On Chasing Freedom: My 2017 Lavender Graduation Speech
*Scroll down for the transcript*
I had the privilege of speaking at this year’s Lavender Graduation at UC Berkeley. As a young alumni speaker (at what age do I become a regular alumni though?), I was asked to “reflect on what you have learned since leaving Cal and if LGBTQ+ life here prepped you for what you are experiencing beyond Cal.”
This speaking opportunity meant a lot to me. I had stood on the same stage 6 years ago, where I made a series of promises to my community and our movement as I was graduating. It felt as though I was being asked to report back on how I did on my promises, and to share stories of my adventure with folks back home.
So what have I learned since leaving Cal? I spent 3 weeks thinking about what to say. I wrote and rewrote my speech multiple times, trying to find the right words, the right lessons, the right stories. I watched famous people’s commencement speeches and Ted Talks to get inspiration. “Follow your passion” “Take risks” “Go out there and change the world” — none of these messages resonated with me. Begrudgingly, I did what I knew I had to do: actually reflecting on my own experiences. Gah.
Preparing for this speech was way more frustrating, anxiety-inducing, painful, and healing than I had imagined when I enthusiastically agreed to speak. It took a lot of introspection and reflection to get clarity on experiences that I hadn’t yet named or accepted.
I practiced the speech nervously walking around my apartment, standing over the kitchen counter, on MUNI, inside of a food truck (thank you Sarap Shop team for letting me rehearse while ya’ll rolled lumpias).
I wanted my speech to do a couple of things: 1) I wanted to share my mistakes so folks could make smarter choices and 2) I wanted to help alleviate the sense of guilt some folks may feel for pursuing or not pursuing a certain career path. I have no idea if I achieved these goals, but in preparing to achieve them, I was able to internalize the lessons I was trying to preach. As some say, “you teach what you need to learn.” Touché.
Days leading up to the speech, I started to criticize myself for accepting the opportunity. Why should my story be told? There are so many other incredible folks whose voices are rarely heard, voices I could have uplifted by not taking up more space. Why should a corporate sell-out East Asian cis-woman have a platform to speak!? Cue unproductive, soul-crushing, self-aggrandizing guilt. I was embarrassed for not having thought of this before. FUCK! Having allies give up space to allow for more marginalized voices to be heard — this is what I preach all the effing time and yet I took this opportunity to tell my story. *facepalm*
So I didn’t take this opportunity for granted. To be able to speak in front of some of the most radical, forward-thinking, ferocious, and fearless students… this was such an honor and I was seriously humbled.
Ok, so how did it go? Let me set the stage here.
It was a completely sold out event with a full waitlist. There were more than 200 people registered (30% of whom identified as gender non-conforming. How amazing is that?!) — a record for Lavender Graduation in its 17 year history. I got there early and greeted students as they took their seats. It was heartwarming to see so many queer students excited to celebrate their accomplishments and their peers cheering them on.
As someone guilty of not paying a ton of attention to campus politics, I had no idea why the Dean of Students who gave the opening remarks failed to capture the audience’s attention. People talked over his speech, laughed on the side, some left the room. The room was distracted, unsettled. I kept quiet and tried to pay my full attention to the speaker, who, before the ceremony began, had shown me his thoughtfully prepared notes. Truthfully, I felt bad for him.
After he took his seat, something wild (but not surprising) happened. A student came up to the podium and hijacked the mic. They said the Dean, who had historically failed to serve the students’ needs, did not deserve the opportunity to speak at this event when the students themselves had applied and were not accepted to speak. Another student got up from their seat and pointed at the Dean, shouting out pretty harsh critiques. At this point, I was already next to the podium, getting ready for my introduction. So imagine me awkwardly standing next to the podium, NOT having been introduced, observing this whole scene play out. I admired the students’ courage, felt proud to be a Cal alumni, but mostly, I was deathly afraid of being booed off the stage, being called out for not being worthy enough, or failing to grab the students’ attention because I was also not deserving of the stage. As I tried to process what had just happened, Billy Curtis, the host of the ceremony and my long time mentor, managed to regain control of the tension-filled room and introduce me. I had to silence the million thoughts going through my head and somehow get the room’s warmth back.
