The Guardian view on Theresa May’s Munich speech: partnership should be indivisible | Editorial

Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy

Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018






Theresa May and Angela Merkel speak in Berlin on 16 February 2018. ‘Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist.’ Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.

Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.

Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.

Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.

There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.

What would a truly disabled-accessible city look like?

To David Meere, a visually impaired man from Melbourne, among the various obstacles to life in cities is another that is less frequently discussed: fear.

“The fear of not being able to navigate busy, cluttered and visually oriented environments is a major barrier to participation in normal life,” says Meere, 52, “be that going to the shops, going for a walk in the park, going to work, looking for work, or simply socialising.”

That’s what makes an innovative project at the city’s Southern Cross train station so important to him. A new “beacon navigation system” sends audio cues to users via their smartphones, providing directions, flagging escalator outages and otherwise transforming what previously a “no-go” area for Meere.

“I no longer have to hope there’s a willing bystander or a capable staff member to provide direct assistance,” he says. “And on a very personal and powerful level it allows me to use this major transport hub in one of Australia’s largest cities with certainty and independence as a parent with small children. It’s a real game-changer.”

Meere is just one of the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who live in cities around the world. By 2050, they will number an estimated 940 million people, or 15% of what will be roughly 6.25 billion total urban dwellers, lending an urgency to the UN’s declaration that poor accessibility “presents a major challenge”.

For the physically disabled, barriers can range from blocked wheelchair ramps, to buildings without lifts, to inaccessible toilets, to shops without step-free access. Meanwhile, for learning disabled people or those on the autistic spectrum, the cluttered and hectic metropolitan environment can be a sensory minefield.

A staircase at Stanmore tube station.



Revolving doors in an office block on the Strand, London.



Cobblestones near the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.



A wheelchair user prepares to attempt to board a train at a London station.



  • Stairs, revolving doors, cobbles and steps on to trains are a few of the features that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs to access their cities

Although the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Britain’s Equality Act and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act aim to boost rights and access, the reality on the ground can be very different, as Guardian Cities readers recently reported.

And yet, cities benefit from accessibility. One World Health Organisation study described how, like Meere, disabled people are less likely to socialise or work without accessible transport. Cities also miss out on economic gains: in the UK the “purple pound” is worth £212bn, and the accessible-tourism market an estimated £12bn.

Some cities, however, are leading the way.

Seattle: a sidewalk mapping app

AccessMap Seattle with inclines mapped by colour. green = 0 percent incline 10 = 10 percent incline. Sidewalk Maps for Low Mobility Citizens



Mapping apps make navigating cities a doddle for most people – but their lack of detail on ramps and dropped kerbs mean they don’t always work well for people with a physical disability.

Take the hilly city of Seattle, where several neighbourhoods have no pavements at all, and many streets have a slope grade (or tilt) of 10% or even 20%.

The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology has a solution: a map-based app allowing pedestrians with limited mobility to plan accessible routes. AccessMap enables users to enter a destination, and receive suggested routes depending on customised settings, such as limiting uphill or downhill inclines. The image above shows Seattle streets coloured by incline: green means flat; red means a slope of 10% or above.

For example, while Google Maps sends pedestrians from University Street station to City Hall via Seneca Street, with its steep 10% grade, AccessMap sends them via Pike Street instead – a slope of less than 2%.

The OpenSidewalks project is crowdsourcing information such as pavement width and the location of kerb dropdowns.



  • OpenSidewalks is crowdsourcing information such as pavement width and kerb drop-downs

It also supplements data from Seattle’s Department of Transportation and the US Geological Survey with information from mapathon events. Now the Taskar Centre’s related OpenSidewalks project is taking it further by crowdsourcing extra information, such as pavement width and the location of handrails.

Singapore: universal design

The reception area of the CapitaGreen building has a lowered front desk. The building has won numerous accessible design awards.



By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be over 60, with this “silver tsunami” driving awareness of ageing and disability. The city may not historically be known for inclusive practices, but has recently won praise from the UN for its accessible “user-friendly built environment”.

The Universal Design principles drawn up by Singapore’s Building Construction Authority have encouraged accessibility in new developments since its launch in 2007.

CapitaGreen, in the central business district, is a 40-storey office block that has won a host of UD awards. Completed in 2014 at a cost of S$1.3bn (£700m), the Toyo Ito-designed structure features column-free spaces and a low concierge counter to help disabled people move around the building more easily.

CapitaGreen Braille handrail. Accessible building for cities



  • Braille directions on handrails in the award-winning CapitaGreen office block

Lift doors stay open longer, handrails flank both sides of staircases, and the chairs have grab handles. A hearing induction loop enables clearer communication for those using hearing aids, while Braille directions, tactile guidance and easy-to-read pictographs help the visually impaired. Routes into the office from underground pedestrian walkways and two Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations are barrier-free.

Singapore’s MRT has also been working to improve accessibility over the past decade. The 30-year-old nework has been getting more lifts, wider gates and tactile guidance, and more than 80% of the 138 stations have at least two barrier-free routes.

The title of world’s most accessible metro system, however, probably goes to Washington, DC. All 91 subway stations are fully accessible, along with its rail carriages and the entire bus fleet.

Sonoma: autism-friendly design

The Sweetwater Spectrum Community is a net-zero energy model of housing for adults with autism in Sonoma, California.



People with autism can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. Sweetwater Spectrum, a $6.8m supported-housing project in Sonoma, California, aims to address this.

The site, which opened in 2013, includes four 4-bed homes for 16 young adults, a community centre, therapy pools and an urban farm – all designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects according to autism-specific principles recommended by Arizona State University to promote a sense of calm.

Inside the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project.



  • Inside the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project

Along with simple, clear lines, the homes are designed so residents can clearly see spaces across thresholds. Noise is kept to a minimum thanks to quiet heating and ventilation systems and thoughtful design, such as locating the laundry room away from the bedrooms. Fittings and decor reduce sensory stimulation and clutter, with muted colours, neutral tones and recessed or natural light.

Korsør: sport for all

Musholm sports, holiday and conference complex in Korsør.



The Musholm sports, holiday and conference complex in Korsør has won numerous awards, most recently from the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, for its 2015 redesign of the basic 1998 site.

At the centre of the venue, owned by the Danish Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, is a vast, circular sports hall, with an aerial ropeway and climbing wall for wheelchair users and an integrated pulley system. Outside, a 100m ramp spirals up from the base of the hall to a sky lounge. (The ramp can also be used as a wheelchair racing track.)

The 24 hotel rooms each have ceiling hoists, electronic curtains, beds that can be automatically raised or reclined, adjustable height sinks and accessible toilets. By the waterside, a private bathing jetty is wide enough for wheelchairs and accessible via a ramp.

The multi-purpose sports hall in the Musholm complex.



  • The multi-purpose sports hall in the Musholm complex

“Accessibility must be felt but not seen,” says foundation director Henrik Ib Jørgensen. Musholm, which cost €14.5m (£12.9m) to build, is run as a social enterprise. “Lack of accessibility, other people’s assumptions, body ideals and a lack self confidence among people with disabilities are often the biggest barriers for diversity,” he adds. “We wanted to create a place where there is space for differences.”

Denmark is also home to what is widely regarded as the world’s most accessible office building. The House of Disabled People’s Organisations in the Copenhagen suburb of Taastrup is the shared headquarters of some 30 different disability groups. Built in 2012 for 178m krone (£21m), the Universal Design includes drive-through lifts so wheelchair users don’t have to turn around, and small, tactile knobs on railings so blind people can easily tell which floor they are on.

Chester: an accessible historic city

Accessible shopping on the elevated walkways of Chester Rows



Chester in north-west England is renowned for its two-mile circuit of Roman, Saxon and Medieval walls and its elevated walkways, called Rows. But the city’s historic status belies its role as an accessibility champion: last year it became the first British city to win the European commission’s Access City award.

