…You are the only person in the world with your exact experiences and perspectives. The only one. And that’s important to remember, because the same things that might make you feel different also give you distinct and important insights into what works, what matters, and what’s possible. Find the point at which your skills, your interests, your needs, and the needs of the world meet. Your point of view and participation are essential if we’re going to build a better future for ourselves and the planet.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Fine Sasse.
Stephanie is a multi-disciplinary designer and curator whose work unites social impact, science, technology, play, and the arts. Her projects range from producing an interactive art exhibition on human bias to developing a multisensory program to teach students about the brain to creating a storytelling campaign to promote diverse representation in STEM fields. Trained in neuroscience and psychology at Harvard University, she has also co-published on human behavior in leading academic journals, created and taught award-winning courses on media literacy and science communication, and piloted a social platform to connect scientists with the public.
In 2017, she became a lead organizer of the March for Science (MFS) in San Francisco and Washington, DC; a movement that mobilized over one million supporters worldwide. She co-authored “Science Not Silence”, an internationally-recognized collection of science advocacy stories released by MIT Press in Spring 2018. In addition, she conceptualized and produced MFS’s SIGNS (Science in Government, Institutions & Society) Summit, which connected and trained global grassroots leaders in support of equitable, evidence-based policy.
Most recently, Stephanie founded The Plenary, Co., a nonprofit that makes current issues more accessible through immersive, social, and interactive experiences. She is currently developing a transmedia card game on the future of food and an experiential exhibition on sustainability.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My childhood was made up of what might seem like opposites attracting. I was raised in Memphis, Tennessee by a traditional Mormon dad and a liberal Jewish mom, both of whom were new to the South. Neither of them pushed their ideas onto the other, so I had the benefit of being taught from a young age that there is often more than one truth and
more than one valid perspective. I was constantly juggling lots of different ways of looking at the world, and that was reflected in my interests. I loved writing and making art just as much as I loved exploring science and asking questions.
It took me a while to realize that these things — creativity and curiosity — aren’t nearly as at odds as society might make you think. I was (and still am) both an art person and a science person; I think most of us are. The most important lesson I learned growing up is that sometimes things that look completely different on the surface are really just different vantage points. The more vantage points we have, the more likely we are to see the full picture.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I really enjoyed adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy”, both for its content and for its presentation. The book is all about lessons for driving change — personally, politically, and socially — that are inspired by both Octavia Butler and the ways that complex systems operate in nature. She doesn’t put a cap on what that change could look like, and it helped me break out of the incremental-change mindset that can be useful in science.
She also presented her ideas exactly the way she wanted to. It’s not a typical read. There are exercises and poems and some sections that are disproportionately longer than others. At first, I found that disorienting, but I think there’s a lesson there too. She’s modeling what it looks like to be fearless in reimagining the norms, and in doing so, she gives her readers permission to run experiments on their own assumptions. Those were all lessons I needed to learn, as I was preparing to leave the relative safety of a traditional career path to start an unconventional nonprofit.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“If you can’t fix it, feature it”. A salesperson at Crate & Barrel shared that quote with me when I was trying to figure out how to make some discounted mix-and-match furniture work. I think it’s relevant to a lot more than home decor. When I was working in a neuroscience lab at OHSU, I was preparing my application for PhD programs. My mentors reviewed my CV and suggested that I get rid of some of the work I’d done with educational and community programs, because academia can sometimes be wary of, in their words, “being too well-rounded”. That’s a whole other issue, but in my case, I thought about it and decided that I did not want to fix the parts of me that didn’t fit that box. Instead I started searching for a program that fit me, rather than the other way around. And I ended up getting a scholarship to attend. Sometimes what you think is a flaw may really be an opportunity.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
I’ve always been fascinated by the gap between who we are and who we could or want to be. I believe that we have the collective knowledge to create conditions that are more conducive to our best selves, but we rarely put it to use because that would mean major systemic and cultural changes. And change can be a scary thing. I started addressing this issue through science communication and information literacy work, but I always felt that something was missing. I turned to research from fields at the intersection of science and society, as well as from my own fields of education research, psychology, and neuroscience, and I started to create a model to synthesize their insights.
The result was The Plenary, Co. It’s an educational nonprofit that is designed to make current issues more engaging and accessible through science, art, and play. The heart of it is collaboration, participation, and storytelling. I believe that in order for knowledge to be truly accessible, it first needs to be inclusive, interactive, and representative of multiple perspectives. At The Plenary, Co. we design things like immersive art and science exhibitions on human bias and social games to learn about the food system.
We just launched a program called “I Am A Scientist” that’s intended to break barriers and stereotypes in STE(A)M fields across classrooms and communities. We designed a series of posters and interactive toolkits highlighting the stories and science of an incredible group of researchers that break the pop culture mold for “scientist”, with the goal of giving every student a chance to see themselves in science.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I remember very clearly the moment it “clicked”. It was the day after the 2016 election and I was standing in a warehouse that my team had converted into a beautiful show called “It’s Only Human: Exploring the biases that shape our worlds”. We worked with artists, scientists, educators, and advocates to design the experience, and when it finally opened, it felt like all of the seemingly disparate parts of my life had been braided together.
