Home: Stories about science and community

This week, we present two stories about finding community with science.

Part 1: Keoni Mahelona leaves his home in Hawaii in pursuit of science.

Jump to Keoni’s story >>

Aloha. O Keoni koʻu inoa. No Hawaiʻi au. I tēnei wā, noho au i Taipā. Keoni Mahelona is a melting pot of diversity in so many ways -- ethnicity, education, hobbies, sexuality, and possibly personality hahahahaha. He's had a seemingly random journey through engineering, business, and science that's somehow thrown him into media. Today he works at a Māori social enterprise whose mission is to promote and preserve te reo Māori o Muriwhenua, and they use science and innovation to create the tools they need to achieve their mission. He hopes his story will encourage other Māori and Pacific Islanders to pursue a future in STEM.  

Part 2: After growing up wealthy, Chuck Collins's thinking is transformed by his work with mobile home park tenants.

Jump to Chuck’s story >>

Chuck Collins is an organizer, agitator, researcher and storyteller based at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org, a global web site focused on the income and wealth divide. He is author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good. In his late twenties he worked with residents of mobile home parks around New England to buy their parks as cooperatives. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Keoni Mahelona

As a child, I was always afraid of sharks in the ocean.  Any little sign that was there that could perhaps be a shark would really give me a fright.  So if there was a black spot on the bottom of the ocean floor, I'd get a fright.  If there was this cusp of a wave that could be a shark’s finish, I get a fright.  Even when I didn’t see sort of gave me the thought that there could be a shark there and that just terrified me. 

I struggled with this because, as a native Hawaiian, I thought, “Why am I afraid of sharks?”  Because Hawaiians shouldn’t be afraid of sharks.  Sharks are our protectors.  You see, as a native Hawaiian sharks, can be known as aumakua.  An aumakua is kind of like a kaitiaki.  They're guardian.  They're an ancestor who’s been reincarnated in this world to protect us. 

And there's stories like this all throughout Hawaii.  In fact, my great grandmother was known to swim, literally swim with sharks in Pearl Harbor, and that was before it was bombed and drenched and all that stuff. 

So you’d think that I wouldn’t have any anxiety in the water around sharks when we got this rich history around sharks being our protectors.  Even to this day, I still get a fright in the ocean.  I do a lot of ocean swimming here in Aotearoa and I do hope that the Maori sharks talk to the Hawaiian sharks so when they see me they’d be like, “Oh, he's cool.  He's Hawaiian.” 

I don't know if it was, say, Jaws or news outlets publishing stories about people being eaten alive by sharks, but something instilled this sense of fear in me.  And it angers me that my instincts in the water are governed by these western influences rather than the stories of my tūpuna.

We had a lot of great stories in our family, like rich stories about our history.  Whether they're stories about our indigenous culture or stories that sort of like reason with the Western world, I hadn’t fact checked the stories of my tūpuna and I don’t intend on.  But regardless, the stories really shaped my view of the world as a child. 

So my grandfather was an engineer. He got into Notre Dame at the age of sixteen, so apparently he was pretty smart.  When New York had its blackout in 1960-something, the story goes that my grandfather had this device.  He went to the people in New York and said, “Hey, look.  I've got this device and it can really solve your energy problems.” 

Apparently, Big Brother, somebody didn’t like this so he was threatened over possessing this sort of technology.  I just want to pause there because my grandfather sounds pretty cool, right?  He's like this engineer.  He's got this really cool device that could save the world, and he's being threatened.  It’s sort of like the perfect grandfather you can want.  He's sort of like Rick, from Rick and Morty. 

But the threats got so bad that my grandfather committed suicide and I never got to meet him.  So as a child, this story really intrigued me and I thought, “What was it?  What was it that my grandfather invented?  Was it a perpetual energy machine?  Can I one day find his invention and like use it to save the world or get rich or maybe do both, because you can do that these days?” 

So I was just always inspired by this story and it motivated me to want to be an inventor.  I remember as a kid I had this one idea, and my dad loved it.  It was this turbine, like wind turbine, that you would put on a car, because when you drive a car it creates a lot of wind.  So it would capture this wind and then convert it back into energy.  So it’s like this really cool device.  Obviously I didn’t understand the Laws of Thermodynamics when I was ten. 

But aside from those impractical ideas, we had a lot of practical creations growing up.  My family, we were really rich in love and support but we were poor in material things so we just had to make things work.  My sister and I grew up in what we call a shack.  It was a house that my father built with his own hands.  It’s one of those houses you just sort of keep adding on and adding on as you have the money to. 

