The Value of Followship

Originally published for Ontario Nonprofit Network

What would you think if I told you that you should become a Follower?

From childhood, we are taught the value of leadership. We are encouraged to develop our skills in leadership, from the classroom to the workplace. Often, the benefits of leadership are tied to ideas of individual success. I will lead. I will take charge. I will be successful. What we can often overlook is that we do not exist in our own spaces. We overlap with one another.

I grew up shaped by experiences of difference and violence; this permeates all of my work. Earlier in my life, I let the fact that I’ve gone through so many different experiences blind me from seeing the larger picture and my place in it. Since I have a University education, I thought I knew my stuff. Since I have felt erasure and marginalization, I thought I knew injustice. Since I can be a leader, I thought that I should be.

A couple years ago on a hot summer day, at a Black Lives Matter gathering, someone I deeply admire addressed the allies in the crowd. Would we, he asked, be willing to step back and let them drive this march? Would we step down while they led this movement? Would we stand behind their leadership –  without making this about us?

Despite the Canadian narrative of multiculturalism and our propensity to view ourselves as better off than our southern neighbours, we live with deep inequities and injustices. We are founded in these truths. We must confront the fact that our silence and inactions make a larger statement than our actions.

We must ask how we will move forward with this. Our power, intentionality, and love need to be brought into every day, every step of our work. We don’t always need to be leaders. We don’t always need to sit at the helm. We can ask ourselves how we can share our power. We can remember that though we may face certain barriers ourselves, there are challenges others face that we may not.

Shaping our cities and services for community goes beyond looking at built form or system structures – at its core, it’s about self-determination. As leaders impacting political, public policy, and other systems around us, it is on us not only to lead the charge, but to Follow – with a capital F. True allyship – true inclusivity – includes making sacrifices. It cannot end after one-off actions or at our convenience. It’s not a story we can tell. It’s about how we live. It demands we be quiet. It demands we let go. It demands we look beyond what we can do to help.

 
We must learn when and how to let others lead, and when and how to use the tools at our disposal – our power, our privilege – to actively challenge oppressive systems. How will we shape our cities to empower its peoples, encourage learning and togetherness amidst complex change? This is for us to decide.

 

dragging it into the light

My dad left us when I was 16.

 

It seemed almost normal, the next chapter in what was unfolding. Everything seemed ‘almost normal’, back then. How he’d transform, explode, when he got angry; how he’d put down or get violent with mom in front of us; how he’d change back and hold us, assure us he’d do anything to see our dreams through.

 

I could never understand his anger until I could begin to understand mine, and at the root of this anger was shame. As the months unfolded and I sat in the discomfort of facing myself I discovered I lived with a multi-faceted shame, as I’m sure he did too.

 

When Stories of Ours started, it was an attempt to show my mom that we could, actually, heal. Our traumas are shared. I wanted to show that her experiences as an immigrant, survivor, mother, and everything else are experiences shared by many. Increasingly, it has also been my way of struggling against the tides of hatred that seem to be a permanent part of our lives. By inviting others to share and listen to our stories, and complicating the narratives that exist around us, we move towards togetherness.

 

This summer, this project brought me to the University of Cambridge with 24 other people from several different countries as part of the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship - a program of intense learning, discussions, and dialogue centred around entrepreneurship, social sciences and cross-cultural leadership. We had challenging conversations about real problems that affect us daily, and how we can simultaneously follow our beliefs while respecting others’. We opened ourselves to error and, therefore, learning.

Photo by Nazia Khatun

Photo by Nazia Khatun

 

Professor Ray, of the University of Kent, visited us to speak about the relationship between shame and violence. Pointing to a paper published by Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger, we discussed at what point shame, a deep yet largely undiscussed emotion, could lead to violence and aggression. According to Scheff and Retzinger, it is when we repress shame to the point of unacknowledgement that it can spark rage and, subsequently, violence.

 

The defining link between the things we’re fighting - racism, sexim, ablism, classim, transphobia - is something that has always made me bristle. Perhaps based on my experiences, perhaps based on my temperament, I just loathe violence.

 

But it seems almost normal now, something we just accept. Everything seems ‘almost normal’, now. How we can transform, explode, when people live experiences unfamiliar from ours; how we can ignore histories of colonization, watch ourselves ignore Black and trans bodies disappear more rapidly than others, watch ourselves throw our hands up thinking we’re not part of the problem; how we can sit back in our comfort, assure each other we can do anything to see our dreams through.

