Baseline: Stories about starting points

In this episode, we present two stories of baselines, or starting points. 

Part 1: Bioethicist Elizabeth Yuko tries to use her science training while reporting her sexual assault.

Jump to Elizabeth's story>>

Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer, specializing in the intersection of popular culture and ethics. She is an experienced communications strategist both for political campaigns and academic research, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the UN-affiliated NGO the Global Bioethics Initiative, and as an external expert for the European Research Council. She has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine, The Establishment, Playboy, Racked and The Advocate, among others. Yuko also hosts a comedy lecture show called Let's Get Ethical! at Q.E.D. in Queens, New York.

Part 2: Engineering student Selam Gano returns to her father’s home country of Ethiopia with the hopes of providing clean water to the village where he grew up.

Jump to Selam's story>>

Selam Gano is an MIT undergraduate studying Mechanical Engineering with Robotics. She also blogs professionally for MIT Admissions and around the internet. When not in class, she is an undergraduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab and the principal researcher for the Muti Water Project. Born in the United States to an immigrant family, she has her heritage in China and Ethiopia and speaks four languages. She has a passion for robots, international projects, and writing.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Elizabeth Yuko

About a year and a half ago, I was riding the train home on my daily commute, which was pretty long. It was from Queens to the Bronx, which in that time I came in contact, physical contact, with more people than I ever thought I would in my entire life, basically in my first commute. I was commuting to my job as a bioethicist. What that is, if you’re not super familiar with our work, we look at difficult ethical issues dealing with medicine and the human body. Basically anything that people don’t want to talk about is my job to talk about, like stem cell research, end-of-life issues, should you donate your kidney to your brother-in-law, abortion, any sort of reproductive things, that’s what I do. So I have a very popular seat next to me at dinner parties because people want to ask me all of their personal, ethical questions. I specialize in reproductive ethics and sexual health ethics so I spend a lot of time talking about particularly female genitalia. That, at this stage, is totally normal for me and not anything that I… it doesn’t sound strange at all.

Back to the train. I’m coming home from work one day with a friend of mine and it was rush hour. We’re on the seven train, in Queens. We were talking about… I remember exactly, we were talking about, how the PIX11 Seinfeld train, the seven train that was coded to look like Monk’s diner, was always going the opposite direction of rush hour and why that was. While that happened, I felt something brush up against my upper thigh and I was like, “Okay, well, whatever. It’s commuting time.”

Then, a few seconds later, I felt like a hand firmly and deliberately grab my vagina, and I was like, “That’s not good.” I turned to him, to the guy – shockingly, it was a man -- and I said, “Excuse me.” Not in like a sassy, assertive “excuse me” sort of way. It was tame and apologetic. He had a red T-shirt, pulled up over -- I can’t do that because I will break the microphone -- pulled up over his nose like a child who smelled something bad on a school bus. He just said sorry and scurried to the other side of the train.

My friend had no idea this had happened because none of it looked out of place for rush hour in New York. We were getting off the next stop anyway. We do have a lovely sushi dinner. I don’t mention it. Then I go home and start thinking about it and think, “Okay, well, if he does this to someone else, this is basically all your fault.” I felt guilty and ashamed. As a very outspoken feminist, I felt like I let my whole team down. How hard is it to find an MTA employee? Well, at my station, kind of hard, but I mean I should have done something.

I met the same friend for dinner, maybe two days later, and over a plate of beef brisket, lemon potatoes, and pickles, I told her what had happened while she was standing next to me. I don’t really remember what her reaction was because I was so concerned about the people around us because there were small children dining and I didn’t want to ruin their dining experience by them overhearing what had happened and my description of my own anatomy. So we cut that short.

She offered to go to the police with me because I decided to go to the police on the following day, on Saturday. No. I was like, “You know what, this is pretty easy. I have been watching a little Brooklyn 99, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a great time and meet a very handsome police officer who’s also funny. I’ve got this. It’s just a form. I’ll fill out the form.”

Elizabeth Yuko shares her story at the Kraine Theater in New York City in November 2016. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Elizabeth Yuko shares her story at the Kraine Theater in New York City in November 2016. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Next day, I go to my local precinct. Waltz in there. I go to the desk and explain to the person there and what looked like the rest of the precinct what had happened to me. They said, “Okay, just take a seat in the waiting room,” so I sat there for a while trying not to make eye contact because the other clientele I don’t think were also super into hearing about what happened. Eventually they lead me to a room. In this room, they sit me in a metal chair while the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” played in the background.

My first thought was, “Do they have a mix tape for sex crimes that they like pop in when you sit there?” I’m like, “No, don’t be ridiculous. No one does mix tapes anymore. There are CDs or playlists.” Like, whatever, this is not -- this is Queens. This is not somewhere else.

