The Value of Culture

When I first began working at the WINC last summer, I could only focus on all the ways in which the center could improve. They have never had the capacity to evaluate their programs, to set criteria for judging success, and had never attempted to glean feedback from the clients themselves. The staff was stretched thin just managing to stitch up the necessary funds to stay alive, and they treated their interns like volunteers who were on standby. The list can go on. I had so many criticisms, but I could never voice them because I knew the center was trying the best it possibly could.

But there was one aspect of the center that I did not understand. The center had changed its mission to serve all Asian women, not just Korean women. This transition was supposed to be a move toward larger and greater opportunities for the center—it was a sign that the center was adapting to changing times and to meet the needs of a changing community. If anything, the center could now apply to more sources of funding. I found this move to be strategic; it made sense. What didn’t make sense was how nothing else changed at the center but the wording of its mission. There were no efforts to hire other Asian women or to market their center as serving a diverse group of women. The center was still very much about maintaining its Korean cultural roots.

I interviewed several clients during my internship to measure how satisfied the clients were with the shelter services. One of these clients was Chinese—the only non-Korean speaking person at the shelter. One of the first questions I asked had to do with the programs the shelter offered such as art therapy, group therapy and culture programs. And to my surprise, this client had no idea these programs existed. Of course she didn’t know about them. They were all administered by Korean instructors who only spoke Korean when running these programs. She also told me how she would have to make her own food late at night because Korean food disagreed with her. Or how the two daughters felt uncomfortable during lunch when the staff and interns spoke in Korean. Her experience at the shelter was shortchanged by the fact that while the shelter opened its doors for any Asian woman, it did not accommodate all of their cultural differences.

I remember at my last week at the center, the Executive director and Case manager were discussion their need to hire a full-time intern for the year. One of the requirements was for the intern to be Korean and bi-lingual. After all, almost all the donors for the center were Korean which is why everything had to be written in both Korean and English.

The center needed to change as indicated by its new mission. But while the clientele base was changing, the volunteer and donor base was not. The two realities were incompatible with each other. I just couldn’t understand how the executive director and case manager didn’t see their current situation in the same way. For the executive director, maintaining the Korean volunteer and donor base was one of the most important aspects of her work.  All the board members were Korean, too.

Researching the history of the center to write a case study about this organization did a lot to deepen my understanding and sympathy for the center and the challenges it currently faces. I learned that the center originated from a grass-roots activist campaign to free a Korean woman falsely accused of murdering her child. The person who founded the organization was a feminist pastor. She built the shelter on Korean tradition and culture. What tied all the women in the organization together were their common cultural ties—it was at the heart of the organization; it was what gave it life.

To demand that the center compromise its roots to accommodate more clients and foundations seemed cruel upon this newfound knowledge. There was so much meaning behind the cultural practices at the center—the fact that there was a cook to make homemade Korean food every day; that everyone ate lunch together; that people took their shoes off at the door; that we talked about Korean superstitions about dreams over rice cakes and fruit; that we respected the elderly and attended to them first. These practices were what sustained the staff, volunteers and fellow Korean clients. The sense of kinship created the best holding space for Korean women seeking shelter. The space was familiar, comfortable and safe.

The larger question is what role does race play in all of this? Does it matter that the shelter calls itself an Asian Women’s shelter but prioritizes Korean women? Does it matter if these Korean women speak Korean? What if a bi-racial woman who spoke Korean appeared? Would she take precedence over a Korean woman who didn’t speak Korean? What assumptions does the staff have about the clients’ racial backgrounds and cultures that inform who gets access to what?

I know that if, for whatever reason, I ended up seeking a women’s shelter, I would seek out this one. Even though the shelter is small and the services far from perfect, the cultural identity of the place provokes a sense of security and attachment that I no other shelter can provide. To think that this unique place might eventually have to change due to changing demands of its clientele base saddens me.  There will always be a need for a Korean women’s shelter. But this demand may not be enough to sustain an entire shelter. Am I being too pessimistic and narrow-minded?


