Tag Archives: social justice

To everyone who ever thought Asians make terrible leaders…

Holy crap! Last week was crazy. And I’m not talking about the Seahawks whoopin’ on the Panthers type of crazy (which was awesome btw). I was offered the Executive Director position, which I accepted on the condition that they let me keep my standing desk. You can read the Board President’s announcement if you’re curious. And also, as an ED newly born into this world, you can read my  adorable first words.

Everything is still very new and happening fast. I’ve only been on the job three days and have had to make 128 decisions so far–from the mundane “What kind of socks does a new ED wear?” to the philosophical “How to honor the Vietnamese culture and heritage while being inclusive of other communities?”

I’m very excited for this new position and am honored to have the opportunity to serve the Vietnamese community at this level. I promise to use all of my skills and experiences to help advance the successes of the Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey.

Anyways, I’ve been getting a ton of emails, Facebook messages and texts on my phone since the announcement went out, and have been doing my best to keep up and respond to each and every one of them. Many folks have been asking me questions about the new role, and I’ve summarized a snippet of them below.

How’s it feel?

It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions that range from “another plain ol’ day at the office” to “Holy crap, I’m on the edge of my seat freaking out because I might actually be slipping off but I need to take a selfie first, omg what do I do?” (aka, Disney’s Space Mountain).

The other night I literally had my first ED nightmare. I dreamed I was trying to lead a staff meeting but everyone was jumping up and down on the tables, drinking and partying. “No one respects me,” I thought. “I’m a terrible ED.” Times like these I just want to be swaddled.

Why did you choose now to become an Executive Director?

This was something I was on the fence about for a while; I was very hesitant and went back and forth. My rationale, at the time, was that I was already able to serve the community in meaningful ways. I was very happy and comfortable where I was at.

Ultimately, after the previous ED left, the space and separation gave me a chance to practice my leadership in new ways within the organization. It helped me visualize my potential role as a new Executive Director, and the skills and perspective that I could contribute to the position.

We had to navigate complex partnerships and I thought “I can do this.” We had to make difficult decisions of types of funding we wanted to pursue or not and I thought “I can do this.” We had to say goodbye to some really wonderful staff and I thought “I can do this.” I had to email the staff to let them know that we ran out of ice cream in the freezer and I thought “I can do this.” Then the staff mutinied, demanded more ice cream, wanted my head on a pike, and I thought “This sucks.”

What kind of leadership do you bring to the organization?

I previously wrote about task-oriented people and relationship-oriented people. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first instinct would be to break the problem down into small steps, and move through them one by one. I’m super task-oriented. This is a strength that I bring to the organization.

Overtime, I also learned that I needed to develop my “people skills” in order to strengthen my leadership. I practiced skills like “active listening” and “compassion” and “empathy.” For example, before when people wanted my time and attention, I would ignore them…like parents to me. Now, whenever someone talks to me, I reply with “Uh huh” and nod my head. Effective leadership rocks!

Are you vegan like your predecessor?

A lot of folks have wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate and have been asking, “Your last ED was a vegan. Does that mean you’re one too? Are all EDs vegan? James, do you want carrots and hummus?”

My definitive answer is “Heck no.” I enjoy the taste, smell and look of meat. Honest to goodness, I can stare at a piece of meat for hours without blinking. I admit, however, that I have recently switched to a “no cooking meat at home” diet, which has been a great exercise in more sustainable cooking. At the same time, it’s increased my meat cravings tenfold as well as my obsession with zombie flicks.

Wow, your parents must be proud of you!

They are! I think…

Their initial reply was “Executive Director!!! Why not Mayor? Or City Council? Or Amazon, like your sister.” Ugh, that brought me back to my school days when even an A- would disappoint Asian parents.

What vision do I see for the organization and for the community?

Ok, this is a big question. In this blog, I’ve written about challenges that impact that Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. For example, the need for more inclusive early learning programs, promoting civic engagement in the Vietnamese community, transforming how we approach youth development, and broader social justice issues.

I also want to focus internally on the organization. It’s critical we have an organizational culture and structure that will support and nurture our staff and volunteers, and provide a safe environment where everyone can work with dignity and be compensated for their skills, passion and service. For starters, disconnecting people from their work email when they’re not at work!

What are you going to do in your first month?

Huh? Is this a test? Quit asking me so many hard questions. Realistically, I’ll be spending the first month checking in with all of our staff and board to listen to their vision and dreams for VFA and the community, where they see themselves growing, and any anxieties or concerns they may have about me as ED…because I probably have them too!

Then I’ll meet with all of our board members to thank them profusely for hiring me, and to beg them even more profusely not to fire me within the first month.