It didn’t have any rooms.  The bathroom didn’t even have a door, which is awkward when you have guests over.  And we didn’t have mains electricity, but we did have a generator. 

So we lived in a hole.  I mean a literal hole, not a figurative one, because we sort of had this TV antenna and it had to be put up on a hill just so it can pick up some stations from the nearby island.  And one station that we could pick up it just so happened to have Star Trek. 

So as a young kid, I started watching Star Trek, and it was like TNG, this is was sort of ’92, ’93 and it was shit. Deep Space Nine came along and it’s cool.  It looks a little more realistic.  They're using models and stuff in their visual effects.  And then there was this thing Voyager, and I started watching Voyager and I fell in love with Voyager

I know there's a lot of Voyager haters out there, and I’m adlibbing now.  They gave me a time restriction and I’m totally going to go over it.  But how many of you have actually watched Star Trek: Voyager?  Well, that’s all right.  It’s really frickin’ good. 

Go onto Netflix and binge watch Voyager.  There's some really great storytelling there.  You can learn about how to run a company and work together as a team.  You'll learn great words like “licentious.” Tuvok used that word.  It’s a great word.  I just learned it three months ago.  And sexually promiscuous.  We’ll get to that part later. 

So I really fell in love with Voyager and it was critical that every Monday night at seven we had gas in that generator so I could watch my program.  And my dad knew this.  So I'd be there watching my program and, all of a sudden, the generator it makes this noise when it’s running out of gas.  It sort of goes dididididididuh.  That’s like it’s operating normally.  And then it kind of goes didididididoo – didididididoo – dididididi, and that was a sign to me that this generator is running out of gas. 

So I would wait for a commercial break, run outside and scream at the top of my lungs, “Dad, the generator is running out of gas!” 

The program would come back on so I'd run back inside to watch Voyager and then it’s going dididididoo – dididididoo – dididi… so it gets more frequent and I’m like, “Oh, my God, the generator is gonna die.”  So I would just scream and scream until, finally, my dad would top the generator. 

And he always had a spare can of gas ready for me on a Monday night.  Sometimes he'd forget.  And when he forgot he would actually siphon gas out of the car just so I can watch my program. 

So in hindsight, I actually had a really exceptional and loving upbringing.  My family showed that to us through their reactions.  Those sort of stories really helped me to see the greatness and the resourcefulness of my family.  But there were a few stories that weren’t so great and I think it was those negative ones that sort of really had an effect on me. 

So my dad always drove this junk.  The junk is like a really crappy car that he could make go because he was a self-taught mechanic.  This car had a hard time going up the hill and he said it had something to do with the gas filter. 

So he had this little thing he'd do where he'd get like this spanner and bang the bottom of this car just to get the gas filter working again.  I don't know.  Maybe he couldn’t buy a new one.  Somehow this worked. 

So one day we’re driving up the hill and, sure enough, the car starts dying.  So we pull over.  The spanner is not in the car and he makes me run up and down this hill to look for a stone just so I can climb into the car and just bang this gas filter so we can get going again.  That’s the sort of thing that I had to experience and I hated it.  I was so embarrassed I just dreaded like one of my friends would see me on the side of the road.  Like, “What’s Keoni up to?” 

And I would make my dad take me to school early in the mornings so that my friends didn’t know that we were poor and that we had this junk.  And my sister didn’t like to go early so sometimes he would take her later and bring me earlier just so no one would see us like show up in this junk car, but sometimes we just didn’t have a choice.  Dad would just have to take us to school at the right time and the car would make so much noise everyone would know, “Ah, here comes the Mahelonas.  Late again.” 

So I remember this day really clearly.  My sister and I we looked at each other and we said, “Look, we do not want to be poor when we grow up.  We don’t want to live in a shack.  We don’t want our parents to live in a shack so let’s go to school, get really smart, get a good education, get a job and like do well.”  And we did just that. 

But since then, my life has taken many unexpected turns.  I had this dream as this young brown boy of inventing the warp drive.  This is that Star Trek influence.  And that really propelled me into high school and wanting to do science and wanting to do engineering.  I wanted to be astronauts because astronauts go into space, but I sort of thought you had to go to the Air Force Academy to do that.  And who the hell wants to go to the Air Force Academy? 

