Life Chapter From Mason Ji
Meet Mason, a member of the Movement. Mason Ji is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and was a White House Ambassador for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and served before at the United Nations. See official documentation of his UN work from the Seychelles Mission to the UN here: https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/MICOnUohXCMItN
Read his take on the next four years, the Movement, and how we can incite change.
"You never know when something would gain momentum and snowball into something much bigger: be hungry for new conversations, put yourself in a position where you might not be too comfortable, experience something you would not have otherwise."
Sometimes I think about how lucky I am. I live in the most powerful and richest country in the world. I grew up around some of the most inspiring and strong individuals in the world. I received a world class secondary education. I have had the privilege to attend some of the best universities in the world and learn from the best. I have been able to travel across the country and across the world to speak with people from different walks of life to hear their stories. I have had the privilege of serving at the United Nations since I was 18 and have had the chance to work for our first African American president. Most of all, I have met and made friends who come from all over the world, who have the most amazing stories to tell. I would trade nothing in the world for the experiences, conversations, and opportunities that I have had.
A bit about me. I attended Yale University to earn my undergraduate degree in global affairs and political science, and I am currently a Master’s student at the University of Oxford studying global governance and diplomacy. It has been an incredible privilege to be able to study at both of these institutions, and was only made possible through the support of others—generous financial aid at Yale and the Rhodes Scholarship for Oxford. I would not be where I am today with the support of others in the community and through the genuine desire of others to develop and nurture talent. For someone like me, coming from a disadvantaged, lower income, and immigrant background, it was through these kinds of opportunities that I saw hope for a better future and a chance to give back to the community that supported me. I was born and raised in the United States to Chinese immigrants, but I learned to speak, read, and write Chinese at a native level. You could say that I’m an amalgamation of two different cultures, two different languages, and two different ways of thinking. I think being able to see the world from two different kinds of perspectives has helped me become a better person. For one, I don’t think I’m so quick to judge others. In other words, first impressions of others do not necessarily determine what I think about others. I think this is a positive for a couple of reasons. The first is, first impressions can often be misleading. The proverbial “judging a book by its cover” is a problem for building relationships. For instance, if I see someone who is very different from myself in physical appearance or initial demeanor, do I automatically treat him or her with a certain attitude or approach? My answer is an emphatic no. Just because someone looks some way or speaks some way is not grounds for immediate judgment. Doing so, I believe, would put me into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes against others. Often, getting to know someone better through conversation and interaction can lead to a deeper impression and appreciation for someone else that is often different from the initial one.
The other reason why I believe the two different kinds of perspectives have helped me is that they have allowed me to be interesting—I can hold up my end of the conversation by telling my stories. Conversations go both ways. If I can have something to offer, something to make someone else interested or think differently about something, then I have planted the initial seeds for deeper interaction, and eventually, hopefully, change in their behaviour in some way (hopefully positive). What I hope to convey through all this description is that a multicultured lens of viewing the world is incredibly beneficial to interacting with others and understanding others’ motivations. What I found working at the UN is, when working with people from vastly different cultures from your own—and there were many of those kinds of people at the UN, I can assure you—the ability to keep an open mind is critical. Keeping an open mind and taking the time to know someone and where they are coming from can be the difference between rallying enough support to pass a major international deal versus rupturing negotiations and ending up with nothing but bitterness and defeat. I don’t mean to be facetious. There were many times when a UN resolution I worked on about nuclear arms or about human rights matters passed only because of the trust between the delegates. We knew exactly what each other were thinking, and we knew that we all had the same goal in mind, just different approaches to getting to that goal. This kind of trust was only achievable through sustained, deep conversations over the course of weeks, months, and years, and it was all about being able to look past how others looked and acted, to really dig deep to find commonality and appreciation for the best in others.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is easy for us to recoil or withdraw from people who are very different from ourselves. I have, however, found that maintaining a multicultural point of view, and being able to respectfully listen to others’ full stories before asking questions helps quite a lot I building that level of trust to work together on something as important as, say, international treaties.
What I am not saying is that all of us necessarily need to come from multicultural backgrounds, or that those who can understand other people necessarily need to be multicultural. What I AM saying is that people should perhaps look into developing a multicultural way of looking at the world, to not bristle at the fact or revelation that someone else thinks or approaches things in drastically different ways from yourself, and to always be thinking about where your culture and another culture could potentially overlap. Actively seeking ways to bridge your worldview with those of someone else’s, or thinking about how someone else’s view can change or broaden your own horizon can be incredibly enriching and could potentially lead to a conversation or conversations that change you in ways that you never thought before. For me, it certainly has led me to places that I never thought before—including the UN—and I encourage you to do the same. We are too often only criticizing others, and in many cases, even find ourselves incapable of seeing the good qualities of someone we disagree with. It is this negative feedback loop that distorts our view and separates us on ideological lines, resulting in gridlock, fragmentation, and antagonism. This antagonism lies at the heart of the political dysfunctionality that exists today. If each and every one of us can take a step back and critically evaluate how we are judging and viewing others, and if every one of us can take the time to slow down and think about ways in which we are SIMILAR not DIFFERENT, whether it be appearance or political view, the entire system of policy, engagement, and indeed, the way we interact with others in general, can be more healthy. When thinking about rerigging the system for fairness, therefore, we need to understand that it starts by encouraging others to think multiculturally and open-mindedly.