The Rows are accessible with ramps, a lift and an escalator, while the council’s 15-year regeneration strategy prioritises accessibility in new developments.

Take the £300m Northgate shopping and leisure development, to be completed by 2021. The site will include accessible stores, restaurants, housing and a 157-room hotel including eight accessible rooms with ceiling hoists. The hotel will include a changing places facility for people with complex or multiple and profound disabilities. (Unlike standard accessible toilets, these include a height-adjustable changing bench, adjustable sink, a toilet designed for assisted use and hoist.) Chester already has six such changing places facilities, including one at the recently opened bus interchange, and more are planned around the city.

The Storyhouse cultural centre has flexible seating, audio loops and accessible backstage changing rooms.



  • The Storyhouse cultural centre has flexible seating, audio loops and accessible backstage changing rooms

The accessible design of Chester’s year-old cultural centre, Storyhouse, was created after feedback from disability groups and the council’s access team. The £37m theatre, cinema and library complex has seven accessible toilets, a changing places facility, flexible seating for groups of disabled theatre-goers, audio description and hearing loops. Backstage, there is an accessible toilet, accessible changing rooms and lift.

Melbourne: Bluetooth audio cues

Users of Melbourne’s beacon scheme receive audio directions via their smartphones.



As David Meere discovered, in Melbourne, Australia, an eight-month pilot scheme is currently transforming how visually impaired people navigate public space. The project at Southern Cross station rail terminal uses Bluetooth and free GPS smartphone app BlindSquare to create a beacon navigation system.

Users receive audio cues via their smartphones, providing directions or real time information about issues such as escalator outages. Outside, the app provides real time directional information; inside, where GPS is unreliable, 20 wireless Bluetooth beacons means users still receive information. Audio cues include advice such as: “Approaching three escalators on left, followed by a set of doors – the doors on the left are automated.”

The trial is led by the charity Guide Dogs Victoria, which plans to install similar systems at Melbourne Zoo, Albert Park (home to the Australian Grand Prix) and the Docklands area.

“In many situations, the person with low vision and blindness will have greater knowledge than the sighted person,” says Alastair Stott of Guide Dogs Victoria. “It’s a complete role reversal.”

  • Saba Salman is editor of Made Possible, essays on success by people with learning disabilities

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‘Class-passing’: how do you learn the rules of being rich?

On an October night in 2003, a flat tire changed Muhammad Faridi’s life forever.

Faridi was 20. An immigrant who’d moved from a small village in Pakistan to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn when he was 12, he split his time studying at City University of New York during the day, and driving his dad’s cab at night to make money.

One of his professors had organized a human rights conference in New Jersey and, knowing about Faridi’s side job, asked him to drive the woman delivering the keynote lecture to the conference and back. And that’s what Faridi was doing until he got a flat and had to pull over in the dark on the side of Route 80. As it turned out, Faridi’s passenger was Mary Robinson: the first female president of Ireland and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

It took Faridi a while to change the tire – everything seemed to be going wrong that night – and as he was struggling with the car jack, the two got talking.

It was coming up to the second anniversary of 9/11 and Faridi told Robinson that, as a Muslim, he was no longer sure what his place was in America. A lot of his Pakistani friends had been rounded up in immigration raids and had been deported. “You’ve got to become a lawyer,” Robinson told Faridi firmly. That would be the best way to help his community. Her words stuck with him.

Fast forward 14 years, and Faridi is a partner at a prestigious New York law firm. As a kid, Faridi’s loftiest goal was maybe one day being a limo driver, doing just a little better than his father. He never thought he’d be where he is today: conducting billion-dollar lawsuits and leading pro bono cases, representing Muslim community centers and death row inmates.

Muhammed Faridi at work.



Muhammed Faridi at work. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

I’m talking to Faridi in his plush office on the 30th floor of a fancy Manhattan skyscraper. Our conversation is part of a number of interviews I’m conducting with people who have dramatically changed their social class. I want to find out what it’s like to be a class “migrant”. What you learn when you journey from one socioeconomic group to another, and whether it takes an emotional toll.

Stories like Faridi’s are becoming increasingly rare. Economic mobility has fallen steeply in America over the last few decades; one study estimates it has almost halved since 1940. Increasingly, your class is your destiny. Nevertheless, the country remains enamored of these rags-to-riches tales which perpetuate the myth that, in the US, anything is possible if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

It’s not just hard work that propels you up the social ladder. Success, as Faridi stresses repeatedly, is often large parts luck. But there’s also another, less tangible ingredient involved: “class-passing”.

In the UK, class consciousness is woven into the national identity. In America, however, people often like to pretend that a class system doesn’t really exist. But, of course, it does.

Going from a taxi driver’s son to a partner at a law firm isn’t just about academic qualifications. It’s also a matter of figuring out the right social cues. You have to understand the subtle signifiers that indicate to people that you’re one of them – whether that be the way you hold your fork, where you go on holiday or what brand of shoes you wear.

As a young lawyer, Faridi spent large amounts of time trying to figure out how to crack the unspoken conventions of his new world. How to dress, for example. “I remember wearing a lot of cufflinks, because that was the thing to do,” he says.

Fancy lunches with clients also became a minefield. “I was very nervous about how to pick up the cutlery so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on proper ways to handle silverwear,” he says. Faridi grew up in a Muslim household, where you get taught to eat with your right hand. According to YouTube, Faridi chuckles, “the proper way of putting food in your mouth is by using your left hand. And I remember having a lot of discomfort with that because it was something I’d never done before.”

In law school, Faridi clerked for a judge. One night, he helped the judge load some heavy documents into a taxi; the driver was his father. Faridi froze, not sure what to do. “I was embarrassed to go over and shake [my father’s] hand, so I waited until the judge had already gotten in the cab. I didn’t want the judge to see me, and I didn’t want my father to think that I was embarrassed to see him.”

It wasn’t until he made partner in 2016 that Faridi lost his sense of embarrassment. After the big announcement, he remembers, he took the elevator down to the bottom of the building, where his dad was waiting in his taxi. “And he came out of the cab and we hugged each other for a good couple of minutes.”

But there’s still a gulf between his new life and his old. His best friends from high school work as cab drivers and busboys or in Pathmark, a major supermarket chain, and he doesn’t get invited to poker nights at their houses. “None of them came to my wedding,” Faridi says sadly.

While he’s proud of everything he’s achieved, there is part of him that mourns the person he used to be.

The clean-energy CEO meeting Silicon Valley elites

Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly.



Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

Donnel Baird spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. In the years since, the borough has rapidly gentrified, and so has Baird. We’re chatting in a WeWork co-working office in the pricey Dumbo neighbourhood, where Baird is the CEO and founder of BlocPower, a clean-energy startup that has raised over $1m in funding from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – including Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in the likes of Twitter and Airbnb.

BlocPower had $4m in revenue in 2017 and has a contract to perform sustainability retrofits of 500 buildings in Brooklyn. It likely won’t be long before the company outgrows its current office space.

There weren’t any trendy office spaces in Baird’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood when he was a kid. Co-living, on the other hand, was common. He lived with his parents and sister in a in a one-bedroom apartment; two aunts and five of his cousins lived in a studio upstairs. They shared a bathroom in the hall with another family.

Bed-Stuy in the 1980s was rough. Baird saw a teenager shoot another kid in the head when he was just six. It was all a far cry from the Baird family’s life in Guyana. Baird’s dad had had an important job and a big house, but in America they had to start from scratch. It took a toll on the marriage and, when Baird was eight, his parents split up and his mom moved with him down to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Baird managed to get a place at one of the better public schools, the one where rich white kids went. At first they told his mom there was no room; there literally wasn’t a spare desk. “So she got on the bus to Home Depot and bought a desk,” Baird remembers. “She dragged it back to the school and said, ‘You can just stick the desk in a corner of one of a classroom and my son will sit there. He’s extremely well behaved.’ And they said ‘OK’.”

Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York.



Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

As a senior, Baird got offered a full scholarship by Howard, a historically black university. It was a great deal. But he’d also been accepted to Duke, a prestigious, largely white school. The financial aid package they offered was nowhere near as generous. Still, he ended up picking Duke, his mind swayed by a conversation with the father of one of his white friends.

“Her dad was a lawyer and he told me, you know, I’m 55 years old and I come to an event like this with all these other rich, white guys, and they still ask me where I went to undergrad. I live next door to them. I have as much money as them. And they still ask me because it still matters to them.” Because he didn’t go to a prestigious school, the man told Baird, he’s always treated as somewhat inferior, no matter how much money makes.

“Now, you’re black,” his friend’s dad said. “If you go to Howard you will never have a shot at getting the inside track. You have to go to Duke.”

Having learned how to navigate the old-money world of Duke, Baird now finds himself struggling to adapt to the culture of new-money Silicon Valley as he attempts to fundraise.

Rather than bonding over golf, the tech set play Settlers of Catan. They wear hoodies rather than suits. They have their own set of conventions and Baird has to code-switch accordingly. In his meetings with New York banks, for example, Baird dresses formally. “But if you go to Silicon Valley dressed like that,” he explains, “they’ll be like, this guy is a suit, he doesn’t dress like a tech person. That matters. The meeting is over.”

He has even, he tells me with more than a tinge of embarrassment, bought a pair of Allbird loafers – which are de rigeur in the Valley.

Class and colour are, of course, inextricably intertwined, and moving to a higher social class in America often seems to involve “acting white”. Throughout his life, Baird has been accused of betraying his race.

“Early on, people say that I talked white, even in my own family, which was painful. I don’t think that they would say it to hurt my feelings, they were just stating it as a fact. There’s a mix across my family of people who are very proud of me, and people are kind of resentful.”

“I have family members that are living here illegally, who can’t find work, who are addicted to crack cocaine. I’m still very much connected to them, but we live in very different worlds.”

The real estate queen who went from South Bronx to Southampton

Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it.



Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it. Photograph: Ali Smith/Ali Smith for The Guardian

Someone who knows more than most about moving between different worlds is Mary Ann Tighe, routinely ranked as one of the most powerful women in New York.

The 69-year-old CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, may be a property legend, but she got into the industry fairly late, at age 36. Before that she worked as an arts adviser in the White House and helping to launch the TV channel A&E.

Tighe grew up in a working-class Italian American family in the South Bronx. She’d always hoped to live in Manhattan one day, so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but never thought she’d end up owning an apartment opposite the Met and be brokering billion-dollar deals. Her ambitions stretched nowhere near that high, nor were they encouraged to.

One of the biggest revelations of her life, she tells me, is that many of the people around her “had lowered their own personal expectations because life had been hard. They didn’t expect to be special”.

It’s a common phenomenon: research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2015, for example, found that those experiencing poverty are significantly less confident in their own ability to succeed, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a short time, Tighe internalised this attitude. She was 13 and had just moved from a free elementary school into a fee-paying high school; her parents were working all hours to afford it and Tighe was acutely conscious of this.

Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’



Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for The Guardian

Her new high school had a policy whereby the five top-performing kids in the grade got free tuition. Tighe wondered if she might be able to get in the top five and mentioned it to her family and a teacher. All of them had the same reaction: “You were the smartest person in the class in elementary school but you’re in a much bigger pond now, so you’re not going to be the smartest any more.”

Tighe says she took that to heart and didn’t bother trying hard in class. But even without trying, Tighe came number six in her first semester. “I had a kind of breakdown,” Tighe says. “I wept and wept.”

She was so angry with herself, she says, for believing that she couldn’t be the best and for not working to relieve the financial burden on her parents. “Suffice to say I was never again not number one in that school,” she says. “It was at that moment that I realized that other people’s worldviews were not the same as mine. I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.”

One of the most valuable (and least studied) aspects of growing up with economic privilege, I’ve observed, is the sense of entitlement and the confidence it gives you. “Almost unreasonable confidence,” Tighe notes. “The confidence that comes from the achievement of others. Your parents are successful and you think that’s you.”

Today, Tighe is involved with her old high school in the Bronx and also works with the Inner City scholarship fund which gives free tuition to children. She has been funding scholarships since 1982, and she stays in touch with the recipients.

“Every one of these kids tells me the same thing,” she says. “Getting that scholarship made me realize I was special and changed everything. That vote of confidence in someone is transformational.”

From prep school to the managing director of an ad agency

Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member.



Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

When Nancy Reyes was 11 she was selected for a diversity initiative called Prep for Prep. The program identifies promising students of colour in New York and sends them to private schools.

Reyes was living in Queens at the time. Her dad was a taxi driver and her mom was a cleaner. She says: it was “a very paycheck-to-paycheck kind of life.” She went to the program after school to get caught up on things that private school kids learned, like Latin. Then, at age 13, she got a place at Trinity, one of the most prestigious schools in the US.

Reyes credits Prep for Prep for where she is today: the managing director of New York ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, and one of the most respected women in advertising.

But being plucked from working-class Queens and inserted into a school filled with Manhattan aristocracy was tough. “If you’re going to do these programs where you insert people of color into private schools, then they also need some therapy,” Reyes tells me. “I certainly did.”

Her accent, for example, immediately marked her out as different. “I wanted so badly not to have an accent; to speak ‘properly.’” Kids would say “do the Rosie Perez,” to her a lot, Reyes remembers.

In private, she was training herself to speak differently. “Not to say cawfee, for example, and not to do any of the things that I think were perceived as being people-of color-things. Like rolling your eyes or doing those kind of side-to-side head movements. I always thought, that’s not me, I’m not that person. I belong here, I’m gonna behave like everybody else behaves.”

The fact that her parents would never be like the other kids’ parents, however, was sometimes frustrating. “I remember having a moment where I yelled at my mom because she wouldn’t learn English. I remember saying, ‘This is America, you have to speak English!’ I was so brutal to her.”

So desperate was Reyes to fit that, on occasion, she – literally – almost died of embarrassment. Trinity students all knew how to swim well; the school had a big pool and everyone had summer houses with pools. She didn’t. One year, she was invited to a pool party. “Everybody was pushing everybody into the pool, messing around. I got pushed into the pool and I was treading water, because I didn’t know how to swim. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone or ask for help, even though I might have drowned.”

When time came to apply for college, Reyes ended up getting accepted to all the Ivy League colleges she’d applied to. She came home one day and the acceptance letters were there waiting for her. That was the moment, Reyes says, when she thought for the first time, “Oh my God, I think I belong. I remember sitting on the stoop and opening them and thinking, I earned it.”

At Harvard, Reyes was selected (“punched,” they call it in Harvardese) for the prestigious Hasty Pudding Club. She was excited about it until she started filling out the application, which asked about her parents’ occupation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why do you need to know their occupation?’ As soon as I put that down, you’re gonna be like, ‘No way a taxi driver’s kid can come here.’” Reyes shrugged. “So, I was like, fuck it, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have to be reminded that I was poor, while everybody else was rich.”

After years of trying to fit in with her over-privileged peers, Reyes realized that perhaps she didn’t want to be so much like them after all.

‘Class-passing’: how do you learn the rules of being rich?

On an October night in 2003, a flat tire changed Muhammad Faridi’s life forever.

Faridi was 20. An immigrant who’d moved from a small village in Pakistan to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn when he was 12, he split his time studying at City University of New York during the day, and driving his dad’s cab at night to make money.