People were engaging with challenging topics and leaning into difficult conversations about the reality and consequences of our biases. It was supposed to be a one-off event to support the nonprofit’s science communication work, but there was something very powerful in the coming together of education, art, science, and social connection. By the end of the second night we had been invited to bring the show everywhere from MIT to UC San Diego to Burning Man headquarters, and I turned to my team and said, “OK. We’re pivoting”. Everything that we’ve created since has to meet that standard of being exploratory, relational, and actionable.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I think that people are innately curious, creative, and compassionate, and it’s often our environment that boosts or blocks those qualities. So if you build experiences and resources that are designed with and for someone, they may be more open to ideas that they would otherwise reject. We saw that at that first show. There was a local man that we met in the neighborhood, and we convinced him to come. When he heard about the themes, he told us he wasn’t “really into that stuff”. But he came, and he stayed longer than anyone else. Afterwards, he came up to my team and told us how much he enjoyed it, how he couldn’t believe that he was in his forties and had never learned about how his brain works, and that he really needed to “rethink some things”. Those were like magic words to me. The best part is that he came back the next day with his kids and then again that night with his buddies. He went from being a skeptic to an advocate, and that was amazing to watch. And it wasn’t because we were the first people to put that information in front of him, but the way we shared it felt accessible to him for the first time.
We have the same goal with “I Am A Scientist”, but instead of encouraging adults to explore their biases, we want to encourage students to explore career paths in STE(A)M. The goal of the program is to share information about science and scientists that feels more relatable, practical, and inspirational than what they might pick up from a textbook or pop cultural stereotypes.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
Help us get the word out about “I Am A Scientist”. Our goal is to get the program into 10,000 classrooms, libraries, and learning centers over the next few years. To reach that goal, we are going to need help. If you know educators who could use it, send them the site or give them a gift card to pre-order a poster kit. Invite your network to “donate a kit” so that we can give away as many posters as possible for free to educators. Or connect us to potential partners or sponsors.
Become a member of The Plenary, Co., sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on social media. We are creating a very ambitious and distinct model for lifelong learning, so member support helps us to stay independent and get our projects off the ground.
Buy a pin! The incredible artists and scientists at Two Photon Art recently designed a pin to support The Plenary, Co. 40% of every purchase goes to our programs. It’s an awesome pin that has “Stay Open” written on it, so it’s a great way to support our work, support independent art, and advocate for keeping an open mind.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think that good leadership is about adaptive, informed, and actionable synthesis: look for patterns, connect dots that aren’t being connected, and then organize that information into usable knowledge and strategies. Information without structure is chaos, so I think that the work of a leader is to structure existing information in new and impactful ways. And most importantly, keep doing that work over and over again, because there will always be new evidence, new circumstances, and new perspectives that you haven’t considered.
There’s a theme in social physics that I always come back to: the most diverse inputs tend to produce the most robust outputs. Good leadership is about creating a collaborative feedback loop that cultivates the widest possible range of ideas, then critiques, tests, and refines them, then shepherds the result into something useful.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Collage detracts from the message, unless the message is collage. This one came from Yael Fitzpatrick, a designer who communicates scientific concepts. I tend to want to include everything in everything, but the truth is that doing so often buries the most important point. Plus, if you try to do everything at once nothing is going to get finished. It’s important to identify the core message in each thing that you’re trying to create or build, to build it well, and to put it out there before you move onto the next thing. It’s counterintuitively faster and more effective to assemble a portfolio of projects with clear messages one at a time, rather than trying to do so all at once.
Build community and know who you’re serving. Criticism is inevitable, and fear of criticism can be paralyzing. While it’s important to consider all feedback with an open mind, you have to do the self work to figure out who you are working for, build meaningful relationships, and stay loyal to them. That becomes your homebase and guiding star. I’m an overly-analytical, people-pleaser by nature, so there have been times that I’ve found myself bending to critics only to realize that the mindsets they’re rooted in are exactly the sorts of mindsets I’m fighting to challenge.
Start putting things out there when you’re ~60% happy with them. I heard this recently from Olivia Wong, a speaker who works in prototype and design thinking. Perfectionism and procrastination are fraternal twins. Your work improves through feedback, so putting your work and ideas out there well ahead of feeling completely satisfied with them is actually a much faster route to creating something impactful.
Visibility can be an act of service. I continue to struggle a lot with this one. I’m most comfortable behind-the-scenes, building, and producing. I grew up believing that acts of service and acts of promotion are inherently at odds, but that’s not true. Sometimes you have to take the stage to serve your mission. And as more people, especially those who don’t fit common conceptions of power, take up that space, it opens up new pathways and possibilities in the minds of the next generation.
Build up your failure tolerance. The goal isn’t to be fearless, because that’s unrealistic, but you’ve got to be willing to act alongside the fear. Once you accept how many times you will fail or be rejected along the way, each obstacle starts to feel a little more like a milestone.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
You are the only person in the world with your exact experiences and perspectives. The only one. And that’s important to remember, because the same things that might make you feel different also give you distinct and important insights into what works, what matters, and what’s possible. Find the point at which your skills, your interests, your needs, and the needs of the world meet. Your point of view and participation are essential if we’re going to build a better future for ourselves and the planet.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oh goodness, there are so many people I would love to meet. I’m really interested in the work of people like Dr. Neri Oxman, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, Maria Popova, adrienne maree brown, and Radha Agrawal — people who are bending disciplines and norms to build new communities or reimagine some aspect of the world. It’s hard to define new spaces to operate in, and all of these women are doing that in their own ways. I have a lot to learn from all of them.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me personally on Twitter: @sastronautt
You can find our newly launched program at https://www.iamascientist.info/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!