Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In The Pandemic's Wake: Embracing Many Ways of Knowing to Inform Action

In The Pandemic's Wake: Embracing Many Ways of Knowing to Inform Action

Aired December 13, 2022

Andrea Kim Neighbors:

Well good evening everyone, and welcome to the third and final program of our series, "In The Pandemic's Wake." My name is Andrea Kim Neighbors and I serve as the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's Head of Education. I am a dark-haired woman wearing a yellow sweater, also wearing eyeglasses and sitting in front of a blurred background. And on the screen is our introduction slide with photos of today's wonderful speakers as well as the title, date, and time of today's program, "In The Pandemic's Wake: Embracing Many Ways of Knowing to Inform Action." This program is offered as part of a virtual series presented by the National Museum of Natural History and the Asian Pacific American Center and received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool. The center is pleased to partner with the Natural History Museum and our esteemed panelists for this important discussion about the many ways of knowing founding cultures and communities that can empower ourselves and each other to be active members of the world.

At the Natural History Museum, the exhibition Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World and its related programming, had an overarching message of global connectedness that emphasized how pandemic risks are shared by everybody worldwide. The exhibition's main message was an outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere. Although it closed this fall, themes from the exhibition provide a framework for these conversations and tonight's important discussion. This final panel features Asian American and Native American speakers who will talk about the amazing work that they lead in their communities and the actions they take to inspire and enact positive change. A fitting end to this inaugural series that dove into historical context of pandemics, artists' perspectives on this challenging time and now calls to action. We want to point out that while this three-part series has invited Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders to reflect on the pandemic, this panel does not have Pacific Islander representation.

As we listen to our wonderful speakers, we the organizers will reflect on how we engage in community-centered discussions about change making and we encourage you to also participate in reflecting on how we center community and how we may improve the ways in which we do this important work together. You can find out more about the Asian Pacific American Center and the Outbreak Exhibition by clicking the links shared through the Q&A box, which can be found on your Zoom toolbar. The Q&A box is where we'll be sharing relevant links and information throughout the program. That's also where you can submit your questions for a panelist anytime this evening so that we can have them ready for them toward the end of our time together. If your question is for someone specific on the panel, please share their name in your question. This program offers close captioning and ASL interpretation.

You can turn on the closed captioning by clicking the CC button on your toolbar. The recording will be available at the link found in the Q&A shortly after the program. Finally, it's my great honor to officially introduce you to our wonderful moderator for tonight's program, Adriel Luis. Adriel is the curator of Digital and Emerging Practice at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center where he advocates for equitable practices in museums and institutions. Adriel is a community organizer, artist, writer, and curator who believes that collective liberation can happen in poetic ways. His life's work is focused on the mutual thriving of artistic integrity and social vigilance. He is a part of the iLL-Literacy Arts ... iLL-Literacy ... I have to make sure I say that correctly, Arts Collective, which creates music and media to strengthen black and Asian coalitions and is creative director of Bombshelltoe, a collaborative of artists and leaders from frontline communities responding to nuclear histories. With that, I turn it over to you, Adriel.

Adriel Luis:

Hello. Hello. Thank you so much, Andrea for the introduction. So good to see all of you all over here in the attendees list. Just like to scroll through and see people's names is so ... what's up you all? Hi everybody. I recognize some folks. Also great to see some new names and I'm just so excited that just spending this next hour with us. My name is Adriel Luis. I go by the pronouns he/him. I am wearing a black sweatshirt with a giant pink print of the name Nguyen, which is a common Vietnamese name. And I'm not Vietnamese though. Sorry, I'm going completely on a tangent. Hold on, let me scale back. All right. My name is Adriel Luis and I'm a curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. I'm currently tuning in from Tovaangar, also known as Los Angeles. This is the original deep historic home of the Tongva people and for the few years that I've been living here, I've learned so much about the place, especially like everybody else while in quarantine.

I've had the pleasure of being around the nature, being around the water, being around lots of walkable forests and plant life as well. And all the while also getting to know a bit about Tongva history, the fact that Tongva people at some point were declared extinct even though they are very much not extinct and the fact that there is currently a vibrant resurrection of the language that is being shared widely. And so I wanted to share that, especially as an introduction for today's panel because the three people that are joining me are people who have also played an instrumental role in a deepening understanding for myself in terms of what it means to be in a place, especially here on Turtle Island. And so without further ado, I'll introduce all three of the panelists. So we have today Jacqueline Thanh, who I'll be referring to as Jax, and you'll see that on her name as well.

So Jax is the executive director of VAYLA New Orleans, that's V-A-Y-L-A, New Orleans where she currently leads initiatives in achieving equal opportunity and justice through innovating pathways for Asian and American leadership and environmental activism in New Orleans and the Gulf South. Jacqueline is a human rights advocate, scholar activist, and descendant of Chinese Vietnamese refugees with an extensive history in intersectional advocacy and leadership development. She's a clinically trained and trauma informed social worker who brings expertise in culturally integrative survivor advocacy strategies. Her work has ranged from narrative therapy, case management, programmatic development and implementation with survivors of torture, houselessness, domestic violence and human trafficking to migrant displacement trauma domestically and abroad. As the executive director of VAYLA New Orleans, she currently leads initiatives in achieving equal opportunity and justice through innovating pathways for Asian American leadership and environmental activism in New Orleans and the Gulf South.