But then I realized, “Hey, engineers can go into space, especially ones from MIT,” so I was like, “I gotta go to MIT.  That’s the only way I’m gonna get into space.” 

So I worked my ass off through high school, got in MIT and then this other college came up.  It was called Olin.  It was sort of a new sort of risky college.  I actually flipped a coin because I couldn’t make up my mind.  I did think some other things through but the coin just sort of validated my decision, if you will. 

So I went to Olin.  I didn’t know what degree I was going to do.  I ended up deciding on mechanical engineering because the professors were kind of cool, some of them were pretty hot, and it was the sort of safer multidisciplinary degree to pick. 

So how did I go from this young, brown boy who wants to invent the warp drive to just plain old chocolate mechanical engineer?  It’s as if the more I learned about science and engineering, the more I realized my wildest dreams were very likely improbable.  That really affected me. 

But throughout my journey and my careers, there would be these perturbations in my reality, these inexplicable things that would happen that would just make me think, “Is there more than just science that’s going on here?” 

So when I first came to New Zealand on a study abroad, I had déjà vu left and right.  I would see people that I thought I knew, but I didn’t.  I had never seen them before.  And later, I would sort of meet these people, I would meet their families and get to know them and they‘d be a really important part of my time here in Aotearoa.  This was just happening over and over again.  So later on in life I thought I might come back to New Zealand to study and live.

And again, I had these signs.  Like one day, my dad, he was ill with pneumonia and he just gets up and he's like, “I gotta go to New Zealand.  I gotta go to New Zealand.”  So my mom rings me and tells me this story out of nowhere. 

I was living in Boston at the time working at a robotics company and I would just be walking down the street or like working in my garden and I'd get this whiff, like something would just trigger my brain and remind me of New Zealand.  There was no mānuka around, there was nothing in Boston that could possibly be New Zealand, but I would just have these connections.  monecu

Then one day I had a dream.  In that dream I was actually here in Wellington and I met this Maori boy.  He actually turned out to be the man of my dreams.  And so I thought, “Hah, maybe I’m doing the right thing.  Maybe I need to go to New Zealand.” 

So I came back to New Zealand.  I was studying physics at Victoria.  I notice Victoria is here so I won’t say much about that, but it was a tough time.  I was like, “What am I doing here?  It’s Wellington.”  My flat mates kind of wanted me to move out. 

I was sort of pursuing somebody and, one day, I just was at a barbecue and I met this Maori boy.  I took him for a ride in my bike, and it’s a really great story so buy me some beers afterwards and I'll divulge.  But basically after two weeks I moved in. 

So here I am an indigenous scientist.  I make decisions based on facts and data and good research but I also make decisions based on the inexplicable things that somehow have a sense of meaning to me.  I think that’s really important.  I think a lot of scientists you can be quite hardnosed and data-driven but I think, if you can take those risks, it can really add to research and innovation. 

And I have this story that I tell myself, and maybe it’s to help me justify my life choices, as this kōrero that I say that, “Things happen in a roundabout way.” 

So I came here to New Zealand to study nanotechnology so I could become this like filthy rich entrepreneur.  That didn’t happen.  Then I started working on some water technologies, which involved nanotechnology.  I thought, “Hey, water is sort of like the next gold.  I could really do a lot of good with this technology.” 

That startup died in three months.  It was painful. 

Then my partner needed some help at his organization that he works at, which is Te Reo Irirangi o te Hiku o te Ika. We’re a iwi radio broadcaster.  When I started working there, I saw opportunities everywhere. 

So right now, our sort of new project, and I might kind of launch this tonight, is we’re going to use machine learning to help us revitalize te reo Maori, to accelerate the speed at which we can revitalize te reo Maori. 

So here I am revalidating to myself that maybe I was destined to be here in new Zealand to work on this project and that everything that happened along the way has sort of led up to this.  I’m not this filthy rich entrepreneur and I won’t be able to buy back the land in Hawaii so I can give it to my people, but I’m learning that these sorts of technologies are really important to indigenous people to help us to revitalize our sense of identity and sovereignty.  And while America still occupies our country, I see a lot of value in what we’re doing today.  That makes me happy. 

I don't think I would have been here if it wasn’t for taking those risks.  If it wasn’t for that story that my grandfather or my grandmother might have been doing something that didn’t seem very factual, I don’t think I would have been here today and I wouldn’t be working on this really cool project.  So yeah, I think I’m pretty content with things right now.  I’m still working on that warp drive thing, so thank you.

