted a virtual book club with Steve, with a discussion led by Carmen Ortiz-McGhee. The host for the evening was Wily Scholar J’Saun Bastien, a Boston College senior. 

Sitting in his home office filled with family photos and stacks of books, Steve Pemberton recalled his youth growing up in and out of foster care and longing for knowledge of his origins. Pemberton dreamed of having an understanding of family as he grew up without parental figures in foster homes that viewed him only as a way to make money. 

Nevertheless, he prioritized academic integrity and hard work, which led him to Boston College. Pemberton saw living on campus and socializing as an opportunity to construct a sense of belonging. But in reality, he felt disconnected from his peers who saw college as a chance to break away from their families; he was still trying to find his own. 

During his college years, Pemberton also struggled with his racial identity; he recognized the “template of blackness,” that people wanted to put him in while debating his lighter complexion and blue eyes. Pemberton explains that he “wasn’t white enough for the white kids but wasn’t black enough for the black kids,” which only perpetuated his struggling to find a sense of identity. 

Beyond his internal battles, Pemberton experienced physical isolation throughout the school year. In the winter, while his friends were home for the holidays, Pemberton was sneaking into his dorm room, with no heat as the college assumed the building to be vacant. Pemberton decided to layer up and endure the weather rather than call a friend;  he didn’t want to be a burden during the holidays, which “are for families, not someone like me.”

Following his graduation, Pemberton became a college admissions officer with the goal to broaden the viewpoint of those in decision-making positions. This role was crucial for Pemberton who believes that healing from a difficult upbringing is not just about internal processes but also how much you are willing to “pivot that healing into someone else’s troubles.”

Pemberton went on to describe this way of healing as alongside “lighthouses,” support structures made up of individuals who show up and help guide in times of vulnerability or when “you’re in the middle of a storm.” In these times of vulnerability, Pemberton explains, “you want to be quiet and navigate without much attention, but the lighthouse sees you, the difficulty of the storm before you, and the way through it.”

For Wily Scholars, the Wily Network is a lighthouse, meeting them as they navigate life under challenging circumstances and helping to move them forward.

As a successful writer and now a mentor himself, Pemberton applauded Wily’s ability to help scholars “find fullness in the hazards of life,” and ensure they’re seen for who they are. 

“Being seen is very impactful,” explains Pemberton, “I talk to [people] not in the language of [their] circumstances but in the language of [their] dreams even if [they themselves] can’t really see them.”

Speaking of people as being “at risk” or “underprivileged” inherently ingrains that belief into their conscience and perpetuates a sense of failure. Wily and Pemberton both recognize how a tone of pity can shift a student’s trajectory away from self-confidence and determination. 

Pemberton stated that the people who often felt sorry for him weren’t the ones who were going to help him, even if they acknowledged the hardship. True empowerment acknowledges struggle but emphasizes the new beginning coming from it. Supporters stand next to the person as the lighthouses they are and help navigate the situation as if they were equals.

This all too common narrative of pity is what drives Pemberton and those at Wily to reject that dynamic and instead ground encouragement in the possibilities of one’s goals, not the hindrances of one’s circumstances. 

Wily’s virtual book club with Steve Pemberton, which opened up meaningful dialogue about race, class, and opportunity, was an inspiring event for the Wily Network, the Scholars, alumni, and supporters. As a community, we intend to continue having these important conversations through book clubs and similar events in the future.

Home

She came to me last night in a dream. We were walking in Vermont, passing the circular tables & wooden chairs of Otter Creek Bakery. But the landscape was off. The bluegrass of the rural town had met the urban landscape of my childhood. Rolling fields and mom & pop shops mixed in with metal street lights and the Hudson. After I moved, she never visited me so she wouldn’t know the difference. The main reason why she hasn’t visited is bus tickets are $60 one way, but she also hasn’t visited because I haven’t invited her. 

“I want things to be different,” I tell her. We’re drifting along the sidewalk next to the glittering green plains. “I want you to be different.”

“What’s wrong?” she asks. A wooden bench materializes that would fit in nicely along the Coney Island boardwalk and she pulls me over. It reminds me that we haven’t been to the beach since I was a kid, or done really anything together for more than a couple of hours. She pats my shoulder like the mother she could’ve been. The mother she is “on good days,” when her disorder was more a gentle ripple than the crashing waves it usually is.

“I miss you,” I tell her. 

My teenhood was all about escaping my childhood home, running and running until I found somewhere that felt safe to stop. Now, I’m in my early twenties and I’m free from her — the cloudy Klonopin tirades, the crying at the door, the threats of calling the cops, the escaping to friends’ houses for weekends or longer. I am 21 and never have to live with my mother ever again. I spent my whole life escaping her only to find that I miss her. That she shows up in my dreams.

