“Why do you work here?”
(Part 2 of 3. Please read Part 1 first.)
Previously in my career, I worked in an organization that served a student population that was 99% LatinX. Two-thirds of the organization was staffed by LatinX staff, predominantly LatinX women from the communities we served. When I started, LatinX staff mostly comprised the lower two-thirds of the organization’s hierarchical structure and reported to a White and Black executive team. Midway through my tenure, the organization ran into a very significant financial challenge. I stepped in to fill a leadership gap that was above my position, which resulted in the organization winning a federal grant that would cover the vast majority of our payroll for the next seven years. Through a combination of self-advocacy, the advocacy of a board member, and some fortunate and timely events, I was eventually promoted into the executive team (although I was paid 15–20% less than my White and Black peers). From my new position, I led a deep, multi-year organizational transformation that grounded our work community in a different purpose and culture. Notable changes included:
- A shift in our mission language away from a charity mindset to a change mindset based on unjust student outcomes and a call for equity
- A new strategic plan outlining how we would pursue this direction as a collective
- Programmatic shifts to account for the holistic experiences of our students
- A reorganization that resulted in the promotion of four LatinX women into management positions that supervised our largest teams
- Increased pay for the lower levels of our staffing model
- An inclusively created set of core values with new systems to support the manifestation of those values in our culture
To celebrate the organization’s transformation, our CEO tapped the services of a community-based media company to create a video that would highlight our new mission and capture the positive energy and outlook within our organization. The video was set to be unveiled on the big stage of our highest profile annual event, which would be attended by our students, their families, donors and funders, and various dignitaries. During the planning of the event, I was assigned the role of photographer. I did not mind the assignment given that I had a passion for photography, knew I was saving the organization money by performing this task, and the role aligned with my desire to model servant leadership.
At the event, I welcomed dignitaries and noticed how they tended to look past me. They seemed surprised when I told them my title in response to their question of “What do you do here?” These people were friends and supporters of the organization and champions of our mission, but they did not know my name, my story, or my contributions. And quite frankly, they did not care to. I am sure the camera around my neck did not help either, as these VIPs were quick with directing me to take pictures of them with our CEO, other dignitaries, and our students.
As the event progressed toward its more formal stages, everyone took their seats in the large auditorium, the lights dimmed, and the video began to play. As I watched, my initial feelings of gratitude for collective progress became increasingly muddled with feelings of hurt, betrayal, and isolation. The video prominently displayed our CEO, a few of the dignitaries I had just taken pictures of, our amazing students, and to my great joy, all of our LatinX staff. But halfway through, I knew the video would end as if I had never been present or mattered. The whole event provided a symbolic validation that I would never be seen in the work community I had spent years of my life building with others in mind. I started to notice the poignancy of our physical positionings: our White CEO on the stage behind the podium, my White and Black executive peers next to him, dignitaries next to them, the four LatinX women that were promoted into management next to the dignitaries, students waiting in a line to step onto the stage, my Asian American peer sitting in the audience with our families, and myself in the back with my face behind a camera. Some part of me thought about these words from Lao Tzu that sum up my leadership superpower: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Another part of me just wanted out as it was clear that others saw no place for me in this frame.
The more time I spend in Asian American spaces, the more I am comforted and pained by the ordinary nature of my story — it is just one of many similar experiences of being Asian not only in America but within the very faction of America that is focused on forwarding equity and justice. A couple of months ago, when this article was circulated among a group of Asian and Pacific Islander American educators from across the nation, this quote from Steven Yuen elicited a deep, heavy, and collective groan: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” In these spaces, a certain healing happens just from being visible, at least to each other, even if the experience that unites us is often one of not belonging anywhere else. Like many Asian Americans, I am adept at compartmentalizing in order to participate, but I crave the wholeness of being fully integrated within myself and in the world around me.
So why do I work here?
In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee teaches, “Don’t think. Feel. It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.” While I support pointing to the specific impacts of White supremacy on different groups, I am ultimately here to work for a moonshot that frees us from an unwinnable game of choosing whose humanity matters more. In the words of W. Kamau Bell, “Being against racism means being against racism. And it means being against racism when it isn’t convenient, or easy, or fun, or even when the person you are trying to help doesn’t consider you one of their people, or one of their allies, or doesn’t even see you at all.”
I often think of these words by Lila Watson, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” A long lost friend once told me that hell is a place where you sit with others around a table overflowing with food, but you are required to use cartoonishly long chopsticks that make getting a bite into your mouth impossible, and that heaven is the same, except people there experience the joy and connection of feeding each other. I am here because my hope for wholeness is linked to yours, and I want to work with you to create new conditions that are worthy of our collective glory — I want to learn the ways of heaven that just might feed and free us all.