Learning to live without lined paper

Before my Knight Fellowship, this was a metaphor for my life – lined paper. I was good at following set guidelines and had very defined ways of seeing myself, journalism and my career. I always bought lined journal paper to write daily notes and schedules and at the stationary store, I would always wonder, who were those people who bought the blank journals? After all, the two notebooks were the same price. So for the same money, I could get lines.

But during my year at Stanford, the need for lines began disappearing. I think now this is the new metaphor for my life. When I was here, I noticed that many of the kids around me used blank paper. At Stanford’s Institute of Design, especially, they work on whiteboards and colored post-it notes.

Whiteboards and blank pages represent three values that I learned during my Knight year and have continued to live by.

Do something

The first value is action. You see a blank page, and there’s this overwhelming need to scribble. You’re not even going to think about what you’re going to draw. You just want to make some graffiti. And that’s good.

One of my problems had been that I thought problems out rather than just taking action. Thinking paralyzed me. I would think myself out of great story ideas. At Stanford, a professor – Bernie Roth — who spotted me in a d.school lounge said, “I hope you’re not thinking. Just do the assignment already.”

With my nonprofit, Gateway California, that’s the attitude I’ve taken. When the fellowship ended, I said I was going to have a media workshop for immigrants by the end of the year. At that time, I had no money and no idea how it was going to happen. But I took one step and then another and another and in November, we had a media workshop for 40 immigrants in San Jose. The Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley office stepped in with a little bit of funding and a lot of faith in us. That was our launch, and it’s opened all these other doors – we’ve been invited to apply for an operating grant from the California Endowment, and we have a couple of community foundations interested in our work. It all starts with making that first scribble.

Be open to partnering

Many journalists don’t like to talk about what they’re working on, especially to other journalists. Reporters are often afraid that someone else is going to steal their idea or steal their sources.

Stanford and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, however, are all about openly sharing works in progress. They’re always looking for a partner or to expand a team. People realize that they can’t do it alone.

The Knight Fellowships also fosters that open spirit. The staff members are so generous and open that the attitude becomes infectious. It’s great that none the Fellows were assigned a cubicle. We have a lounge and computer lab and the entire campus. We overhear each other’s conversations, which lead to suggestions to each other and sometimes, collaboration. We treat each other’s projects as whiteboards that we all can scribble on, write encouraging messages and draw funny faces.

I’ve continued to get advice from my fellow Fellows and talk regularly to Knight staffers. It’s become natural for me to seek partners, and I’ve found some great ones post-fellowship. Several have come about because of chance conversations similar to those I ran across in the Knight lounge. In the coming year, Gateway California plans to work with the Asian Philanthropy Forum, Oakland Local, NeighborWeb SJ and others. I’m moving much further than if I had kept my ideas to myself.

Blank paper = freedom

When I was trying to decide whether to apply for the Knight Fellowship, I saw a Q&A with its directors, explaining the changes to the program. Director Jim Bettinger said that they were getting more applicants from people who might have been disqualified from this and other major fellowships in the past because they were well, a little weird. Deputy Director Dawn Garcia added that being weird was definitely not a disqualifier.

That clinched it for me. This fellowship didn’t want a definitively defined person. It was willing to accept differences and in the process, make you even more different. The Knight staff is relentlessly enthusiastic about our ideas. I joked to a fellow Fellow that if I told them I was changing my project to jumping off a bridge, Innovation Director Pam Maples would say, “That’s great. Keep iterating.” At the same time, the Knight staff doesn’t want your year to be completely defined by your project. Garcia kept saying, “Don’t forget serendipity.” Take an art class. Play the piano. Do something you’ve never done before.

The idea was to actually do something that you had never done before or were afraid of. My goal was to go regularly to the gym – a place I had been avoiding ever since the trauma of middle school Physical Education. Ed. By the end of that class, though, I was working out up to four times a week. Who would have imagined that a Knight Fellowship would get me in shape?

Before the fellowship, I never imagined I would be the founder of a nonprofit. Now I am. Before the fellowship, I never willingly gave public speeches. Tonight I’m up here. The fellowship was a turning point that made me relish turning over and seeing blank pages every day.

Phuong Ly was a Knight Fellow in 2010-11. She has specialized in immigration issues as a freelance writer and for the Washington Post. She is the founder of Gateway California, a platform to better connect journalists and immigrant communities. She gave this talk to the Knight Fellowships Board of Visitors on Jan. 26, 2012.