When Silence is Not An Option (Part I)

Our Reflections: How We Leaned into Discomfort and Interrupted for Justice
Mai P. Tran
Manager, Marketing and Communications
Gloria Kobow
Executive Assistant (Programs)

While philanthropy, as a field, sets out to do good work in the world, the very same set of good intentions are often full of ironies interwoven — whether intentionally or not — with

white supremacist values

,

impacting its work in many ways. For instance, organizations led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx leaders receive only an

estimated 4%

of philanthropic capital, and

more than three-quarters

of foundation teams identify as white.

Last summer, in the midst of a racial reckoning in the US and across the world, our team at Imaginable Futures committed to dismantling structural racism at every level of our work. We took several steps—including self work to face uncomfortable truths. Realizing that change must start first inwards, we asked ourselves: How are we responsible for upholding the very systems of racism that we intend to dismantle?

For nine months, our team took a journey with Camelback Capital Collaborative (Camelback) to critically examine our role in perpetuating social inequities through philanthropy, and to develop strategies to make our investment process more equitable. We also learned tools to work better as a team, so that we’re able to show up each day for justice for each other and for our partners. We know the learning journey goes beyond these nine past months, and that the work is far from over. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share our own reflections and how the journey with this Camelback program has impacted us.

This is Part 1 two posts from Imaginable Futures team members. Read Part 2 (“Leaning Into Discomfort”) by Gloria Kobow here.

Mai Tran: How the Model Minority Myth Silences Challenges of the AAPI Community, and Why I Spoke

There is a “blind spot” for justice when it comes to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community — even among social justice-conscious circles. In research papers, conversations, panels — virtually everywhere — the injustices acted upon my community are painfully invisible.

Part of the reason for this is due to how data is aggregated. As a group, Asian Americans have strong socioeconomic and education attainment outcomes. But lumping a vastly diverse group of people with more than 40 different ethnic groups, masks over wide disparities. Data from the US Census Bureau shows that while the median household income among AAPI families is $75K—well above the US median income of $63K, those incomes actually range from $30K to more than $100K. And, though Asians surpass all other racial groups in postsecondary education attainment, ethnic subgroups such as the Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong populations, have much lower attainment rates than the general US population.

Mai (far right) with family members wearing traditional Vietnamese dress (áo dài) in the 1990s.

The reality is complex for many. For instance, children of Vietnamese refugees, like myself, face many challenges such as having limited support for navigating college, the need for financial aid, lack of emotional and mental support, on top of navigating generations of trauma from political violence and war. Consequently, this often leaves us out of the conversation, feeds into the harmful model minority myth, and leads to the assumption that the AAPI community does not need additional support.

I have worked as a communications professional across philanthropy, policy and government, and yet, time and time again, I have witnessed this blind spot around the inequities experienced by my community. Even within circles that fight for social and racial justice, I have rarely felt safe speaking up against injustices on the AAPI community, and rarely had the courage to do so — until Atlanta.

In March, eight people were murdered by a gunman at three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were Asian women. This horrific tragedy came on top of an uptick of violence against the AAPI community. These women looked like me, like my mother, my aunts, my friends. They were killed for no other reason than the color of their skin and because they were women. That day the fight for racial justice and against misogyny became deeply personal and exponentially painful for me.

As the news unfolded, one of my colleagues approached me to ask if Imaginable Futures would be making a statement (which we had done in support of Black children and families the year before). Even with an ally's encouragement, I was at a standstill, partly because I was still processing the news that was unfolding, and also because I had internalized the years of messaging that Asians don't matter when it comes to racial justice. I realized this was a time when silence is not an option.

Even within circles that fight for social and racial justice, I have rarely felt safe speaking up against injustices on the AAPI community, and rarely had the courage to do so — until Atlanta. I realized this was a time when silence is not an option.

Because of our collective JEDI work together as a team, I felt it was safe to “interrupt for justice” — a tool we had learned through Camelback on how to speak up against injustice. In addition, I also had support from my Camelback coach, who helped me navigate difficult conversations and lean into discomfort. Through the Camelback program, we were paired up with a coach, whom we met with on a biweekly basis to support us during our learning journey.

I made a recommendation that we speak up in solidarity with the AAPI community. This conversation then sparked a series of discussions on how and when Imaginable Futures responds to public tragedies. Knowing that the “next big one” is not a matter of if, but rather when, our team created a response framework for communications and action. Importantly, it is designed so that the work is shared collectively — anyone across our global team can start a conversation when they see/hear/experience an injustice or issue. Being justice seekers is a team value and a team effort!

I know my learning journey is a lifetime ahead, and I am grateful to my team for creating a space for us to grow. I look forward to further exploring and growing in our JEDI learning journey together. And, I’m grateful to have found the courage to speak up in moments when silence is not an option.

Read Part Two of This Series

“Leaning Into Discomfort” by Gloria Kobow