The 2018-2019 IE Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program successfully wrapped up in June, and the IE congratulates its 2018-2019 fellows on an ambitious journey. In the past year, our fellows did a deep dive into three API communities: Palbasha Siddique in the Bangladeshi community, Jarett Finau in the Tongan community and Clarissa Gines in the Lao community. (Sunny Ysa had also been selected to represent the Cham community, but had time restaints that prevented her from completing the program.) They found stories to share and brought representation in the media to these often unheard communities. In the following essays, they share their experiences. The IE thanks Fellowship Manager Bif Brigman and all participating presenter sand facilitators for making this such a successful program. And thank you to the Seattle Foundation for funding our fellowship program.
Overcoming adversity with advocacy – a Filipina’s journey into supporting the Lao community: Clarissa Gines
The universe works in mysterious ways. At a time where I was feeling the itch to take on a new challenge professionally, a friend serendipitously shared the posting for the International Examiner’s Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program. Reading the program overview, it was in line with what I wanted to expand on – community work and journalism. I had already been writing for the IE at this point, contributing to arts coverage for about a year, but wanted more opportunities to expand on my writing, and learn more about advocacy work. What better opportunity than through this fellowship?
As a Filipina-American and reading over the communities that the program would be focusing on, I knew that I’d be working with a community that I didn’t have much knowledge of or familiarity with. That part excited me, to have the opportunity to immerse myself in unfamiliar waters. Upon learning that I would be working with, and covering the Lao community, I immediately turned into a bag of mixed emotions (which surprised me, given my initial excitement and eagerness to take on a new challenge). Of course, I was excited for the opportunity, excited to learn and be an advocate and supporter of Lao folks; but I also felt overwhelmed, scared and anxious for the same reasons. The truth of the matter was that I had no connection to the Lao community. I didn’t know a single Laotian person personally (aside from a guy I briefly dated years ago), never had Lao food before, and soon realized that I would be drowning in a pool of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and insecurity. How was I supposed to properly, and adequately cover stories about the Lao community if I barely even knew about their culture, their history and their community here in Seattle?
The first half of the program was great! Participating in different sessions that addressed various aspects of journalism, scratching the surface on social justice work – that was the easy part. I was a sponge and soaked up all that information. I thoroughly enjoyed each guest presenter and learned lots of valuable information that came in handy when working directly with our assigned communities. Once we started diving into the real community engagement part of the program however, things very quickly became overwhelming for me. It’s one thing to be presented information and to hypothetically apply it, it’s another thing to actually take that information and apply it in practice.
Often times throughout the fellowship, I felt discouraged because I had no idea where to start in terms of research, and finding folks to reach out to. I was given great direction, and I eventually managed to get in contact with community members – but it wasn’t without some difficulty. I still only knew just basic knowledge of Lao history, their migration to America, their culture, everything. I couldn’t grasp my mind around cultural nuances, I was always afraid of offending someone because of my lack of knowledge and awareness. I tried to make it easier by finding similarities between Filipino and Laotian culture, but that only helped to a degree.
Once I started meeting Lao folks however, I immediately felt welcomed into their community. They knew how to make me feel seen, and appreciated the effort that I was making on behalf of the AJFP on bringing more light to Laotian stories. Everyone I spoke to emanated so much love and appreciation, and it really fueled me to be as supportive as I can in this capacity as an advocate for their community. Learning how relatively new the Lao community in America is (in comparison to other communities) made me understand a great deal how much they are still trying to establish themselves and their community here.
While the fellowship is now over, I am still very supportive of the Lao community, and hope to continue advocating and bringing light to their culture and community. Hopefully, more work can be done, and more passionate folks are willing to bring more Lao representation in the media, and more awareness to the various community members doing amazing work. I’ve discovered a newfound respect and appreciation for the Lao community during this fellowship, and am in awe of their collective resilience and strength that they carry.
Discovering my roots: Jarett Finau
Coming into this program was a peculiar time for at my life. In September I had just come off a two-month sabbatical traveling across Asia and Tonga. I came back home still unsure about what I wanted to do in my life. It was interesting because my life was the fruit that bore from the sacrifices of my family when they chose to leave their ancestral land to immigrate here to the U.S. I was given the opportunity, but now seeing what am I going to do with it?
I’ve always been good at writing, and my mother suggested that I apply for the International Examiner fellowship. I hesitated at first because journalism was foreign to me, however I wasn’t doing anything else, so why not? I knew that the fellowship wasn’t going to be easy, but I think I underestimated exactly how much I would learn about my culture and myself.
Being a Tongan kid raised in the suburbs of Marysville, I was constantly teased as “Carlton Banks”. Most Tongans lived in the inner cities and spoke the language. I lived in Trump country and lost the language as soon as I went to school. I always struggled with not being Tongan enough, like I was a traitor or an imposter. I felt like my family came to his strange land for me to become an American, but in the process I traded in my identity as a Tongan. I looked Tongan, but I acted and talked white.
The fellowship had me engaging with the same community that teased me for being white-washed. It took me out of my comfort zone, but the payoff was that I realized we shared more commonality than anything. I learned about the fluid nature of culture. That for most immigrant communities in the U.S. they usually lose their language by the second generation. I learned that customs evolve over time and geographic location. What was Tongan custom and jargon that my grandparents passed down to us were somewhat outdated as that’s what they were in the 60’s and 70’s. I learned that when a community is not normally publicly represented, they will embrace whatever is used to be there. I saw this when the Tongan community embraced this young Tongan actress Sia Fakatoufifita, who is half Tongan. It wasn’t important that she wasn’t full Tongan or was just as clueless as I was to custom, what was important was that she represented our people and was proud of it.