Part 2: Chuck Collins

When I was in my mid-twenties, I had a job working with mobile home park tenants who were trying to buy their mobile home parks and own them as resident-owned cooperatives.  I worked all over New England as land values were rising and these mobile home parks were at risk.  I worked with those tenants. 

I got a call from a group in Bernardston, Massachusetts, thirty mobile home park residents whose park was up for sale and they needed help.  One thing you should know is in my mid-twenties I looked incredibly young.  I looked like I was about seventeen.  I had painful skin acne.  I was fairly skinny and awkward. 

So I remember the first time I met with the leaders of this resident group.  They sort of looked at me like, “This high school student with shaggy hair and bad skin is gonna help us save our homes?”  But they came to trust me. 

I think part of what happened is I interviewed each of them about their financial situations, so I sort of knew all their personal financial secrets.  And in those conversations I really got to know people.  I knew what their savings were, I knew what their incomes were.  Because I was trying to figure out, did they have enough money?  Were there enough people there who were going to contribute to a down payment towards the purchase of the park? 

So after I had done my analysis, we had a meeting with the nine leaders of this mobile home park.  We were meeting in Harlan and Mary Parro’s double-wide mobile home with this group of leaders.  I was actually personally in agony at that moment for two reasons. 

The first reason is I had interviewed this group and determined that they really didn’t have enough money, that there were a third of them that were sort of retirees with nest eggs but there was another third that had like zero or negative net worth to fall back on.  It was not a wealthy group and they were about $35,000 short of the funds they needed to be able to buy that park.  Only a third of them maybe could buy their own shares. 

So I was in agony because I was going to have to break this news to them. 

The other reason I was in agony, however, was that I had a secret.  I knew all their financial secrets but they had no idea that I was a wealthy young man, that when I was twenty-one I had inherited a substantial amount of money, my family is from a meat-packing family from the Midwest and I had this wealth.  I actually was thinking, “Well, $35,000.  I could personally write a check to cover that gap.”  I could even pretend that, “Oh, look, I got a grant from somewhere else.”

And I was actually thinking that I might do it, that I might actually because I'd come to really appreciate just how vulnerable they felt, what a community they had built together, and that all of that was at risk. 

So I broke the news to Harlan and the whole group of nine leaders.  I said, “Here’s the situation.  $35,000 gap.”  There was this little pall in the room. 

Then this guy Reggie said, “Well, I have enough to buy my share and I have another $6,000 that I could put into the purchase.”  And I’m like, That’s all his money.

And then the Dundorfs, this couple said, “Well, we have enough to buy our share and we have another $7,000 that we can put in towards the purchase.” 

And around the room this group went.  And because I’m the only person who knows their own individual private financial information, I happen to know that they are putting everything they have on the table.  I had not factored that into my assessment. 

And it came to Harlan and Mary, and Harlan, and Mary said, “We've talked about this, Mary and I,” Harlan says.  “And we can buy our share and we’re gonna buy Mrs. Rivas’s share confidentially and privately.  I don't want anyone to share that in order to protect her privacy and her dignity.” 

I happen to know that that was all Harlan and Mary’s nest egg, and that Mrs. Rivas is one of the people who’s probably going to have to move if the cost of the park went up at all. 

Then they were just a couple of thousand dollars short and Harlan and Mary’s daughter came in.  She worked at a bank and she said, “I can put in the rest,” and they cheered.  They had done it. 

And they literally pulled out their checkbooks.  And because we hadn’t opened up a bank account yet, they just wrote the checks out to me.  They emptied their bank accounts entirely, handing me the checks, trusting me to put them and take them to the bank.  And as I drove away, my hands were trembling and my brain was seizing up because I actually had never seen anything like it. 

The day came.  The good news is they closed.  They bought the park.  The Bernardston mobile home resident-owned park was formed.  And at the day of the closing at the law office, all forty-five residents wedged into the office.  The men had cigars like they were proud parents.  They were like, “What are we gonna buy next?  The Pine Cone Diner’s up for sale.” 

Harlan says to the Greenfield Recorder newspaper, the headline is, “We are hostage no more.  We are the Israelites who have been wandering in the desert but we just bought the land from pharaoh.” 

Mary came up to me and she said, “You're a smart young man.  You should go to college.”  I’m like I’m in my mid-twenties, you know. 

She said, “You could probably get a job on Wall Street where you could make a lot of money.  I don't see why you're hanging around with a bunch of old fogies like us.” 

