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We’re well into 2018 as February begins, and we’re excited to bring you the very first RocCity Coalition “Doer” profile of the year, featuring Luticha Doucette, Research Analyst with the City of Rochester’s Office of Innovation!
As Interviewed by fellow RCC Member and Volunteer, Melissa Chanthalangsy
I am here solely because I want to see the best for the citizens of Rochester. So it’s nice to know my projects align with what I care about outside of work.
Why Rochester? Why did you choose to live here, work here, and contribute here?
I’ve tried living in other cities but boomeranged back. I went to college in Philly straight out of high school, but that did not work out too well due to a lack of accessibility, discrimination, and affordability at the college. I returned home after one quarter, and thought, “Rochester sucks.” I had many reasons to think this way: I was living at home and I didn’t have access to transportation. After a few years, I moved to my own place in West Henrietta but it still was not ideal due to lack of accessible transportation. Like many suburban areas, the bus only stopped twice a day and paratransit was not reliable. When I finally enrolled at RIT I was trying to figure out who I was as an individual – gaining my independence, gaining access to the community. My life changed in two major ways. First, I was able to afford a car in 2010 and then in 2011 I won the Ms Wheelchair New York pageant. My platform was access to education and STEM for the disabled. Through my network that was helping obtain speaking engagements, I was introduced to the RocCity Coalition, which was still new at the time. The coalition connected me to the young professional philanthropy world, where I made friends who were like-minded. We were all in the same boat: beginning our careers and wanting to give back in meaningful ways. In Rochester, there is a unique opportunity to do that. You don’t have to have a lot of money to have a philanthropic spirit or be a philanthropist in Rochester. You just have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do something. There are so many organizations that need help. The coalition helped me to think of Rochester differently and a vehicle of my own meant I could take advantage of volunteering opportunities. As a disabled person, the key to wanting to stay in Rochester was having access to mobility.
You mentioned that having the philanthropic spirit in Rochester presented you with a unique opportunity as long as you had the work ethic and motivation. What organizations are you passionate about?
I’m on the board for two different organizations. One is Rochester Accessible Adventures, which was created to fill a gap in the nonprofit space. In many ways, we view disabled individuals via a segregation model. This means that before RAA, if a disabled person wanted to do a recreational sport, they had to go to a program at a certain location. You couldn’t really bring friends and family to join you and programs only happened for a short period of time. As we all know, life doesn’t happen that way, and if it was a beautiful Saturday, I couldn’t join friends or family for a spontaneous bike ride. On the flip side, if they signed up for say, Hot Shots, I couldn’t join due to lack of modified, inclusive, opportunities. Disabled people, like anyone else, want choice and the ability to do things with friends. Furthermore, recreational activities for nondisabled people, don’t know how to modify their activities to include the disabled. This lack of access and inclusivity can contribute to social isolation and depression. So Anita O’Brien decided to create Rochester Accessible Adventures with the goal that we would train people in the recreational sports arena to have adaptive sports included in their programming. For example, at the Erie Canal Boat company in Fairport, there’s an accessible dock, a Hoyer lift, and trained staff. Because of the partnership, I can go online and pick out what bike I want to use right from the site. You can even rent accessible kayaks! Now, anytime I feel like it, I can go by myself, or I can go with a bunch of friends on a bike ride. For the first time a few years ago, I took one of my siblings, who was ten at the time and I was 30. That was the first time in his entire life (and mine!) he could go on that type of outing with me. Can you imagine going your entire life not doing something simple like a bike ride, just because no one thought about how to give you access? Having this kind of access opened up a lot of opportunities for families, opportunities that many able-bodied people take for granted: the ability to go out and do something and not be treated as a spectacle.
The other board that I’m on is NCBI, which stands for National Coalition of Building Institute. NCBI trains people on different aspects of social justice, teaching people how to deal with and think about racial and social justice topics. We do this by engaging people in a productive dialogue on these hard to speak about topics. It was just formed into a nonprofit and we have just founded a full board. NCBI Rochester chapter has been around for 30 years, but this is the first time that we decided to make ourselves a full nonprofit because there’s a great need in our nation right now about how to have these conversations and figure out what the next steps will be.