Social Media Activism

I have very conflicting views on this new thing called social media activism. I feel as though I was at the part of this movement, trying to change people’s lives through the sharing of personal narratives online, in running a feminist blog to highlight feminist issues that we face today. And I know it has created change, or at least played a role in bringing pressing conversations about gender to the attention of our larger Duke student body.  And I also know staff writers and guest writers who were able to heal from their past in sharing their pain with their peers. I felt the community that was coming out of this blog.

Since then, I’ve begun to sign multiple petitions online, share news articles online, all in the efforts to bring more attention to the issues that I care about most. But despite all this social media activity I was generating, I found myself hesitant to urge my peers to sign the same petitions I was signing, to talk about the news articles I was sharing, to make those issues more real.

I was most conflicted when I came to know of Occupy Wall Street. I moved to New York a year ago, and over the summer made friends who were moving to the outskirts of Brooklyn due to the rapid rate of gentrification in the borough. These friends were attending meetings before Occupy Wall Street hit the streets. These friends were there on Sept. 17th, the first night of Occupy and continued to keep me in the know by sending me blog posts, videos and pictures of the event. The police brutality infuriated me, the economic injustice that my friends dealt with infuriated me, and I knew I was helping in spreading the word through every avenue I could—especially as the major media sources weren’t covering the movement.

I was an adamant supporter.  I admired the horizontal structure of the movement, the view that these protestors were practicing democracy and figuring out the answers on the way, the disorganized and all-inclusive nature of it. But when the movement came to my front door, I was less than ready to join the protestors out on the streets.

We now have a group aimed at Occupying Duke. I was ecstatic that the movement was laying its roots here—something that could open up conversations about the socio-economic status of our students, staff, faculty and admin, Duke’s labor unions, financial aid, Duke’s investment practices, the wall-street culture at Duke, Duke’s financial hold in Durham, the integrity of our board members, and the integrity of our student body. I was hoping that the movement would allow a space for narratives to surface about how economic injustice plays out at Duke, because I barely knew anything of it.

But at our first general body meeting, I was dismayed at how quick everyone was to take action. Not only was I afraid of taking action, but did not know the risks of doing so at this institution. I was also uncomfortable with the disorganized way in which the meeting unfolded. Someone needed to be taking notes. Someone needed to lead the group into creating community norms. Someone needed to hold the group to set goals for our meetings. Someone needed to set an ending time for the meeting. I saw all these needs, but I was not going to step up to offer them. Furthermore, half of those present at the meeting seemed to be there out of plain curiosity. I did not feel safe to take any risks in voicing my opposition to some of the decisions we were making, or in joining the loudest supporters of Occupy in tenting out.

This meeting was mainly publicized through the web, through Facebook and emails and word of mouth. I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t know who was holding the meeting nor had friends to go with me. I would’ve been more comfortable taking risks if I knew most of the people at the meeting. I would’ve gone to Occupy Durham if someone was willing to go with me.

That’s the thing with social media activism. I can do it alone, and the risk is minimal. But as soon as it goes off the web, I realize that the risks get higher and I don’t like taking risks alone. This transition is a hard one, and one that asks so much more of me than re-posting a good article about the movement and getting my friends to like it on Facebook. It requires that I start making real relationships, to invest in creating a community off the web to impact others and let others impact me.



Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crisis.

All my thoughts are in pieces. I have yet to look at the big picture and really soak in what these past eight weeks have meant for me. But here’s what I’ve got so far.

I declared myself a feminist within weeks of the Women as Leaders class two semesters ago. But throughout the next year, I still fumbled when my friends asked me what a feminist was. I had no definition for them and could never fully articulate what being a feminist meant for me. It was just too personal to lie out on the table. Too burdensome, maybe.

It basically had to do with my relationship with my mother, my mother’s relationship with my father and his relationship with me. Needless to say, it also had to do with how differently my brother and I were raised. These factors were deeply rooted within my choice to identify as a feminist—more than any of the statistics about unequal pay and the glass ceiling.

I can blurt out a textbook answer for what feminism means by now. But the word’s significant exists beyond its definition for me. It is a means through which I understand how gender impacts my life and the environments in which I operate; it provides me with the tools to look critically at conditions I have come to implicitly accept as the norm; it has impacted the very nature of how I see.