I sit down and a police officer comes in. He clearly did not want to be there. He sat down. His first question to me was, “Okay, what were you wearing?” I was like, “Okay, I was wearing a knee-length dress with a yellow cardigan. I was dressed like an old-timey secretary, like now. Also, it doesn’t matter if I was naked -- no one should be able to touch me.” He was like, “Right, but about that. You know, when you wear dresses, you just make your crotch a little bit more available to gropers.” I was like, “Oh, okay. Thank you, that’s a really good tip. Cool.”

Then we got into specifics, and he kept using words like between your legs or crotch. Just because I knew it annoyed him, I countered with vagina and labia. He got progressively more flustered and visibly upset by my use of the words and even called me out on it. He says, “Is there a reason you’re saying this?” I said, “Well, to be honest with you, it’s literally what I work with for a living. So yeah.” He’s like, “Okay, whatever, good for you.”

Then I learned a new term called “digital rape.” We went through this very explicitly. Apparently, if someone gets their hands up inside you, it’s digital rape. If they don’t, it is just forcible touching and they are two different crimes. We had a very extensive discussion about finger angling and everything you would never want to have on a Saturday afternoon with a  police officer at your local precinct.

To which, after we discussed that, he just says, “Well, I hope at least your boyfriend gets to touch you like that.” Yes, so this is going really well. I guess I felt like I was there to do my civic duty and I listened to their weird soundtrack. I’m playing along and answering all their dumb questions. That I was like, “No, this is not right.” I should mention that, from the very beginning, I was taking notes on the back of an envelope because I could tell something was really weird from the minute I got there. I’m a writer, so I thought, “Worst case scenario, I’ll get a funny story out of it.” Wish granted!

We talked about -- he’s really concerned about the sexual gratification of my hypothetical non-existent boyfriend. Once we established that, there was an administrative assistant who was also in the office. She said, “Well, honey, I could also tell you why you were targeted. It’s because you’re a larger woman,” and then she left and the police officer picked up where she left off and said, “Well, actually yes, it’s true. Gropers tend to gravitate towards larger women.” I was wondering, is that like a logistical thing just because there’s more of us to grab, like there’s more surface area, or do you just assume that we have such low self-esteem that we’re delighted to be groped in the subway because that’s like as much as we’re going to get for the year?

So yeah, that was not great. He was very concerned about -- he was like, “Where were you sitting?” I was like, “I was standing, it was rush hour.” He’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, next time try sitting down. It will make it harder for them to grab your crotch.” I’m like, “Oh my God! Thank you so much. That is amazing. That is fantastic advice. Great.” Then he said, “Did you happen to get a photo of the guy?” I was like, “I did not. Should I have?” and he was like, “It just would have made our job a lot easier if you would have gotten a photo of the guy.” I was like, “Okay, it happened really fast.” He was like, “Your phone does have a camera, doesn’t it?” I was like, “Yes. It is not 1998. My phone does have a camera, but it doesn’t matter.  I froze. I couldn’t do anything.

Yeah, so just to recap, things I was doing wrong: number one, wearing a dress. Number two, possessing female genitalia. Number three, being fat. Number four, standing up during rush hour. Number five, not taking a picture of this guy with my phone. As you could see, I was doing a lot of things wrong. Not a perfect victim, I guess.

Heends up being like, “Well, listen, because it happened in the subway, I actually can’t handle this for you. We have to give you the transit police.” I was like, “You mean I’ve been here for like two hours talking about my vagina with you for no reason?” and he was basically like yeah. But silver lining everybody, silver lining! He said that he has never had that much fun filling out a sexual assault report in his career, thank you, and he does not laugh that much at work regardless of the crime. Pretty great. Then he said he was finishing his shift then he said it was a shame that I had to continue the process with the transit police because he wanted to invite me to a barbecue at his mother’s house.

We’re now engaged. No, I’m just kidding. We’re not. Honey, stand up in the back! No.

He leaves and the transit cop comes and there are two of them to escort me to Regal Park, the transit police station. It was one of the first warm days of the year and they said, “Listen, our squad car’s air conditioning is broken. We have a van.” I said, “Oh, all right, okay.” I sat in the back of essentially a paddy wagon where the criminal sat in the back behind the little bars and they’re in the front, and I’m like yelling at them through the bars talking about what happened and what good restaurants to go to on Queens Boulevard. They like Ben’s Kosher Deli, should you want to know.

They drop me off at the police station, but I didn’t see a police station. They then explained to me that the transit police are located underground in a subway station. That means when you’re the victim of a crime on the subway, you must then return to a subway station to report the crime. They’re really into triggers, I guess, and making sure not to retraumatize people, because this was -- it was amazing. I was like, “Okay, fantastic.”