Knowing Yourself: It Starts with the Small Conversations
Naturally, people often ask: what was the point in time when everything just “clicked,” when everything came together? How did I put the pieces together and go into diplomacy and public advocacy? When was it that I decided that the well-trodden paths of being an engineer or a doctor, both careers also offering a chance to make an important contribution to society, for people from similar situations, was not going to cut it, that I was going to go on a completely different path, one uncommon among Asian immigrants? The short answer is, there wasn’t one.
For me, it was about understanding who I was and what I was good at, about finding out where I could be of most use. I realized that I was not going to be able to fully utilize my bilingualism to its fullest potential if I pursued a path like medicine or engineering. Sure, those fields are incredibly important and worthwhile, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed other fields of study, but I just did not see my contributions being as significant had I chosen those paths. Granted, in this age of globalization, I would surely be able to use Chinese in most, if not all, potential careers, but having the bilingual advantage is pivotal in foreign affairs and public engagement. It means so much more to be able to converse and connect with other people in their native tongue, to be able to show that I understood their concerns and culture. It created a convenient bridge for deeper conversation. Upon realizing that my bilingualism would allow me to impact more people through public engagement and foreign policy, I decided to pursue that—this was in 11th grade in high school—to see where it would take me. I haven’t looked back since.
I would like to explore a broader point, which is, consider which path you should take is not the same for everyone, nor should it be. People like to emulate others who have been successful. Often, I see and hear people who say, “oh yeah, he did debate and was able to go to a good college or get a good job, so therefore, I should too.” But people are different. Just because something worked for someone else does not mean it would work for you. Focusing on this imitation or emulation, where you just do what someone else did and pray that the successful formula would work a second time is problematic for several reasons.
First is, it does not encourage active self-discovery about what is most important to you. It creates a perpetuating sense that there are only a number of ways to become successful, reducing diversity of opinion and creativity in choosing one’s path in the future. This is one reason why there are so many talented, sharp young individuals who end up choosing consulting. While consulting can teach young people valuable skills in teamwork and collaboration and meeting deadlines, it may not be the best way to maximize a young person’s value added to society. An individual interested in public service and committed to youth education, for example, may be better served in pursuing options that better speak to their interests, rather than following the example of others and take on a job that does not necessarily link with their passions. To be fair, consulting could be an enriching experience, but only for those who are really interested in it. About 60% of my friends go into consulting right out of college, the reason being “because everyone else is, so why not?” The feedback I hear from the vast majority of them is that they feel no purpose to their work, and that they are not making the contribution that they thought they would be making, and that they are questioning their choices, not only for consulting, but for later in their career as well. Falling back on a “default” option just because it worked for someone else does not mean that that is the best option for YOU.
Second is, society suffers from imitation and homogeneity. The shrinkage of supply of young talent in certain industries, especially in public service, is affecting the regular interworkings of our democracy. Young individuals who would otherwise be involved in politics and public engagement are now choosing relatively “safe” careers that insulate them from politics, which is viewed as more unpredictable and mercurial. When this insulation takes place en masse, there becomes a deficit in young talent, especially in certain parts of the country, who are involved in politics and public service. So, when people complain that there is a lack of youth engagement in the political process, it is this trend of insulation and shying away from politics that has roots in “choosing the beaten path” that directly contributes to the low participation among youth. This, complemented with the proliferation of social media and other distracting factors, makes it easy for youth to ignore the political affairs, opening the door for people to hijack the political process. We take it upon ourselves to reshape who we are and what we stand for, and yes, when it comes to trend-setting, each and every one of us has the potential to make a difference. The change does not happen from Washington D.C., from the policymakers. They are representatives for a reason, they are there to think about a vision, to propose and to pass rules for the game that people are to follow to maintain order and promote innovation. The actual practice and proposals, the actual implementation falls on the localities, it falls on the counties, the cities, the neighborhoods. The power, in effect, lies in our hands—if we want to make the change that we envision, it’s not those who just do the talking, it’s actually us, on the ground, in the communities, talking with people we know, to make it happen. Each and every one of us has more influence than we know. An initiative in the local elementary school about arts could grow into a larger project that becomes implemented district wide, state wide, even nationwide. The possibilities are endless.
