Portrait Project


"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Tony Deifell

Photograph by Mardie Oakes

I used to teach photography to blind and visually impaired students. One student made photographs of the cracked sidewalks at her school and sent them to the superintendent as "proof" of the damage. She included a letter asking for them to be fixed. "Since you are sighted," she wrote, "you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem since my walking cane gets stuck."

I want to notice all the cracks in my world – the prejudice I still have about cultures I don't understand, the arrogance that I know anything with certainty, and the privilege I have by virtue of my skin color, gender, and Harvard education. Sometimes the cracks seems small and easy to overlook – saying people's names incorrectly, not giving thanks before a meal, forgetting my mom's birthday (she'd say that was a big crack), and being too judgmental of others. Sometimes the cracks are obvious – if I pay attention.

My calling in life is to use my skills as a media artist, entrepreneur, and leader to help everyone notice the cracks, because there are many.

— Tony Deifell

 

April 2006: Reflections on my essay from 2002

My original Portrait Project essay told of cracks in the sidewalk captured by a blind photographer. Since 1994, I only thought about this story occasionally. After writing my essay, the "cracked sidewalks" became a pivotal metaphor that helped me define my calling in the world.

The story of the cracked sidewalk also had a very concrete impact after I graduated - it led me to publish a book of the photography by the blind and visually impaired students whom I had taught in the early 1990s. Chronicle Books will release the book in the Spring of 2007, which is entitled Seeing Beyond Sight: Photography by Blind Teenagers.

I find myself today working in the "cracks" between worlds - mostly between for profits and nonprofits, trying to blend the best from each. I am the Chief Strategist for KaBOOM! - which envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America. KaBOOM! earns 90% of its $20 million budget through earned-income activities with partners such as The Home Depot. I believe this sort of social enterprise work can have a tremendous impact on the non-profit sector, making organizations more sustainable and scalable.

As I read my Portrait Project essay, I realize that I'm mostly doing what I want to be doing. I'm reminded, though, of my original intention to work more directly within the media and entertainment industry. I have been afraid to depart from the social-enterprise work which has become so familiar and comfortable over the years. I need to re-read my essay more often and take more risks to reach my "calling."

I now live in San Francisco with Mardie Oakes (HBS '02). I told my friends that I would never be one of those people who would meet my wife in grad school - I am happy to be eating my words. She also came to HBS from work in nonprofits. We found ourselves at HBS, together in the cracks between worlds.

-Tony Deifell