As the new year begins, I am grateful to still be standing, breathing, and to be on this journey. In the last week as I was battling bronchitis I also took the opportunity to catch up on some reading, writing, and reflecting about 2019, my Bush fellowship, and life in general.
These last six months have been dynamic, introspective, life-changing, raw, and real. I've had to juggle some opposing forces of energy in my life that I haven't seen in recent memory. That experience in itself has been humbling and educational. I am blessed to be surrounded by friends, family, and a new Bush family, all of whom are constant reminders that I need to keep doing, keep learning, and keep breathing because they have my back. When all of the Bush fellows met back in March 2019, I knew it was going to be an adventure of a lifetime. In marathon terms, I am only on mile five and I just kicked into my cruising pace.
The first two months of my fellowship consisted of redesigning and adjusting my plan so I would continue to grow as a leader without a full-time graduate program. The last two months I’ve been laying the ground work for my fellowship and preparing for my first overseas learning experience as a Bush fellow. I’ve read some books on leadership, I’ve done the journal entries, and I’ve reflected and refined my fellowship mission and vision. I’ve had one-on-one meetings with current and past fellows. I’ve attended several leadership seminars and conferences on grassroots organization, community building, and relevant topics to my fellowship. I am excited that in two weeks, I will be embarking on my first cultural leadership tour to Southeast Asia with eleven other accomplished leaders from throughout the country. Together, we will tour Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Along the way we will participate in inter-cultural dialogues, meet with local leaders and experts, attend cultural and spiritual healing ceremonies, and visit some community service projects throughout the region. I am especially excited about this upcoming tour because it will bring take me back to the place of my birth, Laos. I will also get visit a rural Hmong orphanage in Thailand, a country where I spent four years of my childhood in a refugee camp along the Mekong river. For me this leadership tour is a spiritual journey home and presents an opportunity for me to reflect on why how I got here and what my purpose is. I’m both nervous and excited.
With regard to my overall fellowship experience, I’ve learned and experienced the following. In the area of leadership styles, I’ve had a chance to assess my own skill sets, strengths, and where I lack. I’ve learned that I’m not very good at being a quiet leader and leading from the behind. I’ve had to conscientiously apply this style of leadership in some of my community circles. Recently, when I put this into practice I learned that leadership can be rewarding and effective from behind the scenes. Furthermore, when we are authentic in how lead, we attract other leaders and create new and emerging leaders in the process. Back in October, I had the honor hosting several closed-door meetings with a small group of shy and quiet but passionate millennials, many of whom had never participated in a rally before. As the excitement grew, I asked a lot of questions of them, offered some advice and allowed them take responsibility. In the end I was able to witness these young leaders take on a social justice cause and succeed at it. The reward for me was to see that this experience change them and how they saw their own potential.
In the area of personal growth and self-care, I’ve taken some new steps in rethinking and redesigning not just my career, but my lifestyle. For example, I’ve had to set aside certain days and hours to focus on the Bush fellowship, my community service projects, and my consultant roles, while forcing myself to do some self-care. In the past I’ve flown by the seat of my pants and although it has worked well, I’ve had some challenges and sometimes lost focus which resulted in incomplete projects. Now I have a physical office space in my house where I only work on community volunteerism and Bush projects. I’ve found that having a designated space for certain projects allows me to focus better. This is a work in progress but for now the house is much neater and cleaner.
Something new that I am doing this year which I haven’t done before is listening to podcasts of leadership and self-help topics while driving to and from work. In recent decades my car radio dial has been locked on talk radio and sports. Recently, I have found new ways to stimulate my brain, heart, and calm my spirit. My daily commutes seem much shorter and are more entertaining now. I’ve even experimented with recording a few of my own video logs. I'm not sure if this is a result of being a bush fellow or just me getting older, or both.
In the area of mentorship and collaboration, these past few months I’ve reached out and reconnected with a number of former colleagues whom I’ve lost touch with over the years. Many are people who have inspired me in the past and with whom I’ve collaborated on community service projects. From our conversations, I’ve been able to learn about my leadership journey through their eyes and as a result, have received some positive feedback on how I make of most of this fellowship. For example, when a former friend who now works in the California philanthropic community, learned about my fellowship, we delved into a conversation about social justice movements and the lack of resources in our communities. I learned that across the country, Hmong American communities are not equipped with a national crisis team or national organization to help families navigate emergencies. Specifically, how do we address media racism, stereotypes, and misinformation on a national level. Since our communities are dispersed throughout the country, who do we turn to when media outlets like CNN or ABC report false or misleading information about our communities? Moreover, how do we assist families who are unprepared to navigate the legal system and its’ laws due to cultural and language barriers? How do we work with and not against law enforcement agencies to help victims’ families find justice? Together Kaying and I were able to brainstormed some possible next steps and identify key players who could help make this happen.
I’ve also been able to reach out to new mentors, people who have been on my radar for years but I’ve never had a sit down meeting to pick their brains. I’m equally excited about these new connections. I’ve always wanted to learn about their success stories. What drives them? How did they get to where they are in business? In politics? I’m particularly interested in colleagues who work in corporate and the private sector. In the past I’ve approached these business leaders to ask for corporate sponsorships, usage of their space, equipment, and supplies for charity events. In return they’ve asked me to emcee or bring in volunteers to help out with special corporate events. However, we’ve rarely talked about how they got to where they are and what makes them successful in business? So lately, I’ve been having discussion on how can we do more to leverage their services, resources, brands, and money to support community issues and what can we do to support their businesses? Too often, in immigrant and refugee communities, these community-business partnerships are short-lived and unsustainable. We know that money is being made and transactions are taking place every day in our communities. We also know that Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities have a buying power in the billions. But why are we not seeing the returns and re-investments back into some of our poorest neighborhoods?
These are some of the recent conversations that are keeping me up these day. As I said, this is only mile five in my Bush marathon and I am excited for the next 21.2 miles.