A personal example. I had grown up around immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world. Those immigrants around me were some of the most inspiring people I have and continue to know. Some were the brains behind the technology I use on a daily basis, some were medical doctors who treated people to keep the community healthy, some were lawyers who worked on a pro bono basis to represent and give a voice to those who could not afford sky high lawyer fees to represent themselves in court. These people showed me what it was like to give your career to the community, to help others succeed and be health, to help others realize their greatest potential. One of the doctors I know who immigrated from Thailand who worked in a small clinic as a family practitioner for lower and low income families once told me that the work he did was so that, when he looked back at his career 20 years later, he’d want to do it over again. What he said after that has stuck with me: “I don’t want to pursue a career that my future self would regret. I want to be able to say to myself that, yes, I did make a difference in someone else’s life. I want to be able to improve someone’s life in some way. We only have one life, what’s more important than celebrating our humanity and helping others achieve their goals and their best?” I have used these reflections as guidance for my work, and encourage those of us who want to make a difference to do the same—we want no regrets. In the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson, “to strive, to seek, and not to fail.”
I had the enormous privilege to learn from the immigrants around me, but one thing I heard again and again was how difficult it was for them to come to the country and start on the path towards to citizenship to make a contribution to American society. In late 2011, I began thinking of ways to make the process a bit easier for people who want to come to the US to establish their roots here. It started as a small project that began as part of my internship with the City of Bellevue. We had five members on our small team at the beginning, and we had trouble defining the scope of our issues. What kinds of immigration did we want to tackle? Was there a specific group of immigrants we wanted to address? What were the substantive issues that we wanted to address? These were all questions that we were grappling with. We decided to start small and listen to the concerns of people within the city to understand what kinds of issues we wanted to talk about. The first town hall meeting we had at the Bellevue City Hall in November 2011 attracted more than a hundred people, which surprised us, given that we did not have very much public outreach. The participants were excited about talking about immigration, and many were engaging with the issues for the first time, and although many were nervous, they still began sharing their stories with us, much to our excitement and surprise. That initial gathering at the Bellevue City Hall on that cold, dark November night sparked some attention among the community. The participants had started to spread word to those they knew about this “interesting project” on immigration. What started out as a small gathering quickly started to build momentum, and other similar talks started to take place in the city and in surrounding cities. We started to realize that the different conversations could be aggregated and collected, to analyze for future action. We figured that the data could someday be used to influence wider policy initiatives. We started to notice, over time, that one issue occurred again and again, and that was the legal immigration process and the cumbersome process for gaining visas to enter the US. Many voiced the opinion that even in legal channels, the wait for even having a chance to apply for a visa, much less actually applying for a visa, was weeks or even months on end. Not only was this emotionally and mentally taxing on many people, it adversely affected their ability to find work in the US, because companies were reluctant to hire people who would struggle to find a visa, and in their own country should they not be successful in their application, because they had to wait in limbo for several months and employers were uncertain about their status.
We thought that this visa wait time issue was something that we could probably tackle. By then, we had already been conducting community dialogues for about 8 months, and had data from more than 2000 immigrants from across Washington state. This data provided a solid backing for making a case to policymakers and decision-makers who might have a chance at changing the way wait times worked. During the summer of 2012, I happened to be in China visiting relatives, and had a chance to go to the American embassy. I had spoken with some of the officials there beforehand about this visa wait time problem and had presented the evidence. When I visited the embassy, I actually had a chance to talk with the ambassador’s chief of staff, who had seen the evidence and was intrigued about the stories behind what people were saying. That formed the beginnings of a positive dialogue between the small team that came together in 2011 to talk about immigration and the US Ambassador to China’s team about visa wait times. In the end, the policy was changed: visa wait times for China decreased from months to less than a week, a victory for our efforts.
Today, the small effort has become a full-blown non-profit with a team of dedicated students and staff working on broader issues related to immigration, to tackle larger, more expansive policy change, now that the momentum has been created in the community. The organization, called American Immigration Forums, is now ready to take flight and expand its influence nationally to positively influence the tough debates on immigration, to inject some positive energy and community voice into the process.
There are a couple of lessons behind the story of American Immigration Forum and its successful influence on visa wait time policy in China. The first is, by putting myself out there and floating the idea to other people, by questioning why we were not talking about how we can approach immigration differently—by harnessing community power—change was able to eventually be affected. Had I not actually put myself out of my comfort zone and approached others in the city to discuss this idea for immigration dialogue, nothing would have happened. It is this mentality of questioning and critically examining, which I mentioned earlier, the status quo that allowed the project to take off. I did not know what kinds of opportunities may present themselves, but I knew that if I put myself out there, SOME opportunity will come, and I was ready to seize it. When the opportunity to speak with the officials at the embassy came, I was ready to go. Second is, I was not afraid of starting small. The project started very small, with no public attention or funding, as a meeting between a group of friends at a publicly available conference room at the city hall. Despite its humble beginnings, the project was able to take flight into something more. It was the determination to work through hard times—in our case, it was not having funding to book venues for meetings, struggling to come up with issues that were within our reach, doubts that we would even be able to do anything, and low morale during the initial months when it seemed that the team was fighting as to what the agenda should be—that allowed us to ultimately start a movement that has had some sticking power within the community. Third is, I found people who were like-minded to work with, people whom I could disagree vehemently with on the approaches that we should take but whom I know have my back and have the same vision as I do. I found this part to be key. Without the wonderful teammates I worked with, the movement would not have taken part for sure.
