Thursday, August 7, 2008

Kalpna at BPA, by Alexa Frankenberg

Kalpna was a research assistant at BPA, but don’t let the word assistant fool you. She was every bit integral to the work that we did. From leading interviews to compiling monstrous databases to counting blocks, Kalpna’s commitment to justice led her to enthusiastically embrace even the most mundane tasks in the pursuit of evaluating and recommending sound public policies. And she gave her all despite feeling the very strong pull to become a teacher, which she eventually left to do.

Our work wasn’t glamorous, but that didn’t seem to matter to Kalps. I’ll never forget the weeklong work trip we took throughout Louisiana from New Orleans to the Delta to Shreveport (where we happened upon Mudbug Madness, the crawfish festival that even crowned a Mr. and Miss Mudbug who was dressed as a crawfish. I promise—I couldn’t make this up!). Hilariously enough, Kalpna and I had somehow ended up in a bright yellow Dodge car with a spoiler that was about as tall as us. And the reason we ended up with this car was classic Kalpna. In the only fight we ever had, she insisted we exchange a first, respectable-looking rental car; since she wasn’t 25 at that point, only a few companies would let her drive the car, and she would not hear of me having to drive the entire way. I think we were evaluating programs aiming to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy, but all I can remember is having to convince every person we interviewed that despite the ridiculous car we were driving, we weren’t in high school and in fact were being paid to conduct the interviews.

One of the things that I loved about Kalpna is that despite her primarily Bay Area existence, she embraced the South (where I grew up) and all of its nuances. I loved her for it, and I also think it helped her better understand the programs we were assessing. In fact, in part because of her experiences at BPA evaluating Louisiana’s welfare programs, after Katrina hit in 2005, Kalpna volunteered for a few weeks in Red Cross-related call centers and other disaster relief programs and later led a HGSE trip down to New Orleans.

Kalpna’s heart of gold extended to her co-workers as well. There was rarely a birthday, soon-to-be-born baby, departing colleague or an engagement that escaped the fabulous social planning of Kalpna Mistry. And it wasn’t just a random cake or announcement at the end of our weekly staff meetings….Kalpna helped plan 2 going away celebrations when I left, including a tea party complete with tea pots and other china. For celebrations of pregnant co-workers, she somehow convinced a very skeptical crowd to taste and guess the flavor of baby food. Kalpna was always ready to pitch in and help, and to do so with a smile on her face and creativity and energy. Who doesn’t need more people like that around? At the end of long days of work, she led the charge in attending lectures teach-ins, and other programs about social justice—when she wasn’t booked or double-booked with her many friends and family.

Kalpna was much more than a co-worker to us, but a dear friend. She endured my nearly comatose state as we carpooled to work in the mornings, before the caffeine in my coffee had kicked in. When she lived only a few blocks away, we experimented with meals that would have made the Iron Chef proud. In true Kalpna fashion, when she realized how dull the knives in my apartment were, she didn’t just accept that but ordered me new knives. And she made friends with the staff at the produce store downstairs from her apartment within days of moving in. Kalpna took not just you, but your families and friends as hers too. She charmed my parents in ways that few of my friends have. When she was in Boston, she befriended my sister who was also at HGSE and my brother-in-law, a fellow educator seeking to promote social justice through his teaching.

In looking back over emails from Kalpna, a million stories (and very involved plans) jump out. I’ll end on a couple that exemplify her spirit. After I worked on a disappointing election campaign in 2004 which had exhausted me body and soul, of course it was Kalpna who volunteered to pick me up at the airport and help organize a dinner upon my return, despite it being late on a work night. And I was reminded that she was the driving force behind both of us attending an 8am talk/lecture given by my sister on educational policy one year during a national education research conference that was happening in San Francisco. While I was still bleary-eyed, Kalpna was a beaming, encouraging face in the audience for my sister who at that point she’d barely met. She was just that kind of woman.

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