And I'm so excited for Jax to be here with us. I've known Jax ever since 2018, 2019. I was working on a project called Elevator Pitch in New Orleans, and actually it's a project to bring deaf and hearing people together in a city known so much for music. And during that time I was also interested in learning about grassroots of Asian American organizing movements. And so I was introduced to Jax who had just begun her job as executive director at VAYLA. And so it's just been so wonderful to see how the community has grown over the last couple of years, even if it's from afar. But one day we'll be getting back out to New Orleans.

Next we have Tiffany Beam. Tiffany Beam goes by she/they, and Tiffany is a child of the Mongolian Chinese and Taiwanese diaspora, an artist, scholar, educator, and arts organizer. Tiffany is currently based in Honolulu as a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, specializing in indigenous politics, political theory, and alternative futures. Their work broadly deals with cultural politics at the intersection of Asian diaspora and Pacific indigeneity and questions around Western anthropocentrism in its relations to capitalism, cellar colonialism, and racism. As an artist scholar, Tiffany has published work in Women and Performance, a Journal of Feminist Theory, and presented research at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Association for Asian American Studies and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, where she was a curatorial intern in 2019 with me. This year, Tiffany is teaching a course on navigating difficult political times of social and ecological crisis.

Tiffany holds responsibility to the lands of the Muskogee, Lenape, and Kānaka Maoli. And like I said at first Tiffany, I had the pleasure of working with Tiffany during their internship at the APA Center. And speaking of understanding of place, Tiffany forever holds a place in my mind as really this new wave of young people, particularly in Asian American scholarship that the APA Center has just been so lucky to have in that Tiffany came in with specific interest in understanding the native history of New York, where she was based at the time, where they were based at the time. And before Tiffany came, I think the idea of Asian American where the American is contextualized based on a deep native history was something that was relatively foreign to pretty much all of our interns and a lot of young people at the time. Since 2019, thanks in part to the pandemic, which has made land acknowledgements more accessible, now we have so many young people who are also coming in really interested in learning about Asian and native solidarity.

And so I really see Tiffany as really a first for the APA Center when it comes to that. And so I'm so overjoyed that Tiffany is joining us to have this conversation. And of course we have Jaclyn Roessel as well. And Jaclyn is a cultural justice and equity consultant. Born and raised on the Navajo Nation, it is the wisdom of her homelands that shapes Jaclyn Roessel's cosmovision. Experience as a museum professional cultural arts producer and curator confirmed her belief in the inherent power of utilizing cultural learning as a tool to engage and build stronger communities. Molded by her grandmothers, Jaclyn has fostered a praxis that utilizes indigenous ways of knowing and decolonized methodologies as a catalyst to build a cultural equity in organizations across the country.

And I've had the pleasure of knowing Jaclyn ever since 2017 when my partner Lovely and I were out in Navajo Land working on a project about nuclear histories and how Native Americans in the area have been affected by the history and also how they've responded and continued to respond to that history. It was really during that trip to the Southwest that I started really becoming attuned not only to the indigenous history of what we call the United States, but also my own indigenous history. Just earlier this week I had the pleasure of having a conversation with some Lenape elders. And one of the things that they really wanted to stress in the conversation was the fact that so many of us come from indigenous histories that we've forgotten or that we don't have access to in one way or another. For myself, my family comes from a village called Taishan, which is located in southern China.

And I grew up my entire life being born, raised in California, understanding that my family's from Hong Kong. And it wasn't until quite recently that I realized that even the place that I've always known as my homeland is a place that my family were migrants as they passed through. And so as we all are a part of this journey of more deeply understanding ourselves, I'm just really grateful for all of you who are attending because that's what this conversation is all about. This series is called "In The Pandemic's Wake," and there's so many different ways that we've awakened and become attuned to things that we weren't prior to the pandemic. And so all three of you, thank you so much for joining us. And again, because we have two Jacquelines on the call, Jacqueline Thanh we'll be referring to as Jax, we'll be referring to Jaclyn Roessel as Jaclyn, and we'll be referring to Tiffany as Tiffany. So hi everybody.

So I wanted to start this in ... well actually, first of all, let me not forget to also do the other shout-outs I was going to do because we have other people on this call as well. And so I want to give a shout-out to our captioner Joy Horton, who is typing and constantly in my head as I'm reminding myself to speak at a reasonable pace for somebody's fingers as they type and sign. So thank you so much Joy for joining us. We also have Lucy Sugiyama who is our ASL interpreter. I've been trying to learn ASL all pandemic long. And it's a challenge, it's a struggle, but I do appreciate that one of the things that all of us have been able to access more is American Sign Language. I appreciate all the events that I've been able to tune into where I can be more exposed to that.

