Juliet Shen and Vanessa Teck are two of the OCA interns who were terminated in 2013 for openly criticizing a major sponsor. Both identifying as activists and feminists in their early 20’s, they have shared experiences of isolation, pain, and fear. Since then, Juliet and Vanessa have begun a transformative journey to better understand how to root their movements in love.
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It’s been a rough year of self-reflection and unexpected turns, but I like to think that I’ve grown as a person and an activist. After being fired, I was the brunt of jokes and anonymous emails about how irrational and stupid I was, how I’d never find a place in the APIA community again, and how my career in DC was over. My idealistic bubble was popped — everything was reduced to a form letter of termination read in an empty room. I was defeated, and isolated myself in my college campus determined to not return to a community that cut us out without remorse.
After OCA, it became second nature to avoid certain individuals and organizations. This was perhaps unnecessary, but my discomfort was real. It can be difficult navigating the circuits of Asian America when you’ve pissed off one of the biggest organizations. I linked up with Suey Park as a friend and collaborator over our shared experience of being booted from nonprofits in the APIA community. It felt good to be angry. I was powerful again after being stripped of my autonomy and dignity, and stepped up to the mantle of “Juliet Shen – Feminist, Blogger, and Activist”. I was excited to be relevant again as a web warrior fighting for representation and justice. Of course, you know how that story ends.
Sometimes it’s hard to love a movement when it never loves back. The expectations for feminists and activists often don’t leave room for being human. I’ve come to find that most people who meet me for the first time have this idea of me as a “militant, man-hating, white-man worshiper”. This year, I joined a sorority and I started dating again. Somehow, these choices — choices that I made for myself and choices that make me happy — have dissolved friendships and alliances in my life. It was easier to grow a thick skin and become as bitter and callous as people wanted to believe I was. But ultimately, we can’t let peoples expectations of us limit and harden our hearts; that is the opposite of what activism should do.
I did come close to quitting. I wanted to experience life as a “normal” 21 year old and go out, have fun, and not worry. I almost didn’t renew Fascinasians’ domain and toyed with the idea of letting it fade away peacefully. I chose a year of self-care and self-love because activism was tainted with reluctance and pain. I was never radical enough, but always too radical for someone. I wasn’t angry enough, but my anger intimidated and alienated others. I didn’t feel good enough for anyone and struggled to find motivation to do anything at all.
Both OCA and Suey Park taught me the dangers of rooting my ideology in anger. And yet, this year has been cathartic. During theTwitter Clusterfuck of 2014, one particular hashtag appeared: #BuildDontBurn. That is where I learned what real community and humility meant. If OCA was the bad breakup it felt like, this was coming home to family. That’s what I always thought activism was supposed to be: individuals coming together and loving each other because they shared a dream that a better world was possible. The guidance and love from the people behind #BuildDontBurn reshaped my perspectives on ego, credibility, community, and organizing. I didn’t have to be “good enough” for anyone — I just had to act because there was injustice and discrimination in the world.
Ultimately, it is a privilege to not be political. Instead, I am reimagining activism in a positive, loving way. Tanzila Ahmed, an organizer and blogger, wrote about love as a radical tool. This year, I let myself be soft. I learned to love in more powerful and constructive ways. Love is transformative in all of its many forms, from platonic to romantic to revolutionary. The love and encouragement from OCA’s Class of 2013 Interns (shoutout to the McMansion!) and my mentors (have y’all read Reappropriate?) keeps me going today. And what of OCA? Well, I maintain that they were the spark that lit my fire…and Summer 2013 won’t be the thing that puts it out.
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After my termination from OCA last year, I lost myself. I began the summer as a fresh graduate with stars in my eyes, hoping that my experience in our nation’s Capitol would equip me with the tools to serve my community. Yet, after a harsh termination, the world scared me. I received anonymous messages telling me that it would be impossible for me to find a career within the APIA advocacy community, the space that I called my home for so long. I was told that I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. There was no room for dialogue, for I already felt the labels of a failed activist and student bearing huge weights on my shoulder. I loved the movement, but I felt as though it was no longer loving me back.
