1.31.2010

Minority Leadership


At the risk of overgeneralizing to the point of being misunderstood, I'd like to opine on an aspect of minority leadership that I've been musing about for some time now. I've noticed a general evolution in perspectives from one generation to the next:

* The first generation tends to fixate mostly if not solely on issues related to their country of origin. For example, my parents, who are the first generation in the US, follow Taiwanese elections, socialize with other Taiwanese families, and support local Taiwanese groups.

* The second generation tends to form an identity and bloc within their racial and ethnic group. For example, I recall a visit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, in which young Native Americans of different tribes who were forced into boarding schools began to create for themselves a sense of Native Americanness that supplemented their allegiance and affiliation to their own tribe.

* The third generation tends to have greater ease in reaching across racial and ethnic lines to develop pan-minority alliances. These leaders sense that there are unique challenges facing minorities as a whole, and band together accordingly.

I call these "generations" instead of being more en vogue and referring to them as "Version 1.0," "Version 2.0," and "Version 3.0," as if succeeding generations are completely better than preceding ones. While there is an evolution over time, there is nothing inherently more "bug-free" about present iterations of leaderships than past ones.

One challenge to be mindful of at all tiers is the extent to which one's perspective is freed up to think more broadly, or whether one has to retrench to the narrower angle. If a context is seen as constrained, and a resource is seen as limited, then the temptation is to not reach across the divides to help others, for the other sides gaining must necessarily mean your side is losing. This, unfortunately, is the prevailing interpretation of many big cities when it comes to scarce resources such as power, money, or connections: I have to take care of my own, because if I don't, your slice will increase and mine must then decrease.

Which is a shame, because I submit to you that it is possible for the pie to get bigger, such that your gain can also mean my gain. Indeed, it may very well be that reaching across the divides is a necessarily requisite to making the pie bigger. How unfortunate, then, when we fall back on old dividing lines, leading to old mistrusts and stereotypes, when we refuse to do the very thing that would make everyone's slice bigger?

And how unfortunate when we not only snipe across racial and ethnic lines, but also up and down these generations of leadership? The older crowd scorns the younger crowd for not "getting" the unwritten rules, and is perhaps fearful of ceding their own authority too soon; the younger crowd scorns the older crowd for not "getting" the new ways that power works, dismisses the need for wisdom culled from experience, and is frustrated with a "wait your turn, kid" sense of entitlement.

Which is why I admire someone like David Oh all the more. He is well respected in the Korean-American, Asian-American, and minority communities. He has forged deep ties with lots of different people and groups, and has forged them in the right way: by serving others and taking up their causes and concerns. And while he isn't that much older than me, he is way ahead of me in professional years, and yet has gone out of his way on countless occasions to bring me into his fold, sharing his influence and connections because he knows I can gain from them without his losing them.

God knows Philly needs more David Ohs. Let's hope for the best: a spirit of appreciation and respect across generational lines; a willingness to connect with, learn from, and help those of other racial and ethnic groups; and the development of newer and newer generations of leaders who can continue to fight the good fight with new vitality and yet building from the lessons of experience. This is what I hope to see, and be a part of.

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