Switching gears a bit, could you talk about your career path and how you’ve navigated it?
I was a straight-A student throughout high school but didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. Drexel University was the most persistent with their marketing so I chose that school. Once there, I became a nutrition major, and things were horrible from the jump. At the time, circa 2001, accessibility issues were not at the forefront. I couldn’t live in the freshmen dorms because they weren’t accessible. There was no ADA office – well, apparently there was, but their office was on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator. They wouldn’t answer their phones from a disabled student who needed help navigating the campus. Getting the things that I needed was a nightmare. I couldn’t get to my classes. In some places, someone else had to bring a key for me to access the building. On top of that, their definition of diversity was also limited so the ADA/disability person was also the coordinator for the LGB office (at that time the school didn’t recognize trans folk). I ended up having to leave the school for medical reasons.
I came back home to Rochester. I had been horribly discriminated against at Drexel and I had to come back to a home situation that was not conducive to me being independent. As I said previously, I eventually moved into my own place and enrolled in RIT. I still didn’t know what all was out there as far as majors, so a friend told me about bioinformatics. He recommended that as a major saying it would give me well-rounded background, which would allow me flexibility in a variety of fields. But at RIT, I struggled a lot, especially in the beginning. I had a lot of health issues. Again, things weren’t very accessible. For some of my chemistry classes, I had to wait for new renovations to come in in order to get the kind of lab I needed to work with, and staff and I had to advocate to get those modifications in place. The ADA standard was not enough so we developed the idea for height adjustable hoods. A hood is basically a box that has the ability to suck out toxic fumes and keep an area sterile. You work with it while having a sliding window pulled down to protect your face. You might have seen these in shows like CSI. However, there’s usually some sort of cabinet under it, so I couldn’t roll up to use it as was required to pass my courses plus they were tall so an ADA height couldn’t accommodate a short person like myself .But again, that delayed my education for a couple of years. Also, because of my health issues, I had a lot of cognitive problems and frequently became ill. I should have been put into a “create your own major” program, but no one told me about that until my last year that I was there. So my education, instead of being for 3 years, ended up being 7 because of all of these different issues.
However, during that time, I was able to do undergraduate research with Dr. Paul Craig. Dr. Craig was amazing and working with him opened up a lot of opportunities for me. in science you have to have a well-rounded portfolio in order to be competitive. Because academic institutions are not too keen on accessibility, especially in the sciences, it was very difficult to do those summer opportunities that were available to my non-disabled peers in other colleges to gain more experience. It took years and a lot of support just for me to get what I needed for 3 courses, how would I advocate/who would help me at another institution? So I was concerned about what my career would look like. I did want to get my PhD in biochemistry and biophysics, but that was going to be a very difficult road not knowing how accessibility was going to be handled in that career path. Also, no one had really done it before, so I did not have any mentors to help me navigate a very ableist system.
After I graduated, I was unemployed for a while. I had continued to make connections through the philanthropic world and so landed a job at the University of Rochester on a fellowship grant through a recommendation from one of those connections. I was in a genomics lab working on parasitoid wasps, looking at their genome, especially for the venom they create. The venom is like a cocktail of different proteins that is injected by the female into the host and we were learning about how the wasps’ venom was causing changes in the hosts. This could potentially lead to advances in research for Alzheimer’s or any sort of progressive disease. We were looking for how venom could be applied in a variety of ways to help benefit humans as similar successes were seen with venom from bees, scorpions etc. It was pretty badass work, and I really, really enjoyed it.