I go down there, and I told tell my story to two more police officers. I got my first empathetic one of the day. He said that he has a wife and two college-aged daughters, therefore he understands why this is not okay. I’m like, “Cool, okay, that’s great.” This shouldn’t be a prerequisite, but cool. I finish this up. I was late for my friend’s birthday, blah, blah, blah. The next day, I write up all my notes from my envelope and do nothing with this narrative for about a year and a half. Then I decided last year I wanted to publish it because I was starting to write a little bit more and one of the many nationally televised sexual assaults happened and I’m like, “I should say something.”

I publish an essay with Refinery 29, but before it came out, they said, “We’re contacting the NYPD for comment. Just to warn you, they’ll probably say something. I’m like, “Okay, I didn’t do anything wrong. They thought I did.” It was… as someone with anxiety, I did not -- this wasn’t great. Then they said, “We’re getting our legal team involved. We’re going to have you on media watch. People are probably going to want to talk to you. This will be a whole thing.” So that got me all worked up, and there’s no backing out now, it was going in.

It was published and nothing happened at all. The NYPD did not even give like a fake press release or like an insincere PR apology, nothing. They just declined to comment. I got a lot of really fun internet comments regarding my weight and my ability to attract men on the subway. Oh! Sorry, backtrack one second, the charmer -- my fiancé -- when we were having our little chat there, he asked -- I know you’re not supposed to go out of order in the story, but I just thought of this -- he said, “Is this the first time this has happened to you?” I said, “No, it’s actually happened a few different times.” He said, “Well, what are you doing to attract this sort of behavior?” We went over again the checklist of things I should and shouldn’t do. He said, “Well, I guess a lot of men just find you attractive,” and I was like, “Yes, but they’re sex offenders.” So hmm.

Anyway, now we’re back in the present thing. I publish the essay and there’s no comments. I start emailing it to everyone in the NYPD: the commissioner, the mayor, no responses. The responses I do get are unsolicited advice from everyone from my prom date from the late nineties who I have not seen since then to literally anyone else. The top three suggestions were: number one, carry pepper spray. Number two, purchase and carry a gun at all times, and number three, procure a hood and aviator sunglasses and wear them constantly ala the Unabomber.

If I did all of these things, in addition to not wearing a dress, not having a vagina, and not going on a subway during rush hour, sitting down, taking pictures, like I should be fine. Yes, and then I tried to publish another article, kind of a follow-up on things to say and not say to people who’ve been sexually assaulted -- this is this past summer -- and all these editors told me, “You know what, we’re actually finished with sexual assault as a conversation. We’ve sort of moved on as a society.”

Then, a few weeks later, a little video surfaced featuring our Republican nominee for president discussing one of his extracurricular hobbies of pussy grabbing, and all of a sudden I was a hot commodity and the spokesperson for vagina grabs. That was an unexpected twist and I went to all these people who told me it was over and they were like, “Now we want to talk to you.” Great. Just for good measure, I tweeted the NYPD this afternoon with the helpful tips of what to say and not to say to people who’ve been sexually assaulted, so maybe one day they will get back to me.

Part 2: Selam Gano

My father is from Ethiopia; it’s a country in East Africa. The first time I went there, I was seven, and I think I was really too young to notice the differences between American society and a rural, agricultural Ethiopian society, because my father is from a very small region in the south called Kaffa that has its own language and culture. I don’t really remember all of those differences. All that I really remember was having a lot of fun. I rode horses because there were no roads for cars. I herded cattle and milked cattle and ran barefoot with my cousins down into the forest and into the closest river to fetch water, because there was no running water in Kaffa. So we would fetch it from the river and bring it back to the house, and in fact there is no running water in Kaffa.

The first time I went, I was so young and just took everything for granted that I really connected with my family there, with the village that my father is from and with our region Kaffa. So when I was a sophomore at MIT -- last year, in fact -- I decided to embark on a water project to see what could be done about some of these differences that I started to notice, and particularly that of water. I embarked on a project in a specific village in Kaffa called Muti and it’s actually the village where my father went to middle school when he was growing up.

Though I say village, Muti actually has a population of fifteen thousand people spread over a large area; again, very agricultural and rural. If these people aren’t getting their water from a spring or a river, they’re getting it from the structure called a spring protection, which is a type of structure that you build where you cover surface water such as a river or literally like a mountain spring, and if you do it in a way such that no organic material or contaminants get inside, then the soil and the sediment of the earth is actually a very good filter, and you can get very clean, drinkable water from that, even by the standards of Americans and of the United States.

The problem with this was that, previously, there were seven spring protections built in Muti. Now only one of them still works. They lasted anywhere between three years to three months, so they weren’t very sustainable, or at least not as sustainable as it could be. And so my goal was really to find a solution that would last longer and be more worth the investment and the effort and hopefully expand that to the rest of the region in Kaffa.

