A couple years ago, I attended a Gang of Four book tour that celebrated the lives and friendship of Bernie Whitebear, Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett. I was inspired and humbled by stories of their activism and leadership in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The four leaders brought their communities together to shape development and civil rights in Seattle.
Near the end of the event, an older gentleman stood up and reminded everyone that the fight for civil rights isn’t over. His words ring true even now. Our Asian American community continues to fight for culturally historic neighborhoods like Little Saigon, the rights and dignity of refugees and immigrants, equitable access to health, and more. “We need the youth to get involved!” the gentleman continued. “Where are all the young people?”
As a relatively young executive director, I have had the unique opportunity to work closely with established leaders as well as young activists. I am humbled, and sometimes overwhelmed, by the incredible power and privilege this position has afforded me. At the same time, I recognize that some of our most influential and effective social movements have been led by young people.
Lately, I have been wondering if established leaders, like myself, have done enough to support current youth-led movements while also creating space for new, often times younger, leaders to step up. How can we better support this generation of the 20- and 30-something leaders? What can we do to amplify diverse voices within the Asian American community, such as women, LGTBQ, mixed-race, etc? Are established leaders willing to take a step back to welcome new perspectives and styles of leadership?
These questions are critical for the Asian American community to reflect on because our work for social justice has grown more complex and urgent. I believe a strong, healthy leadership pipeline must be cross-generational and intersectional. We must do more to celebrate the talent and wisdom that young leaders bring to our community. Leaders like:
- Sonny Nguyen, who has been organizing young, progressive Asian & Pacific Islander (API) American activists in addition to serving trans communities and people of color.
- Christina Shimizu, an amazingly perceptive fundraiser who is Japanese American and bi-racial, has been a champion for civic engagement in the API community.
- Eunice How, a powerful Chinese-Malaysian-American woman and respected labor organizer for hospitality workers.
Sonny, Christina, and Eunice are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more like them and we should start figuring out how to support the success of every young leader out there. This can look a number of different ways, such as:
- Create succession plans within organizations to move young leaders into senior management and executive level positions.
- Understand that it is not enough to be a “social justice” organization. We must be multicultural and anti-racist. Executive leadership should either create or support spaces within their organizations that push conversations about equity further, especially when they are difficult or uncomfortable.
- Pay interns and young people real wages, not stipends.
- Fund existing youth-led initiatives rather than co-opting their work and energy for our own agendas.
- Mentorship! One young leader told me, “Mentorship is life changing! Elder advice and wisdom is truly priceless!!” But please be aware that even if your advice is solicited, it does not have to be accepted.
- Help young leaders build relationships by connecting them to funders, mentors, and other established leaders.
- Teach young leaders about the history of activism in our community, but be honest and transparent about any unfortunate toxic history in the community. It’s important young leaders know what they are walking into without feeling forced to choose sides.
- Listen to young leaders because you sincerely want to learn from them, not because you’re waiting to speak. Ask “How can I support you?”
- Stop devaluing or discrediting young leaders because you think they are “naive” or “ignorant.” Accept they have different, equally-valuable leadership styles that is grounded in their lived experiences.
The issues we face today have evolved from the time of “Uncle” Bob Santos, Kip Tokuda, Al Sugiyama, Ruth Woo, and others. While it’s important for youth to understand the history of civic engagement in the Asian American community, it is also important for more established leaders to honor the strengths young leaders bring to our community. This won’t be easy and will require us to transition some of our powers, privileges and positions. I encourage all established leaders and executive directors to join me.
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This column represents the personal views of the author, James Hong, informed by his perspective and experience as an executive director. This column is not an official statement of the Vietnamese Friendship Association or other parties.