Sixteen months ago when my Bush Fellow began, I had awesome vision. I was going to fly to one the nation’s top leadership conferences, enroll in some executive leadership courses at a reputable institution and have a sit-down with established leaders in my area. I also had planned to spend a few weeks interviewing and shadowing activist leaders across the country and learn from them first hand from the front lines of social justice. These plans were made before COVID-19 struck our nation and our world, thereby creating social distancing guidelines and travel bans. They were further interrupted by the racial tensions from the murder of George Floyd and uprising of the BLM protests and later by the political polarization from the election results which created two alternate realities about who really won the 2020 Presidential election.
More than half way through my fellowship has been amended several times to accommodate the political, social, and emotional landscape of 2020. A part of me would still love to carry out my original fellowship plans, much of which was cancelled due to COVID. The saying goes, "things happen for a reason." I was fortunate that right before COVID-19, I was able to spend three weeks on a cultural and leadership tour of Southeast Asia, where I met with local leaders, youth groups and activists in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. All in all I feel fortunate to be in the here and now, as an activist, a Bush Fellow and a humble witness to recent historic events of our lifetime. Although I am not sitting in a conference hall listening to accomplished leaders share stories about the Civil Rights movement or learn about past international crises, I appreciate the fact that I am a living witness to multiple historic events unfolding right before my eyes– the deadliest pandemic in a century; the most racially-charged protests and riots since the 1960’s; a devastated economy; and the most divisive political climate since arguably the Civil War- all of which calls for extraordinary leadership. In all the years that I could've applied to be a Bush leadership fellow, I feel like I hit the jackpot. In other words, if there was ever a perfect storm where aspiring leaders can bear witness to all the tenets of leadership, this would be this year.
In 2020 alone, I've seen young leaders mobilized an organic movement that transpired into a national response to combat racial injustice as in BLM. I've seen young leaders put their lives at risk by taking to the streets to fight for what they believe in, with some dying for a cause larger than themselves. I’ve seen millions of young people mobilized, first behind Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' and his vision of equality, and then later rallying in support of the Biden/Harris Presidential ticket. I’ve witness and participated in a movement to fight voter suppression led by Stacey Abrams of Georgia. Her leadership to register and mobilize early voting during in 2020 changed the trajectory of our national politics when both Democratic candidates won their Senate seats. Her leadership was full display and is deserving of a Presidential Medal of Honor.
Equally important I've seen Congressional leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who at 80 years old, helped led her young House interns through an underground tunnel at our nation’s capital, protecting them for the deadliest attack on our government institution since 1814. She and her colleagues stood up to abuses of power and successfully impeached a sitting President for the second time in our history.
While bearing witness to examples of courageous leadership I also saw the demise of such leaders as President Trump and Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, and others who helped incite the insurrection. Within a span of seven days Americans witnessed an armed insurrection led by leaders who propagated the lie that the election was stolen, and for the first time ever, the second impeachment of a sitting President. Next week Americans will see the swearing in of the first bi-racial woman of color a Vice-President.
So what does all of this have to do with my leadership journey? As leaders I believe we are always in training and always learning and growing from our circumstances. Leaders act, interact, react to the trials and tribulations of their communities. What we do during challenging times define us as leaders. As an activist and leader, I cannot just stand idly by and let history unfold before my eyes. It pains me to do nothing. I felt this way as a teenager in high school when I saw the LA Riots on TV and I am still that same hungry teenager who long for change today.
Metaphorically speaking, our nation is burning in an inferno. So what do we do? We could sit in a closed-door meeting analyzing and investigating how the fire started, or we can roll up our sleeves, grab a bucket of water and go toward the flames. I choose the latter. To date over 384,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as a result of failed leadership and the worst response in the world. On the political front, five Americans died inside what was supposed to be one of the most secured buildings in America. At the recent insurrection led by White Supremacists disguised as patriots, we saw the presence of a noose and the confederate flag, two unmistakable symbols of hate. We saw an armed and violent takeover that resulted in the death of a police officer and four US citizens, proving all along that there are two systems of justice and that race does matter.
So for me to remain comfortable and do nothing would be complacent. I would argue that widespread complacency largely contributed to the violence and injustice we are seeing today. Therefore, I’ve decided early on in my Bush fellowship that I was going to respond to the challenges of our times and journal about my experiences. Just as the nursing students were called to the front lines early on to aid with the rising cases of COVID patients and just as the National Guard were summoned to protect our nation’s capital, we too must act where we can.
Along the way I’ve had to improvise where I can. For example, when asked by the Minnesota Department of Health, Ramsey County and Hennepin County to help spread culturally appropriate information to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Hmong communities, I built a make-shift studio in my kitchen where I made weekly videos about COVID-19. Since the rise in Hmong COVID cases and deaths were attributed to events such as Hmong funerals and gatherings and since Asians were among the highest racial group in Minnesota to get infected, I saw that my actions were a part of a concerted effort to save lives, literally.
Other issues that I tackled during this fellowship were social distancing learning for Hmong youth and families, where language barriers and a lack of technology contributed to many students falling behind. Another issue was the mental health of our communities, particularly Hmong elders many of whom were confused and misinformed about COVID-19. As our community saw COVID deaths rise we also faced the challenge of burying our deceased properly which usually requires a three-day funeral. How do we navigate traditional practices while abiding by COVID-19 guidelines so that one Hmong funeral doesn’t lead to more funerals? A colleague of mine and her entire family caught COVID-19 while attending a traditional Hmong funeral. These are some of the matters that leaders in our community must and should respond to because they are matters of life and death.
Over the past year, I’ve learned to be open to the idea that leadership is about service and responding to an immediate need. I’ve had to reassess my roles because of the high number of requests from my community. I've been asked to aid with schools, youth groups, organizations, Hmong clans and individuals who have been impacted by COVID-19. I've been called to speak at or support groups who are combatting racism around the “Chinese virus” and “Kung-flu”. I have been asked to facilitate conversations on Asian racism and anti-Blackness in my own community surrounding the George Floyd murder because one of the officers was Hmong. I've been called to help non-English Hmong voters vote early and by mail because it was too dangerous to go to the polls. All of these activities were in themselves, humble lessons in leadership.
Along my journey I learned a valuable lesson- that our passion to serve must be balanced with self-care. In early November I tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of multiple community events that I was either attending or planning. There were many days where I couldn't take calls or respond to emails just so I could focus on simple tasks such as making a pot of tea, cooking a meal for myself or mustering enough energy to go for a walk. I cannot be an effective leader if I’m lying in a hospital bed. I feel better now and to this day I count my blessings for this opportunity to be a Bush Fellow during these challenging times. I look forward to the next phase of my fellowship journey.