So I applied to a lot of grants at MIT and spoke to a lot of people and actually got connected with a professor in civil engineering who advises me on this project. In January 2016, I went to Ethiopia to see if it was even feasible, scope out the area. Again, it’s so rural and isn’t connected to very many resources, let alone MIT. I went there to make those connections and do some research.

What I really remember from that trip was not all the research or the technical decisions we made, and we made a lot of them. We decided in fact, actually, to build a hand-dug well, which is a structure that we hoped would be more robust and would last longer than the spring protections, without requiring too many more resources or much higher cost. But what I really took from that trip was the people that I met. They were so unlike other people I’d met. I went to Ethiopia by myself and met all these young, urban professionals in the capital city, Addis Ababa.

One of them is actually this guy named Leul. He worked with an NGO in Ethiopia called Drop of Water that I was really excited about because Drop of Water was started by Ethiopian students at Mekelle University. It was also largely funded from within the nation and they served a lot of regions in the north and were building wells and were doing water projects there. And so it was very much for Ethiopians and by Ethiopians. Leul also had a start-up in Addis Ababa, which is something that just would have been a non-sequitur like seven years ago.

So it was really invigorating to speak with him and hear what it was like to work with an NGO in modern Ethiopia and also be starting a start-up really on the crest of all the economic development that had happened. He had a lot to say about what was better now and what was more capable now than ever had been before or even some things that maybe were better in the past. Perhaps most importantly, what it meant to be Ethiopian in this modern age, when everything was changing so quickly and, perhaps most particularly, how to maintain that Ethiopian culture in the face of westernization or modernization, or were those two really just the same thing?

Selam Gano shares her story at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock

Selam Gano shares her story at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock

I’d left that trip really invigorated by Leul and others I’d met who had all this energy and all this purpose and were doing all these things in Ethiopia, which was really different from the Ethiopian Americans I grew up around, because they were older and understandably more conservative or pessimistic about economic or political changes in the nation, I think for very good reasons. But that enthusiasm and that optimism really carried me forward through finishing my sophomore year at MIT when I came back and applying for more grants and really nailing down this plan for this well and raising enough to go back to Ethiopia actually and really this time go there to plan the details of the well and get it built in the fall.

I landed in the capital city, Addis Ababa, for my second trip about three months ago, in August. I got off the airplane and I was in the taxi back to my aunt’s house with my cousin Gideon, who came to pick me up. He turns to me and he says, “The internet has been down for the last two days and we don’t know when it’s going to go back up.” He had meant that the internet had been shut down in the entire nation. In the entire nation of Ethiopia, you could not use email or social media or internet calling services. I could not communicate with anyone back in the United States, which of course had huge implications for our project, because there were people we needed to be communicating with, but also just for safety. How would we communicate with people back there? International calling was expensive and sometimes difficult, and it was also a symptom that something had seriously gone wrong or been happening that I hadn’t heard about until I landed there. That was three months ago.

Ethiopia is currently under a state of emergency. It’s a long and complicated situation, but the short version is basically that the government is led by mostly Tigray people, which is a cultural group in Ethiopia, and there’s two other large cultural groups, Amhara and Oromo, backed by several other Ethiopians, whether as just as individuals or other groups, who believe that the government is really marginalizing and oppressing people with some of the infrastructure they’ve built in more rural regions, and so they started protesting, which turned into larger conflicts and which led to violence and many deaths.

In fact, I also lead the Ethiopian-Eritrean Students Association at MIT and there was an exec board meeting we had just to plan an event like we often do, for people around MIT. We weren’t really even talking about this subject, but many of them are international students who only came to the United States to go to college. The end of that meeting really just devolved into people worrying about their families, their parents, arguing [about] whether other people getting involved, the diaspora Ethiopians, were doing the right thing. After this kind of back and forth, just silence.

With our project, we were actually able to do most of the things that we needed to do. I talked to a contractor while I was in Ethiopia. Fortunately, Kaffa is not too politically important or anything. We acquired the materials that we needed, chose the type of pump for the well, set up everything, but there’s still things that needed to happen after I came back to MIT. Contracts that needed to be sent and final agreements that became so much harder because of these communication issues, many of which actually haven’t happened yet. There’s the strange feeling of accomplishing something but not really doing that final step.

It just made everything so uncertain. In fact, the only thing that I’m really certain of at this point is that you have to keep going. I will keep going with this project and all those Ethiopian MIT students will keep going, as will all those young professionals in Addis Ababa. We are all people who look forward to giving back to our communities in ways such as these: starting projects or completing projects, starting businesses and start-ups and non-profits and really showing the world that Ethiopia and many other African countries are capable of so much more than others might think. In these discouraging situations, sometimes that’s all there is, just supporting each other in this unglamorous, constant, relentless push forward. Thank you.