Full disclosure: I'm afraid of talking to adults sometimes.
I worked at a nonprofit in Boston, where I was an advisor to fifth and sixth grade students and their families. As program staff, I personally never saw myself as a leader in my organization or in my community. Being just a few years out of college and among the "Millenial" crowd at work, I saw myself in stark contrast to The Others—the managers and directors of each department.
When I looked at the senior leadership of my organization, the people who make the most influential decisions, I saw them as "The Grown-ups." I didn't see myself, other Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) folks, or even other people of color represented among those "Grown-ups," who had a seat at the table making impactful decisions on how our programming can best serve communities of color.
So when I applied for the Emerging Leaders Program at LEAP, I was excited for the opportunity to not only think deeply about where I want to go in my career, but also to develop my confidence and become someone who can hold her own among the adults. The Emerging Leaders Program at LEAP (Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics) is a six-month program to develop Asian and Pacific Islander staff leadership roles in nonprofit organizations and increase retention in the nonprofit sector.
To kick off the program, our group met in Pomona, CA during a tumultuous time, right after the Presidential election in November of 2016. It was a time of confusion, uncertainty, and grief for me and my coworkers. Then, I entered a powerful and important space to connect with other leaders in the AAPI community. I had never had a space where I could explore my cultural identity and publicly talk about how it relates to the outcomes in my professional life.
I explored how I could harness the assets of my cultural background, how I could embrace the strengths that come from being an Asian American, even if those strengths had previously been undervalued by the "Grown-ups" I've interacted with and observed.
The backdrop was, of course, an American presidential election outcome that suggested that people who look like me, and the communities I serve, don't have a voice. I never expected I could enter into a space of affinity among such an inspiring group of AAPI folks in this sector and return home to Boston a week later feeling refreshed, hopeful, and empowered for the future.
The next stage of the program was an intensive executive coaching relationship. As I started, I had the tools from the workshops and the connections among my new cohort, which put me in the mindset where I felt ready to ask myself the tougher questions. I was able to identify the struggles I was having at work, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with my coach and figure out what I wanted to do for myself.
I eventually came to the realization that I already have all the tools and traits that I need to be successful and reach my goals — I just need to tap into them. Whether I was stepping outside of my comfort zone to speak up about a certain issue, or taking action on an initiative that mattered to me, the "Grown-ups" felt less intimidating and more approachable that I previously thought.
I eventually came to the realization that I already have all the tools and traits that I need to be successful and reach my goals — I just need to tap into them.
As we completed the program in New York, I felt grateful for the amazing network of support that I found. I can't stress enough how valuable it was for me to reconnect and strengthen my relationships with people I can look up to outside of my organization. I now feel like I'm part of a community of AAPI folks who are farther along in their careers and doing inspiring work in the fields of health care, education, the arts, etc. I know I can relate to them, and that they have had similar experiences in the workplace where perhaps they felt that AAPIs weren't perceived as fitting within the prototypical image of a leader.
On our final night of the program, I found myself volunteering to deliver a speech about my experience in front of many influential "Grown-ups" who have supported LEAP, and to my surprise… it wasn't that bad!
I'm grateful to LEAP for encouraging me to take the risk of sharing my story in front of adults--the big decision-makers, the people who are well-respected in their field of work. I'm truly humbled to know that so many talented, accomplished folks care about LEAP's mission of empowering AAPI leaders in the nonprofit field.
I hope that in the future, I will be in a position where I can inspire a generation of AAPI leaders who look at me as a "Grown-up," and know that a seat at the table can be open for them as well.