As a result, I entered my Masters program with angry eyes and a hardened soul. I knew that it would take a toll on me; my time, my health, and my overall well-being. Yet, despite multiple warnings from well-intentioned mentors about entering the ivory tower, I could have never prepared myself for the psychological train wreck that I experienced throughout this first year.I felt the need to prove myself, to prove that I belonged in a space deemed so illustrious by family members who have been taught that academia is the only road to success and by mentors who have equated academic achievement to overcoming institutional barriers. I constantly feared, with each new day in my program, that someone would call me out as a fraud. I worried that, despite my various involvements and successes, my work would never be seen as good enough, that I would never be seen as graduate material. That before I spoke in class, I had to spend precious time developing articulate statements, so that when I said them out loud, I was perceived as credible and qualified. I sat and stared at blank pages as I attempted to write my papers, worried that my inadequacies would appear the moment that I began typing. That opportunities to work with faculty members would come with risks of a larger and more public community discovering my incompetence and termination.
I never afforded myself the opportunity to fully deconstruct how the summer quaked my entire being. I went through a stage of coldness, focused solely on achieving and burying the pain that I felt each quarter, as if ignoring the pain would cause my questioning to go away. I was often told that my kindness and conscientiousness were weaknesses… that if I remained soft, I would not be able to shape others. I lost the power of my narrative and in doing so, I forgot how to love. It was not until I was invited to speak on a panel with Suey Park that I began to realize how much I was hurting… and how much of myself that I had lost. As an individual who identifies as an advocate and activist right down to my core, I spent more time resisting the system, rather than transforming it. I forgot that as a Cambodian American feminist and activist in Higher Education and Student Affairs… my presence in itself was already resistance.
What if instead… we transformed our idea of activism into being soft? If it were about loving deeper, instead of fighting harder? If it were about creating transformative change through soulful relationships, rather than tearing each other down? What if activism was less about expertise, but focused more on cultivating a space where mistakes could be considered a form of resistance? Imagine activism as a living room in which we can all feel welcomed and at home, hearts warmed and united by our common struggles, rather than a process of putting on armor and preparing for war.
That’s not to say that protest organizing is not needed, but despite many activists who claim to fight for justice, we forget to be inclusive and place one another on a pedestal. We have expectations of others that we cannot even achieve ourselves. Nothing about that is visionary; it’s just a remix of the oppressive systems we want to transform in the first place. By claiming to be an expert in anything, we remove the ability of ourselves and others to learn and grow together. We are our own gatekeepers. It was remarkably easy to disconnect myself from the reality and challenges of crafting an inclusive climate, excused by the overshadowing of my anger, but by recognizing that my lived experiences are only one of many that have the potential to create change, I begin to decolonize what I have learned and transformatively humanize myself and others.
Since then, I have found love within the stories I have had the privilege of hearing. I found love in the struggles from fellow womxn of color, the achievements from student activists, the frustrations from other graduate students drowning in debt, and the clarity from those who have been told that they matter. Although I end this piece still fearful, I am thankful for the family that I have gained along the way. From the cutest OCA intern class ever to an incredible partner who pushes me to be fierce and proudly introduces me as a feminist, I no longer feel lost or alone. I am embraced by those in my life who continue to love me, whether I am “radical” enough or not, “critical” enough or not, “activist” enough or not.
I continue to struggle and am hopeful that I will continue to struggle because it will mean that I am still attempting to create my own space founded upon love.
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You can find Juliet at her blog, Fascinasians, a website dedicated to curating news and experiences about and from the Asian Pacific Islander American community. To learn more about Vanessa, check out Project Ava, a social justice media company, dedicated to sharing meaningful stories. Currently, Juliet and Vanessa serve as the Co-Chairs for the Coalition of API Americans Collaborating Together to Unite the Southwest (CAACTUS).