Finally, I’ll reach out to our community members, supporters, funders and donors to discuss the vision and direction that VFA is headed.

Oh yeah, buy some more ice cream for the freezer too—lest I want another revolt.

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Anyways, thanks again everyone. If you have any advice for me on how to be a good leader, how to honor our communities, and what kind of ice cream I should buy, I’d love to hear it! Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.

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Are Blacks and other minorities to blame for Ferguson or New York?

On Sunday I was flipping through the television trying to kill time before all of the football games started. Knowing that the Seahawks and Eagles would be aired nationally on Fox, I turned to that channel and left the tv on while I made breakfast. Sometime before the big match, a Fox News show came on, where the topic of discussion was around Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. The host asked panelists, “Are the officers to blame for these events?”

One of the guest speakers, a middle-aged White man, started to answer and I thought “Oh, he must have something very intelligent and wise to say” but then quickly stopped myself because I remembered that stereotypes can be harmful, even when they are flattering (ask any Asian kid).

The man replied (and keep in mind I am paraphrasing here) that the police officers could have shown more restraint and probably needed better training but we should critically examine why Black culture causes such high rates of crime, drugs and violence in the first place.

It was then that I decided an infomercial on the Nutribullet—a revolutionary new kitchen tool that unleashes hidden nutrition inside food—was more intellectual and entertaining.

I’m not sure how we got to this point in our country. As a kid I was taught to accept personal responsibility. It feels like a very American thing to me. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

So how come when we talk about the trauma of minority communities…everything is our fault? On matters of race, gender, sexuality or teen fiction, we’re always quick to redistribute blame. We throw out clichés like “It takes two to tango” or “I think we could all learn from this lesson” or “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Redistributing blame! That’s like the socialist form of finger pointing.

Blaming Blacks and African Americans for misfortune that befalls them…

Is like blaming women for getting raped, assaulted, harassed, and catcalled.
Imagine if the man had said “The rapist could have shown more restraint and probably needs better training, but let’s examine why feminism causes women to get raped.” In fact, you don’t have to imagine it, because people have actually said this.

Is like blaming veterans for being unemployed, homeless, or for struggling with mental health and well-being.
Imagine if the man had said “America could have done more to support our troops, but let’s examine why ‘military culture’ causes veterans to be unemployed and homeless in the first place.” No one says this. Ever! The mere idea is laughable. You’d probably get punched in the face by someone.

Is like blaming Japanese-Americans for their own internment.
Imagine if the man had said “The US Government could have shown better judgment, but let’s examine why Japanese culture caused Japanese-Americans to be interned. They should stop being so passive!”

Is like blaming turtles for being an endangered species.
Imagine if the man had said “Human beings could respect to wildlife more, but let’s examine how turtles failed to use natural selection to their advantage.”

It’s not like turtles are just walking around thinking “Man, I been alive a long time,” a giant tortoise lives a hundred years, “I wish someone would just exploit me. I’m ready to sleep now.”

Is like blaming the Earth for allowing humans to bomb it.
Imagine if the man had said “Humans could have done more to address climate change, but let’s examine why the Earth gave us uranium and plutonium in the first place. I mean, what else we were supposed to do with it? Make batteries?”

Is like blaming the 13 Districts for always sending tributes to the annual Hunger Games.
Imagine if the man had said “The Capitol could have given the 13 Districts the right to vote, but let’s examine why their culture caused them to lose the war and be enslaved.”

No! It’s the Capitol’s fault! Katniss understands it. And so does Peeta. And most of the United States gets it too; especially if you’re an adult between the ages of 18 and 34!

The Capitol created an oppressive system which forces each district to send two tributes each year to fight to the death. It’s not like the children do it willingly—except in District 2, whose tributes actually do volunteer, but you get the point.

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Going back to what’s happening in Ferguson and New York, we, society at large, need to stop blaming people for their own tragedy. We have a bad habit and history of focusing blame on the people who suffer from injustice, rather than critically examining, and holding accountable, the perpetrators of injustice.

And I use the term perpetrators loosely; to also include systems and institutions that contribute to prejudice, biases and oppression. We must acknowledge these social problems at the level in which they exist, otherwise our solutions will continue to be haphazard and ineffective.

Imagine telling every woman to wear a body camera when they walk down the street. “Because men will be nicer when they know they’re being recorded.” Seriously? Have you watched a football game lately?

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Leave your comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And subscribe to the blog for regular, weekly updates!

How to explain oppression and privilege to the average sports fan

What a (mostly) great weekend for sports in Seattle! The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers; the Huskies soundly crushed the Cougars; and the Sounders beat the Galaxy (only to exit the MLS playoffs, huh?).