I started my speech by saying outloud my loudest thought: “Shit got real REAL quick.” Then I asked for the students’ permission to speak. It was their day, after all. If they didn’t want to hear from me, hey, I was ready to walk away. I knew how much this space meant to them. It was the most important graduation event for me when I was graduating — certainly more meaningful than the general commencement, or my major graduation. Lavender Graduation was supposed to be our space. So yeah, I didn’t want to ruin that. Thankfully, they gave me their permission — oh, those were the most comforting finger snaps I’ve ever received.
As I scanned the room, I felt grateful and hopeful. I was humbled to be standing in front of some of the most fierce and brave people in our country today. People who would move on to change the world. A real force to be reckoned with.
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I want to invite you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath in. Breathe out. Check in with yourself right now. How are you feeling? Savor this moment. Right here, right now. You are here and you will never get this moment back. This is your community. Your net. The net that will catch you when you jump, when you need to be caught. Take another deep breath in, breathe out. Open your eyes. Thank you — I am so grateful to be here.
I was an intern at GenEq all throughout college, where I was known for fiercely protecting the office staplers and attempting to keep Billy’s desk clean. I co-founded Queer Straight Alliance, now known as QSU, I recently learned. I was really glad to hear about the name change. Thank you. In the same statement explaining the name change, I also read that the org, and I quote, “has always been considered a white space.” This broke my heart a little bit. I want you to know that we didn’t start out that way, and I think it’s important, especially for people of color, to make sure our history gets told and preserved.
So I’ll share that QSU was founded by two queer people of color, myself and a Latino queer man named Kevin Franco Torres, and our founding leadership team was predominantly black and brown queer women. I had the privilege of working alongside them to do some of the most radical, stealth organizing on campus to empower low-income QTPOC youth who were not out, which put some of our academic careers at risk, and we were awarded the most inclusive queer student organization award. The point is that we have to be vigilant about learning, protecting, and telling our history so they don’t get erased or co-opted. With compassion, I challenge you to do something that I clearly failed to do — think about ways to institutionalize the historicizing of our movement so folks coming after us can continue building on it.
I spent 6 years in management consulting and tech startups after I graduated with a degree in Business–a choice I made when some straight white boy told me I couldn’t do it. I went into the corporate world because I thought that was the only way to become financially independent, and I needed the money to support myself and help immigrate my mom to the States from Korea. I attempted to preserve my ties to the social justice community and not let the overwhelming sense of guilt completely crush me. I pursued financial gains because for me, money meant freedom. Freedom my parents didn’t have, freedom I so desperately wanted to feel growing up watching my parents struggle. Even though I was grateful to finally be able to support my family, the thought of living my life without having realized my true life purpose and passion constantly haunted me. As a result, I never felt truly free.
Today I am pursuing freedom in a different way. And I’d like to share with you 3 pieces of advice that I learned, that I’m still learning, on my journey to feel free. If you haven’t guessed already, freedom is my #1 value.
My first piece of advice is: practice wanting.
This sounds simple, but it’s what a lot of people struggle with. Practice wanting. What do you want? At some point, I stopped wanting and started justifying my decisions based on needs. I started confusing my needs and wants. I’d tell myself, “I need to do this because I need to support my family.” While this was true, at some point I found myself using it as an excuse to respect fear more than my desire.
“Entrepreneurship is for rich white people.” I would tell myself. Society taught me to not want. I thought it’s selfish to want and that I didn’t deserve to want, at least not yet. We must unlearn this. If you don’t believe that you deserve to want, now or ever, then no one else will. Yes, take care of your and your family’s basic needs, that’s important. But be honest with yourself when your needs begin to sabotage your dreams. As Audre Lorde said, “Our visions begin with our desires” — if we are not able to articulate our desires, it becomes impossible for us to take action.
So how do you practice wanting? Start by making small daily decisions based on your desires. Ask yourself, what do I want to be doing right now, who do I want to spend time with, what do I not want? Eventually, work yourself up to figuring out what you want in your future, what you want to be known for, what you want your legacy to be.
A month or so after I graduated from Cal, I got a fortune from a fortune cookie that read, “Don’t give into cynicism.” And that’s my second piece of advice for you. Resist cynicism by practicing compassion.
