Reflections from South Korea: Whose Megaphone are We Amplifying?

IMG_3778I’ve spent the last month exercising self-care and middle-class privilege; getting off the grid in Mongolia and riding my bike up the East Coast in Korea. I have a lot of stories to share but for most of these, you’ll have to meet me for happy hour. Before I leave Korea and submerge myself in the constant noise of the U.S. media, I wanted to share some perspectives from the Korean Peninsula. And, if I’m being honest, I owe Erin a lot of blog posts, so I’m trying to take advantage of some renewed energy while I have it.

This probably would have been a more timely blog post a few weeks ago, while North Korea still dominated the news, social media feeds, and many of my text inquiries from friends and family. But the news of explicit White Supremacy in Charlottesville has overtaken the news of North Korea. Still, I think there are reminders I want to preserve and share while I’m viewing U.S. news from outside the country.

This is not going to be a sophisticated post about the geopolitical and historical context of U.S., North Korea and South Korea relationships. This is more of a personal narrative and perspective sharing as a Korean-American who just spent the last two weeks in Korea, including riding my bike all the way to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I fact, I rode my bike all the way to where the road ends (for civilians) near the North Korean border.

I started riding from the city of Pohang, about 250 miles south of the border. As I got further north the signs of militarization were more evident. I saw things like beaches fenced off with barbed wire, look out stations with military personnel with machine guns, barriers that can collapse into the road to prevent tanks moving forward, and of course, soldiers. The area just near the border felt like a ghost town; eerily quiet, peaceful, and undeveloped, especially in contrast to the crowded beaches and beach towns just a few miles (or rather kilometers) south.

IMG_3779This militarized reality is not new. Technically the Koreas are still at war and have been for over 60 years. South Koreans (and North Koreans I am guessing) have lived with this precarious situation for multiple generations. Over the past 20 years, I have seen friends and family members who seem to have grown accustomed to the carefully choreographed dangerous dance that happens on a regular basis between the Koreas. In most cases, life goes on as normal, especially in Seoul.

Since the noise from the U.S. media was really loud, bolstered by 45’s constant inflammatory tweeting, I decided to informally poll and ask friends and family in Korea if they felt particularly scared about the situation with North Korea. Most said they didn’t really feel any different, although some did mention that 45 is making things worse and unpredictable, without consideration for Koreans or the Chamorro people of Guam. My Korean cousin is in the military and stationed near the border, and his wife said things aren’t too different. Contrasting the recent situation to one two years ago (in 2015), when shots were being fired between the Koreas and their family had a “go bag” ready to head for the bunkers.

Whose Megaphone are We Amplifying?

All this context is to help offer a perspective from the Korean peninsula that appears to be in contradiction to the noise coming out of the U.S. In the rapidly moving environment of social media, could we be contributing to sharing narratives that enhance 45’s platform and perspective; imperialism, colonialism, and militarization? Could we be amplifying the very voices that we hope ignore? Could we be getting tricked by a dangerous game of “squirrel” that takes our focus and energy off dismantling systemic racism?

I’m a deep thinker, which is one of the reasons I can’t use twitter, it moves too fast for me. I know it serves a purpose, but even in the twitter-verse, or for me the Facebook universe I’d like to remind myself to ask these questions before sharing and posting news related to race and systemic racism.

Am I being performative? Am I looking for ally cookies or a social justice badge?

Fakequity has blogged about this before. Are we doing things to say we did them and to show we’re paying attention and in-the-know? It doesn’t hurt to be up to speed on current events or even the latest local gossip, but not everything has to be for show. Racial equity work isn’t about being seen and performing, it is about reflection and figuring out when to use your voice and when to step back and allow other voices to emerge.

Is this the narrative I want to share? Whose voice and perspective am I amplifying?

45’s voice is loud. In the position of power, he holds he has a huge microphone and a press corps trained to analyze his every word. But that doesn’t mean his voice should overshadow other perspectives. I work hard to make sure the articles and voices I promote and share are authentic to the story, such as finding people of color perspectives for articles or videos. White people interpreting a racialized incident doesn’t help to bring a new narrative forward, it might be adding

Who is the audience? For white people? For people of color?