Sports made other headlines this weekend too, when a few players from the St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture—a prominent symbol of solidarity around what’s been happening in Ferguson. “Everything about the situation touched me because it could have happened to any of us,” said Jared Cook, St. Louis Tight End. “Any of us are not far from the age of Michael Brown and it happened in our community”

Not everyone was thrilled with this gesture though; particularly the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which condemned the players’ actions. “The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology.”

This specific example reflects the larger dialogue happening across the country. Regardless of your feelings or perspectives, one thing is clear, there’s a lot of mistrust between law enforcement, government and your average citizen. I believe part of the problem is that everyone is talking about different things. The focal point might be Michael Brown and Ferguson, but everyone is speaking from their personal experiences and frustrations, which vary considerably based on who you are and where you’re from. As I try to better understand the events myself, I realized something: Sports perfectly explains oppression and privilege.

Hear me out…

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Growing up I was a relatively small athlete. I couldn’t even grow facial hair and pretty much failed at puberty. I blame it on Asian genes and a lack of calcium. I was definitely not the biggest player on the field and quite often the smallest. In fact, you might even consider me a pioneer for later athletes like Russell Wilson (5 ft 11 in) and Lionel Messi (5 ft 6 in). You’re welcome!

I made up for my size deficit by working hard, practicing, and developing my skills so that I could be a competitive player. If I couldn’t out muscle my opponent, I’d out class them. When I saw that other guys were way better at juggling a soccer ball, I learned how to juggle too. When I noticed that I couldn’t win most headers in the air, I learned how to tackle hard and low to the ground. I would play for hours until I got better.

I’ve had my fair share of wins and losses (and ties) throughout my career. By and large, the most frustrating games are the ones where it doesn’t feel like you’re playing the other team…but the referees. A game like this might start out great; things seem to be going your way. Then whoa! Out of nowhere the ref makes a bad call. “It’s just one call,” you think to yourself, “everyone makes mistakes.”

Play on. Then boom! You get tackled from behind by an opponent and the ref doesn’t call that either. Later he misses a penalty for your team. And it happens again, and again, and again. You petition the referee to call a fair game, but he doesn’t see anything wrong. And it just gets worse, doesn’t it? When has it ever gotten better? The ref starts throwing flags and cards at your team, even though you didn’t do anything. And obviously, the other team isn’t going to speak up and tell the ref to call a fair game—they are benefiting from these lopsided calls!

So what do you do? No athlete (or fan) is going to sit back and take it. Hell no! You let the referees know they’re making terrible calls. You curse at ’em. You scream at ‘em. You get in their face. And if that doesn’t work, you retaliate on the field—sometimes even off the field. If the ref isn’t going to call the fouls, you may as well break the rules too. Why not tackle a bit harder? Throw an elbow. Slide with your cleats up. Grab a face mask. Whatever! It’s all fair game at this point, right?

These situations, across any sport, are incredibly frustrating because most people walk into a game thinking they only have one opponent to play; that everything else on the field will be fair. Players are told that if they practice and work hard, they will succeed. Winners are the folks who want it more. Most people never expect they would have to play the referees too.

I had this feeling last week during an indoor soccer game. The other team was making some cheap tackles and the ref missed some pretty obvious calls. “Hey ref! You did you see that tackle? Call it fair.” Mind you, this was a co-ed, recreational indoor soccer game—we weren’t playing for a championship trophy. But both teams wanted to win, and neither wanted the referee to get in the way.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?! What did you do? Just sit back and take it? How many times have you screamed at your television because of a poor call? Remember how loud you got? How angry you were? I bet you even wished someone would punch the ref in the face. How many people have felt “robbed” after a game? (Seahawks vs Steelers, Superbowl XL).

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Now imagine if this was your actual life every.single.day. This is how many minorities a lot of the time. We work really hard to better ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We develop our skills and talents through rigorous practice and training, whether by getting a higher education, learning English, or on the job training.

But sometimes, no matter how hard minorities work or how much we prepare…it feels like the game is being called against us; that life is out of our control. It feels like we’re always playing from behind. And it can be a lot of different things that feel unfair, not just one: law enforcement singling out minorities; elected officials targeting immigrants; women being harassed in the work place.

When the game isn’t called fairly, is it so surprising then, at some point, people get fed up and want to protest? People want to scream at the referee and be heard, even retaliate. But in this case, the “referees” aren’t individuals—they are discriminatory laws and practices, rules and regulations that only benefit a small section of the population, and stereotypes and prejudices that devalue the worth and dignity of minorities.

This is what oppression feels like. If we can protest a football game for poor officiating, is it so surprising people want to protest for their civil rights?

And what about “privilege,” this buzzword that you hear minorities use all the time: White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, etc. Privilege is the team who benefits from bad refereeing. They may not actively tell the ref to call an unfair game, but they sure as hell aren’t making a stink when the calls go their way either. All they have to do is remain silent and let the ref keep messing up.