“I need you to change,” I tell her. “I need you to change so you can be part of my life.” 

Do you know what it’s like to ask for something you know you’re never going to get? Last night on the phone, a friend and I were talking about death, specifically the eventual death of our parents.

“I don’t want to spend my whole life in another country away from them,” he says. He has a lovely family, but such is his plague: international, torn between creating a life somewhere with more freedom or making the most of the life and limitations he has at home in Turkey. I feel for him. 

I wonder what he thinks of me: mom not only in the same country, but the same state and I want as little to do with her as possible. My mom and I talk every Friday for an hour and usually I’m so drained afterwards that I just lie down and stare at my ceiling. I wonder, what does he think of me? Would my situation be any different if my mom was 5,000 miles away? What would he think if he had a mom like mine? 

On her good days, my mom is bright & beautiful, beating these Brooklyn streets with her dark wavy bob and macabre wit. On her bad days, of which there are many, she makes me question whether it was better to have been born. If I ask her to change in real life — and I have — there will be one perfect week before it all comes crumbling down again. Do you know what it’s like to hope for something only to have it fail you every time? 

 This is the reality of my family that I carry on my back. Some days it’s so heavy on my chest I can’t get up and on other days I can barely remember its weight. I’m just waiting for the day when I can put my baggage down and walk away. Whether that’s with her or without her. 

 

My At-home Lab

I had access to everything at MIT: table saws, metal cutters, soldering stations, and every tool you can imagine. At home I have…well…I have a table and a hand drill?

As someone who loves tinkering, it has been especially hard to transition home without the usual resources I have on campus. Sure, I have to worry about not being with my friends, having to now do chores, and, of course, worry about the possible pneumonia and life-threatening conditions I can get from COVID-19. But where am I going to 3D print my motor mount?

Luckily for me, I’m a hoarder. Ever since my first hackathon, I’ve been collecting microcontrollers, sensors, perfboards, motors, sheet metal, and multiple sets of screwdrivers. I have essentially brought my entire lab home! And I want to give you a tour of it so you know just how much of a hoarder I am, and to take a chance to “ooo” and “ahh” at my multiple unfinished projects.

I’m an aerospace engineer, so it’s safe to assume I love drones. I have a pre-built airplane that I fly at the park down the street from my house, and I am currently making a quadcopter drone! The only problem is 3D printing the parts I need; thankfully, I can do so online!

Above: The pre-built airplane

Above is the 3D model for the quadcopter using SolidWorks

 

I’ve also been working on a few RC cars. I found five of them in a garbage can and couldn’t resist but to take them home, clean them up, and re-wire them. I have re-built three of them and the two others need 3D printed parts; the ultimate goal is for them to communicate with each other using Bluetooth so that you can control all of them with just one controller. To test them, and for some fun, my family and I set up a course in our basement made of PVC pipes!

 

Above: Two of the five RC cars, ready to go!

Above: The race track

 

And those are the large projects I’m working on. Classes start soon and while I can say I have thoroughly enjoyed my weeks off settling down at home and working on fun projects, I have to say I’m excited to be doing some coursework. Don’t get me wrong though, in a few days I will be right back at my workbench, tinkering with more electronics. For now, I have a drone to build! Stay safe & squeaky clean!

Study Abroad in Accra, Ghana

Last summer I studied abroad in Accra, Ghana. Though I’m a first-generation Nigerian, this was my first time on the continent and my first time being outside of the United States for a substantial amount of time. It was illuminating and fun and dynamic in ways I couldn’t have prepared myself for. Before visiting Accra, I hadn’t ever been in an environment where the general majority of the population was Black. My features were so familiar that I often got mistaken for a native resident, people would stop me in the street and ask me questions in Twi. It was a precious feeling of belonging that I wish every Black person could experience. In many ways, the closeness I felt was merely an aesthetic one: language barriers and cultural differences made communication and connection processes I would have to learn and grow into. But a global system of anti-blackness offers up the Black aesthetic as inherently criminal/other, and therefore a significant unifying quality of identification. I took a course at the University of Ghana on reproductive health and maternal mortality rates in Ghana and another course in Twi. As an art concentrator, I hadn’t taken many sociology courses and I found the reproductive health course fascinating as it covered statistics and trends about reproductive behavior in Ghana while also weighing the societal pressures that cause such behaviors. It definitely helped that our professor was a women’s rights advocate and activist and all-around brilliant woman. We visited the site where traditional Ghanaian kente cloth had been invented and harvested fresh cacao. We also visited Cape Coast’s slave castle, which is one of about forty slave castles, built on the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) by European imperialists. This was an extremely emotional experience especially since the castles are kept in near perfect conditions. It was used as a site in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We went to the beach, art markets and live concerts on weekends! It was one of my favorite summers.



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