I think it's extremely important. And so thank you so much, Lucy, for joining us. So with that said, Jaclyn, Jax and Tiffany, I'm happy to have you in our conversation. And I guess I wanted to start off just asking each of you kind of a big question, but I'm curious if you could actually speak a little bit about what has been the last couple of years, especially in terms of the work that you've done with the communities that you work directly with. What has been some things that you've seen emerged in terms of attunement or understanding in these communities? I have shifted the way that you go about your own practice. And Jaclyn, I'm wondering if I can start off by asking you that question.

Jaclyn Roessel:

Yá'át'ééh, everyone, it is wonderful to be with you all today. I am so grateful for this invitation to join you all and I'm connecting from the lands of the Tamayame people, or the lands of the Tamaya, that's located in what we know today is New Mexico and it's actually my partner's land and I am Navajo. And I think that this question really reminds me of a couple of big learnings that I held during the time of the pandemic. I think one was very much connected to our youngest child who we welcomed in the middle of the pandemic. And I named that first because our littlest was born in early 2021. At that moment in time, vaccines had already been administered, but everything was still very, very scary. But I think what welcoming Viviana in the middle of that time period really allowed us to understand was how connected we were both through digital technologies, but also specifically through this incredible tapestry of community care that I think was so present in indigenous communities.

And we saw all across the country in terms of different communities of color in the way that we tapped into really this indigenous knowledge of taking care of each other. And as an expectant mother in the middle of the pandemic, it was really ... we didn't do very much. We really had, my partner and I had to give ourselves permission to be home and really allow care and ask for care. And I think, gave each other permission to receive the care that we needed. And we welcomed our daughter via home birth, which was really incredible and really powerful in the recognition of also this deep ancestral wisdom that we were able to access during this incredibly just monumental shift that was happening across the globe. And so there was this very much this shift that was occurring. And I think that that teaching of just that extensiveness of care and the ways that we saw it manifest within indigenous communities and on the ground action was something that sticks with me as being a reminder of how important it is now to pay into that, to receive and to be in reciprocity.

Now that we have received so much, how do we give back into that now that it's a little bit safer for us. Now that our little ones are both vaccinated, we're able to be in community in a way that we weren't at that time. And so that's what your question calls to of just this understanding of poetic reciprocity and the responsibility we have now to carry that forward.

Adriel Luis:

That's so beautiful. I love that phrasing of poetic reciprocity. I think especially during a pandemic when we're really just accessing each other for the most part on these screens, I think the idea of what a community is, I know that word, there's been a tug of war of what community can mean. The way that corporations mean community is very different than the way that institutions mean community, which is very different than the way that organizers use community, which can be very different than the way that we use the term community at home. And so I think recognizing that there has to be a reciprocity and not only a reciprocity, but a poetic way, an artful way, a creative way of doing it, I think that the pandemic really pushed us to do that.

And when I think about reciprocity and ways that communities need to get creative in how they're there for each other, I can't not think about New Orleans. I've had the joy of going to New Orleans several times and what keeps me going back is really this sense of community and kinship that I don't really see in the same way anywhere else in the world. And Jax, you are so much an embodiment of that. And so I'm curious for you. Could you share a little bit about the work that you've been doing with VAYLA and how things have shifted through the pandemic?

Jax Thanh:

So I'm so thankful to be here with such an amazing group of folks, by the way, and excuse me, it's been a long panel day at the National Immigration Inclusion Conference here in National Harbor. So I feel like I'm going to be repeating myself, but I'm not speaking to the same crowd. There's been so many shifts I think in the last few years and since the last time we've seen each other, Adriel, I feel like I didn't sign on to taking on this role realizing that there would be a pandemic, there would be multiple tropical storms, a hurricane. And I always like to tell folks a 501C3 isn't revolutionary by any means, but you never get a leadership role as a woman or fem presenting unless there's a level of cleanup involved. And so there's so many conversations and so much invisibility of labor that during the pandemic had to emerge.

It just emerged because this is the backbone of our community. Being an American and being somebody who speaks English, all of these things are only possible because my parents, my mother was made a refugee. And so as the pandemic was happening, I think there was this kind of fragmentation in the community. There's this kind of epigenetic memory of loss in pain body that reemerged. And we don't think a lot about liberatory pathways I think as an Asian American community. We have a lot of folks who have gotten older in roles where they lead, but seldom do we think about, "Okay, well what's next for a program manager? What happens next? Are we all going to be exhausted executive directors? What does it look like to really seed a level of sovereignty for our young people and for them to want to do this work and anchor it, not in the state of fight or flight, but joy and possibility?"

And I think during the pandemic we really saw that emerge. I think it was actually an opportunity a lot of times for young folks to rise to the occasion of creating and really navigating not just representation, because I feel like for young people in New Orleans in particular, it's not about being seen in a black and white binary, but it's really about how we're able to control the narrative of how we're being perceived. And I think VAYLA has really casted a space, a brave space to be able to do so. One of the most amazing things I feel like our team has been able to accomplish during the pandemic was really bring forth this mutual aid idea, farm to families, connecting organizations' existence, and really continuing this mutuality system of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables with voter engagement materials, PPE to families because of some of the xenophobic things that are happening in food banks.