One of his professors had organized a human rights conference in New Jersey and, knowing about Faridi’s side job, asked him to drive the woman delivering the keynote lecture to the conference and back. And that’s what Faridi was doing until he got a flat and had to pull over in the dark on the side of Route 80. As it turned out, Faridi’s passenger was Mary Robinson: the first female president of Ireland and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

It took Faridi a while to change the tire – everything seemed to be going wrong that night – and as he was struggling with the car jack, the two got talking.

It was coming up to the second anniversary of 9/11 and Faridi told Robinson that, as a Muslim, he was no longer sure what his place was in America. A lot of his Pakistani friends had been rounded up in immigration raids and had been deported. “You’ve got to become a lawyer,” Robinson told Faridi firmly. That would be the best way to help his community. Her words stuck with him.

Fast forward 14 years, and Faridi is a partner at a prestigious New York law firm. As a kid, Faridi’s loftiest goal was maybe one day being a limo driver, doing just a little better than his father. He never thought he’d be where he is today: conducting billion-dollar lawsuits and leading pro bono cases, representing Muslim community centers and death row inmates.

Muhammed Faridi at work.



Muhammed Faridi at work. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

I’m talking to Faridi in his plush office on the 30th floor of a fancy Manhattan skyscraper. Our conversation is part of a number of interviews I’m conducting with people who have dramatically changed their social class. I want to find out what it’s like to be a class “migrant”. What you learn when you journey from one socioeconomic group to another, and whether it takes an emotional toll.

Stories like Faridi’s are becoming increasingly rare. Economic mobility has fallen steeply in America over the last few decades; one study estimates it has almost halved since 1940. Increasingly, your class is your destiny. Nevertheless, the country remains enamored of these rags-to-riches tales which perpetuate the myth that, in the US, anything is possible if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

It’s not just hard work that propels you up the social ladder. Success, as Faridi stresses repeatedly, is often large parts luck. But there’s also another, less tangible ingredient involved: “class-passing”.

In the UK, class consciousness is woven into the national identity. In America, however, people often like to pretend that a class system doesn’t really exist. But, of course, it does.

Going from a taxi driver’s son to a partner at a law firm isn’t just about academic qualifications. It’s also a matter of figuring out the right social cues. You have to understand the subtle signifiers that indicate to people that you’re one of them – whether that be the way you hold your fork, where you go on holiday or what brand of shoes you wear.

As a young lawyer, Faridi spent large amounts of time trying to figure out how to crack the unspoken conventions of his new world. How to dress, for example. “I remember wearing a lot of cufflinks, because that was the thing to do,” he says.

Fancy lunches with clients also became a minefield. “I was very nervous about how to pick up the cutlery so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on proper ways to handle silverwear,” he says. Faridi grew up in a Muslim household, where you get taught to eat with your right hand. According to YouTube, Faridi chuckles, “the proper way of putting food in your mouth is by using your left hand. And I remember having a lot of discomfort with that because it was something I’d never done before.”

In law school, Faridi clerked for a judge. One night, he helped the judge load some heavy documents into a taxi; the driver was his father. Faridi froze, not sure what to do. “I was embarrassed to go over and shake [my father’s] hand, so I waited until the judge had already gotten in the cab. I didn’t want the judge to see me, and I didn’t want my father to think that I was embarrassed to see him.”

It wasn’t until he made partner in 2016 that Faridi lost his sense of embarrassment. After the big announcement, he remembers, he took the elevator down to the bottom of the building, where his dad was waiting in his taxi. “And he came out of the cab and we hugged each other for a good couple of minutes.”

But there’s still a gulf between his new life and his old. His best friends from high school work as cab drivers and busboys or in Pathmark, a major supermarket chain, and he doesn’t get invited to poker nights at their houses. “None of them came to my wedding,” Faridi says sadly.

While he’s proud of everything he’s achieved, there is part of him that mourns the person he used to be.

The clean-energy CEO meeting Silicon Valley elites

Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly.



Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

Donnel Baird spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. In the years since, the borough has rapidly gentrified, and so has Baird. We’re chatting in a WeWork co-working office in the pricey Dumbo neighbourhood, where Baird is the CEO and founder of BlocPower, a clean-energy startup that has raised over $1m in funding from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – including Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in the likes of Twitter and Airbnb.

BlocPower had $4m in revenue in 2017 and has a contract to perform sustainability retrofits of 500 buildings in Brooklyn. It likely won’t be long before the company outgrows its current office space.

There weren’t any trendy office spaces in Baird’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood when he was a kid. Co-living, on the other hand, was common. He lived with his parents and sister in a in a one-bedroom apartment; two aunts and five of his cousins lived in a studio upstairs. They shared a bathroom in the hall with another family.

Bed-Stuy in the 1980s was rough. Baird saw a teenager shoot another kid in the head when he was just six. It was all a far cry from the Baird family’s life in Guyana. Baird’s dad had had an important job and a big house, but in America they had to start from scratch. It took a toll on the marriage and, when Baird was eight, his parents split up and his mom moved with him down to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Baird managed to get a place at one of the better public schools, the one where rich white kids went. At first they told his mom there was no room; there literally wasn’t a spare desk. “So she got on the bus to Home Depot and bought a desk,” Baird remembers. “She dragged it back to the school and said, ‘You can just stick the desk in a corner of one of a classroom and my son will sit there. He’s extremely well behaved.’ And they said ‘OK’.”

Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York.



Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

As a senior, Baird got offered a full scholarship by Howard, a historically black university. It was a great deal. But he’d also been accepted to Duke, a prestigious, largely white school. The financial aid package they offered was nowhere near as generous. Still, he ended up picking Duke, his mind swayed by a conversation with the father of one of his white friends.

“Her dad was a lawyer and he told me, you know, I’m 55 years old and I come to an event like this with all these other rich, white guys, and they still ask me where I went to undergrad. I live next door to them. I have as much money as them. And they still ask me because it still matters to them.” Because he didn’t go to a prestigious school, the man told Baird, he’s always treated as somewhat inferior, no matter how much money makes.

“Now, you’re black,” his friend’s dad said. “If you go to Howard you will never have a shot at getting the inside track. You have to go to Duke.”

Having learned how to navigate the old-money world of Duke, Baird now finds himself struggling to adapt to the culture of new-money Silicon Valley as he attempts to fundraise.

Rather than bonding over golf, the tech set play Settlers of Catan. They wear hoodies rather than suits. They have their own set of conventions and Baird has to code-switch accordingly. In his meetings with New York banks, for example, Baird dresses formally. “But if you go to Silicon Valley dressed like that,” he explains, “they’ll be like, this guy is a suit, he doesn’t dress like a tech person. That matters. The meeting is over.”

He has even, he tells me with more than a tinge of embarrassment, bought a pair of Allbird loafers – which are de rigeur in the Valley.

Class and colour are, of course, inextricably intertwined, and moving to a higher social class in America often seems to involve “acting white”. Throughout his life, Baird has been accused of betraying his race.

“Early on, people say that I talked white, even in my own family, which was painful. I don’t think that they would say it to hurt my feelings, they were just stating it as a fact. There’s a mix across my family of people who are very proud of me, and people are kind of resentful.”

“I have family members that are living here illegally, who can’t find work, who are addicted to crack cocaine. I’m still very much connected to them, but we live in very different worlds.”

The real estate queen who went from South Bronx to Southampton

Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it.



Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it. Photograph: Ali Smith/Ali Smith for The Guardian

Someone who knows more than most about moving between different worlds is Mary Ann Tighe, routinely ranked as one of the most powerful women in New York.

The 69-year-old CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, may be a property legend, but she got into the industry fairly late, at age 36. Before that she worked as an arts adviser in the White House and helping to launch the TV channel A&E.

