I must say that I am very lucky to be working with the most amazing and talented people. Having said that, this article is an interview with my co-worker Cassandra Lam, who is a Big Data consultant at Opera Solutions. Her most recent venture is Akin, which she founded and launched on her birthday on June 7th, 2017. Akin is a digital storytelling platform that encourages the practices of vulnerability, empathy, and introspection by sharing powerful anonymous short-form stories. Anyone can safely and securely submit a story of their own to contribute to the growing collection of stories. Akin’s mission is to create a more human narrative, which she defines as ultimately a more inclusive narrative that welcomes experiences shared by real people from around the world.
DD: What inspired you to come up with this idea?
CL: The idea came to me while solo traveling around Spain around September 2016. A friend I hadn't seen or spoken to since high school had relocated to Barcelona for grad school so we made plans to catch up at a local bar. From the moment, we sat down, we couldn't stop talking. Story after story poured out as we attempted to fill each other in on the important people, events, and experiences that defined the past 7 years of our lives. Some stories - moments of joy, pride, or excitement - were easy to tell. Others - our struggles, weaknesses, and conflicts - were harder to offer because they required vulnerability. But there we were, two people, separated by significant distance and time, shoving conventional small talk aside in favor of no bullshit/no filter conversation. As a result, we both left feeling seen, heard, and understood. That night, I felt my mind, heart, and soul buzzing the entire walk back to my hostel. “What a shame that I couldn’t cultivate this feeling of authentic connection in my daily life,” I thought. Or could I? Underneath the surface, I firmly believe that each and every human life is a beautifully complex compilation of struggles and successes, most of which never surfaces and remains unseen to the naked eye. We are so much more than we ever express outwardly. Yet most of what makes us who we are goes unnoticed. “How many stories go untold in a person's life? What happens when we empower people to exchange narratives and acknowledge each other’s reality? What’s the negative impact of not surfacing our stories or using our voices? Who would we treat differently if we could listen to their perspective?” I couldn’t answer any of these burning questions with any known technology or resource. So, I decided to build Akin.
DD: How did you come up with the name Akin? I am curious to know if the name has personal meaning to you?
CL: When the idea first came to me, I was toying with a much more niche and specific type of community. At first, I conceived of a platform for women only, a safe space where women could share stories of harassment, assault, violence, sexism, and other horrific experiences. I’ve always felt very deeply about these issues as a woman, daughter, sister, and friend so raising awareness, educating the public through storytelling, and fighting against these injustices is always important to me. However, I disliked the idea of elevating certain voices while keeping others out. It really went against what I believe is important to solving world conflict which is deep, thought-provoking, and honest dialogue. A conversation whereby two parties can exchange ideas, debate reasonably, and walk away having learned something new is more special and powerful than we think. Through these types of exchanges, we put our snap judgments on pause to listen to another and potentially learn something that expands upon the way we view or approach the world. Often, we also find that once we start listening, we’re not all that different from one another. Slowing down to recognize the humanity in others often reveals to us that we are all akin. The name Akin hit me as I was brainstorming what I wanted this platform to make people feel. Kinship can be medicine for the soul and I firmly believed in the power of conversation to change us inside out. I know this is a lofty goal but I hope that by inspiring more conversations, we can collectively take small steps towards alleviating human suffering.
DD: How long did you work on this before you realized you had something great here?
CL: I’d say I spent about 3-4 months seriously thinking, ideating, and getting the courage to announce to myself that I was ready to create something for the world. Because the mission of Akin is also very in line with my own personal mission, it felt incredibly vulnerable to put the word out to my friends and family that I was trying to build something. But as the wheels started moving and I started to see scribbles on a notebook turn into connections, responses, a mock-up of the website, and collaborations with talented friends, I felt more alive than I have in a long time. I knew I was doing something important not just for me, but for all the potential people who stumble across the site one day. I’m driven by the fact that I’d consider the project successfully if only one person browsed the stories on the site and felt moved. Like I said before, I live my life trying to encourage powerful and difficult conversations. It might sound too micro to work for most, but systematic change can and has happened from the ground up. So why not here and now with our very own stories?
DD: Do you feel that people are more open and real when they are anonymous?
CL: Yes, I think people are 100% more open when they are anonymous. Whether or not they’re being real, exaggerating, or completely making something up because the Internet empowers people to sometimes do very funny things is hard for me to say. But based on the stories we’ve received so far, I believe the anonymity factor is at the very least free. I was very intentional with how the storytelling platform and story submission features were designed. In my experience, the good and bad thing about the Internet is how easy it is to engage with an audience. The Internet has given everyone a pulpit from which to lecture, harass, disseminate information, vocalize opinions, and influence other users with words. There are definitely times when these are viewed as benefits, but when it comes to sharing or collecting personal stories from people who might have felt marginalized, pushed out of the dominant narrative, or unsafe to speak up, it can be very harmful. Also, requiring anonymity removes the identity politics that can interfere with real listening to a particular perspective. Identity politics dominate most dynamics and interactions in our everyday life. Whether we are aware of it or not, how someone looks impacts how we perceive his or her actions and words in both subconscious and conscious ways. I’m trying to remove as much of that as possible so that all energies can be focused on what matters - human beings and the stories of their unique lives.
DD: How can someone submit their story, and what is the process?
CL: Since Akin went live in June, the website is the best place to browse the collection of stories and submit your own. There’s a big button along the top right side that you can click to submit a story!
Cassandra is a Los Angeles native who moved to New York in 2015 to pursue lifelong dreams of living in the concrete jungle. Thankfully, she’s never looked back! For as long as she can remember, she has been fascinated by the power of human interaction, and it is this passion that drives her professional and personal goals. Cassandra graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Currently, she works as a big data consultant for Opera Solutions. When she’s not focusing on empowering people to practice storytelling on Akin, she pursues her interests in education as a volunteer with iMentor NYC and Edbuild. Recently, she completed an education fellowship through Revive the Dream Institute, a nonprofit that develops emerging community leaders into education reform catalysts to improve the life prospects of millions of underserved American children. She was also a founding member of Escape the City NYC’s 2016 cohort. When she isn’t working or volunteering, you can find her practicing yoga around the city or taking over a dancefloor somewhere in Brooklyn.
Congratulations Cassandra, and thank you for letting me share your story.
We all have a story to share. Some of the time we do not share because we do not want to be judged. Having an anonymous platform where honest and real human dialogue can be unleashed is a rare gift. Now is your chance to be heard. Write your untold story and share it on Akin. I promise you that these stories will touch you. Go to the website below to be inspired or inspire someone to find their freedom to be raw and real. http://weareakin.co/stories/