And so other than pivoting and navigating even through IDA, so much of the work that we've been doing has been about healing. And I think it's twofold for me. One, as somebody who leads as a trauma-informed clinician, oftentimes I think about the pain bodies of a community. I think about the nervous system of the community and how we can operate not from a reactive and kind of urgent space of transaction that's rooted so much in just the extractive nature of colonialism and white supremacy, but really moving in at the cadence of what is really urgent, what is really necessary. To me as a social worker and somebody who's worked in direct services for so long, to me what's urgent is somebody being shot, somebody needs housing for tonight, somebody needs a safe room. But urgency had to shift from, is the conversation really just about getting out the vote or is it about educating young people about what this system currently is?

And how it can harm reduce and how it can't harm reduce, and the limitations of how we can be each other's new system? What is actually necessary for us to reimagine everything? And I think Grace Lee Boggs is the one who said it, the time really came for us to reimagine everything, the way we worked, the way we communed, the way we celebrated each other. And I think one thing I always think about, and it was so true during this pandemic, is how we grieve as a community. To me, organizing is the ultimate offering and the community is the altar. And we have to constantly make offerings and take care of the altar. And funding is the weather. We have one event and philanthropy moves one way. We have one event and Home Depot will call me and say, "Hey, do you need this?" And I'm like, "We don't really align." But I think at this vantage point of seeing Gen Z and those that are coming up and this kind of new wave, the pandemic made room for emerging leaders to be very unapologetically queer, to be very unapologetically Asian.

To not just exist in the binary of, okay, if we don't co-opt black culture, if we don't put whiteness on this mantle, if we don't find white adjacency as a form of safety, what does a true Asian American voice sound like, feel like? How do we contextualize this praxis? And a part of that has been the healing process of this pandemic. How do we wake up to actually doing work that sustains, that cultivates a level of healing both forward and backwards? So I'll leave it at that.

Adriel Luis:

Woo. Thank you so much, Jax. I think that's so beautiful. Especially when we think about emergencies, there's always this ... we always want to be as prepared as we can before an emergency, but an emergency by definition is something that's sort of like ... just breaks the continuum or is something that occurs unexpectedly. And then in those moments we think of emergencies and we think about the urgency aspect of it in an emergency. But what you're talking about is the emerge part of an emergency. And I think that it really requires levelheadedness and experience and community amidst a pandemic, amidst climate catastrophe, amidst some sort of violence to make space to imagine.

I think with what Grace Lee Boggs is talking about, where imagination is so key because I mean, in so many ways, imagination is a sign of life. And without that life you're just surviving and you can only really sustain yourself so long if the end goal is just merely survival. So I love that you're talking about living and thriving because we know that we're going to go through things regardless of if you're in somewhere like New Orleans or not, things are going to happen that need response, that needs community to hold each other. And I think it's beautiful that you do that work. So thanks Jax. And Tiffany, I mean when I met you, you were working as an organizer at Pearl River Mart. Together we put up an exhibition with an artist, Yumi Sakugaoa, which was awesome. And that was back in 2018, kind of speaking to what Jaclyn and Jax were both talking about. I was also trying to pull myself out of some burnout.

Aren't we always? But I guess that said, what would really energize me was meeting someone like you and kind of seeing that there is a generation of people who are asking these deep questions that sometimes I honestly felt a little bit alone in asking. And I know that that was almost four years ago now. And so I'm really curious, since when I met you, you were really just at the beginning of this journey. Since then, now you've moved across the country and beyond into Hawaii. And I know that you're being exposed to so many schools of thought out there as well. So I'm curious, could you share a little bit about what inspired you to begin this journey and how things have been going ever since you've touched on at Hawaii?

Tiffany Beam:

Yeah. Thank you so much for your considerations. Hello everyone. I'm stoked to be here and to be in conversation with such amazing people. Already thinking so much from you all's answers. But to answer Adriel's, you are very much right where I was in the beginning in 2019 fall, winter 2019. And at the time I was really grappling with whether or not I wanted to go to grad school. So I would say that the biggest development for me since seeing you last, is that I became a graduate student. And it was not an easy decision to make for various reasons. But the pandemic, or I rather as Khailah Johnson says, the dual pandemic of Covid-19 and racial violence really pushed me to think about what skills I have, what my interests are, am I meeting them? Am I really developing them? Especially my privileges, am I using them the best way that I could? And I had resisted going to grad school for a very long time, didn't seem like a very hospitable place for folks of marginalized identities and positionalities.

But I felt that after being in a deep reflection about certain of those questions of what are my true interests, what are my core desires and how can I better use my privileges and positionality in the structures of power globally, the answer was grad school. And I am learning how to navigate grad school as an institution in terms of how do I make the academy work for me and for movements of liberation and justice without giving, or rather win all our time and energy is given to being legible to an institution of showing that we're being productive and that we're thinking and that these really complex ideas we can regurgitate in a semester. And including the fact that I am in grad school in occupied Hawaii, and so that has been another major, actually driving aspect of how I move through grad school, how I even see the usefulness of grad school.