That is why I called, and continue to call, myself a feminist—because I had been touched by it.

And Moxie helped me think through all that.

But more specifically, Moxie has also let me see the various ways in which non-profits work to benefit women. Not a single non-profit works alone, nor can address the myriad challenges women face. It is all essentially multi-faceted in nature.

For instance, ending street harassment and educating young girls about women’s issues contribute to the fight against domestic violence (Hollaback and Sadie Nash). Battered women’s shelters and their clients depend on the legal system to be fair, without any double standards (Sanctuary and WINC). So there are other forces focusing on the education of judges across the nation (Legal Momentum).

But all such battles require resources.

So there are foundations dedicated to sustaining these people entrenched in the movement (Ms. Foundation and Third Wave). Granted, these foundations are fighting their own battles to maintain their funds and resources. And they depend on individuals like us to share our capital.

There are so many ways in which I can engage with this movement. So many ways in which people have engaged with this movement.

Political Literacy

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crisis.

I want our first female president to be different and better than all our previous presidents. Yes, I have higher standards for female leaders. But it’s because I want everyone to see how great a woman can be as a leader. It’s not okay for women to fail and give reasons for their weaknesses! When in the spotlight, they must shine.

At least that’s what I feel—as though all women are out there to prove something to the public, that they must prove their equal footing with men and squash any inklings of doubt based on their gender.

But my biggest desire would be to see the day when a woman can be a president like it’s no big deal—when mediocre women can stand side by side mediocre men in positions of power. In this manner, it’s important that we have a female president in the imminent future. To make it less special, to make it part of the mainstream consciousness: ‘Yes, women can be presidents. So, what?’

I have issues with the way political campaigns are run based on individual candidates and not their respective political parties. Since when has a single person brought about change all on her own? The advent of technology has also made political campaigns that much more manipulative, deceptive and complicated. National politics have become so complicated for the average person to understand while political campaigns have become dependent on provoking simple mob-like behaviors amongst voters. And I can’t help but think it’s all intentional—to keep the public unaware while letting them feel involved.

National role models in this manner don’t matter to me (they only matter in the sense that they can start the process of normalizing our current notions of the extraordinary).  No one person should carry an entire nation’s future on her shoulders much less get the credit for doing so.

All the above criticisms come from my own experience and exposure to politics. I grew up thinking it was cool to be disengaged. Where anything political was deemed boring, annoying and stuck up. When I got into politics and became unable to ignore certain news items, I found myself still unable to read up on my representatives. On top of all that, my reasons for voting for Obama were because I couldn’t vote for McCain. Even though my friends were crazy for Obama and I went to his inauguration and was moved by his speeches, I didn’t know specific things he stood for. I just knew he was more progressive and inspirational and wanted change (whatever that meant). I wasn’t thinking. I was part of a mob.

I’m reading a lot more about politics and exposing myself to different ways of thinking about governing systems. But it still angers me that I have to read so much to even have the tools to be critical of how I am being governed, to think independently from the masses, to think for myself.

Sticky Business

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crises.

After our tea ceremony class at the shelter, the instructor engages in a conversation with one of our clients. The client is looking for work and is having a hard time finding a job she can do. I overhear her say, “Sometimes, I have to ask myself whether I’m earning money to live, or if I’m living to earn money.”

I haven’t figured it out—my relationship with money and how I see myself using it in the future. I feel hopelessly naïve in the face of its power. But I’ve had many encounters with money and the dissonance it can create between two people, much less between people in general.

My best friend of ten years lives in a four story mansion in Seoul, Korea. Growing up, I remember going to her place to sleep-over every weekend and marveling at how she had a driver and a nanny who cut expensive fruits for us to snack on.

It took a while before I mustered up the courage and pride to invited my friend to my home in some forgotten suburb of Seoul. And as we entered our neighborhood, the streets filled with little girls and boys playing with hula-hoops, old men and women lying out in the benches wearing pajamas, teenagers crowded around our corner store for some orange soda slushies, I could feel her tense up.

