Since my journey as a Bush fellow began, I've learned some important lessons about leadership. Before becoming a Bush fellow, I’ve often allowed my passion to lead my actions when it comes to community service and activism. For example, if I am emotionally moved by a cause, I often jump right in and get to work. I've found that actions led by passion alone sometimes do not garner the intended results. Since I’ve embarked on this journey as a Bush Fellow, I often find myself flashing back to our Bush fellows retreat back in March of 2019, when we were all sitting in a circle in a conference room, passing the colorful speaking pieces around. I still hear the voices of my Bush family sharing their expertise, lived experiences, and the various styles of leadership and engagement. Nowadays before embarking on a new project or tackling social justice issues, I often find myself asking, “What would my fellow Bush colleagues do or how would they proceed? How would my actions impact the leaders who will come after me? How will my actions impact other communities of color or those who are most vulnerable? Would my actions burn or build bridges along the way and have I considered all of the stakeholders involved? The lessons I’ve learned from other Bush fellows at the retreat are very much alive and in play as I continue act as an agent of change in my community. For that I am grateful.
Another important lesson I learned about leadership is that I have to learn to improvise, roll with the punches, even as the punches get stronger and harder. A year ago no one could have imagined that in 2020, our nation and our world would experience the epic and viral pandemic of the century, coupled with a social justice movement that we haven’t seen in over 60 years. To add to these challenges, all of this chaos is happening while we are under the rule of, arguably one of the most incompetent and worst Presidents in our nation’s history. Everything that conventional wisdom has taught us about what great leaders would do during these crises, our President has done the opposite and therefore, failed us. The actions of local leaders are not congruent with those at the national level. We have local leaders advocating for caution before reopening schools and businesses while our national leaders are pressuring communities to reopen them as soon as possible. We have leaders in science advising citizens to wear masks and practice social distancing while our President refuses to wear a mask in public. As community leaders, how do we respond and who's lead do we follow?
Early in this pandemic I found myself having to do my own research- check, double check, and triple check my sources for the right things to say or do. When disseminating wrong information could lead to death so much is at stake and we have to get it right. As local leaders we have to hold ourselves accountable. I found myself overwhelmed and often times, incapacitated to do what I needed to do. For example, I could not host or attend any meetings with other community leaders due to social distancing rules. Yet, I needed to collaborate with them in order to help protect and serve our most vulnerable members. So I had to learn to use new methods and tools to stay active and engaged. Within a matter of days and weeks, I learned to operate new video conferencing tools, open up a Zoom account, and learn to host, stream, and publish live video podcasts to help spread PSA's in my community. Due to the critical need to get as much information to our elderly Hmong-speaking population, I’ve had to brush up on my Hmong speaking and writing skills, basically improvising new Hmonglish words to help explain this novel virus to my community. Almost overnight I became director, producer, and host of my own make-shift podcast, disseminating life-saving information to our community. To make matters more complicated, a month later I found myself using my podcast to help calm fears and educating Hmong people about the difference between peaceful protests, an uprising and violent rioting on television. With the help of local and national activists, many of whom I’ve worked with over the years and who agreed to appeared as guests on my show, I was able to broadcast vital information to large audiences about issues of the day. One thing that remains constant is that leadership is action-oriented. Leaders act even if they have to improvise.
Last month I also learned a very difficult lesson about leadership- it requires some deep diving and soul searching. I do my best to see the good in others but this past month was particularly difficult. When news broke of the rioting and looting and when certain media outlets blamed Black Lives Matter actors for the violence, I responded by trying to educate members of my own community. I declared my public support for the BLM movement. As a result members of my own Hmong community publicly criticized, harassed, and chastised me for supporting BLM. I found myself angry at my own community which I had to address. It took many one-on-one conversations to help make sense of it all. I learned that much of that racism and anti-blackness in the Asian community came from previous trauma. When the Hmong first arrived as refugees in the late 70’s and early 80’s, we were assigned to public housing in urban areas, next door to poor black and brown Americans. Although we were neighbors, we were not friends due to cultural and language barriers. Those earlier years of coexisting in close quarters led to cultural misunderstandings and even some violence. From my own experiences, within a year of living in our first public housing unit in Frogtown St. Paul, our home had a total of 32 windows broken from kids in the neighborhood. On three separate occasions kids tried to burn our house down. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful. Over these years I learned that many other Hmong families across the country shared these experiences as new refugees to this country. Fortunately for me, my parents’ teachings and a liberal arts education taught me to unlearn my prejudices and relearn the values of diversity. To this day I am still learning to deep dive and unpacking my own biases.
The recent violence in June rehashed many of these wounds for many in my community and therefore, led to overt anti-blackness sentiments, particularly on social media. How does this relate to my leadership journey? If I spent the last 25 years calling out White supremacy, racism and racist institutions, could I really consider myself a leader if I do not call out the racism and anti-blackness in my own community? Due to the closeness of our community, the same people who are displaying acts of racism toward black Americans are my own uncles, aunts, and cousins. To what extent am I willing to go to call out these racist acts in the Hmong/Asian communities? Is it my job to educate members of my own community about their implicit bias? And how can I achieve this while working to rebuild Black-Asian relations amidst our current political climate? Recent events have caused me to rethink my role in our local and national efforts for racial reconciliation and racial equity. I am still searching for ways to move forward.
Lastly and although there are many take-aways from these past few months about my leadership growth, I would be remiss if I did not talk my spiritual journey as a leader. Back in March when I learned that COVID-19 is most dangerous to our elderly population, I made a conscientious effort to do as much as I can to protect my mother, who is 79 years old and have underlining health conditions. At the same time I know that her days are numbered and I want to spend as much time with her while she her health is in good condition and her mind is still sharp. So I made sure I take my weekly walks with her to check in. Recently, much of our conversations have turned into conversations about my destiny, purpose, and the legacy that I ought to leave behind. It has been 20 years since my father’s passing and my mother talks as if she is preparing herself to reunited with him soon. As I listen to her stories about her life, her journey from war, her hardships of coming to this country as a refugee, and all the trial and tribulations in between, I find myself reflecting on my own mortality. In her own poetic style my mother weaves stories of her life with stories about her visions for me, my purpose and my calling. Twenty years ago I would have found these conversations to be mundane and annoyingly lecturing. But lately I’ve learn to see these conversations as a part of my leadership and spiritual growth. They are a reminder of my connection to those who came before me- those who led, bled, and sacrificed so that I may simply exist. In retrospect, conversations with my mother have come to represent full-circle moments for me as I continue to do the inner work that is needed to fulfill a larger calling. After every walk and conversation with my mother, I come home rejuvenated and spiritually inspired. As leaders, we all need a place of rejuvenation and spiritual strength. My mother is mine.