And right now, the main thing for me that has been on my mind really as a guiding principle has been about moving at the speed of trust. And that's something that I got from Adrienne Maree Brown in "Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds," really just moving similar to what Jax was saying, moving at a certain cadence. And that cadence for me is not necessarily one that is in total responsiveness to an urgency of the times. The main thing that I really got from the pandemic was something I've been thinking a lot about is about how staying in, whether that's indoors... because that was really politicized with the staying in mandates, but staying also in terms of staying inside yourself, staying with your thoughts, staying in touch with yourself, staying in touch with your purpose in life, that was a really big thing when it seemed that what we had to do was to go out, speak out, be out.

And that's what political resistance looks like and it very much is. But I think what I've been really learning is that that's a more legible form of political resistance. And I think staying in touch with yourself, I think I'm somewhat echoing what Jacqueline was saying about giving yourself the permission to stay in and to take care. That was a really big thing for me. And so I'm staying in, I'm staying in that particular orientation as I'm here in occupied Hawaii, trying not to be too eager to get involved in certain things when there's so much work I have to do to become even familiar to this place. And that's I think particularly for me, who is Asian, I understand myself as an Asian settler in Hawaii and all of Turtle Island. But for me as an Asian settler, particularly in Hawaii, I actually feel this great impetus to feel a sense of familiarity and belonging.

And that has a lot to do with Hawaii's history of Asian settler colonialism where everywhere I look, I see my aunties, I see my grandma, I see my grandparents, I see my brother. And it's given me a sense of familiarity and belonging that I've never had growing up in Atlanta or being in New York. But I actually realize I have to suspend myself from that sense of belonging and realize that I'm in the ancestral... I'm not in America, I'm in the ancestral homes of Kānaka Maoli, I'm in Oceania. It's a different orientation. So I feel that I'm many ways ... so far, I'm kind of going through Hawaii kind of floating in a way and being in touch, being present though, it's not a kind of avoidance flowing, definitely being present to witness and to become more familiar in a way that is accountable to amazing, rich, vibrant Hawaiian movements of resistance, sovereignty and resurgence. Yeah.

Adriel Luis:

Beautiful. Thank you so much, Tiffany. I appreciate you sharing that. Also, your timing is perfect. Speaking of pandemic time things, my partner has an event mid-hour, and so I need you all to not get too distracted because I'm going to be holding a baby during the rest of this panel. Welcome to pandemic life. Everybody meet Datu ... what's that? All right, so speaking of this baby, and speaking of what Tiffany is saying, I mean I want to pose a question to all of you as a follow-up and I'll pose it and then I'll address it myself so that folks can have time to marinate. I'm really ... since this particular program is talking about many ways of knowing, which I think that these last couple of years has really opened up for us, I think many of us have been either stuck in our own ways, or for myself, I was just moving so fast that even if I saw that there were other ways available to me, I just didn't know how to even slow down to change course. And then Jaclyn said something like, having a baby ... aww.

Can change some things, right? For myself, it was also about changing pace. I'm curious for everybody, was there something that at the beginning of the pandemic or midway through the pandemic, you were like, "By the time this thing is done, I want to have shifted in myself?" I'm curious about ... for me it was about changing a different pace. It was about understanding that the things that I'm chasing aren't necessarily the things that I need to be chasing. And how do I change the reasons that I go about doing things? I'll keep it short saying that I had this baby, and I'm kind of midway through figuring out what that means. I think part of it is recognizing that taking care of a child and doing the work that I want to do for a world doesn't have to be mutually exclusive, which is the assumption I had made throughout my entire kind of growing up. Anyway, I'm going to pose this question to you first, Jaclyn. Thank you so much.

Jaclyn Roessel:

Yeah, so I appreciate... I just want to hug that little baby. I think that there's such wisdom in just the energy that Datu is bringing to the Zoom. Sometimes you have to move at a pace that's not your own, especially as a caregiver, especially as a parent. And I think I use caregiver really inclusively for being the way that we're caring for parents, the way that we care for community, that it is really extensive and inclusive in that care. And I love Tiffany naming the quote, which is really one that I try to work through and work toward is just moving at the speed of trust and reminding myself that oftentimes we can only move as fast as our least trusting partners and collaborators. And sometimes that that person is me on the inside. There's a part of me that is like, "Okay, I don't want to move that fast."

Sometimes my collaborators, my four- and almost-two-year-old don't want me to work, understand what that means and also wanting to model as a parent and a caregiver as somebody who is really trying to step into believing that our culture as indigenous people, as a [foreign language 00:39:31], as Navajo woman is inclusive of my teachings that my grandmothers and my parents have given me. And therefore, my children don't have to be separate from my company. My values don't have to be separate from my company. And I think some of the biggest things that I've had to work through were in that first year, and I wasn't yet expecting our youngest. But I was in that really messy first year of the pandemic and was grappling with just as somebody who provides milk, medicine to my child, being on client calls, trying to do work, trying to adjust, trying to be in a training, and literally juggling my caring for the child and caring for this, and really trying to teach myself not to apologize for my child who is with me on the call.