But yet again, I found myself in another untenable and unsustainable situation where inaccessibility and attitudes towards accessibility hindered my ability to do work. I felt like it was Groundhog Day. This is why I speak about ableism; it’s a system where life (buildings, homes, institutions) are not designed to include the disabled. And what I experienced at UR and RIT is pretty much par for the course in academia. Accessibility is not something that institutions do well for students or employees despite having a federal law in place. My PI, or boss, didn’t want to get a ramp for a walk-in and told me that I had to ask my colleagues to get things for me, including the times when I would have to check in on my experiments over the weekend. He said I should be better at my job by timing things better so I wouldn’t have to come in on a weekend, which is an almost impossible thing to do in science, and is ridiculous to ask someone that one would never ask of a non-disabled person. For him, he probably thought this was better than bugging the university for a ramp, who knows what sort of paperwork would be involved and who would pay for it? And given my previous experience where one piece of adaptive equipment took years to obtain, I was apprehensive as well. While I appreciated the thought process because I, too, loathe paperwork, it was not an acceptable or reasonable solution. I needed to do my job independently, end of story. So I asked the stock room folk directly and got the ramp I needed, which was awesome as they had done some great work in making an accessible work area for me so for them, this was not a big deal. And I was the first disabled person in that department to go through this type of process so I think there was a hidden expectation—real or imagined—that a higher standard be placed on me just to even reach parity with my coworkers . It was a lot like that scene from Scandal where Rowan, the father,said that you have to be twice as good just to be on the same level as white people to Olivia. I definitely grew up with that mantra instilled in me. On top of my “needing” to work harder than others and “overcome, ” nondisabled people put these barriers up for us and if we rightfully complain and offer solutions we’re seen as troublemakers, but if we don’t “overcome” we’re seen as failures. It’s the fixed deck paradox so aptly articulated in the movie The Tuskegee Airmen.
There was so much pressure that I be perfect, that I never make mistakes, plus I was working long hours just to get things done in the same way the grad students were. Work/life balance is not a thing in science. It got to the point that I got so stressed out that I became septic and had to be hospitalized at the end of my time at UR. It was a nightmare scenario that confirmed my worst fears that I had in college. I admire disabled people who make it through these systems but my body physically collapsed. So I needed to pivot and find a different career path.
Conveniently, one of my coworkers’ husband worked at the City of Rochester, and the City was hiring at the time. So towards the end of my year on this fellowship grant at the University of Rochester, I got an interview with the City, and I was hired within a week or two (remember I was septic this entire time!).
I literally got out of the hospital on a Wednesday, packed up my stuff at the lab on that Friday and started on Monday with the City the following week in the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives.
On my first day, I still was recovering from sepsis and a partially collapsed lung! I gave my first presentation to the Mayor while my lung was still partially collapsed and she let me fangirl and take a picture because it was also my birthday. Fun times. So my career hasn’t been traditional at all. To get where I am took a lot of grit, a lot of support, and making connections. This job is amazing as I finally have that mix of science and what drives me as a person. We have professional development where I can take classes online, which I’m doing now to gain better skills, as well as supportive coworkers and a Mayor who is willing to take on challenging projects.
A lot of times, people get caught up in a rut thinking that there’s only one career path. The stereotype is if you’re not doing one job for forty years, you’re not successful. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read a story of failure and that failure is often the key to success.
I have found that the least interesting people have followed a linear path in life. Your job can change multiple times within your career, and that’s okay. You have to have grit, be flexible, know how to make connections with people, and be comfortable with change. Learn how to fail is such a better message than teaching to succeed and be perfect. I think those are where my strengths are. Where I’ll be in 5 to 10 years, I don’t know. But now, I am ready to go back and get my master’s degree, and I know what I want to gain from that, and I will not be settling for less.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self?
Take more chances. Learn more about the resources that are available to you to help you succeed. Don’t think that you have to do it all yourself. Don’t think you’ve got to grin and bear it on your own. If things are overly difficult, and if people are being crappy to you, it’s okay to speak up and pivot. Also, learn about what the academic offerings are for you as far as what you want to do with your life. What do you want to improve on? A major will come out of your strengths or on what you want to improve on with yourself. Also, travel more while you can because once you get a job, it’s a lot harder. Most importantly, you don’t have to achieve all the things and fix all the broken systems by yourself. You’re allowed a life. You’re allowed to complain, you’re allowed to set boundaries, you’re allowed to make mistakes and fail, you’re allowed to be human and have the breadth and depth of life just like anyone else.
What’s something that inspires you and motivates you to keep showing up?
I know this is not what people typically say, but I inspire myself. I look at where I was not even four years ago. I was in poverty, living in subsidized housing that had insects and black mold. I have done a lot of work to get where I am today as well as the connections I’ve made with the people who have helped me. Because listen, it is a lot of hard work, but a lot of this came down to opportunity and luck, about who I knew who was able to help me get through a hard time or connect me to a job. Anyone who says differently is a liar. There’s always a line of people helping you to success, even if those people turn out to be ones you don’t like or have harmful behaviors, they’re still lessons learned. So I look back at all that I’ve been through as a disabled, queer, solo polyamorous person and realize that I am coming out on the other side of the struggle. Being able to have success and to be happy where I’m at in life-and to lead a life that so many declared impossible- I think is what really spurs me on so that I can be in a position to give back even more.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your day to day in your work at the City of Rochester Mayor’s Office of Innovation?
Sure. I have actually a convoluted diagram of projects on my whiteboard – which, if you’re reading this, you cannot see – but, it outlines all my projects, which are all pretty connected. They also touch on things that are core to who I am as an individual.
I wrote a wage disparities report that has a wonderfully boring title and full of sad facts, analyzing wages across race, gender, and disability here in Rochester and Monroe County. If you are a member of any one of these groups, you earn less than your white nondisabled counterparts. Especially if you are like me, a disabled, black woman, the disparities have a compounding effect.
I am also working with the school district on their Path Forward Plan, which is basically their comprehensive plan about how they want to restructure the district five years from now, ten years from now. The Plan looks at what needs to be done to make sure we are offering the best education to the kids in our city. As you know, that’s a huge problem right now. So I am coming in as the voice for the community and the Mayor, I also lent some data support (but kudos to my teammates and RCSD data analysts). This is the first time a sitting Mayor and Superintendent have worked together on this type of initiative. As a subset of that, I work with School 17 helping them with data analysis, strategic visioning and support for the wonderful students, teachers, and staff there.
In addition, I am working on a couple of wage-related issues that the report highlights. To get these initiatives off the ground we as a city need to change the narrative that people in poverty are lazy and that they ended up there through a fault of their own. In reality, my report shows that most are hard-working people serving vulnerable populations (i.e., elderly, sick, disabled) as home health aides/personal care attendants. So without them, many disabled people can’t even get to a job. If we could increase their wages, will we also see an increase in their quality of care? If we move them out of poverty -what would that look like? I’m also interested in learning more about daycare and providers in after-school programs as well. Are we actually giving the quality of care that children need to do well in school? How do we help support educational outcomes? What does quality look like? How do we communicate student needs in a more unified way across the board to uplift the community at the same time? Also making sure accessibility and disabled people are at the forefront of everything we do. What is their plan for disability moving forward? How do we make sure services/accessibility in the city is addressed?
I am really proud of the work that’s moving forward. Data analysis is at the core of my work. I’m still a scientist but not in a typical lab. For me, this has bigger impact. The work I did at UR was awesome but I wasn’t ever going to see the impacts for a long time or even ever maybe.
I don’t want my work to become shelf art. I prefer “immediate” broad impact. The work we do in our office brings that philanthropic spirit to civil service. I also want to be scientifically minded about what I do by having the rigorous approach that comes from my scientific background. I want people to know that whatever I do, it must be done with rigor, with integrity. I’m not here for any sort of political gain or whatever. I am here solely because I want to see the best for the citizens of Rochester. So it’s nice to know my projects align with what I care about outside of work.