Michael Jacobson ’85

Michael Jacobson ’85 helping to scale flying fish on Orchid Island

DEGREES: B.S. in biology and environmental studies; M.M.A. (master’s in marine affairs), M.A.I.S. (master’s in international studies), University of Washington

JOB TITLE: Deputy director for performance and strategy, King County

FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: Playing croquet with Trinity President James English on the quad in the spring

What do you do in your work in Washington state? The jurisdiction of King County includes Seattle and major cities including Bellevue, Redmond, and SeaTac and has more than 2 million residents. The county government has about 12,000 employees working on a wide variety of health and human service, environmental, transit, and wastewater functions for the region. I help our government plan, measure, and assess progress toward goals and desired results.

What do you enjoy most about your work? Helping people in organizations think about a desired future and then helping these organizations use data to show that they are making a difference in how they are managing or in people’s lives or the environment.

You recently received a travel fellowship from SEA Semester. What inspired you to seek the fellowship? Going to sea for six weeks as part of an oceanography cruise with SEA Semester was a very powerful experience for me during my junior year [at Trinity], and I stayed in touch with the organization over the years, including doing two alumni sails. The SEA Armin E. Elsaesser Fellowship is designed to help someone pursue a passion that is not related to their career or studies. I had found two fishing boats, called tatalas, made by the Daowu people, a small indigenous tribe from Orchid Island in Taiwan, in Seattle. I wanted to go to Orchid Island to find out more about the boats and the current cultural practices of the Daowu tribe.

What did your fellowship allow you to do? The culture of the Daowu is traditionally based on the annual cycle of catching flying fish, growing and harvesting millet, and building tatalas. I was able to go to Orchid Island for five weeks and observe their current cultural practices related to flying fish and tatalas. This included seeing multiple ceremonies for summoning the flying fish, catching and drying fish, and seeing new tatalas being built and launched by the community. I was honored to be included in many of their activities and to see how traditional practices were being carried forward in the modern context. I also was able to discover the origin of the tatalas that I found in Seattle, specifically Yeyin Village on the east coast. This was determined from their specific carvings and markings and identified by the villagers there. The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington will be displaying one of the tatalas to show the importance of boats for subsistence in traditional cultures. The pace of change on Orchid Island is intense, with pressure to move from a subsistence economy into the modern world economy with tourism as a core facet. Many Daowu have to move off the island for educational and employment opportunities, causing social distortions in their community. Their housing has changed from traditional semiunderground structures built to withstand typhoons to concrete, multistory buildings. In addition, Taiwan has placed nuclear waste on the island, which has threatened the Daowu’s fishing, health, and very existence. These more modern aspects of the culture were the topic of much current discussion among the tribe and were relevant to their cultural practices. I also was able to leverage the fellowship to extend my stay to visit with other tribes in Taiwan, including the Paiwan, Rukai, Amis, and Atayal. During these visits, I was able to learn about the challenges facing these proud and traditional people and how these cultures are navigating a path as minorities in a modern economy undergoing rapid social change.

How did your experience at Trinity help prepare you for the fellowship? My time at Trinity allowed me to think beyond the narrow band of my major, to embrace the larger questions of society, and to engage with the world.

Was there a professor who was particularly influential? Professor of Theater and Dance Judy Dworin ’70 was my most influential professor. I am not naturally talented in dance, but Judy encouraged me to tap into my creative self and allowed me to express myself in ways that this typically left-brained person was not used to doing. After graduation, she also encouraged me to go to Taiwan to study Chinese.

What was the most memorable course you took at Trinity? I took a class in African American literature with James Miller that forced me to reflect on our country’s legacy of slavery and required that I consider the world from different points of view.