Tighe grew up in a working-class Italian American family in the South Bronx. She’d always hoped to live in Manhattan one day, so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but never thought she’d end up owning an apartment opposite the Met and be brokering billion-dollar deals. Her ambitions stretched nowhere near that high, nor were they encouraged to.

One of the biggest revelations of her life, she tells me, is that many of the people around her “had lowered their own personal expectations because life had been hard. They didn’t expect to be special”.

It’s a common phenomenon: research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2015, for example, found that those experiencing poverty are significantly less confident in their own ability to succeed, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a short time, Tighe internalised this attitude. She was 13 and had just moved from a free elementary school into a fee-paying high school; her parents were working all hours to afford it and Tighe was acutely conscious of this.

Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’



Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for The Guardian

Her new high school had a policy whereby the five top-performing kids in the grade got free tuition. Tighe wondered if she might be able to get in the top five and mentioned it to her family and a teacher. All of them had the same reaction: “You were the smartest person in the class in elementary school but you’re in a much bigger pond now, so you’re not going to be the smartest any more.”

Tighe says she took that to heart and didn’t bother trying hard in class. But even without trying, Tighe came number six in her first semester. “I had a kind of breakdown,” Tighe says. “I wept and wept.”

She was so angry with herself, she says, for believing that she couldn’t be the best and for not working to relieve the financial burden on her parents. “Suffice to say I was never again not number one in that school,” she says. “It was at that moment that I realized that other people’s worldviews were not the same as mine. I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.”

One of the most valuable (and least studied) aspects of growing up with economic privilege, I’ve observed, is the sense of entitlement and the confidence it gives you. “Almost unreasonable confidence,” Tighe notes. “The confidence that comes from the achievement of others. Your parents are successful and you think that’s you.”

Today, Tighe is involved with her old high school in the Bronx and also works with the Inner City scholarship fund which gives free tuition to children. She has been funding scholarships since 1982, and she stays in touch with the recipients.

“Every one of these kids tells me the same thing,” she says. “Getting that scholarship made me realize I was special and changed everything. That vote of confidence in someone is transformational.”

From prep school to the managing director of an ad agency

Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member.



Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

When Nancy Reyes was 11 she was selected for a diversity initiative called Prep for Prep. The program identifies promising students of colour in New York and sends them to private schools.

Reyes was living in Queens at the time. Her dad was a taxi driver and her mom was a cleaner. She says: it was “a very paycheck-to-paycheck kind of life.” She went to the program after school to get caught up on things that private school kids learned, like Latin. Then, at age 13, she got a place at Trinity, one of the most prestigious schools in the US.

Reyes credits Prep for Prep for where she is today: the managing director of New York ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, and one of the most respected women in advertising.

But being plucked from working-class Queens and inserted into a school filled with Manhattan aristocracy was tough. “If you’re going to do these programs where you insert people of color into private schools, then they also need some therapy,” Reyes tells me. “I certainly did.”

Her accent, for example, immediately marked her out as different. “I wanted so badly not to have an accent; to speak ‘properly.’” Kids would say “do the Rosie Perez,” to her a lot, Reyes remembers.

In private, she was training herself to speak differently. “Not to say cawfee, for example, and not to do any of the things that I think were perceived as being people-of color-things. Like rolling your eyes or doing those kind of side-to-side head movements. I always thought, that’s not me, I’m not that person. I belong here, I’m gonna behave like everybody else behaves.”

The fact that her parents would never be like the other kids’ parents, however, was sometimes frustrating. “I remember having a moment where I yelled at my mom because she wouldn’t learn English. I remember saying, ‘This is America, you have to speak English!’ I was so brutal to her.”

So desperate was Reyes to fit that, on occasion, she – literally – almost died of embarrassment. Trinity students all knew how to swim well; the school had a big pool and everyone had summer houses with pools. She didn’t. One year, she was invited to a pool party. “Everybody was pushing everybody into the pool, messing around. I got pushed into the pool and I was treading water, because I didn’t know how to swim. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone or ask for help, even though I might have drowned.”

When time came to apply for college, Reyes ended up getting accepted to all the Ivy League colleges she’d applied to. She came home one day and the acceptance letters were there waiting for her. That was the moment, Reyes says, when she thought for the first time, “Oh my God, I think I belong. I remember sitting on the stoop and opening them and thinking, I earned it.”

At Harvard, Reyes was selected (“punched,” they call it in Harvardese) for the prestigious Hasty Pudding Club. She was excited about it until she started filling out the application, which asked about her parents’ occupation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why do you need to know their occupation?’ As soon as I put that down, you’re gonna be like, ‘No way a taxi driver’s kid can come here.’” Reyes shrugged. “So, I was like, fuck it, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have to be reminded that I was poor, while everybody else was rich.”

After years of trying to fit in with her over-privileged peers, Reyes realized that perhaps she didn’t want to be so much like them after all.

‘Class-passing’: how do you learn the rules of being rich?

On an October night in 2003, a flat tire changed Muhammad Faridi’s life forever.

Faridi was 20. An immigrant who’d moved from a small village in Pakistan to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn when he was 12, he split his time studying at City University of New York during the day, and driving his dad’s cab at night to make money.

One of his professors had organized a human rights conference in New Jersey and, knowing about Faridi’s side job, asked him to drive the woman delivering the keynote lecture to the conference and back. And that’s what Faridi was doing until he got a flat and had to pull over in the dark on the side of Route 80. As it turned out, Faridi’s passenger was Mary Robinson: the first female president of Ireland and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

It took Faridi a while to change the tire – everything seemed to be going wrong that night – and as he was struggling with the car jack, the two got talking.

It was coming up to the second anniversary of 9/11 and Faridi told Robinson that, as a Muslim, he was no longer sure what his place was in America. A lot of his Pakistani friends had been rounded up in immigration raids and had been deported. “You’ve got to become a lawyer,” Robinson told Faridi firmly. That would be the best way to help his community. Her words stuck with him.

Fast forward 14 years, and Faridi is a partner at a prestigious New York law firm. As a kid, Faridi’s loftiest goal was maybe one day being a limo driver, doing just a little better than his father. He never thought he’d be where he is today: conducting billion-dollar lawsuits and leading pro bono cases, representing Muslim community centers and death row inmates.

Muhammed Faridi at work.



Muhammed Faridi at work. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

I’m talking to Faridi in his plush office on the 30th floor of a fancy Manhattan skyscraper. Our conversation is part of a number of interviews I’m conducting with people who have dramatically changed their social class. I want to find out what it’s like to be a class “migrant”. What you learn when you journey from one socioeconomic group to another, and whether it takes an emotional toll.

Stories like Faridi’s are becoming increasingly rare. Economic mobility has fallen steeply in America over the last few decades; one study estimates it has almost halved since 1940. Increasingly, your class is your destiny. Nevertheless, the country remains enamored of these rags-to-riches tales which perpetuate the myth that, in the US, anything is possible if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

It’s not just hard work that propels you up the social ladder. Success, as Faridi stresses repeatedly, is often large parts luck. But there’s also another, less tangible ingredient involved: “class-passing”.

In the UK, class consciousness is woven into the national identity. In America, however, people often like to pretend that a class system doesn’t really exist. But, of course, it does.

Going from a taxi driver’s son to a partner at a law firm isn’t just about academic qualifications. It’s also a matter of figuring out the right social cues. You have to understand the subtle signifiers that indicate to people that you’re one of them – whether that be the way you hold your fork, where you go on holiday or what brand of shoes you wear.

As a young lawyer, Faridi spent large amounts of time trying to figure out how to crack the unspoken conventions of his new world. How to dress, for example. “I remember wearing a lot of cufflinks, because that was the thing to do,” he says.