And I think there were a couple moments that I remember just a deep shame after I apologized to a client and was like, "I'm so sorry that they're just crying. I needed to step away for just a second," and just feeling so shameful that I was apologizing for this child. And up until the pandemic, I was working in circles with people in rooms where I was providing milk medicine in person. My child would ring my partner. We're doing the dance that Lovely and Adriel are doing where it's like, "Okay, here you go, here you go," moving between meetings and we would travel as a pack and hand off and schedule calls. And there was maybe not yet a fluency, but at least a rhythm that we were finding ourselves in that was completely kind of shifted. And so I think that idea of not apologizing for my kin, not apologizing for myself, but just really trying to ... I guess where I'm at now is screening the people that I want to work with, the partners and company I want to keep.

And I think to date I have felt really excited that I've been working with people who I don't have to explain that my mother-in-law, who we work with and depend on so much for just support of childcare, had exposure or had these things that happened that we've then had to shuffle. And so I'm not working with people who don't understand that by hiring an indigenous woman, by hiring me as a Navajo woman, I am bringing my people with me. And that's the way it's got to be. And I think that unapologetic nature is something that I was not owning in the beginning of the pandemic, but I think that I have found the way I want to be now and the way I'm trying to step into my values and the way that I don't want my children to feel bad that they're sick or that they need something from me, but really feeling the onus as a family that they support my work and practice. And they're the reason why I have a justice oriented company.

I am building what I'm building the best I can for them and the world I hope that I'm trying to make an impact on. So it feels necessary that they're a part of it, that they're a part of my Zoom calls, even in moments when I'm like, "I can't get another snack, not right now."

Adriel Luis:

Yeah, I totally hear you. Apparently in the facial expression, tug of war, mommy decided to take the baby, but maybe Datu will turn this again later on. I totally hear you on that, especially when it comes to this idea of, I mean, why did you hire me in the first place? Why do you even want to work with me in the first place? I mean, we established these partnerships and collaborations. Again, community is considered to be such a hot word, but then when we're planning for these community events or programs, when we're strategizing for them, even when we're at them, suddenly we need to apologize for the aspects of self that we're bringing to the table to be a part of this community, which is ... I have to admit, since working in museums and institutions is a very different world than when I was operating as a full-time artist, I was very much used to going into meetings where somebody's nursing a baby, somebody's mom is kind of kicking it downstairs because they're visiting for the weekend, things like that.

And when I was brought into my position at the Smithsonian, part of what was discussed was the fact that the experience I was bringing was something that they're interested in having in the museum world, but it still took me some time to realize what it means to actually embrace that. And I think the pandemic period where currently all of us are right now, guests in each other's homes, in each other's spaces right now, and how do we embrace that instead of feeling we need to jury rig everything into this template that we've all been struggling with for a really long time.

I'm wondering for you, Jax, New Orleans, I know that it has become this place where there's always these conferences and conventions and big art fairs, and that eye roll is something I've become very familiar with from New Orleans locals when this is brought up because it's just like, there's always this idea ... whenever you read a description of a convention or a conference that's going to New Orleans, they'll bring up why this community is so important to plug into, even though they end up just staying in their own silos, maybe go onto Bourbon Street and actually miss a lot of the magic of New Orleans. And so I'm curious with you, how have you worked with bringing your full self into this space? And how has that full self kind of shifted as you've navigated the pandemic?

Jax Thanh:

These are such delicious questions. I'm like, "Oh, I wish my therapist would ask me these." But I feel like New Orleans, for me, the magic is the constant... the magic and the suffering of New Orleans is the constant need to alchemize grief, the constant need to be confronted with your mortality. And in the pandemic's wake, I feel like the parts of our community that were allowed to be siloed, that felt like it was safer to be siloed, did not feel that way. And so bringing my full self to me means being unapologetic about the inter-ethnic tensions that I hold in my body. I'm both Chinese and both Vietnamese, there's both settler colonialism in me and there's both indigenous in me. And how do I contend with this even in my own body showing up as a full-bodied Asian American fem presenting person? And at the beginning of the pandemic, it was so funny because we intentionally, in between all of this work, I eloped and got married with my husband abroad, and we did it during Mardi Gras.

We came back and I still remember wearing an N95 mask at JFK. They're like, "Ugh, she thinks she's going to catch Corona." And I'm like, "I sure do." But it was within three weeks, everything kind of shut down. And since then, it's just been a series of ... from 2020 till now, it's been a series of loss, grief, real people dying, bodies. And for me, the pandemic made me realize that a lot ... it's similar to what you've said, so much of our lives are spent chasing these secular accolades and the conditioning of what we feel like will make us feel safe and make us feel like we're going to belong. And ironically, Tiffany, I also went back to graduate school. I'm like, "Is this a trauma response to the pandemic?" But I went back from my doctorate because during this pandemic I had a professor, I'm not going to name who or from which institution, reach out.

And she had spent her entire career studying my parents' refugee camp. And I was like ... I felt this deep rage in me. I was like, "Wow, the world is literally on fire in so many ways and you're just casually doing this." And I had this deep epiphany where I'm like, "I can't afford to be angry." And I have this mantra where I'm like, "I can't afford to be angry and I can't afford to hurry, and I can't afford to be impatient." And so I'm actually back in school for my doctorate and really exploring the praxis and the visualization of what it means to be Asian American. And that means I have to be authentic. I have to be honest, I have to be vulnerable. And so much of that is about grieving. A lot of the things that I think as a community and as a society, we celebrate, I don't think they are things that we actually should be celebrating.

