When I began my journey as a Bush Fellow I knew I was going to have the adventure of a lifetime but I had no idea it was going to include a 100 year pandemic, nationwide uprisings calling for racial justice equaling that of the 1960’s, a recession that we have not seen in decades, a wave of anti-Asian hate across this country and a government insurrection that would breached the halls of our nation’s capital. I also didn't imagine that I would lose a handful of childhood friends and family members to a deadly virus and experience a divorce from my life partner of seven years. Challenging? Yes. Regrettable? No. In addition to a few more grays hairs on my head, in just the last two years I feel that I’ve grown decades in traumatic life-changing events. The saying goes, tough times call for tough leadership. Life goes on and so must we.
During this fellowship I’ve also had to revisit and alter my fellowship goals several times in order to accommodate the stay-at-home and lock down orders issued by our governor. I’ve had to be creative and learn new skills, use new technologies and be able to work from my kitchen table or from a hotel room somewhere half way across the country. Since my fellowship began I also noticed that I've gained 15 pounds of what may be stress and strain combined. So what did I learn thus far?
Under usual circumstances I had envision a fellowship where there was plenty of down time for me to write, journal, and archive the activism work that I’ve been doing for the past two decades. However, the non-stop requests to work on national crises where people are dead or dying had pulled me away from my plans. I had originally envisioned sitting at coffee diners and having inspiring one-one one conversations with executive coaches in search of my leadership potential. Many of these encounters never happened when the COVID-related shutdowns occurred. I had also envisioned attending leadership conferences where I would get to listen to keynote speeches and attend breakout sessions and mingle with leaders who were at the forefront of their industries. Due to COVID all that was cancelled as well.
So what happened and where did the past two years go? I started my fellowship by journaling about and organizing my notes from the past 20 years of activism. The goal was to reflect back on the high profile cases that I've worked on and to sort out best practices, short comings, lessons learned and what how I've grown from participating in all these significant events. Ironically after two weeks of sorting through old emails, meeting notes and newspaper clippings, I began receiving invitations via social media and personal emails about new cases of discrimination, wrongful deaths and racial injustices around the country. A month into my fellowship the children of an elderly Hmong hunter who had been murdered while on a hunting trip in East Lansing, MI called me. They said that their father was shot in the head by and killed while he was walking back to his vehicle from a hunting trip. It had been over a year and there wasn't any leads about their father's killer. In addition they feel that as Asians in a predominantly White town, they were not receiving the aid they deserved in finding justice for their father. Some Hmong in the area still fear for their lives and some Hmong hunters have given up hunting all together. When they called me, they had planned a peace vigil on the anniversary of his death and wanted me to not only speak at the event but to work with law enforcement to help find their father's killer who is still at large.
This invitation to travel to MI became a moment of pause and reflection in my fellowship. As I reflect on my role as an activist in the past 20 years, there were some cases that I was highly passionate about where I knew I could really make a difference in bringing justice to our community but was not able to due to my work schedule and limited funds. So the idea that if I were to allocate a portion of my Bush Fellowship to cover some of these travel expenses, I could actually go and spent more time in these local communities and work with organizers on the ground. I didn't want to just be just a "helicopter activist" who flew in for a day and gave a speech and left. Some of these families were truly in need of more than that whether it was having a well-versed person to actually go with them to their local police stations and sit down with law enforcement; or help file motions for public records; or write a press release for the local news; all of which I've done before for families who have been victims of high profile crimes. The Bush fellowship would actually enable me to stay in these localities for several days and really assist these families. If justice is rarely achieved in a short amount of time and requires long and sometimes drawn out battles battles, I needed to actually travel to and stay in these communities. With that in mind I flew to Lansing for the peace vigil and assisted the Yang family's efforts to bring justice to their family and their community. I stayed for four days and it made a huge impact in the amount of work that myself and the local activists were able to accomplished.
Throughout my Bush fellowship period I've been able to take time off work and attend to serious and important issues impacting Hmong communities all across this country. For example, when the pandemic hit and it became clear that we were going to hunker down for a while as the infection rates and death rates skyrocketed, I became part of a team of local leaders who were tasks with disseminating information to help curtail infection rates and save lives. These efforts were achieved through a series virtual townhalls and live webcast videos on social media among others. To spread COVID-preventative messages I collaborated with Hmong artists from all over the world an created a Heal Hmong Concert Series where we broadcasted live performances of Hmong singers and musicians from five different countries while inserting COVID-related education in the Hmong language. Our messages and concerts reached hundreds of thousands of Hmong families throughout the world.
During this pandemic there were a host of other pressing matters that concerned racial tension; excessive use of force in Black and Brown communities by law enforcement as exacerbated by the George Floyd murder; and Anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment that grew in frequency across the country. Whether these issues were related or not, they all contributed to the widespread levels of civil unrest and overall distrust of law enforcement and government agencies. Still in the background is a pandemic that was killing Americans at precedented rate with no clear vaccine in sight. Once again, this was a game changer moment for me in my fellowship which got me asking, "If leadership is about having an impact in our communities, and if at the present moment our communities were literally and figuratively dying at exponential rates, then as leaders we must be act and be all hands on deck to prevent death in our communities." In retrospect, I can actually say that my Bush fellowship activities and experiences were synonymous with saving lives and preventing death in my community. That, I would have never imagined. Therefore and on many occasions, when asked I didn't think twice about taking on short-term community service projects that were provided a need whether it was community COVID testing clinics, vaccination sites, food drives for those families impacted by COVID, or a employment services to help people find jobs. I needed to do something and that was the best way for me to serve and be a leader in my community.