Being in Korea I saw the difference in perspective. I was out of the American-white media bubble. The news there is different. Have you ever looked at the difference between BBC Worldwide and BBC America same company but they reprogram their content for a white audience. Same can be said of Al Jazera and other media companies. Locally look at the difference in content between The Seattle Times versus local media such as the South Seattle Emerald, Globalist, and ethnic media.

Othering versus Centering

Again, being in Korea I saw the difference in story narratives. In America, the press centered and focused on 45’s message and voice. They also othered Korean American voices. Very few media articles looked at what Korean Americans and other people of color, including Pacific Islanders, had to say about the topic.

It is important to remember voice makes a difference and we all have to be intentional about how we choose to use our own voice and who’s voices to share and amplify.

By Heidi Schillinger

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Stop with the Messages of Condemnation — Tell me What You’re Doing


Sign: “All We Wanna Do is Break the Chains Off” from Freedom School Seattle Day of Service and Action event in Rainier Beach. Photo by Erin Okuno

Five days ago, on 12 August, violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. White nationalist and white supremacist marched in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The rally was one of the largest white nationalist protests in recent history. The night before at the University of Virginia white supremacist marched carrying torches, yelling “white lives matter” and “blood and soil.” Images of defiant white men holding flaming torches filled news feed and scared many. The next day Saturday brought more violence as a car was used as a weapon. Heather Heyer, a white woman there as part of a counter protest, was killed and many other injured.

Trump responded with a controlled statement about the violence. He condemned the violence and called for unity. Many felt his statement didn’t go far enough condemning white nationalist. On Tuesday, he went off-script blaming “both sides” for the violence. We won’t unpack why that is problematic here since many others have done so in other news analysis.

Today many people of color are feeling tired. We know this routine:

  • Something bad happens to People of Color.
  • It explodes over social media.
  • Rallies are organized. Elected officials, organizations, and companies make statements about how we must stand together in unity/solidarity/community. This week they also condemned the violence and messages of the white supremacist.
  • White people go back to business as usual.

I’m not trying to make light of the evil and hatred that happens to pocs, especially to our African American/Black, Latino, and Indigenous kin. I am trying to make a point that something has to change and messages of unity and condemnation are becoming meaningless.

Stop with the Messages of Condemnation – Stop Centering Yourselves Again

The problem with these statements and rallies is NOTHING CHANGES. Messages of condemnation and support are a different form of white silence. This is the formula for a statement of support/denunciation:

“The [fill in the blank crappy event] was harmful to [impacted community]. We call upon all Americans to stand together in this time of trouble. [We believe statement.] We [fill in the blank org/company/elected official name] won’t back down.”

The problem with the current crop of statements, especially around the violence of this last week, is they don’t point to action and changes. Or in some cases, especially statements from elected officials and companies, they call upon others to act. The deflection of responsibility and pointing to actions they are taking is a less egregious form of white silence. It is saying “look at me, I stand with you” but I’m not going to make myself uncomfortable in the process, they are saying I’m innocent and I don’t have to change. The statements say “I see you,” I want to affirm you, I’m a good person for noticing racism, I am doing things on my terms where I don’t have to challenge myself. White people have the luxury of being silent the status quo allows white people to deflect responsibility.

I don’t want to read another statement about how much you care. Show me and prove you care. Make yourself uncomfortable and act. If you wonder why people of color don’t trust white people and historically white led organizations it is because white people don’t always act. My colleague Amber Banks studies trust and how it is formed. Through her research, she found actions are necessary to build trust in communities of color.

Doing Something Uncomfortable

Before you write a statement stop and think about others. Ask yourself are you issuing a statement to make yourself look good, feel good, and feel like you are doing something that challenges you and your organization? If you are putting forth a statement to point and acknowledge a moral injustice save your time, I don’t want to read it. What I want to read and see is how you are using your power, influence, and privilege to disrupt whiteness and the current dynamics.

While we may not be able to single-handily stop the white nationalist movement, we all have a responsibility to force institutional and systemic racism to change. We also have to remember actions will look different for all of us. An African American colleague and friend she said she’s been stepping back and practicing self-care. For her, this is uncomfortable because she normally engages in work around race, but right now she needs to focus on her own well-being. As an Asian American, I told her part of my work is to realize my privilege and to pick up some of her work so she can safely and comfortably practice self-care. For our white allies, your job is to find your own ways to disrupt whiteness in your jobs and personal lives.

