For most of my life, I was taught that HONOR comes from being a servant to my community and my family. I embraced that value fully because I saw my community struggled to adjust to American society. It was very natural to serve my community and to pour love on to them. From a young age I began to find myself in roles where I became a language and cultural interpreter and navigator. As I became an adult, that role became more and more public and before I knew it I was head of a couple of nonprofit organizations working on policies that had broad impact on the Southeast Asian American community in Minnesota and nationwide. Even in those roles, I never saw myself as a leader.
When I applied for the Bush Fellowship I didn’t expect to be chosen because there are many accomplished leaders in this region. Nevertheless, the process helped me reflect deeply about why I needed this Fellowship. It also challenged me for the first time to think about myself and what I needed to sustain my passion for gender equity and racial justice and gain additional skills that would strengthen my style of leadership. Because I had always thought of myself as a servant to my community, talking about my ‘leadership’ was extremely uncomfortable and I could not find words to describe what it is I needed to nourish me. I never felt that I could truly be a leader within my community so I led from the outside, and only saw myself as an advocate for my community. In this space and safe distance, my inspiration and energy were fueled by my community and it gave me the courage to work powerfully and tirelessly on their behalf even during times when I was afraid and alone. This journey took me away from my family and community because I moved to Washington, DC then eventually to work in refugee camps in Thailand then later to my birth country of Laos. The more successful I became, the further away I found myself. My work continued to benefit my community but I was always seen as an outsider and made to feel it, too.
When I applied for this Fellowship, I hoped to focus on building my knowledge, make time to rest, rejuvenate and take classes to help me become a more effective policy advocate. To my surprise, the first six months of this Fellowship has helped me do all the things that I find most difficult… learning to care for myself, love myself and understand what it means to be spiritually balanced. I have come to realize that throughout my life I grew to be strong for my family, to pave a new path for other women and my collective community who had suffered from war and loss. I didn’t recognize that I needed help or even paid attention to my own traumas. Recently, I have had several emotional sessions with my somatic coach who asked me simple but provocative questions that have helped me dive deeper to understand the root of my fears and sense of self-doubt which I have never addressed before.
Additionally, because I had been away from my family for so long (since my early 20’s), not knowing my family has created a big void. It has affected my own sense of identity and lack of belonging anywhere. Over the summer, I coordinated my family reunion which helped younger generations like me who represent the 8th and 9th generation understand our family’s history. Particularly for me, it was a time to complete our extensive family tree by adding the names of women to the tree. This event was a reminder that in my teens when I first saw that my elders had left all the women out of our family history it had quietly killed my own spirit. As an act of rebellion I embarked on my long quest to understand the complexity in my cultural heritage. I could not understand why I loved my community so much but it’s cultural practices had no place for me merely because I am a woman. My love for them transformed me to serve my community and perhaps in some subconscious way to seek their love, respect, approval and acceptance.
This Fellowship has allowed me to explore my vulnerabilities for the very first time. This is the beginning and I cannot predict what will happen but I know that it is necessary. Already, it’s given me some peace of mind and I continue to pursue other aspects of my plan for this Fellowship. I have started to map out my plan and preparing to visit other communities working to end gender-based violence and what they are doing to achieve gender-equity/justice. Understanding my personal experiences will provide a better lens and mindset to responsibly analyze and draw valuable lessons from other groups.
So far, this Fellowship is helping me search for ways to reconnect with my family and myself. In doing this, I am also seeing the connection to how it is helping me to claim my leadership without shame. It has been ironic because I worked hard most of my life to stand behind my community and now it's all about ME (for now). Six months ago I was overwhelmed about balancing this Fellowship and my work. Now I feel so blessed to have the resources to engage in learning activities and be in healing spaces to uncover feelings and emotions that have held me back as a person and undoubtedly influenced the kind of leadership I have been and could be. It’s taken a lifetime to get here and now I am ready!