Fancy lunches with clients also became a minefield. “I was very nervous about how to pick up the cutlery so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on proper ways to handle silverwear,” he says. Faridi grew up in a Muslim household, where you get taught to eat with your right hand. According to YouTube, Faridi chuckles, “the proper way of putting food in your mouth is by using your left hand. And I remember having a lot of discomfort with that because it was something I’d never done before.”

In law school, Faridi clerked for a judge. One night, he helped the judge load some heavy documents into a taxi; the driver was his father. Faridi froze, not sure what to do. “I was embarrassed to go over and shake [my father’s] hand, so I waited until the judge had already gotten in the cab. I didn’t want the judge to see me, and I didn’t want my father to think that I was embarrassed to see him.”

It wasn’t until he made partner in 2016 that Faridi lost his sense of embarrassment. After the big announcement, he remembers, he took the elevator down to the bottom of the building, where his dad was waiting in his taxi. “And he came out of the cab and we hugged each other for a good couple of minutes.”

But there’s still a gulf between his new life and his old. His best friends from high school work as cab drivers and busboys or in Pathmark, a major supermarket chain, and he doesn’t get invited to poker nights at their houses. “None of them came to my wedding,” Faridi says sadly.

While he’s proud of everything he’s achieved, there is part of him that mourns the person he used to be.

The clean-energy CEO meeting Silicon Valley elites

Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly.



Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

Donnel Baird spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. In the years since, the borough has rapidly gentrified, and so has Baird. We’re chatting in a WeWork co-working office in the pricey Dumbo neighbourhood, where Baird is the CEO and founder of BlocPower, a clean-energy startup that has raised over $1m in funding from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – including Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in the likes of Twitter and Airbnb.

BlocPower had $4m in revenue in 2017 and has a contract to perform sustainability retrofits of 500 buildings in Brooklyn. It likely won’t be long before the company outgrows its current office space.

There weren’t any trendy office spaces in Baird’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood when he was a kid. Co-living, on the other hand, was common. He lived with his parents and sister in a in a one-bedroom apartment; two aunts and five of his cousins lived in a studio upstairs. They shared a bathroom in the hall with another family.

Bed-Stuy in the 1980s was rough. Baird saw a teenager shoot another kid in the head when he was just six. It was all a far cry from the Baird family’s life in Guyana. Baird’s dad had had an important job and a big house, but in America they had to start from scratch. It took a toll on the marriage and, when Baird was eight, his parents split up and his mom moved with him down to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Baird managed to get a place at one of the better public schools, the one where rich white kids went. At first they told his mom there was no room; there literally wasn’t a spare desk. “So she got on the bus to Home Depot and bought a desk,” Baird remembers. “She dragged it back to the school and said, ‘You can just stick the desk in a corner of one of a classroom and my son will sit there. He’s extremely well behaved.’ And they said ‘OK’.”

Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York.



Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

As a senior, Baird got offered a full scholarship by Howard, a historically black university. It was a great deal. But he’d also been accepted to Duke, a prestigious, largely white school. The financial aid package they offered was nowhere near as generous. Still, he ended up picking Duke, his mind swayed by a conversation with the father of one of his white friends.

“Her dad was a lawyer and he told me, you know, I’m 55 years old and I come to an event like this with all these other rich, white guys, and they still ask me where I went to undergrad. I live next door to them. I have as much money as them. And they still ask me because it still matters to them.” Because he didn’t go to a prestigious school, the man told Baird, he’s always treated as somewhat inferior, no matter how much money makes.

“Now, you’re black,” his friend’s dad said. “If you go to Howard you will never have a shot at getting the inside track. You have to go to Duke.”

Having learned how to navigate the old-money world of Duke, Baird now finds himself struggling to adapt to the culture of new-money Silicon Valley as he attempts to fundraise.

Rather than bonding over golf, the tech set play Settlers of Catan. They wear hoodies rather than suits. They have their own set of conventions and Baird has to code-switch accordingly. In his meetings with New York banks, for example, Baird dresses formally. “But if you go to Silicon Valley dressed like that,” he explains, “they’ll be like, this guy is a suit, he doesn’t dress like a tech person. That matters. The meeting is over.”

He has even, he tells me with more than a tinge of embarrassment, bought a pair of Allbird loafers – which are de rigeur in the Valley.

Class and colour are, of course, inextricably intertwined, and moving to a higher social class in America often seems to involve “acting white”. Throughout his life, Baird has been accused of betraying his race.

“Early on, people say that I talked white, even in my own family, which was painful. I don’t think that they would say it to hurt my feelings, they were just stating it as a fact. There’s a mix across my family of people who are very proud of me, and people are kind of resentful.”

“I have family members that are living here illegally, who can’t find work, who are addicted to crack cocaine. I’m still very much connected to them, but we live in very different worlds.”

The real estate queen who went from South Bronx to Southampton

Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it.



Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it. Photograph: Ali Smith/Ali Smith for The Guardian

Someone who knows more than most about moving between different worlds is Mary Ann Tighe, routinely ranked as one of the most powerful women in New York.

The 69-year-old CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, may be a property legend, but she got into the industry fairly late, at age 36. Before that she worked as an arts adviser in the White House and helping to launch the TV channel A&E.

Tighe grew up in a working-class Italian American family in the South Bronx. She’d always hoped to live in Manhattan one day, so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but never thought she’d end up owning an apartment opposite the Met and be brokering billion-dollar deals. Her ambitions stretched nowhere near that high, nor were they encouraged to.

One of the biggest revelations of her life, she tells me, is that many of the people around her “had lowered their own personal expectations because life had been hard. They didn’t expect to be special”.

It’s a common phenomenon: research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2015, for example, found that those experiencing poverty are significantly less confident in their own ability to succeed, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a short time, Tighe internalised this attitude. She was 13 and had just moved from a free elementary school into a fee-paying high school; her parents were working all hours to afford it and Tighe was acutely conscious of this.

Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’



Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for The Guardian

Her new high school had a policy whereby the five top-performing kids in the grade got free tuition. Tighe wondered if she might be able to get in the top five and mentioned it to her family and a teacher. All of them had the same reaction: “You were the smartest person in the class in elementary school but you’re in a much bigger pond now, so you’re not going to be the smartest any more.”

Tighe says she took that to heart and didn’t bother trying hard in class. But even without trying, Tighe came number six in her first semester. “I had a kind of breakdown,” Tighe says. “I wept and wept.”

She was so angry with herself, she says, for believing that she couldn’t be the best and for not working to relieve the financial burden on her parents. “Suffice to say I was never again not number one in that school,” she says. “It was at that moment that I realized that other people’s worldviews were not the same as mine. I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.”

One of the most valuable (and least studied) aspects of growing up with economic privilege, I’ve observed, is the sense of entitlement and the confidence it gives you. “Almost unreasonable confidence,” Tighe notes. “The confidence that comes from the achievement of others. Your parents are successful and you think that’s you.”

Today, Tighe is involved with her old high school in the Bronx and also works with the Inner City scholarship fund which gives free tuition to children. She has been funding scholarships since 1982, and she stays in touch with the recipients.

“Every one of these kids tells me the same thing,” she says. “Getting that scholarship made me realize I was special and changed everything. That vote of confidence in someone is transformational.”

From prep school to the managing director of an ad agency

Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member.



Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

When Nancy Reyes was 11 she was selected for a diversity initiative called Prep for Prep. The program identifies promising students of colour in New York and sends them to private schools.

Reyes was living in Queens at the time. Her dad was a taxi driver and her mom was a cleaner. She says: it was “a very paycheck-to-paycheck kind of life.” She went to the program after school to get caught up on things that private school kids learned, like Latin. Then, at age 13, she got a place at Trinity, one of the most prestigious schools in the US.