And I think when you're a child in refugees, you can't celebrate wins "the same way." I sometimes feel like the closer and better I am at the language of performing for institutions, performing for academia, performing for conferences, and these points of inquiry that folks in philanthropy or nonprofits have, the further away I get from home, the further I get away from family. So as Jaclyn was talking about, I have to be unapologetic about bringing in kin. I feel like kin is how we work. I think the pandemic has allowed me to understand ... and I had this conversation today with our team, that even if you are adopted, even if you don't have parents or you have this kind of displaced sense of belonging as an Asian American and this kind of racial melancholy and fragmentation in a place like New Orleans, the parallel for me in living in a state where there's less than 3 percent Asian Americans is that I can feel this divine patriarchal love from strangers.

I have this sensitivity to the matriarchal love of the land. I share this ancestor with people who don't look anything like me because I feel the same pain and I celebrate the same joys. And it might not manifest the same way or look the same way, but being my full self is allowing the community to see me and not just consume me. I think when we've existed under imperialism and colonialism for so long, it's embedded into the genetics. And when we feel like being seen means feeling consumed, we've forgot what importance being witness is. Being witness is very different than being consumed. And so I think being able to tell my own story and cast a space for young storytellers to emerge and not from an extractive lens or from a lens of amplifying representation, but from a deep lens of knowing that your authenticity is your power and that that's the essence of the ancestor you will become. That has been, I think, the pandemic's biggest gift for me. This opportunity for deep resignating healing.

I think New Orleans, just to wrap it up, New Orleans as a whole, we face so much just violence, like bureaucratic violence, actual physical violence, but we don't think about how we're setting up systems of failure. If we set goals to achieve certain things, but we don't have systems of mutuality to sustain these things. And the pandemic has allowed for these spaces to show up and emerge what's necessary, how are we going to pivot. Yeah.

Adriel Luis:

Yeah. I mean, when you're talking about that extraction, I mean, I feel like that's where the three of you are currently based. There's a commonality in that level of extraction. When you think about the Nevaquaya, the American Southwest, when you think about New Orleans, when you think about Hawaii, these are places where there is this level of gawker tourism. There is an extensive amount of resource land and natural resource extraction. And then there's also a level of this sort of extraction from the communities of just wanting to come in, capture the stories for various agendas. And it can be really draining. It can be really, really depleting. So yeah, thanks so much for sharing that. I think with Tiffany, and I know that you had inspired this question talking about with you, change of pace. And so I'm curious, because I lived in New York for a few years and I still walk like a New Yorker.

It's been 10 years since I lived in New York, and I still walk hella fast, even back here in L.A. And I'm wondering for you as you've been changing your pace and also changing your location to somewhere where I feel like people do kind of know how to saunter a bit more than they do somewhere like New York City. And also as you've seen other young Asian Americans around you become more attuned to things like native histories, how has that shifted how you understand your space and what kind of advice would you give to other Asian Americans and also just other Americans in general who are thinking about what did it mean to reconsider their context in the history of this land?

Tiffany Beam:

Wow. Okay. I think first ... I think I'm a little stuck already on the advice thing. Can you remind me what the first part of the question was?

Adriel Luis:

Sure, sure. And maybe the idea of advice might not be the right framing. I guess I'm just wondering because I've seen so many people who seem to be following very similar footsteps, a very similar path as what I saw you walking in 2019. I'm curious, what have been some of the things that have helped you in this guidance for yourself? I know that for example, when we met, you were reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's "Braiding Sweetgrass", and that was really influential to you. Have there been other, I guess, tangible bits of inspiration or information that have been helpful for you as you've been seeking your path?

Tiffany Beam:

Thank you. Yeah. Okay. I have to say that I do still walk like a New Yorker here in Hawaii or at least it was very noticeable when I first settled here. I was walking very, very fast. And I think everyone thought that there was some kind of emergency that I was dealing with. And so one thing I guess to also refer back to pandemic time is to be a little bit more present. And I think what I've been trying to work more on as being present to the experience of shifting the actual experience of it. And so I resonate a lot with Jax that it's a lot of grief. There's a lot of grief involved.

When I think about "In The Pandemic's Wake," I think of a wake. So I think mostly in terms of that as well, that there's a lot for us to collectively grieve. So I resonate with Jax about that. But what has also helped me change, I guess my pace here in Hawaii is actually the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, who talks about a double loneliness that exists because of so-called modernity. And it's a loneliness between humans and the more than human and specifically the relatives of indigenous peoples. And so I've heard a similar sentiment among Native Hawaiians here as well. And Robin Wall Kimmerer says that one of the first things we can do as an act of reciprocity is to pay attention.

And so I've been trying to pay attention more just around my surroundings, and also to be open to ... well I'm being open, but actually challenge oftentimes what has been deemed "logical, rational, or even possible," I try to move around the space acknowledging ... or not space, but place Hawaii knowing that the land is alive and speaking to us however broadly us is. And so just with that acknowledgement, I try to walk around understanding that I'm an uninvited guest and that this land is alive. And so what I have done, I actually have not really verbalized this quite often, so we'll see how this lands. But I introduce myself wherever I go to myself or underneath my breath, I just say who I am and what my intentions are. And sometimes there's a hōʻailona, or a sign, hōʻailona in Ōlelo Hawai'i, in Hawaiian language, sometimes there might be a sign.

