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myTake on Resilience: Taking Action After Loss

On the 17th of January, 2009, I was in Brazil working on a project for the Harvard School of Public Health. It was a Saturday morning and my team had piled into the computer lab to meet our deadlines for the next week.  I absentmindedly turned on Facebook. It took me about 5 minutes to realize I was screaming. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had been invited to a Facebook page in tribute to 23-year-old Sheharbano Sangji. My childhood friend was dead.

It has been three years since her passing – and its still so hard to write about. Sheri Sangji was a truly brilliant woman and I cannot begin to describe to you what her loss has meant for me. If I close my eyes, I can see her running barefoot on a beach, with a soccer ball, her hair streaming behind her and her gorgeous hazel brown eyes sparkling in the sunlight.

Fresh out of Pomona College, Sheri was working as an employee in a lab in UCLA, while she completed applications for law schools.

On the day of the fatal experiment, she had been ordered by her boss to work with large quantities of pyrophoric chemicals, using a method contradicted by the chemical manufacturer. Her Principal Investigator had not trained her for this work, or supervised her for that experiment.  He had not given her any safety training.  The details of the incident, her burns on over 40% of her body, and her 18 days in the burn unit in excruciating pain have been well documented by the LA Times and others.

The callousness of UCLA’s official statements, the arrogance of her boss, Patrick Harran, and the complete lack of acceptance of any responsibility was both hurtful and shocking. This was completely preventable. UCLA and Patrick Harran had plenty of warning signs, including a serious burn injury in 2007, another serious injury in 2008 just a week before Sheri, and over 30 safety violations discovered in Harran’s lab by their own safety inspectors months before. None of this prompted them to change anything and Sheri was the next victim of their negligence.  A year after Sheri’s passing, a surprise inspection in Harran’s lab found numerous safety violations, including improper storage of the same chemical that took Sheri’s life. And yes, he is still running a lab.

When you add injustice to grief, it metastasizes. And this is what I live with on a daily basis.

The decision before me was to either curl-up and lick my wounds—only to emerge when I had healed—or to take on Sheri’s cause and to see that she, and her family received the justice they deserve. It was hard. This was the first loss that truly shook me to my core. It left me with a horrible feeling of helplessness. But Sheri, a lawyer-to-be, had fought for everyone’s rights— women of color, minorities, LGBT, immigrants, impoverished families—the least I could do was stand up for hers. This is a tragedy that should never be repeated.

As I entered HBS, I didn’t realize how much fighting for Sheri’s cause would shape my experience here. I also had not anticipated how much I would learn at HBS that would help me.

Safety came up as a case on BP in our TOM class – and this was the first time I shared my story to my wider HBS community.  Prof. Steve Kaufman taught us the importance of ‘building safety in’:

“…safety (like quality) should not be the responsibility just of those with safety in their job titles, or of external bodies such as government regulators like OSHA.  It is a basic responsibility of leadership to ensure that the employees entrusted to their care are provided a safe workplace – with or without regulators – and our graduates should be thinking about how they as individual leaders can make this happen. ….focusing on its[OSHA’s] age, fines, or bureaucratic failings [does not help] since it implies that we can “solve” the workplace safety problem by toughening up regulations or regulatory enforcement, and that belief lets our leaders off-the-hook for taking personal responsibility and action.”

After class, I was flooded with comments from my sectionmates – comments that brought me to tears. I had not anticipated that much love and support:

“I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing that with us all today. I found it incredibly moving, and deeply powerful. It will certainly change the way I think about safety and organizational goals should I ever be in a leadership position.”

Some people say they don’t really get ‘the section thing’ – but I will never forget the kind hands that guided me to the women’s bathroom when my vision was blurry with tears, the emails offering condolences and help, and the hours of technical help a sectionmate gave me to help me manage Sheri’s website. The section thing works – at least it did for me.

Three years down the line UCLA and Patrick Harran have each been charged with three counts of felony by the District Attorney – unprecedented charges for an academic institution.  The journey is far from over – the behemoth that is UCLA will be pushing for a settlement. Patrick Harran and UCLA are yet to apologize. The arraignment has been postponed till June 7th, 2012. We are working hard to make sure that the case gets heard, that Sheri gets justice and that this doesn’t happen to anyone else. To find out more, or to help out, please visit sherisangji.com.

I know this can’t bring her back. I know I will miss her every day. Fighting for this has made me believe that there are things worth fighting for. Those things will come continuously throughout life and when they happen you will have a choice to make. As you set forth to become leaders ‘who make a difference in this world’, I ask you to please choose wisely.

April 30, 2012
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