Reyes credits Prep for Prep for where she is today: the managing director of New York ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, and one of the most respected women in advertising.

But being plucked from working-class Queens and inserted into a school filled with Manhattan aristocracy was tough. “If you’re going to do these programs where you insert people of color into private schools, then they also need some therapy,” Reyes tells me. “I certainly did.”

Her accent, for example, immediately marked her out as different. “I wanted so badly not to have an accent; to speak ‘properly.’” Kids would say “do the Rosie Perez,” to her a lot, Reyes remembers.

In private, she was training herself to speak differently. “Not to say cawfee, for example, and not to do any of the things that I think were perceived as being people-of color-things. Like rolling your eyes or doing those kind of side-to-side head movements. I always thought, that’s not me, I’m not that person. I belong here, I’m gonna behave like everybody else behaves.”

The fact that her parents would never be like the other kids’ parents, however, was sometimes frustrating. “I remember having a moment where I yelled at my mom because she wouldn’t learn English. I remember saying, ‘This is America, you have to speak English!’ I was so brutal to her.”

So desperate was Reyes to fit that, on occasion, she – literally – almost died of embarrassment. Trinity students all knew how to swim well; the school had a big pool and everyone had summer houses with pools. She didn’t. One year, she was invited to a pool party. “Everybody was pushing everybody into the pool, messing around. I got pushed into the pool and I was treading water, because I didn’t know how to swim. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone or ask for help, even though I might have drowned.”

When time came to apply for college, Reyes ended up getting accepted to all the Ivy League colleges she’d applied to. She came home one day and the acceptance letters were there waiting for her. That was the moment, Reyes says, when she thought for the first time, “Oh my God, I think I belong. I remember sitting on the stoop and opening them and thinking, I earned it.”

At Harvard, Reyes was selected (“punched,” they call it in Harvardese) for the prestigious Hasty Pudding Club. She was excited about it until she started filling out the application, which asked about her parents’ occupation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why do you need to know their occupation?’ As soon as I put that down, you’re gonna be like, ‘No way a taxi driver’s kid can come here.’” Reyes shrugged. “So, I was like, fuck it, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have to be reminded that I was poor, while everybody else was rich.”

After years of trying to fit in with her over-privileged peers, Reyes realized that perhaps she didn’t want to be so much like them after all.

‘Class-passing’: how do you learn the rules of being rich?

On an October night in 2003, a flat tire changed Muhammad Faridi’s life forever.

Faridi was 20. An immigrant who’d moved from a small village in Pakistan to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn when he was 12, he split his time studying at City University of New York during the day, and driving his dad’s cab at night to make money.

One of his professors had organized a human rights conference in New Jersey and, knowing about Faridi’s side job, asked him to drive the woman delivering the keynote lecture to the conference and back. And that’s what Faridi was doing until he got a flat and had to pull over in the dark on the side of Route 80. As it turned out, Faridi’s passenger was Mary Robinson: the first female president of Ireland and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

It took Faridi a while to change the tire – everything seemed to be going wrong that night – and as he was struggling with the car jack, the two got talking.

It was coming up to the second anniversary of 9/11 and Faridi told Robinson that, as a Muslim, he was no longer sure what his place was in America. A lot of his Pakistani friends had been rounded up in immigration raids and had been deported. “You’ve got to become a lawyer,” Robinson told Faridi firmly. That would be the best way to help his community. Her words stuck with him.

Fast forward 14 years, and Faridi is a partner at a prestigious New York law firm. As a kid, Faridi’s loftiest goal was maybe one day being a limo driver, doing just a little better than his father. He never thought he’d be where he is today: conducting billion-dollar lawsuits and leading pro bono cases, representing Muslim community centers and death row inmates.

Muhammed Faridi at work.



Muhammed Faridi at work. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

I’m talking to Faridi in his plush office on the 30th floor of a fancy Manhattan skyscraper. Our conversation is part of a number of interviews I’m conducting with people who have dramatically changed their social class. I want to find out what it’s like to be a class “migrant”. What you learn when you journey from one socioeconomic group to another, and whether it takes an emotional toll.

Stories like Faridi’s are becoming increasingly rare. Economic mobility has fallen steeply in America over the last few decades; one study estimates it has almost halved since 1940. Increasingly, your class is your destiny. Nevertheless, the country remains enamored of these rags-to-riches tales which perpetuate the myth that, in the US, anything is possible if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

It’s not just hard work that propels you up the social ladder. Success, as Faridi stresses repeatedly, is often large parts luck. But there’s also another, less tangible ingredient involved: “class-passing”.

In the UK, class consciousness is woven into the national identity. In America, however, people often like to pretend that a class system doesn’t really exist. But, of course, it does.

Going from a taxi driver’s son to a partner at a law firm isn’t just about academic qualifications. It’s also a matter of figuring out the right social cues. You have to understand the subtle signifiers that indicate to people that you’re one of them – whether that be the way you hold your fork, where you go on holiday or what brand of shoes you wear.

As a young lawyer, Faridi spent large amounts of time trying to figure out how to crack the unspoken conventions of his new world. How to dress, for example. “I remember wearing a lot of cufflinks, because that was the thing to do,” he says.

Fancy lunches with clients also became a minefield. “I was very nervous about how to pick up the cutlery so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on proper ways to handle silverwear,” he says. Faridi grew up in a Muslim household, where you get taught to eat with your right hand. According to YouTube, Faridi chuckles, “the proper way of putting food in your mouth is by using your left hand. And I remember having a lot of discomfort with that because it was something I’d never done before.”

In law school, Faridi clerked for a judge. One night, he helped the judge load some heavy documents into a taxi; the driver was his father. Faridi froze, not sure what to do. “I was embarrassed to go over and shake [my father’s] hand, so I waited until the judge had already gotten in the cab. I didn’t want the judge to see me, and I didn’t want my father to think that I was embarrassed to see him.”

It wasn’t until he made partner in 2016 that Faridi lost his sense of embarrassment. After the big announcement, he remembers, he took the elevator down to the bottom of the building, where his dad was waiting in his taxi. “And he came out of the cab and we hugged each other for a good couple of minutes.”

But there’s still a gulf between his new life and his old. His best friends from high school work as cab drivers and busboys or in Pathmark, a major supermarket chain, and he doesn’t get invited to poker nights at their houses. “None of them came to my wedding,” Faridi says sadly.

While he’s proud of everything he’s achieved, there is part of him that mourns the person he used to be.

The clean-energy CEO meeting Silicon Valley elites

Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly.



Donnel Baird with a copy of The Hard Things About Hard Things, a book he values highly. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

Donnel Baird spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. In the years since, the borough has rapidly gentrified, and so has Baird. We’re chatting in a WeWork co-working office in the pricey Dumbo neighbourhood, where Baird is the CEO and founder of BlocPower, a clean-energy startup that has raised over $1m in funding from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – including Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in the likes of Twitter and Airbnb.

BlocPower had $4m in revenue in 2017 and has a contract to perform sustainability retrofits of 500 buildings in Brooklyn. It likely won’t be long before the company outgrows its current office space.

There weren’t any trendy office spaces in Baird’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood when he was a kid. Co-living, on the other hand, was common. He lived with his parents and sister in a in a one-bedroom apartment; two aunts and five of his cousins lived in a studio upstairs. They shared a bathroom in the hall with another family.

Bed-Stuy in the 1980s was rough. Baird saw a teenager shoot another kid in the head when he was just six. It was all a far cry from the Baird family’s life in Guyana. Baird’s dad had had an important job and a big house, but in America they had to start from scratch. It took a toll on the marriage and, when Baird was eight, his parents split up and his mom moved with him down to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Baird managed to get a place at one of the better public schools, the one where rich white kids went. At first they told his mom there was no room; there literally wasn’t a spare desk. “So she got on the bus to Home Depot and bought a desk,” Baird remembers. “She dragged it back to the school and said, ‘You can just stick the desk in a corner of one of a classroom and my son will sit there. He’s extremely well behaved.’ And they said ‘OK’.”

Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York.



Donnel Baird, founder of BlockPower, at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

As a senior, Baird got offered a full scholarship by Howard, a historically black university. It was a great deal. But he’d also been accepted to Duke, a prestigious, largely white school. The financial aid package they offered was nowhere near as generous. Still, he ended up picking Duke, his mind swayed by a conversation with the father of one of his white friends.

“Her dad was a lawyer and he told me, you know, I’m 55 years old and I come to an event like this with all these other rich, white guys, and they still ask me where I went to undergrad. I live next door to them. I have as much money as them. And they still ask me because it still matters to them.” Because he didn’t go to a prestigious school, the man told Baird, he’s always treated as somewhat inferior, no matter how much money makes.

“Now, you’re black,” his friend’s dad said. “If you go to Howard you will never have a shot at getting the inside track. You have to go to Duke.”

Having learned how to navigate the old-money world of Duke, Baird now finds himself struggling to adapt to the culture of new-money Silicon Valley as he attempts to fundraise.

Rather than bonding over golf, the tech set play Settlers of Catan. They wear hoodies rather than suits. They have their own set of conventions and Baird has to code-switch accordingly. In his meetings with New York banks, for example, Baird dresses formally. “But if you go to Silicon Valley dressed like that,” he explains, “they’ll be like, this guy is a suit, he doesn’t dress like a tech person. That matters. The meeting is over.”

He has even, he tells me with more than a tinge of embarrassment, bought a pair of Allbird loafers – which are de rigeur in the Valley.

Class and colour are, of course, inextricably intertwined, and moving to a higher social class in America often seems to involve “acting white”. Throughout his life, Baird has been accused of betraying his race.

“Early on, people say that I talked white, even in my own family, which was painful. I don’t think that they would say it to hurt my feelings, they were just stating it as a fact. There’s a mix across my family of people who are very proud of me, and people are kind of resentful.”

“I have family members that are living here illegally, who can’t find work, who are addicted to crack cocaine. I’m still very much connected to them, but we live in very different worlds.”

The real estate queen who went from South Bronx to Southampton

Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it.



Mary Ann Tighe always hoped to live in Manhattan so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She never thought she might one day own an apartment opposite it. Photograph: Ali Smith/Ali Smith for The Guardian

Someone who knows more than most about moving between different worlds is Mary Ann Tighe, routinely ranked as one of the most powerful women in New York.

The 69-year-old CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, may be a property legend, but she got into the industry fairly late, at age 36. Before that she worked as an arts adviser in the White House and helping to launch the TV channel A&E.

Tighe grew up in a working-class Italian American family in the South Bronx. She’d always hoped to live in Manhattan one day, so she could visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but never thought she’d end up owning an apartment opposite the Met and be brokering billion-dollar deals. Her ambitions stretched nowhere near that high, nor were they encouraged to.

One of the biggest revelations of her life, she tells me, is that many of the people around her “had lowered their own personal expectations because life had been hard. They didn’t expect to be special”.

It’s a common phenomenon: research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2015, for example, found that those experiencing poverty are significantly less confident in their own ability to succeed, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a short time, Tighe internalised this attitude. She was 13 and had just moved from a free elementary school into a fee-paying high school; her parents were working all hours to afford it and Tighe was acutely conscious of this.

Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’



Mary Ann Tighe: ‘I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for The Guardian

Her new high school had a policy whereby the five top-performing kids in the grade got free tuition. Tighe wondered if she might be able to get in the top five and mentioned it to her family and a teacher. All of them had the same reaction: “You were the smartest person in the class in elementary school but you’re in a much bigger pond now, so you’re not going to be the smartest any more.”

Tighe says she took that to heart and didn’t bother trying hard in class. But even without trying, Tighe came number six in her first semester. “I had a kind of breakdown,” Tighe says. “I wept and wept.”

She was so angry with herself, she says, for believing that she couldn’t be the best and for not working to relieve the financial burden on her parents. “Suffice to say I was never again not number one in that school,” she says. “It was at that moment that I realized that other people’s worldviews were not the same as mine. I couldn’t listen to them tell me that I couldn’t do something.”

One of the most valuable (and least studied) aspects of growing up with economic privilege, I’ve observed, is the sense of entitlement and the confidence it gives you. “Almost unreasonable confidence,” Tighe notes. “The confidence that comes from the achievement of others. Your parents are successful and you think that’s you.”

Today, Tighe is involved with her old high school in the Bronx and also works with the Inner City scholarship fund which gives free tuition to children. She has been funding scholarships since 1982, and she stays in touch with the recipients.

“Every one of these kids tells me the same thing,” she says. “Getting that scholarship made me realize I was special and changed everything. That vote of confidence in someone is transformational.”

From prep school to the managing director of an ad agency

Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member.



Nancy Reyes at The Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where she is a member. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

When Nancy Reyes was 11 she was selected for a diversity initiative called Prep for Prep. The program identifies promising students of colour in New York and sends them to private schools.

Reyes was living in Queens at the time. Her dad was a taxi driver and her mom was a cleaner. She says: it was “a very paycheck-to-paycheck kind of life.” She went to the program after school to get caught up on things that private school kids learned, like Latin. Then, at age 13, she got a place at Trinity, one of the most prestigious schools in the US.

Reyes credits Prep for Prep for where she is today: the managing director of New York ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, and one of the most respected women in advertising.

But being plucked from working-class Queens and inserted into a school filled with Manhattan aristocracy was tough. “If you’re going to do these programs where you insert people of color into private schools, then they also need some therapy,” Reyes tells me. “I certainly did.”

Her accent, for example, immediately marked her out as different. “I wanted so badly not to have an accent; to speak ‘properly.’” Kids would say “do the Rosie Perez,” to her a lot, Reyes remembers.

In private, she was training herself to speak differently. “Not to say cawfee, for example, and not to do any of the things that I think were perceived as being people-of color-things. Like rolling your eyes or doing those kind of side-to-side head movements. I always thought, that’s not me, I’m not that person. I belong here, I’m gonna behave like everybody else behaves.”

The fact that her parents would never be like the other kids’ parents, however, was sometimes frustrating. “I remember having a moment where I yelled at my mom because she wouldn’t learn English. I remember saying, ‘This is America, you have to speak English!’ I was so brutal to her.”

So desperate was Reyes to fit that, on occasion, she – literally – almost died of embarrassment. Trinity students all knew how to swim well; the school had a big pool and everyone had summer houses with pools. She didn’t. One year, she was invited to a pool party. “Everybody was pushing everybody into the pool, messing around. I got pushed into the pool and I was treading water, because I didn’t know how to swim. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone or ask for help, even though I might have drowned.”

When time came to apply for college, Reyes ended up getting accepted to all the Ivy League colleges she’d applied to. She came home one day and the acceptance letters were there waiting for her. That was the moment, Reyes says, when she thought for the first time, “Oh my God, I think I belong. I remember sitting on the stoop and opening them and thinking, I earned it.”

At Harvard, Reyes was selected (“punched,” they call it in Harvardese) for the prestigious Hasty Pudding Club. She was excited about it until she started filling out the application, which asked about her parents’ occupation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why do you need to know their occupation?’ As soon as I put that down, you’re gonna be like, ‘No way a taxi driver’s kid can come here.’” Reyes shrugged. “So, I was like, fuck it, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have to be reminded that I was poor, while everybody else was rich.”

After years of trying to fit in with her over-privileged peers, Reyes realized that perhaps she didn’t want to be so much like them after all.

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