When I met with people and told them the focus for the fellowship, it gave them joy. Sometimes we get so used to not being heard that when given the platform for your voice it’s astonishing. I wanted to find a way to utilize the opportunities that my family sacrificed for me but to also not forget who I was and where I came from. I had to confront the very people I was insecure about not being adequate enough to see that we are going through similar struggles.
Earning trust, gaining confidence: Palbasha Siddique
This September, it will be two years since I have moved to Seattle. I lived in Minnesota for most of my life (17 years to be exact), and back then, I belonged to multiple communities in Minneapolis and surrounding areas which I felt proud to be a part of. Due to my husband and me being first generation Bangladeshi immigrants, we naturally started connecting with many members of the Bangladeshi communities here in the Seattle area, at events, gatherings, concerts, and parties. The more time I started spending here, the more I realized that there are very strong Bangladeshi communities in Seattle and surrounding areas, yet no outside representation of them whatsoever – meaning that all that was done within the Bangladeshi communities were somehow restricted within their own boundaries with no outlet, and at times with no intentions by insiders or outsiders, to be exposed for everyone else to see and be aware.
At a Thanksgiving party in 2017, we started the discussion around immigration stories and how we felt it was very important to document lives of all generations of Bangladeshis that have moved to Washington state over the years. The last thing I wanted was for stories to go unheard, as the result of that is greater than what we can assume. There is so much to learn from people that have walked the same grounds we are walking on today as first, second, or third generation immigrants. They walked wearing shoes of all different colors and sizes. It would be a shame to have nothing to look back to when trying to understand the effects of time and journeys of past and current immigrants.
Surprisingly, shortly after I planned to start my ‘coffee outings’ with friends and folks I started to meet in order to document their stories, I came across the opportunity to become one of the four Advocate Journalism Fellows for the IE. The most exciting part for me was the opportunity to represent and be an advocate for my own communities of Bangladeshi people. I immediately thought it was such a splendid idea and was impressed that the communities of Bangladeshi people were even identified as being underrepresented and misrepresented in the mass media. I was surprised because of the fact that we were identified at all, and actually pinpointed and thought of as important enough to finally get proper representation by an external organization and media source.
In the beginning, my focus was clear. I read through the stories written by the advocate journalists of the previous year. Not being among the first batch of writers of this kind for the IE immediately made me feel a lot more comfortable than I would have been otherwise. My primary goals were to seek out individuals, micro-communities, and happenings in Washington state that needed to be written and talked about.
My motivation was that this would provide me the opportunity to be the voice for those unheard and give me the chance to connect with more people, here in my new home. Personally, I’ve always thrived to be a better writer – someone who can clearly and concisely express information and facts and expand my styles of writing. I am happy to now look back and see that my main goals, as mentioned above, have been accomplished. The program, in many ways, has exceeded my expectations which I came in with last October, and here is how.
We typically met once a week, every week. The half-day sessions were packed with thought-provoking discussions, workshops, trainings, lunches at various CID-neighborhood restaurants, introductions and conversations with key people within the API communities, and much more. My favorite workshop was one that was focused around imposter syndrome and the importance of defeating it when trying to become a good journalist. I remember that day clearly because my fellow journalists and I just looked at each other and laughed when the topic was brought up – that was a key moment in all of us connecting and realizing that we would not be alone in the challenges that we were likely going to be facing throughout this journey.
As a perfectionist, it has always been important to me to be able to get the truth out and the facts out. And for that to happen, I feel this immense need to ask questions to anyone who I may find to be knowledgeable about a topic. The downside to that is the feeling that often follows that is of stepping over boundaries or crossing some invisible line set by the other individuals. I have had to fight this feeling many times throughout this experience. I did so by rationalizing two things. The first – you never know where that line is unless it is made visible, so test it out! And two – maybe the other party is feeling as “imposter-ish” when trying to convey messages to me, now knowing that I do have the voice to make them heard. Maybe they, too, do not want to reach out but desperately need to be heard and deserve to be heard.
So in short, journalism has forced me in some ways to become more confident and comfortable, exactly with who I am – a 28-year old child with this constant need to ask questions in order to be able to understand the world in as many ways as it can be understood. Because of this position, I was able to meet minorities within my communities, who I otherwise may have never had the opportunity to even sit in the same room with. I have learned to gain trust from those who were hesitant at first to share their stories for various reasons, and for this I thank the IE once more.
As a result of this program I have come in contact with at least 100 new faces in Seattle. I shared with them what it is that I am trying to accomplish with the support of the IE and had a lot of support from community members. I learned that there are a lot of business-people, artists, professionals and academics who need their stories heard, and often times they do not realize that their stories are important. I knew to expect challenges in making people believe in the need for them to share their experiences and history, and I have been able to turn those challenging experiences into accomplishments for all of us.
The results are in the content I have expressed throughout the weeks and in the articles I wrote where my goal was that the audience will learn and hopefully be able to relate to experiences, and know that in being challenged with struggles, they are not alone. The stories of success, struggles, lessons, and lives of individuals have been so important to share, especially since just like many other API communities, this community has often been misrepresented or underrepresented in the media.
I urge anyone reading this who wants to pursue journalism in any shape or form to take part in this fellowship in the coming year/s and trust me that they will learn more than they can imagine!