When we are talking about how to change the system of public engagement and the system by which young people engage with the political process, therefore, I think it lies in a shift in mentality. It lies in understanding that change does not happen because there are certain leaders who make it happen, it happens because we all work together to achieve that same vision. In the American Immigration Forums example, even if I had had a vision at the beginning for some kind of specific policy change, that vision would have gone nowhere had the community not come together and offer its opinions on the topics. It was because of the outcry and the voices previously not heard, and people coming together that the movement was able to coalesce into something greater. Rerigging the system of engagement, thus, comes from bringing people together to new visions to achieve new goals, and it needs to come from not just one person, but from networks of young people, who are frustrated with the system, who want to change the system, who want to shape a country that is tolerant and welcoming for all. It starts with each and every one of us, and it starts by us reaching out to our friends to help us achieve that vision and passion that drives us forward.
Here, I’d like to illustrate this idea that putting yourself out there leads to unexpected opportunities in a bit more detail. In 2015, I applied for an internship with the White House, for the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The work I did for immigration and visa wait time turned out to be a meaningful and powerful signal of my willingness to engage in community outreach, and a big reason why I was offered the internship. The internship allowed me to do more with the same issues, it allowed me to tackle the same problems of immigration from a national standpoint, to look critically at the issues I was grappling with on a non-profit basis through a governmental and governance lens. To me, that was an eye-opening experience, not only looking at the same issues that I had be grappling with for a couple of years, but by looking at the unique challenges that government faced and the obstacles that slowed down change. From a non-profit or non-governmental perspective, these challenges, such as coalescing political will or negotiating funding, were not big concerns, when, in reality, they could really be instrumental in swaying the decision-making process one way or another. To me, it was a great way to get a fuller and more nuanced view on the problems of immigration, and why the issue is so systematically difficult to address—it seemed like a natural transition of positions for me, from the non-profit to the government, than I had expected. In the end, after the internship, I was allowed to stay on as an ambassador for the Initiative, working to continue engaging the community, informing community members about federal initiatives, and collecting feedback and data from community members to drive future policy initiatives. In many respects, it was the same work I was doing through American Immigration Forums, just from a different perspective and potentially with bigger policy impacts.
So, a small idea among friends to talk about immigration and to think about ways to get other people to also talk about immigration became something much more. For me, it became an incredible opportunity to delve into the issue more and understand it from all points of view. It became a foray for me to take steps into a position that had a chance of affecting change at a bigger level. A small project snowballed into something I would have never dreamed about when I sat in that conference room in city hall in 2011. It became an amazing way for me to give back to the community and to use my skills to their fullest potential. Surely, I was lucky. I was lucky that people in the community were willing to share their stories about their immigration experience, and I was lucky that people in government were interested in those stories that people told. I was lucky that someone was willing to take a chance on me and offer me a chance to utilize my past experience to do something and try to make a difference. But it was because I put myself in a position to be lucky that I was able to get this string of activities and experiences. It was only one of many different paths that I could have taken—and some could have been just as or even more exciting than the one I took. I was ready for an opportunity to show up and jump on it should one present itself, and I was ready to start over and look for a new one should the one I jumped on not work out. It is this trial and error, as well as the tenacity to stick to something long enough to see if it will work out, that one must do to find an opportunity that does lead to something more. A balance between grit to stick to it and the tenacity to start something new is key.
The Story Behind the Person Matters
People have stories about how they got to the place they are, about what has shaped them into who they are today, and the stories aren’t always what one might expect. Behind the seemingly monolithic wall of accomplishments that people effortlessly accomplish is a long, long list of failures and rejections. Too often do people fall into the problematic territory of thinking that only people who can accomplish everything they want to easily can change the world, and that regular people do not have a chance. Oftentimes, people get discouraged and withdraw into themselves, opting not to get engaged at all. This is dangerous, and it’s happening much more often that one may think. As people, we compare ourselves to others, and, instead of getting energized and inspired, more often than not, the exact opposite happens. The thinking process goes something like this: “I’m not smart enough and not accomplished enough. I can never get there. Why should I even try anyways?”
The truth is, behind the reports of success are stories of struggle that people often keep to themselves. Everyone can make a difference, big or small. And keeping at it is really what matters the most, and eventually, acknowledgments will come. The question then becomes, “how do I get these opportunities? What would be the reason that someone, perhaps an employer or otherwise, wants to engage with me or hire me?” These kinds of questions are especially salient and valid in the face of evidence that it is becoming harder and harder for youth to find employment after completing college or high school or some other form of education. The data has shown, for instance, that many companies are requiring five years of experience for entry level jobs, which makes it difficult for many youth to find employment and explore career options. My answer is to put oneself in a position to receive such opportunities for engagement and experience. What I mean by this is to attend as many events or talks that would maximize your opportunities to meet someone who might be looking for someone to do some work, and not just to passively attend, but also to positively engage, to ask questions about why things are, to be curious about how you can contribute or change the way things are. This is not only the mentality needed to obtain a position, but it is crucially the mentality people need to adopt to change the system, to disrupt the system. What is needed is for people on a wider scale to continue questioning why things are the way they are, why have we been doing things like this, and whether there is anything that we could do to make things easier or run more smoothly. These are precisely the skills and mindset that employers are looking for, and are, simultaneously the mindset that a changemaker in the community and in politics need. So, preparing oneself for the work force, preparing to be a good, active, and valuable employee at a company simultaneously prepares you to make a difference. This practice of putting yourself out there and questioning practices to think of new ways to solve problems might not get you a specific position you are looking for, but it will result in opportunities for SOME position that could be valuable. Opportunities are for those who are ready, and putting yourself in a position to jump on those opportunities not only puts you ahead for jobs, but also for making a difference as well.
So much of what I do stems from my upbringing. I was raised in a relatively unconventional family. My parents immigrated from China in search of a better life in the US, and I was born in the US. Growing up in the States wasn’t easy, however. My father returned to China when I was two. This was in the early 1990s, when it wasn’t so easy for immigrants to obtain a professional job. Being physicians by education and training, my parents had wanted to establish themselves as physicians in the US as well, to provide care in America and earn a stable income. But political ideologies still played big roles in society at the time—it was not long after the end of the Cold War that my parents immigrated, and the ideological divisions between the US and China were still salient and very fresh in people’s memories. The US, moreover, did not recognize, and continues to not recognize, the higher education degrees of people from nationalities outside the traditional Western economies and cultures (this continues to be a huge problem confronting new immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world). Not only was lengthy retraining required, in which my parents were forced to start essentially from scratch and take the same courses they took in medical school all over again, and do the residence training all over again, despite being skilled and respected doctors already before they immigrated. But immigrants like my parents, especially those early immigrants, were ones who had struggled to immigrate to the US, and so resigned themselves to enduring the process.
Discrimination, conscious or unconscious, was still present at the time my parents were undertaking retraining. My father, who was by many measures a very qualified doctor and was one of the rising young stars in neurosurgery in China, was denied his residency in the US three times in a row, despite passing his examinations and possessed enough medical knowledge and expression in English to become a doctor in the US. As someone who was proud of his skills and his practice, at a certain point, enough was enough, and he decided to return to China to practice, leaving behind my mother in the States to fend for herself and take care of my sister and me. Life was not easy. My father, given the distance and the difficulty of starting back in China, was not able to support our family in the US very much. Although the early reason for the lack of support was a difficulty of making money, distance drifts people apart, and we grew used to not having financial support from him even if his business and practice were going well in China. Meanwhile, in the States, we had to figure out a way to survive. My mother struggled with English, and worked three jobs simultaneously to keep the household afloat. Looking after ourselves and dealing with the harsh realities that confront low income families became a constant feature of life. In two words: life sucked.
As I have said before, behind every person who seems “successful” is a tortuous story of struggle and rejection. By just looking at the public profiles of accomplishments, it may seem that people who have been able to make a do something are superhumans, are people who are not like the rest of us. That is simply not true. In my case, I had to struggle throughout childhood with a fractured family, with the reality of coming back to a freezing home, with my identity, with whether or not I would even be able to climb out of the quagmire that is financial struggle that plague so many low income families…Yet I’m here today. I grew tired of questioning why life was so tough and I rejected that “fate” condemned me to a life of muddling through without financial security. I saw that with education, I could give myself the opportunities to move towards a future in which I was in command, and I could live the way I wanted to, without having to worry every day about whether or not I could afford heating. So, I poured my heart and soul into my studies. I turned to public libraries for resources—they contained many, many books, they were warm, and every week, they had volunteers who helped students with homework. These volunteers, who were local community college professors and college students, and the free and available resources that the libraries provided, were pivotal for me. I felt like a sponge, eagerly trying to absorb everything, trying to learn everything that I could.
Before I knew it, I was starting to excel, and I became confident that I could take “destiny” into my own hands and shape it. I was nurtured by the community, and that is one the biggest reasons why I have been giving back—to help students in similar situations take their life into their own hands.
What I hope to convey is this: it is not the struggles and the problems that define you, you define the problems. If you are determined to turn life around, if you decide to take things into your own hands to change the present situation, whether in the family or in the community, that positive force and drive to do something will ultimately pay off in the end. Instead of passively complaining and regretting why life is so hard, why life seems unfair, you are actively engaging in activity to CHANGE it, to SHAPE it to become one that matches your vision. And it starts small, it starts local, it starts with the most pressing challenges that face you. But it starts somewhere. Things do not change if you don’t take the initiative to change them.
Stories like my parents’ are by no means rare. When we are talking about contentious issues like immigration, both legal and illegal, we must consider the stories of those who are the subjects to those laws: they are, in many cases, skilled individuals who wish to make a contribution to the advancement of American society, they are people, like my parents, who come to the States in search of a better life. Very few, I can say, are rapists or murderers. I’m not going to make broad, sweeping generalizations about immigrants without evidence.
As a society, we have come far. In many states, there are now explicit laws outlawing racial discrimination in the hiring process, and many have laws that respect and uphold people’s right to choose and sexual orientation. Compared to the US society that my parents faced when they arrived here in the 90s, our country today offers a different magnitude of options for advancement and inclusiveness. Yet, we still have much work ahead of us. Our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the highest number of gun violence and school shootings, gender discrimination in the workplace is still a reality, and certain minority groups are still at a large disadvantage and targeted for the color of their skin.
Upbringings color our perception of others, and we form potentially skewed opinions of others based on initial impressions. Although we are taught not to do so in elementary school, too often, we “judge a book by its cover.” A case in point. I often get the privilege to visit high schools and community centers to speak with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many from torn families, and who, in many cases, lag behind in their education attainment for their age group.
Foreign Policy: Why Should We Care?
International affairs for young people today is a tricky territory. International relations can often seem to be distant from our daily lives. “Why should I care about the plight of someone in another part of the world when I’m struggling to get by here in the US? Wouldn’t it be better for us to develop in the US and prioritize what we do in this country rather than investing valuable resources to help someone abroad who I can’t touch or speak to?” These are the kinds of comments and opinions I hear when I go to speak with students and young people in the community about international affairs.
To an extent, these students are right. The suffering of people elsewhere in the world does not relate to our lives in a direct manner on a daily basis. Although we receive news and information every day about the plights of others suffering from natural disasters or from oppressive governments abroad, we can easily divert our attention elsewhere, to youtube or facebook, where videos of dancing cats or singing dogs occupy our time. It is easy to ignore, and perhaps, more accurately, it is the sensory overload made possible through 24 hour news and social media.
What I would like to say is, international affairs issues DO have an impact on our lives, and in a direct manner, albeit a subtle one. And no, it is not just about our compassion for others that I am talking about. I’m talking about the impacts that each and every one of us can feel and see. Let me give you an example. People buy groceries to live, but so much of those groceries are imported—poultry, eggs, or vegetables—from other countries. Now imagine that a conflict in another country restricts our access to vegetable imports. By the laws of supply and demand, a lower supply of vegetables means that prices increase, which could have real and marked impacts on the way people eat and live. Unconvinced? Here’s another example. Most people in the US drive, right? What would happen to people’s costs should a restriction of oil exports abroad, say through the Straits of Hormuz in Iran, occur? Although the US does have reserves of oil, but offshore drilling for oil will for sure raise huge concerns for the environment and impacts on global oil prices—again, by the laws of supply and demand, oil prices increase with lower supply—will surely make oil more expensive for the average American. Imagine having to shell out an extra $30 to $40 for gas every week. That is substantial. Even more saliently, the ban on Muslim immigrants that was signed into action from executive action resulted in uproar across the country, affecting thousands of people nationwide. Many people knew a friend from or related to someone else from the Middle East—most are one or two degrees of separation away from someone directly affected by the policy. Foreign policy decisions can directly affect you or those around you. The point here is that foreign events do have an impact on our lives in very tangible ways. There are too many examples that I could point to; the world is just too interconnected and globalized today.
I would like to make a case for empathy, however. If improving our own conditions was not motivation enough to start addressing and thinking about international issues, then how about a basic sense of human dignity? We live in the most powerful country in the world, our pressure to policymakers to do something about the horrific situation in the Middle East, to search for an effective solution to the South China Sea, for instance, could have a real and tangible impact on the balance and stability of the world. As citizens in a global era, we are all tasked with the responsibility, as members of the most sophisticated and powerful country in the world. Put yourself in others’ shoes, what would you be thinking about had your parents or siblings been subject to torture? It is sobering to think about others’ plight and our own privilege when we are able to empathize and try to understand. I encourage you to take a step back to critically think about your humanity—it doesn’t mean that you have to go and work for the Peace Corps (though it is an enriching experience, I encourage that), but it could be as simple as an email to your senator or to your congressman expressing your concerns. In aggregate, with enough emails from people across the districts and states, it will make a splash and an impact.
The case I would like to make is, we need to rerig the way young people think about and influence the way we think about foreign affairs, and not just in simple ways like “let’s protest against the government for its Middle East policy” or march in streets, but in more substantive and long-term ways, like lobbying Congress or setting up exchanges to educate people about cultures and stories in ways we haven’t before. It seems to me that too much of the attention in terms of protesting is focused on demonstrating, and not enough thought has been put into working to bring about the positive change in people’s lives—the substantive change—that people desperately need. Trump was elected because people were angry about the decline in their standard of living. If these concerns are not actively addressed, the root of the problems are being ignored, and that is problematic.
Working within the agencies seems to be a more sustainable and non-violent way of resisting. I think it may be more effective as well, because it is easier to spread wide, and can more easily engage a larger number of people who would be afraid or hesitant about physically joining a protest.
I am a believer in the fact that the people working on the ground in the agencies are good, hard-working folks who are trying to support their families. Within the first few days of the Trump presidency, we have seen serious divisions that have rocked the nation’s government to its core. Within the government bureaucracy and apparatus, reflecting the general sentiments of the population, are deeply divided on the new administration’s policies, and many are deeply troubled by the direction that the nation’s policymaking is going. We need to understand the election of a populist candidate who has controversial and problematic views about the nation’s future is by no means a mandate, and the resistance he faces within government and from the population is only going to increase, as has been the case with every US president in history. Capitalizing upon this resistance, this fear, and this frustration that so many in the general US populace is important for rerigging the system and protecting advances and gains that the nation has had over the past years. The path forward, I think, needs to be ushered through productive engagement with people working in the agencies and in the government on the local levels and through the bureaucracies who do not see eye-to-eye with the proposed vision of the US that the administration is advocating for. With the country deeply divided and many people upset, change and protection of values and advances needs to be both endogenous and exogenous (needs to come both from external and internal forces). Currently, external factors have proven to be an ignition point. Millions of people marched across the world the day after Trump’s inauguration to protest Trump’s misogynistic and bigoted claims was a remarkable showing of external pressure. Similarly, the protests across the country and across the world following the executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigration from seven Muslim majority countries were also testament to political energy and people coming together to resist a damaging and potentially unlawful policy. These kinds of protests and resistance efforts are key to show policymakers the general population’s views and frustrations, putting immense pressure on officials to take action to rectify policy errors. However, this kind of resistance have less long-term impacts than short-term sensations. People tend to look towards new things, and even a successful protest fades in people’s minds if it is not followed up on through deeper and sustained engagement on those issues. For instance, if women’s issues are not further advocated for or if they are not followed up on the local or national level through long-term advocacy, the impact of the marches around the world might not have as large an impact as wanted, simply because many people have moved on, or something else comes up. Given the age of information overload today, continued exposure is absolutely necessary to maintain salience and interest, and eventually substantive change, on those issues. This is where internal resistance and internal efforts come into play, and internal factors have been somewhat lacking by comparison.
Making a Case for Narrative
One of the oft-overlooked elements in international relations or in policy at large is narrative. Too often, narratives are strategically used in news to endorse or criticize a policy, but I think it should actually be the other way around—policies should be driven by people’s unique stories.
On the flip side, I think narratives can be a powerful tool for pushing forward policies advocacy. Imagine if, a student lobby group had the individual stories and letters from thousands of people, rather than just faceless “data,” and presented it to a policymaker from that policymaker’s constituency. It is so much more difficult for a policymaker to ignore or reject that piece of evidence, because so much of people’s personal side and elements are embedded within the document. Advocacy is important, but so is the WAY in which that advocacy is conducted. What we have seen is that the current approach of using logic and data has its limitations. Emotions matter to people’s decision-making process, and narratives can present that crucial emotional element to advocacy that is currently missing from public advocacy process. So much effort is put into pushing against the system from the outside to raise awareness, but not enough efforts have been put reforming from the inside for long-term change. The public servants working on the ground in the agencies have the capacity to change the every day practice of policies, they are the vehicles of implementation. There is so much variation and there is so much room for interpretation, even without an explicit change in policy. The variable nature of implementation and the variance in implementation could be a double edged sword. On the one hand, flexibility allows for implementation to change in a positive direction to benefit the community made possible by community dialogue. So, when a policy is passed that is antithetical towards public opinion, it allows for a means to struggle from within, allowing agencies to become the vehicle for reform and resistance. On the other hand, this could apply to policies both good and bad. It could mean that, with a change in political climate, even a good policy that had been in followed and implemented for a long time could be changed, because there is so much room and flexibility for implementation. What we need to do, then, is to really focus on sustained efforts to promote a positive direction for policy, and to not get complacent on the achievements and victories that have already been realized, because there may be room for reversal should the political tides change. Engaging in the internal factors, working with those who are working on the ground in the agencies, is thus key towards long term policy accountability and resisting policies that are unreasonable or do not reflect real community interests. One could think about the process of engagement, resistance, and accountability as a two step process. The first step of the process is the external one. Large, visible demonstrations and protests can be extremely effective in drawing attention to the issue, to start the conversations and dialogues for policy change. The second step is to turn that momentum and energy into the catalyst for long term discussion and enforcement, to make sure that the attention does not die out, and that the frustration does not dissipate. The ultimate goal is to be able to implement policies that are reflective of the objectives and energy that were achieved through the public demonstration. The first step refers to the short term, and the second step refers to the long term, but two are intricately interlinked, and especially the second step is crucial for making policy happen. When we are thinking about how to reform the political system, harnessing the power of the second step—engaging in the long term dialogue—is what we all need to do, because it is something that is largely missing from the process as of the present.
Escalating Your Involvement
What does escalating your involvement look like? Sure, it means reaching out to elected officials, but it also means getting involved in the community about foreign policy issues and domestic issues. Personally, I believe that the impacts that we have working on the ground have a pronounced impact. No matter what kind of policy gets passed, its implementation is going to be up to the local level. I am convinced that across the country there are good people who are working in the agencies, in government, in corporations that pledge to be responsible and accountable, who are dedicated to advancing policy and projects that are equitable and fair for all people. Identifying and working with these people, I think, is also part of the resistance to the current injustices, and is fundamental towards rerigging the system again. To be sure, such a resistance is not glamorous. It is about working day in, day out on the tough issues like poverty and immigration, and working with different kinds of people from all walks of life, to find solutions that would actually address the problems people face.
The most important thing to know is that escalating your involvement does not mean that you necessarily need to be doing policy advocacy or community engagement. It means that you are engaging in thoughtful conversation with others on areas that interest you with purpose. What I mean by purpose is that you are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to expand that conversation into something else, whether it be an internship, a job, a non-profit activity, or even just another conversation. For instance, you could be talking to someone about computer science, about the future of the computing industry and what Artificial Intelligence (AI) could mean. Perhaps that conversation could lead to another one about the ethics of AI and how it could impact future society, and possibly more on informing others in the industry about how AI ethics should be looked at—instead of just pursuing what is “possible,” there should also be considerations for whether it not it “should” be done. Acting upon this desire to inform others, moreover, could then form the basis for a more sustained movement within the industry and could one day affect policies on AI, which could greatly impact the industry in one way or another. It is this kind of thinking and acting, always looking to see if you could do something more than just routine, shallow conversation. I think we were all born with the ability to do more than just that. It is about having faith in your ability to influence and inspire others. I would like to emphasize here that you don’t have to be a charismatic speaker or even like to speak publicly to be inspirational to others. Some of the most formidable and more remarkable people I know are soft-spoken, preferring to listen and offer their opinions every now and then. They are incredibly effective. You do need to possess one thing, however, and that is to have a dream or to have a goal. If you are driven by something and you can demonstrate it to others, then you have a winning recipe for eventual success.
A Brief Conclusion: More like a “Launching Off”
We all have our own stories, we all have unique and interesting experiences to share. What is important is being able to share those intriguing parts and aspects of our lives with each other. The problems that we face today in the political system, in international affairs, and even in our personal relations, step from a lack of sharing. Without effectively sharing these stories, it is harder for us to connect with others and harder for us to be able to build empathy. Importantly, it is about putting yourself out there, to be the first to take the initiative to share your story and get the conversations started. That’s what I have been doing. By sharing with others what I experienced and what I learned growing up as an immigrant in the US, by sharing with others what I valued as important, I was able to attract others’ interests and start dialogues that turned into something more. For me, it was those small, seemingly insignificant, conversations that ended being the catalysts for greater advocacy, for enabling and spreading an idea more broadly. I didn’t know which exact conversation would become catalytic, and honestly, I wasn’t concerned which exact one was. What I was concerned with was putting my all into EVERY conversation, because one of those conversations could yield something more. That was exactly what happened. One conversation about immigration and about someone’s journey turned into two, into four…eventually into hundreds of thousands across the state and country. You never know when something would gain momentum and snowball into something much bigger.
I encourage you to do the same—be hungry for new conversations, put yourself in a position where you might not be too comfortable, experience something you would not have otherwise. It is through moments of vulnerability that we discover ourselves and discover how we can make a contribution. In order to achieve the goal of rerigging and reshaping the system for young people to get involved in politics and public engagement, each and every one of us needs to muster the courage to put ourselves out there to start conversations. Only then can we start to create a culture of proactive engagement among young people and bring ourselves a step closer to becoming a new force for shaping politics and shaping the future of our country.