By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Conrad Lee had an idea: A nonprofit that would guide young Chinese Americans through the challenges of college and career preparation, via Mayoral Internships that would give them the opportunity to engage professionally with the community. Along the way, this nonprofit would teach the next generation the skills needed to achieve their goals, while helping them through the challenges of what it means to be American.
Together, with co-founders Steve Chen and Yi Ping Chen, Lee turned this idea into reality in 2017 when the Pathway Foundation was born.
According to the foundation’s mission statement, the aim is “not only to advocate the need for engagement, but to actually give direction, provide the way, find the path, and give guidance in projects, opportunities, and activities that lead to hands-on training and experience according to one’s own interests, abilities, and aspirations.” The foundation seeks to break barriers to civic engagement for those who come from cultures or countries where involvement is discouraged, or who might be hesitant due to language barriers, so that participants can have a “greater impact and influence in the land we live and call home.”
Lee does not hesitate to acknowledge that a primary goal of the organization is to foster participation in politics. These are our nation’s future leaders. The sooner they can develop tools for success, the better.
“Our mission,” says Lee, “is to increase their impact through community influence…and [ultimately] through influence in politics.” At the foundation, interns develop and run their own projects and hold weekly discussions. They are expected to be self-starters — and they do not disappoint. Edwin Ong, current chair of the Mayoral Internship program, says running their own projects “let’s them take more ownership…and feel like they’re making an impact.”
From 10 interns at the start of the year, to now 30, students from grades 9 to 12 thrive under the foundation’s mentorship. There is no particular conclusion to internships.
“They can stay as long as they want,” Lee says. There is also no strict requirement to be Chinese American. Indian American and Muslim American students can also take part. Together, they learn about themselves, and each other. They build relationships that help them navigate questions of race and identity, and learn academic and career skills that will help them succeed.
The benefits of interning are many. Intern Muhan Zhang says she benefits from public speaking, and emphasizes that the foundation provides more hands-on civic engagement opportunities than school. Kristin Yao says her biggest takeaway is time management skills. Intern Lara Yao echoes this, while also saying she is learning about leadership, how to delegate, and how to be a role model.
Others praise the forum the foundation provides to relate to others and break down stereotypes. Liana Wu says that, originally, she “felt like a banana” (yellow on the outside and white on the inside). Through the foundation, she has discovered that others feel as she does, and that together, they can solve problems “in the larger world.” Melissa Lin agrees the foundation is a “great place to connect with others” in the service of a shared mission to improve the community.
Ong’s current project (called the American Creed project) is meant to “foster civic engagement, bring discussion to minority communities so that people can learn more, and develop their views on the American Creed and learn more about issues relevant to the Asian and Muslim community — it’s participatory…There are always ways to contribute to society. Giving back is one big aspect.” The American Creed “is what makes Americans, Americans,” says Ong. “Liberty, equality, justice — everyone believes in them.”
Lee, who is a former mayor of Bellevue and current member of the Bellevue City Council, mirrored these sentiments at a recent foundation meeting held at Bellevue City Hall.
“We are all Americans. What does that mean? We have basic expectations and common identities…Respect. Honesty. Helping each other. Like yourself. And respect yourself, and then you can be free to like and respect others.”
During the meeting, interns, with Lee, Chen, and other supporting members of the community, including parents, discussed the topic of identity. Chen, who says he was inspired to assist the foundation by his daughter, quoted from A Chinaman’s Chance, by Eric Liu, a book he recommends for insight into what it means to be Chinese American. Chen wishes to help kids with the challenges of being from two worlds and with how American society works, “so they can have better opportunities.”
Another intern mentor, Sam Lai, who returned to Seattle last year after graduating from the University of Chicago, says that he supports the foundation because, “I want to be the person I needed when I was younger.
I want to talk through [with them] the issues I struggled with and didn’t have anyone to talk to about, plus help them with the problems of high school.”
In addition to rousing speeches, advice, and encouragement from the adults in the room, students spoke about what it meant to them to be Chinese American (or Indian American or Muslim American). Shared experiences were examined. Participants revealed their struggles with the “model minority” stereotype — wanting to do their best, not necessarily be the best, in whatever area interests them, not just those associated with their ethnicity, such as math for Chinese Americans or technology for Indian Americans.
Another subtopic within the umbrella of identity was internalized racism. Interns gave examples of things about themselves they did not like, due to societal pressures, while others expressed that they had a positive relationship with their cultural traits. Throughout, the confusion of dealing with two identities at once — be it the combination of American and Chinese or another combination — was like an open wound that, through talk, was slowly being healed.
The answer? Be an individual. Be American. Be a new category altogether. Honor all the parts of you.
“We have a lot to be thankful for,” said Lee. “Everything we do [at the foundation] is to help each of you be equipped to…accomplish what you want…American doesn’t mean you are from one country or another, one ethnicity or another…we are a country of immigrants with the same values: freedom, liberty, and justice for all.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.