My first job at a consulting company, a senior manager thought LGBT stood for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Together. The same person, a straight white woman, once asked me to pick out a document from her trash can. When I created a women’s group at work, at a different company, I was told by a c-level executive, a straight white man, to not bring politics into the workplace — he warned me this would ruin my career. I was once told by a woman executive that I should put my hair down more often, smile more, and wear heels. I was told, by many men, to not be such a bitch, to not be so aggressive, bossy, self-advocating. I was sexually harassed during my first week at a new company (but unlike Uber he was fired the week after).
As my rainbow bubble ripped, I got jaded. I asked myself, “what’s the point?” It got increasingly difficult for me to believe that a better, more just world is possible. I started losing my appetite for change, consumed by my growing hatred towards people and systems that were causing harm, and I hated myself for being a part of the problem.
With cynicism, I lost my ability to feel compassion. I thought in order for me to stay critical, angry, and fueled, I couldn’t offer compassion, not to myself or others, because it felt like an excuse. But the truth is, we can and must be critical, angry, and compassionate all at the same time to keep us going and to free us from feeling paralyzed. Because ultimately, my cynicism about people’s intentions and their ability to change made me a terrible agent for change.
Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther leader and a political prisoner, was at EWOCC (Empowering Women of Color Conference) this year, and something she said really resonated with me. She said we should always look for a window in people to connect, not because we want to change them, but because we need to be able to believe in humanity again. This forever changed my perspective on doing social justice work and how we invite people in with compassion. This was liberating for me.
So to pursue freedom, practice wanting, and practice compassion to resist cynicism.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, always remember that you are worthy.
2015 felt like the worst year of my life. I was at my lowest, burnt out, jaded from the toxic work culture, I had lost both of my grandparents who raised me, suffered chronic stress that impacted my health and landed me in the ER. I had no capacity to be a leader, let alone a good friend. I could barely take care of myself. I felt like I had nothing left to give and it made me feel like shit, completely helpless and worthless. That year, I realized that my sense of self worth was closely tied to my ability to serve others. So when I was not in a position to give, I began to doubt my self worth and whether I deserved the support I was getting, or whether I deserved to pursue my own joy and freedom.
But my community, my net, folks who sat next to me during my Lavender Graduation, saved me. They reminded me that I am worthy for simply being. Not because of what or how much I produce, not because I am giving back or serving the community, not because I am loved or affirmed by others.
You are worthy for simply being. Your existence in any and all capacity is resistance and I promise you there is a queer youth out there who dreams of one day becoming you, being where you are on this very day.
I stand in front of you today, as someone who recently decided to redefine freedom and pursue joy by finally making the jump. This past February, I quit my job to begin my own entrepreneurship journey. I’m now fully self-employed, working as a career coach and a co-founder of a social enterprise. I’m back to worrying about money, but this time, I’m allowing myself to truly examine my relationship with money and what freedom really means to me.
This is an exciting and rewarding time for you all. You’ve accomplished so much, and you should be so proud and happy. But you might also feel sad. Scared. Give yourself permission to be not okay. Allow yourself time to think about what you are leaving behind.
I didn’t take the time to truly grieve the end of my chapter as a student activist.
I tried to find ways to bring my “radical student activist” self to work — I thought that’s how I could create change from within and “bring my whole self to work.” What I realize now is that I needed closure to move on and create a new identity within the new context, in a way that still allowed me to feel empowered and authentic. I now know that my essence could be embraced in different ways and that’s okay.
So think about what it is that you need to grieve and do whatever you need to do to memorialize and honor your time here so you can truly begin your new chapter.
Free yourself from the expectation that you need to continue your narrative in a linear way. Let go so you can allow yourself to adapt to your new and changing reality, and don’t be afraid to evolve your identity based on all of the complexities, experiences, and desires that you embody.
If I can ask you to remember one thing, because all speakers do this, it’s this: Your ability to pursue freedom and feel joy is the greatest threat to this fucked up world. Define freedom for yourself and find your joy.
And when you struggle to remember this because life throws too many punches at you, reach out to your net, which also includes a whole bunch of beautifully aging queers.
Stay free. Thank you.
Originally published at himichellekim.com on June 8, 2017.