The blow was when we were in our room speaking quietly because my room had thin walls. My mother entered our room to give us fruit, and my friend’s surprised and awkward reception of this gesture cut deep into my psyche.

Granted, I’m still friends with her and love her to death. But in the abstract (more subconsciously), I resent rich people and excess wealth and money. I  feel anguish over the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States.

And for those whose aim is to close this gap? I wonder if it’s possible to walk the talk, especially when pay inequity exists in the very non-profit organizations fighting for equality. What’s all this fuss and secrecy over people’s pay in these organizations? There is a sense of shame that I feel as an outsider.

I also remember going to a strategic financial planning workshop for non-profits in the place of my boss. I ended up speaking to a finance guy (probably a CFO for a nonprofit) who told me not to get involved in non-profit work—that he had ridden the technology wave, the finance wave, and the non-profit wave. There was nothing to earn anymore in the non-profit venture, at least monetarily. Humanitarian motives and intentions did not cut it.

I left the workshop thinking I’d much rather earn a lot of money to donate than get myself involved in the grittiness of non-profit work (having to worry about money half the time–although something tells me this is not something exclusive to non-profit work). That’s where I saw the need in the movement—a need for money to raise salaries so that people most affected by monetary issues can still participate in the activist work and still afford leisure.

But I think again and wonder about the whole “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” idea. I feel like we need a new way of thinking about money and a new format in which we can challenge the status quo. The non-profit business model isn’t working and sometimes does more to alienate the poor. Who is getting paid and who decides where the money goes and how are those being served being empowered within the structure of a non-profit organization?

I just need to think more about this. Money complicates things.

New York

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crises.

I walk fairly fast. Not like speed walking, but brisk with long strides. You can tell I have someplace to be, a destination that is pulling at me. Except that destination is an illusion that I have made up in my mind. I don’t actually have to be anywhere at any time if I don’t want to be.

And yet, I continue to walk. Past the stores filled with golden hues and ruby tiles, past the cafes filled with laughter and sometimes cigarettes, past the big red sale sign, past the Washington Square Park with the two saxophonists, past the Washington Square Arch with the street dancers and music coming from what seems to be a virginal. I walk past all these things, wishing I had stopped a few steps too late. I’m already past the scene, and can’t bring myself to retrace my steps.

I’m so self-conscious. I’m so fuckin’ aware of how I feel.

There are two aspects of New York that make me feel uncomfortable. Firstly, I hate entering and exiting poor and rich neighborhoods one after another. I hate how you can almost smell how rich someone is here. You wonder if the sales person is judging how much you can afford as soon as you enter a store. I look into huge glass buildings and at the people running on treadmills and wonder what their lives must be like—to possess a gym membership worth a thousand dollars. They are mostly white with even whiter teeth.

And then there are the tourists with their fanny packs and overlapping rolls of fat, the tough guys who lean against store fronts and alleyways smoking a few, the cashier at the corner store who speaks with a Korean accent. And there’s me.

How mercilessly might others shove me in a box as I have everyone else? But I can’t help it. It’s glaring at me—these stock images of the American life and dream that I hate. Who am I? This person who lives on the upper east side of Manhatten, in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother?

There are nuances to everything I see, but it’s just too tempting to ignore all of them here. It’s borderline fascinating and sadistic.

The second issue has to do with my insane desire to be different from everyone else around me. It’s insane because I’m the type of person who marvels at how similar people actually are.

My point is, I hate feeling like an anonymous face in a crowd. I feel like New York defines the people who live there and not the other way around. Granted, it probably feels like that because I’m new here, and I’m trying to make this place feel like home. But the idea of New York keeps poking my ego.

Like when I go to the Museum of Natural History and the guard asks me where I’m from and tosses me a curious look when I say Manhattan. Did he mean to ask me what my ethnicity was?

Or when I say Manhattan and an acquaintance asks for more specifics. I give her the street and avenue as I hope to dear God that she doesn’t know the place. “Oh, there! My grandparents live near there. I love that area of town.” It’s unnerving when so many people know so much about your neighborhood.

I like the feeling of knowing something no one else knows, being somewhere no one else knows, doing things no one else knows. Maybe it’s an inferiority complex.