 

Shame is not the root cause for all trife, but it should not be overlooked. It seems the only way to kill our shame is by staring it in the face and flooding it with empathy, and dragging it into the light.

We're Never There

It hits me every time I'm standing in the huge line at border control after coming back home to Toronto: a huge wash of relief that I'm back in such a diverse place - something I can quickly grow to take for granted unchecked, especially when I try to spend my time learning about the social injustices and oppressions that exist here in my country and city.

I just spent a couple weeks visiting other cities - some I've already been to, some new to me. Even the most diverse out of the ones I visited - Berlin - could sometimes feel suffocatingly homogenous. Though I love Berlin, and hold a certain fondness for the other cities I visited - there's really no denying it. There's no place like home. There's something deeply unsettling about watching an entire train peel their eyes away from screen or page to watch as you walk towards the bathroom, even when there's no malice behind the stares. 

It doesn't take long to remember that even here at home, the rights of thousands of people are being chipped away. Despite the many voices speaking out there's still an overwhelming silence maintained by many regarding the ongoing, nuanced struggles of many different people. One need look no further than this recent article about Never Home, a multimedia project examining the impacts of policy changes affecting immigrants and refugees and the de facto creation of lesser-class citizens, for an example. Though crises may be rooted in distant places, the ripple effects are deep and run worldwide - and then there's the history and forces behind the crises in the first place. 

We saw many refugees in the streets of some of the European cities,; the continent is facing the highest ever recorded numbers of refugees struggling to come in. It's important to remain grounded in the fact that we are not separate from them, and how our various actions and inactions can either support or fight back against oppression or the denial of basic rights. And to remember that similarly devastating things are happening in places closer to home, too. Perhaps somewhere where we do call home, but others cannot. The more walls we build in stone or in heart the more we strengthen the system that convinces us some people are or deserve less than us.

It makes me feel that much more rooted to the work we're doing with Stories of Ours - opening up spaces to have the conversations that remind us of other experiences and push us out of our comfort zone. It's a difficult journey, so it's a good thing we've started this together. I hope you can join us on September 24th for our next event, starting at 6pm this time. You can find the Facebook event page here, and an off-Facebook event page here. :-)

And as ever, feeling so much gratitude to all of you - those of you who have come out to an event or shared the project to your friends, and especially to the stunning people who have shared stories for us.  

For me, today's practice was remembering that we're never there - we are always here. A friend mentioned it in the kitchen this morning in reference to his kids asking 'are we there yet?' in the car, but I think it applies to all of us too. Let's keep chasing growth and change.

Here are some photos from the July 30th event, and as always some of the stories will be available to watch online. Click the button at the bottom of this page to check them out!

And if you missed it, we now have a newsletter so you can stay in touch with upcoming events - we're going to see a lot more of each other. 


On Becoming

Last summer, I went on a camping trip with a group of friends. Four of us went up early before meeting up with the larger group, spending some time together in Tobermory before heading to Six Mile Provincial Park. 

It was lovely. We pitched tents as we discussed families, challenges, dreams. We walked along trails and revelled in the trees, easing in and out of conversation. We collected damp kindling to dry by the fire before burning to make our morning coffee - about 45 minutes worth of work for 1 steaming cup. 

One afternoon we walked a little too far. Disoriented by the indistinguishable trees and parking lots, we asked a nearby Park Ranger to help us find our way back to our trail. As we walked, my 3 friends fell back as I chatted with the Park Ranger about sustainable tourism, UNESCO Heritage sites, and his dog. A few minutes later, we parted, thanking him and wishing him a nice day. Moments later, his voice rang clearly through the 20 or 30 yards now separating us. 

"WAIT!"

We turned. The Park Ranger jogged over to our bemused faces. Did he drop us off at the wrong trail? 

Being on a camping trip, our awareness of time already sat on the backburner. It informed almost no part of our day. But whatever notion of time I clung to as an urban human being slowed almost to a stop as this man, this 50-something year old Caucasian Provincial Park Ranger, began to speak to me - just me - about 'The East'. 

'The East' is so admirable for the reverence that is demonstrated towards the environment, he explained to me. It's well known, he went on, that people of the Orient have a profound respect for nature and the world. 