And I think part of me being an Asian settler here is to never really know what that sign is, just to acknowledge that there's a sign. And so I think part of that process of becoming familiar is like, how do you even know? I think to an extent, you cannot ... I mean Asian settlers cannot know, but I think it is important for us to already know that there are signs and that those who have ... Native Hawaiians who are home to, have a literacy in that science. And that's why it's important to stand behind indigenous peoples, or in my case, Native Hawaiians because they have ʻike kupuna, they have ancestral knowledge. And despite ongoing projects of imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, there has been such concerted effort to ensure those ancestral knowledges are still passed down among generations. And so I think the main thing I suppose I would pass down, I guess what I'm circling around, I think here's this idea of positionality, of knowing the limits of certain knowledges, the limits of what one can know.

And that is where collaboration solidarity exists because where I end is where ... where my limits and knowledge end is where others or in this case I'm talking about Native Hawaiians or Kānaka Maoli began and then some. And actually I've learned from my students this past semester that I asked them at the end of the semester to share a term that really unsettled them or that they really want to take with them as they continue forward. And they all said it was positionality. And positionality is something that's so easy to understand, but also so hard because it's deeply contextual and it requires such an understanding of structures of power, where you are in structures of power and how structures of power are not fixated or static. They change based on different conditions and context. And so I think that's where this practice that I've been also ... this practice of staying in that I'm really inspired by, specifically Summer Kim Lee, who I think is a part of this emerging queer anti-social term in Asian American studies, this practice of staying in, being able to witness to these ...

To be able to sense these changing contexts and know how you were situated in these contexts, to know what your responsibilities are, whether that's to step up, step back, or even step out. And so I think, I hope it's clear that it just requires so much presence and also so much willingness to understand greater social, political, economic conditions. And so I think that's why I think the pandemic has really ... perhaps we should really see the pandemic as an opportunity or an invitation to what you all are saying, slowed down. But for me to really stay in so that I can be responsive, so that I can reciprocate, so that I can really allow myself have the space to navigate different conditions and different conditions of crisis. Yeah. We'll end there.

Adriel Luis:

Thank you so much. No, it's a beautiful way to end there. And I feel like we're just scratching the surface of something larger, and so I really appreciate the three of you, Jax, Jaclyn and Tiffany coming and joining us. I feel like these hour long programs, you only really get to get in a couple of things. But I know that I've gotten so much out of this conversation. I have so much more to reflect on. In some ways, this conversation has sort of transported me back to those first few months of the pandemic in a good way, in terms of when I was like, "Oh my God, there's this new way of having conversations with people that feels deeper and where we can really start to unravel things that maybe we weren't able to really sit with the same way when we were kind of in the hustling grind." So I appreciate you all. I've just also missed you all so much. So I'm so happy to spend this time with you.

And I guess I'll pass it on to our organizers. I'm really appreciative to Andrea and Amanda also. Thank you so much, Lucy for the ASL interpretation, to Joy for the captioning. Thanks to the staff of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Thanks so much for having me and having us.

Andrea Kim Neighbors:

Thanks everyone. And thank you all for being here, Adriel, Tiffany, Jax, Jaclyn. Thank you so much for such a rich conversation. I think it was really the perfect way to end this inaugural series. So I can't thank you enough. I want to thank everyone who participated, who listened in and shared comments and questions. I hope that you walk away from this talk with new ideas, new reflecting points, and ways to also take care of yourself. I think that is something that came through in what I was hearing through this conversation. I'd also love to give special shout out to those who made today's program possible and the series, Amanda Sciandra, Naimah Muhammad, Joshua Bell, and Sabrina Sholts. Thank you all again. When you exit the webinar, you'll be linked to a survey which you can also follow with the link provided in the Q&A. We hope you'll take a moment to respond. We read every response. We really appreciate your feedback.

Your time and feedback on these forms really help inform decisions that we can make to bring more programs like this to you. Thank you all so much for being here. Good night. Bye Datu.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar aired December 13, 2022, as part of the "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders" series.

Accessibility Notes

This video includes closed captions and American Sign Language interpretation.


Embracing intersectional perspectives and the many ways of knowing found in cultures and communities can empower ourselves and each other to be active members of the world. In this video, Adriel Luis, Smithsonian Curator of Digital and Emerging Media, talks with leaders who are affecting social change and transformation in their communities today. The discussion features Tiffany Beam (Artist-scholar, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa), Jaclyn Roessel (Director of Decolonizing Initiatives at the San Diego Museum of Man), and Jacqueline Thanh (Executive Director of VAYLA New Orleans).

Host: Andrea Kim Neighbors, head of Education at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Webinar Series: In the Pandemic's Wake

This program was the third and final one in the series "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders," presented by Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Asian Pacific American Center with federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Other Videos in the Series

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts