I met Christiana Gozo accidentally, but in hindsight I believe it was serendipity. We were both attending a panel discussion on BIPOC representation of women in the outdoors; she as a climber and outdoor enthusiast, myself as a designer for outdoor apparel. Neither of us are particularly in the habit of making new friends of strangers, but there was just something about Christiana that made me want to strike up a conversation and then keep it going. Christiana was one of the first people I told about FOUR as a concept, before it was anything close to a reality, and she has been a friend, a fan, a source of great feedback and a model for us ever since. You’ve seen her on our website and she has been giving us great insights since day one.
The first in our “Celebrities to Us” series, we wanted to speak to Christiana and share her infectious energy, thoughtful perspective and huge intelligence. We respect and admire how she works and how she plays, and are proud to have her as part of the FOUR community. We spoke via video chat towards the end of 2020...
Ku: Who is Christiana Gozo?
Christiana: That's a good question and really hard to answer! The aspects that are essential to my biography at this moment are: I'm a data analyst and program evaluator at a non-profit. That's probably the shortest version of my job. I’m an endlessly curious New Yorker and New York Times crossword enthusiast. I'm a rock climber. I'm a child of African immigrants. A bad poet, an amateur sommelier...and a stepmother to my plants.
Why are you a stepmother to your plants?
This is our Monstera. It traveled from Denmark. It's actually been in my partner’s family for about three generations. The plant that it was cut from has existed for 100 years or more, all of the family has different cuttings of it, and he grew this from three leaves. He’s the plant whisperer and I’m the stepmother.
What have you experienced that inspired you recently?
On Friday, we went to Lincoln Woods state park, which is in Rhode Island with the plan to go rock climb because there's tons of rock, tons of boulders in this very beautiful state park. We went late in the day, right as the sun was setting and all of the beautiful trees were changing colors. It was a gorgeous setting and it was surprisingly empty. We were worried about crowds; when you’re climbing you're going to be right on top of each other so it’s hard to enforce social distancing. So we went on a day where we knew it'd be quiet and we ended up climbing on the same Boulder as this other woman who was there by herself. It wasn't anything that we said to her, anything about that moment, other than just having a very pleasant and normal interaction. We laughed, we made jokes. We just connected in a really simple and passing sort of way. We weren't doing anything other than just enjoying each other's company for 20 minutes and then we finished what we were working on. We wanted to try something else before the sun set. We wished her good luck and moved on, but that moment has really stuck with me...I think because I've had so few of them recently. Meeting with strangers, these passing moments where you actually stop and have a conversation. In this time where it seems like our social default is to be disconnected from each other, just having this totally pure connection with a total stranger, it was a beautiful and magical moment and then we both went on our ways. That was a really beautiful connection.
Do you remember how we met?
It was a quintessential New York moment when we ended up sitting next to each other at a panel, I think it was focused around women and diversity in the outdoors. I was recovering from something, and so I wasn't sure if I was going to go or not, but I was particularly interested to meet one of the people on the panel. I was feeling especially anti-social because I was sick, but we ended up striking up a really lovely conversation. There was something about your energy, and the way that you were genuinely interested in the answers I was trying to not give to the questions you were asking, I was not feeling together and kept thinking: why are you talking to me? It feels to me just like very New York, because you're constantly in the midst of environments where you're surrounded by strangers, and just people you've never seen or encountered before, and who you would never otherwise end up in the same room with. I learned a lot about your background, and where you are coming to that panel, or what you were coming with. I was coming from a totally different place, and it was a really phenomenal moment. I'm pretty sure that by the time we met, you were already talking to me about FOUR as a full-fledged concept.The fully created idea of four garments a year, with a really heavy focus around sustainability, and knowing the story, and knowing who's making the garment.
What are you working on right now that’s important to you?
What am I working on that's important to me... I have two answers that are kind of in opposition. The first is that I'm working on finding time for myself, and that's extremely important to me.
The other answer is finding ways to get back to the educational work that I've always made space in my life for; either mentoring or tutoring or coaching. In the last few years I've totally fallen away from that, lost my connection to the nurturing of people younger than me. I’m motivated by the disconnection of living during Coronavirus and wanting to find ways to connect to young people again.
I have typically worked with teenagers, which is my favorite age group, because they're so excited about the world, and they know enough to have really good questions, and to want to pursue really big ideas. They're so curious. Watching someone grow, and seeing the light bulb turn on. Or even just providing a safe space for a new connection, or new knowledge to form, and watching that happen is really exciting to me. Kids are also hilarious. That's what's rewarding to me: seeing that light bulb turn on, and helping them understand how talented and brilliant they are. Especially when they doubt themselves.
For a long time I've been doing this through New York Cares, and volunteering at a high school in Central Brooklyn. There is definitely an important aspect for the kids of seeing a black woman who has been successful academically and in building a career professionally; someone who looks like them. I just wrapped up a semester doing virtual tutoring for HS juniors, which wasn't as strange as I thought it would be--they're as bright and motivated as ever, though it's so staggering to see up close how this year of remote learning/unrelenting uncertainty has affected them academically.
I think a lot of folks are just wrestling with themselves in a new way right now. I think this is definitely true around COVID, and also true around the Black Lives Matter Movement. I actually hate that umbrella term because really it’s more than just this current moment, but that's the easiest way to get it across. Having conversations with my black female friends, we've been spending so much more time, not talking about how we're reacting to a particular episode of police violence, or how we're reacting around protests or activism, or anything like that, but just how we are feeling with ourselves. I find myself totally in awe of how solidly some of the women in my life hold themselves, you know? I've also gotten to know through some other friends, I've met this one woman who I think is phenomenal. She teaches breath work and is a Reiki master in Med school. She's phenomenal. Her whole focus is how to heal people in the most comprehensive and holistic of ways. She is continuously doing this work with herself, and I have designs on making her my life mentor. I'm so thankful to have these women in my life.
I have found different incredible people around me and see the work that they've done on themselves, and it's totally transformed how I think about wellness and opportunity and discovery. It has cracked open the idea of unlearning for me.
What is “unlearning”?
Unlearning is the process of peeling back the layers of things that we're told, or truths that we hold that are not critically assessed. The unexamined truths that we hold, either about ourselves, about the world, or about our place in it. Assessing what that means, how those truths have taken root, and how we then see the world. Understanding the influence that that has on us.
My parents are from Ghana, my sister and I were the first in our entire family to be born in the U.S. My dad is one of 13, and my mom is one of seven, so a very large family that grew up all together in Ghana. They didn't grow up with any American customs, or anything culturally tied to this country, and there are a lot of things that, especially as an adult, I'm still unpacking and learning about myself, and them, and understanding about the choices that they made. They chose to raise us, myself, my brother, and my sister, with none of their Ghanian customs, tradition, not even the language. So they came here with an idea that “our kids will be American, because that is the path to opportunity”. In order for them to realize their dreams, they must fully be American. They had no idea what that meant.
It was this weird no man's land between a culture they didn't understand, and the culture they came with, but were determined not to impart to us. There's a lot that I'm unpacking and unlearning about that, it's the backdrop to everything I'm describing about both continuing to do the work that I'm excited to do, for myself and on myself.
I think it is why I am really passionate about helping teenagers find direction; trying to help them understand what is possible from a different perspective.
That all makes a lot of sense, the unique perspective you own. How does this connect to your job-job? What are you finding meaningful in that world?
I oversee analytics at the nonprofit, Project Renewal, in New York that provides services across the board, healthcare employment, housing, and everything in between, to homeless and low-income New Yorkers. I do analytics and oversee the program evaluation department. So I am focused around ways to measure the success of our programs and whether we are reaching the people that we need to reach and having the impact that we want to have. It's very tied up now with funding: everyone wants to know that their dollar is going somewhere and that it's not just ending up in a black hole where funds are being misused, or they want to know that they're getting real value for their dollar, that our programs are doing something and so in our line of business, and I think in nonprofits at large, it's really about demonstrating your impact and delivering numbers that are impressive and that keep you funded.
It's great to be able to do that, but that's not what excites me. What I think is missing a lot in these conversations is the voice of the people that we are doing this work for, that we are trying to help, so one of the projects that’s been a long-term goal but has now become front and center of the work that I'm doing is figuring out how to embed our clients' voices, perspectives and feedback into how we talk about our work. We tell stories of how we're being successful through data: our work is having an impact because we reached X thousands of people. We served X hundreds of thousands of meals. We've got X percent of people into permanent housing. We can do all of that, but it only means something if the people who we are doing this for see it as valuable, meaningful and providing sustainable impact in their lives.
So what’s exciting me right now is that every project, every evaluation that we're working on now, we are building a plan that involves focus groups and interviews and surveys and embedding that in our reports and recommendations with the same kind of value and volume that we're giving to the hard data.
We know what people want to see, and what tells a story in terms of demonstrating our impact, but what's absent is our clients telling us that this has been helpful to them. How do we actually really know whether we're having the right impact? If we get someone into housing, but they're not in a place in their lives where they have the right support to sustain it or keep it and we don't understand that then it's not actually a lasting positive outcome.
I'm constantly learning. That's just the nature of my work and that's what I enjoy about it, but it means that everything I do is scary all the time because I feel like I don't know what I'm doing. I kind of do, but I'm usually doing something for the first time and that's always terrifying. I am the living embodiment of imposter syndrome, as I think most people in my age cohort and career moment are. Professionally, I’m always engaging in activities that feel scary and doing them anyway, because I have to, and on the other side, I am better for having done it. I know more, I've learned more. I think I've taken this frame work from climbing actually, because this is also a huge thing in climbing of course, which is a dangerous and terrifying activity. You're always pushing yourself and sometimes you're on a route or you're climbing something and you're just enjoying it in the moment, but you might also just be scared shitless or really pushing yourself to your limit and questioning whether you're capable in the thick of it. Afterwards you realize: I just did that. This is amazing. I'm so happy and you have this overwhelming joy. I think I trend towards engaging in things that I'm grateful for after the fact. Something about just being in those uncomfortable moments all of the time.
This makes you a great person to give us some constructive criticism about what we are trying to do here at FOUR. What would you challenge us to do better? What would be uncomfortable but possibly lead to something joyful?
Knowing you and Mae, the idea and vision of FOUR aligns with how I want the world to be. I feel invested in the success of this project because this is exactly the sort of thing that should be successful and should, should work and have a future and have an audience and have reach and that people respond to. I love that. I'm able to give you something that's valuable that enriches the work that you're doing, and then to see it continue to grow. It's just, it's that community, meeting other wonderful women and at the fit parties and just engaging in different fun and interesting conversations.
I love the way that you are approaching it, but I think it’s important to believe people know what matters to them. It's still somehow a radical notion in the world of giving and I think you can apply it to your 4% donation component. People want to know where their money is going and that they're getting some value for their dollar and that their dollar, some certainty that they can then cash in and say, "I donated this and this is the return on it." But that's a really flawed and strange way of thinking about not just donations in general, but just charitable giving and nonprofit services, I think, at large.
I come across this a lot, when I'm talking about work with an acquaintance, the idea that, "Oh, I don't want to give this person money. They're just going to buy alcohol. They're just going to buy drugs. They're just going to buy whatever." I struggle with that response so much because I understand where it's coming from, but also, who are you to say what is most valuable to that person in that moment? And why is there this moral attachment to how this is getting spent? It is that you're giving it and that it is going to have material value for that person in a way that's meaningful to them that matters. So I absolutely support that approach of letting people decide where the money is best spent, but I think you can go further. It might very well be the case that giving that money directly to the sewers, the workers, might mean that they’re just taking that home and putting it in their pockets. And is that such a bad thing?
I'm not advocating that you approach this very differently and that you just give all of the money to the people who are making the garments after you’ve already paid a fair wage. What I would like to push you towards is examining how you're making decisions about what is or is not appropriate, and how to keep the people who are meant to be benefitting at the center of the conversation.
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