Personal actions are important and we need to act in ways that make us uncomfortable. If we stay comfortable it means we’re not pushing, we’re not thinking harder, and we’re not challenging ourselves to disrupt the current situation. I would rather hear about what you and your organization are doing to protect, uplift, and center people of color than hearing how you condemn the actions of others.

Here are some actions you can take instead of just saying you condemn white supremacy:

  • Work on being ok with conflict – Healthy conflict is needed to disrupt and challenge people’s assumptions and actions that favor white people.
  • Center communities of color – Focus on communities of color and allow them to take the lead. This means checking your assumptions, timelines, and desires for a project and allowing the community to say what they want.
  • Condemnation – If you still feel the need to condemn an action then do it and do it the full extent of your powers. For corporations and nonprofit back it up by saying what you will do – are you organizing and mobilizing in a new and different way, are you willing to refuse to do business with the offending party, etc.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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We Should Strive for Transformation — short version

IMG_20170803_134341.jpgAfter the presidential election that allowed Trump into office Heidi and I had a conversation about what does racial equity transformation look like. Sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Beacon Hill (Seattle) she explained how we need to stop tinkering around with little changes and strive for transformational change. As I munched on my cactus and cheese dish I told her I was at a loss for what transformative change would look like in the racial equity work I do. I spend so much time fighting for smaller changes there isn’t a lot of brain space left to dream bigger and figure out what racial equity transformation looks like.

Tonight I was reminded of this conversation as I listened to Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldaña at the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) graduation. Senator Saldaña reminded us about the need to aim for transformation in our work. As I listened I remembered the conversation I had with Heidi.

What is Transformation

Transformation in racial equity work is f-ing hard. Like I said earlier so much of my work isn’t in the transformative space, I’m doing things to hold the line on bad policies, working on inclusion and improving access, or doing things to just get by. These actions are important, but they aren’t transformative.

Transformative work focuses and centers on what communities of color and the most marginalized need to thrive. Transformative work requires us to be creative and to think boldly and to have the audacity to try new actions.

How to get to Transformation

At the RVC graduation tonight I was reminded about what transformation could look like:

  • Transformation means honoring the past, acknowledging root causes of racism.
  • Focusing on and centering our work on communities of color.
  • Sharing control and focusing on who is comfortable, no one group should be unfairly burdened, we all take turns.
  • Transformation creates a sense of shared belonging.
  • Investing in communities of color.
  • Cultivating leadership from the ground up.
  • Thinking beyond one’s self and also beyond our own affinity groups. Transformation means we acknowledge and work to understand everyone’s shared experiences.

There is a lot more to say about transformation and maybe you have some ideas. Feel free to drop me a note at At a later time, I’ll write more about transformation. This week’s post is purposefully short. It has been a great week with some celebrations and a lot of work, so it is off to bed I go. See you all next week.

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How to and How Not to Hire a Racial Equity Consultant

blue-puzzled-pororo-and-pink-happy-loopy-wavingThis week I spent time with colleagues who are racial equity consultants. I’ve compiled a short list of what works and doesn’t work when looking to hire a racial equity consultant.

Have a budget number and share it – Hiring a racial equity consultant isn’t like hiring a consultant to do your bookkeeping or even hiring a grant writer. Those jobs are fairly routine and they can charge by the hour. A good consultant needs to know the budget and scope of a project so they can give you an accurate quote and scope of work. Good consultants aren’t out to ‘get you’ and over charge you. They need to know your budget so they can plan and give you a realistic sense of how far your budget will take you with them.

Equity consultants in the Seattle area charge in the range of $100-250/hr. As consultants, we don’t have other grant money or other projects funds to defray costs and must charge what we need to live and grow a small business. We also need to cover expenses such as technology (e.g. wi-fi, laptops, printers, etc.), office space, taxes, insurance, retirement, etc.

Be honest about what you can afford. A friend put together a cost sheet for an organization and her contact went on to pick it apart to look for cost savings. That wasn’t a good experience for either side. Be upfront about how much you have and the consultant will be up front of what they can do and what to expect from them.

Don’t expect free – We know many people are doing good work and money isn’t always in abundance, but racial equity consultants can’t work for free either. This is our livelihoods. I also realize someone will ask “Can’t you do pro bono work?” As a consultant, I could do pro bono work, but doing more of the same work doesn’t feed my soul and help me grow and frankly it is tiresome to do more of the same but know I’m not getting paid. With my volunteer time, I want to learn something new and gain new insights and skills.

If you value racial equity work, value it by putting financial resources to it. My friend Kam has a joke about volunteering.  She repeats back to them their same statement with the phrase ‘work for free’ in it: “You want me to work for free doing a racial equity training?” “You want me to work for free analyzing your race data?” “You want me to work for free talking to your white friend who is interested in equity and trying to get a job? Um no thanks, you can talk to them. I’m stopping the personal privilege train here.”

Before I sound too jaded, there are times when pro bono work is appropriate. There are many groups who benefit from pro bono consulting and there are times we’re happy to support volunteer work. My litmus test of where to give my ‘work for free time’ is asking will it authentically support communities of color and what is my relationship with the person asking. If the request will support a community of color and I have a relationship with the person asking I’m more likely to say yes. Heidi uses a similar question screen to decide where to donate her time.

Have a plan – When you contact a racial equity consultant please have a basic idea and plan for what you are looking for. Are you looking for consulting, training, facilitation, or something else? Don’t say “We know we need to get smarter about this equity stuff.” Put a timeline on your plan, when do you want to start the work, is the timeline negotiable, how often do you want to meet or train? Who are you expecting the consultant to work with board, staff, external stakeholders? What is the demographic breakdown of who will be involved? It is best to do some pre-thinking and sketching these things out so you know what you are looking for and requesting when you talk to a consultant. Write it out and share it with the consultant you’re trying to hire.

No RFPs please – Please do not put together a request for proposal (RFP) process. RFP processes are a waste of money and time. I know a few top-notch consultants who refuse to do RFPs because they cost them too much time to respond and when they don’t get the work they are out money and time.

I once helped a friend write an RFP that she didn’t win. On the decline email the organization that put out the RFP said she was the runner up but they went with a different approach. The kicker was, they still liked her proposal and took ideas from it for their project. Not only was my friend out money and time from writing an RFP, her information and thoughts were extracted with no compensation.

Is your work all white? – Heidi has reached the point where she tells groups if they are serious they need to diversify who is in their training. Having only white people in trainings to talk about race doesn’t lend itself well to change. If you have an all or majority white staff and you want to do some racial equity work be willing to pay community partners to join your trainings and be thought partners with you. Read Heidi’s previous blog post about no more culturally competence training.

Ask early – Many of the best consultants are busy people. If possible have a flexible timeline and contact them early in your process. If they say no you may also want to check back with them in a few months to see if they have an opening in their schedule.

Be respectful – Please be respectful of a consultant’s time and intellectual property. If you are requesting an informational interview or a planning meeting before you negotiate a contract please remember this is unpaid time for the consultant. Maybe they are willing to give you their time in the hopes it leads to paid work. A friend told me she once met with a nonprofit three times, 60-min each meeting, not including prep and travel time, and the nonprofit chose another consultant. She felt burned from investing so much time into an organization that hadn’t shared up front they were talking to other consultants as well. The consultant community is small too so if you want a good referral it is important to be respectful to consultants otherwise you might be out of luck overall.

If you don’t have money to hire a consultant there are still things your organization can do – In another post in the future, we’ll unpack this a bit more. For now, I don’t want anyone to say “well Erin said we need to have money and a diverse staff to start working on race stuff so we won’t.” If your organization is serious about deepening its work around race then start.

Some low cost or no-cost ideas:

  • Start a monthly reading club have coworkers suggest an article to read.  Host a monthly potluck lunch to discuss the book or article. If people don’t have time to read suggest a TED Talk and bring people together to watch it together and talk about what they learned.
  • Invite a partner organization to talk about what they are doing around racial equity and how they got started. Be nice and buy their favorite coffee drink and have it waiting for them, or better yet buy/bring them lunch.
  • Cancel a staff meeting and tell people to go out and use that time attending a community meeting in a community of color. Please do this respectfully.
  • Focus your professional development dollars on topics that deal with understanding race, racism, and racial equity. Utilizing the resources you have and targeting them is an important way to start.

Posted by Erin Okuno, thanks to CiKeithia, Heidi, Stephan, and many others for their insights.

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