There’s been a lot of talk around racial discrimination, systematic oppression, biases, and injustice lately. I personally believe the majority of people are well-intentioned and sincerely want to live in a peaceful society where everyone has equal rights and opportunity.

The point is, when the rules don’t work in sports we generally change them to make things fair so that teams can compete based on their merit and talent. This is exactly how social justice works. We want to change to rules so that everyone can succeed (or not) based on their merit and talent too.

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What’s been your experience? Leave a comment below. I’d love to get everyone’s thoughts on this.

We put 9 Asian Americans in a room together, what happened next will shock you!!!!

A Cambodian, a Japanese, a Korean, a Chinese, a Burmese, a Philippine, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, and an Indonesian walked into a bar. The bartender stopped them. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t let you in without a Thai!”

A similar thing happened to me tonight, except I wasn’t going to a bar (that was Monday when the United States finally beat Ghana in the World Cup–another story, for another day). I was invited to a meeting with other Asian American leaders and activists. There were nine of us present, representing a broad stroke of different generations and Asian ethnicities.

The topic of discussion was the lack of representation and support for Southeast Asian students in higher education. In recent years, Asian Americans have been actively advocating to colleges and universities about the importance of disaggregating data in student achievement. There has been an ongoing perception that all Asian Americans are high academic achievers; over represented in higher education; great in math, science and engineering; and are the model students. For example, at the University of Washington (go Huskies!), Asians make up 28% of the total student body, compared to 7% in Washington State as a whole.

This looks wonderful at first glance. “Hooray for equality! We told you Asians are great students.” But equal enrollment does not translate to equal opportunities or outcomes. The US Census reveals that large disparities exists among Asians with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Southeast Asians—such as Laotian (12%), Cambodian (14%) and Hmong (15%)—fall on the low end of the spectrum, whereas Taiwanese (74%), Japanese (48%) and Chinese (52%) are among the highest.

There are many reasons that explain these numbers, like socioeconomic status, language access, or refugee status. But the larger issue at hand is we need to stop assuming all Asians are the same. Do you hear that mom? Just because Shirley gets to live in London and works at Amazon doesn’t mean I can do it too! Did Shirley teach you how to use the dishwasher? I don’t think so. Lumping all Asian subgroups into single category is a social justice and civic rights issue; the results of which greatly harm the Asian American students. How can we possibly support Southeast Asians if we think they’re the same as Taiwanese and Japanese American students?

It doesn’t just end with Asians though. We still classify every “Black” person as “African American.” There’s little recognition of African immigrants like Somalis or Ethiopians. This failure of recognition doesn’t align with our American values of honoring individuality and autonomy. As an Asian, it is also super annoying. No, I’m not Korean. I don’t have Sriracha sauce in my fridge. I’ve never met Hello Kitty. And when I order Thai food, I only want 1 star. 1 freakin’ star, got it?

So what happens when you put nine Asian Americans in a room together and ask them to solve disparities in higher education? You get nine different answers and perspectives! But you also get better decision making and solutions. We all agreed on the importance and urgency of increasing support and resources for Southeast Asian students in order to reduce the gaps in educational opportunities and outcomes. It’s critical that educators and decision-makers recognize and understand the unique needs of Vietnamese vs Japanese vs African American vs White students.

Where our group disagreed on were the strategies to achieve this vision. Do we focus on recruitment, retention or graduation? Will a part-time Southeast Asian recruiter solve this problem? How about a full-time recruiter? Can we build a long-term plan while achieving short-term results? How far up the chain do we take this? The university president? Board of Regents? And why didn’t anyone bring some bánh mì to this meeting? It’s 6 o ‘clock.

Far too often, tables where decisions are being made do not include communities of color and minorities. When they do, people assume that one Asian person can speak for the entire community; it’s tokenizing and makes us feel invisible. “Hey James, you’re Asian. Tell me how your people feel about healthcare in America. Oh by the way, we love sushi. Maybe we can have that for lunch at our next meeting?” It’s just like letting men make decisions about women’s health, raising minimum wage to $15 without consulting small businesses, and asking vegans to make steak. They are all recipes for disaster.

The correct answer really should be “I’m sorry, but we can’t make these decisions without the input of a Thai! And a Cambodian, a Japanese, a Korean, a Chinese, a Burmese, a Philippine, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, and an Indonesian.” When people are given the opportunity to contribute and participate, they will think of innovative solutions and accomplish amazing things—like beat Ghana 2-1 despite a first-half hamstring injury and broken nose. Ok, now that I got this out of the way, it’s back to World Cup 2014.