I was baffled. I could only stare at him, inviting more of his words to fill the silence I created.

The only challenge, he informed me, was the inability for my people - "You are Asian, right?" he made sure to clarify before continuing - to bring this respect for the environment to Canada when visiting. It's very important to Parks Canada, he concluded, to develop a strategy to combat this unfortunate side-effect of tourism. They've had meetings about it, he said. 

I blinked as I struggled to grasp what he was saying, even though it was crystal clear. He ran back to tell me that Asian tourists litter too much. No. He felt the need to run back to tell me that Asian tourists litter too much.

Like every time I've been smacked in the face by another person's interpretation of my identity, the bravery and strength I've painstakingly cultivated through my life withered and fell away. 

Was I supposed to offer to bring this message back to My People on behalf of Parks Canada? Explain to him that actually, I was born and raised in Canada? Go in to an explanation of how everything he just said was incredibly flawed, and bring him under the fold of my wing as I lead him down the path of racial enlightenment that I have not yet even conquered?

Instead, I froze. Startled, I looked to my friends, who stood off to the side slightly behind the Park Ranger with their mouths frozen into similarly baffled 'O's. They looked at me, eyes wide, but it was clear this was my battle to fight. None of them had any Asian-ness to bring to the war. 

I felt grossly unprepared. This is my war. I grew up in a very small town. My sister and cousins were conspicuously Asian in an overwhelmingly Caucasian school. When I was young, a man working at a fast food chain in the food court of the mall in Saint Catherine's shouted at us to go back to our country as we walked by. I have been training for this war since the moment my parents chose to conceive me in this country.

But at that moment, standing on my two-man battlefield, I was nothing. Nothing but a lone footsoldier facing a wall of horsemen. Nothing but my country as it withstood occupation by Japanese, Chinese, Soviet, American forces as it was ripped into two separate entities, accepting its fate. It is my duty to challenge this fate and yet, I was failing. 

As I looked squarely into his eyes and inside I slowly shrank, my only defence was what I hope was a scathing glare and dripping sarcasm. I asked him how exactly they were planning  on doing this work, and listened unimpressed to his stumbling reply that they were 'talking to people about it'. Snidely I wished him luck and walked away, ashamed at my timid response. The useless-ness of it punctuated my steps. He could very well go say the exact same thing to another unsuspecting Korean-Canadian who might put up a worthy fight. Or not.

That wasn't the first time I've felt ashamed for failing to react to a racial annexation of my Self, my entire existence, by another person. I've felt it while laughing along at a customer's joke about Orientals making good housewives at the bar I used to work at. I've felt it when peers used to joke I only got my grades because I'm Asian and I would agree. I've felt it through some peoples' conclusive remarks that my past boyfriends must have had Yellow Fever.

I still feel it when I remember the gloating pride with which I used to hold my so-called Whiteness even just a few years ago.

What I'm learning is I will never be finished. I will never have learned all that I can about the world, race, or myself. Race and identity will never be stagnant entities that we can claim with a flagpole of wisdom. It is a constant Becoming. We are a constant Becoming. What winding paths will we get lost in?

Last night, my sister learned that my mom's 'English' name Michelle has never had any legal bearing whatsoever. Her name is Hee-Jung. My estranged father chose Michelle for her before she came to this country. It clung to her for decades before she peeled it off and reclaimed herself. I am still discovering what still clings to me and what it means. I will never be finished. 

 

There's Magic in Sharing

Just this morning, I read a quote from a colleague of  mine who had written it on a whiteboard in their office.

We often undervalue our own stories.
— C.S

As soon as I saw it, I just thought - yes. How coincidental that this would be put right in front of me as I'm about to publish videos of our storytellers. 

What's special about Stories of Ours? It honours that everybody has a story to share, whether they are a long-time performer or the shyest mother you've met. Everybody has the chance to step up and share what is meaningful to them. This type of openness was inspired by the other storytelling event I co-produce called Stories We Don't Tell, from the founder of that project and my dear friend, B. 

I work with each storyteller to workshop their story in a presentable format, but to me it's so much more. I get to set aside time in my day to really learn about a person, and there's nothing I can think of more deeply spiritual and connective than this. That they can trust enough to share parts of themselves and that I can trust enough to listen (and vice versa) is all we can ask of people. 

I hope you enjoy watching the stories and use the opportunity to think about your own.