I said, “Actually, I can’t think of anywhere I'd rather be today.” 

Then she kind of leaned over in a very maternal way and she said, “Have you ever tried Noxzema for your skin?” 

I was like, “Yeah.” 

Something happened in that day for me.  Something shifted.  I would sometimes think I had a change of heart.  My brain scientist friend would say that actually my brain was rewired in that moment.  There was something about the firing of my mirror neurons, the way in which I was being exposed and identifying with a whole different group of people. 

You see, I grew up in a wealthy community.  People were generous, people were charitable, but I had never actually had this experience of solidarity, of people being like all-in for each other.  My brain scientist friend says there's a part of our brain called the right supramarginal gyrus, which is the part of our brain where we begin to differentiate ourselves from others.  We begin to understand what it means to walk in other people’s shoes. 

What they said is if you grow up in an affluent community where you don’t experience a lot of reciprocity and helping each other with needs, that part of your brain is actually underdeveloped.  It’s under-stimulated.  And what I was experiencing was an explosion.  I didn’t understand any of that brain science.  What I knew was I wanted what those people had.  I wanted to have that kind of community. 

I began to understand that actually having this wealth was a barrier to being in a reciprocal community, in a community of solidarity.  So I thought, as any 26-year-old might in that situation, maybe I should give this wealth away. 

So I wrote my parents a letter with my intention.  I said, “Thank you for these opportunities.  I was able to go to college without any debt, but I see these other needs out there and I actually think this money is a barrier to my own development.” 

Well, a couple of days later when time went by, this was back when you send letters with stamps and went to Michigan, so my father called up and he said, “You haven't given away the money yet, have you?” 

I said, “No.” 

He says, “Well, I'd like to come and talk to you about this.” 

I said, “Sure.” 

So he actually came to visit me here in Massachusetts.  We took some long walks but at one point he said, “You know, you grew up in a sheltered environment.  Do you understand?  Bad things can happen.  You might wish you kept that money.  For instance, you're single.  But what if someday you have a partner and that partner has an illness.  Wouldn’t you wish you had that money? 

Or what if you have a child someday and that child has a special need.  You're gonna wish you had that money as a cushion to help that situation.  Have you thought about that?” 

And I said, “Well, Dad, I have.  If that were to happen, then I would be in the same boat as 99 percent of the people I know.  I would have to get help.  That’s what people do.” 

He said, “Yeah, but in the end, you would probably have to fall back on government and that’s a lousy and tattered safety net.” 

To which I said, “Well, maybe I would have a very personal stake in fighting to make that a better safety net.” 

To which he wisely replied, “Oi, so idealistic.” 

Now, I have children in my 20s now and I always say to them, “Your brain is still developing.”  And that it’s true.  My brain was developing and my heart was developing.  In that moment, though, my dad said, “You know what?  I understand.  No strings attached.  I love you.  You'll always be my son.” 

So with that I went home to the National Bank of Detroit, I went to the trust office, I saw my trust advisor, this woman Glenda Hallon, African-American woman from Detroit who is a civic leader to this day, and I’m signing the papers to transfer this wealth that’s in my name to a couple of foundations. 

She sort of looks at me.  She says, “Are you doing this out of altruism?”

I said, “No, actually I think this is in my selfish interest.” 

She's like, “Hmmm.  Are you gonna be okay?” 

I sighed, “I think so.  I mean, everybody’s acting like I’m jumping off a cliff here, but I think I’m gonna be okay”. 

To be honest, I had no clue as to how much other advantage I had wired into my life.  I gave this wealth away but there's this flow, four generations of economic stability, I’m white, I’m male, debt-free college education, huge advantage, access to healthcare, social network, social capital, all of that just flowing and hardwired into my life the way privilege works.  But in that moment, it felt like I was taking a leap. 

So I went back to my job working with mobile home park residents all over New England and several months went by and then something bad happened, which is the house I was living in burned down.  No one was hurt but I was completely disoriented.  In fact, I lost every piece of paper that said who I was.  I had to reconstruct it all.  

And the night of the fire, the fire department dumped millions of gallons of water into this house.  The next morning, my housemate Greg and I are kind of standing in this charred shell of a house and four cars pull up.  Out of those cars come ten of these Bernardston mobile home park residents.  And they have casseroles and trash bags and shovels and they've come to help us put our lives back together.  In that moment I thought, “I think I’m gonna be okay, and I think I’m getting what I want.” 

Thank you.