Awakin Calls » Lee Mun Wah » Transcript
Lee Mun Wah: The Color of Fear
Guest: Lee Mun Wah
Host: LuAnn Cooley
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
LuAnn: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is LuAnn and I'm really excited to be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. Behind each of these calls is entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Lee Mun Wah. Thanks again for joining our call. Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Thank you and welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today, in conversation with Lee Mun Wah. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that's co-created by many invisible hands. In a few minutes our moderator Birju Pandya will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker, Lee Mun Wah, and by the top of the hour, we will roll into a Q&A and a circle of sharing where we'll invite all of your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now. So at any point you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and because I have a very Southern accent, it is A-S-K at servicespace dot org, or submit a question or comment via the webcast form, if you're listening in online via live webcast.
Our moderator today is Birju Pandya. He is a longtime volunteer with ServiceSpace. He is interested in how to bring the topic of transformation and human development into business and finance. He has played decision-making roles in multiple financial institutions pushing the boundaries of “finance for good.” Most recently that has included bringing concepts such as dialogue practice and shadow work into the office. I had the pleasure of meeting Birju last year, and know him to be that rare person who listens deeply and is equally comfortable talking about the latest ideas in philosophy as he is in advising me on the latest septic systems for my homestead. I'm looking forward to what I know is going to be an insightful conversation. Birju, will you now introduce Lee Mun Wah and start the conversation. Birju?
Birju: I'm smiling very bigly right now. Thank you so much, LuAnn. And as you mentioned, our guest today is Lee Mun Wah. He is a storyteller, a community elder, a master diversity trainer, among his many hats that he wears. He's been behind multiple award-winning books and films, runs a diversity training company, and he's had his work shared on multiple platforms such as TED and Oprah Winfrey. His work focuses on how we create a culture of belonging, and his message for the world is that the secret to changing the world is always a mirror and a dream of a better world. Mun Wah, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mun Wah: Thank you Birju.
Birju: I would love to start at the beginning from a chronological space, and ask you: when you think back to your childhood and your adolescence, would you say that there were formative experiences that planted seeds for the kind of work you're doing now. Would you have any stories to share?
Mun Wah: Yeah, I would. I think it's ... everyone has an incredible story that starts as we begin this life. And I was thinking that somebody once that we have two most important moments in our lives: the day we are born and the day we find out why. I also think that perhaps it's not only the day we were born but it's also to find out why we became who we became, too, is very important. And I was born in the flatlands of Oakland -- Oakland, California -- and I'm very proud of that. I was just finishing up my life story. It took about 11 years to write, called River of J. And I think that I looked back at all these really fond memories that I had. We were in the flatlands of Oakland long before it became segregated, where there was white flight that went up to the hills. Probably more like I was about 8 to 10 years old. But before that it was all these poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians all living in the flatlands, and it was one thing that we all had in common and so we had lots of sleepovers and getting to know each other and play together and it was a really warm and incredible experience.
I grew up with two brothers and two sisters. They were my playmates and we had so much fun. And I remember because we were so poor, oftentimes we'd just have enough money -- maybe my mother would give us a quarter to buy a gift or make a gift for each other. And then also because we were so poor, we oftentimes would get Christmas gifts and my mom would just choose one for us, and we'd have all the other ones that were given to us that were wrapped -- we would, when we went to our aunts' and uncles' homes -- then we would give them those gifts. And so forus, it was, it was just beautiful to get that one gift, and also how fun it was to make each other gifts. I don't remember being poor, and I think a lot of people don't. When you live in a family that's poor you make use of everything around you. Everything becomes a plaything, and even in the garden I would go by myself and play and create all these little worlds of mine. So it really was, it was filled with lots of fantasy and a phenomenal amount of things to explore and enjoy. And so in that way it was it was a very fruitful one.
However, one of the things that was also part of my life and, I think, it's this sense of duality -- is that at one point, you know, when I'm at home, when I'm with my mom and my dad's mostly working, is that my father was very emotionally and physically abusive, and he often would beat me mercilessly. And so I experienced tremendous amount of feelings that I wasn't smart enough, that somehow there was something that was bad about me. I remember my father constantly beating me and I'd always have to say I was sorry. But I didn't know what I was sorry about. And earlier on when I was asking you, Birju, about parts of yourself and you were talking about shame and blame, and one of the things that I shared with you was that it's often, we pass that on from how we were treated when we were younger, and I think that my father always blamed. There was a phenomenal amount of shame that went around in our in our families. And so I think that I passed that on, and because of the beatings I did very poorly in school.
And I remember something very profound in my life was when I was at school and it was 95- degree weather and I was wearing sweatpants, and the gym teacher said to me, "it must be really hard at home." And at 12 years old, he was the first adult that noticed that something was happening for me. Because often times when I got my beatings, I started to realize, in my biography, that nobody said a word -- I had not even realized that no one said a word, not even my mother. It was almost that all this screaming that was going on downstairs, everybody pretended they were asleep, and then pretended perhaps the next day that it really didn't happen.
And so ... but what happened was I decided, after the teacher had put his arm around me and consoled me, that I decided that it wasn't something wrong with me. So I went home and my father attempted to beat me again, and he told me to say I was sorry, I said "no, I'm not. I'm not sorry if I haven't done anything wrong." I remember he was just angry and he started hitting me more, and I said, "no, I'm not going to say I'm sorry." And then he threw the stick down. And then he said, "Well then you're going to military school." And so he dragged me next morning to school to take me out of school to sign me up to military school. And I remember he was in the office yelling, and I was out in the hallway -- I remember this really well -- and I think I can understand what abuse victims go through. It's that to protect my father, I convinced myself that there must be ... I must be a really bad child, and my father was simply doing what was right to straighten me out.
And I think that's how, you know, somebody once said that when the truth becomes too hard to bear, we create another one, and I think that's what I did. So what happened was, when they were yelling, then when my father came out of the office. slammed the vice principal's office door, and then slammed the school door, and I kept thinking, "what happened?" And then out came Vice Principal Miller, Ron Miller. One of my teachers, he's one of the key people I remember because of what he did in my life.
He said to me, as he held me, he said, "There's nothing wrong with you. It's your father." And at that moment, it was really an acknowledgement that I was good that there was nothing wrong with me. What was so amazing about that experience was I later on became junior class president when I went to high school and eventually student body president. I left with a whole new sense of feeling that I could go to college, that I was smart enough, and good enough to be able to deserve to be happy. So when I look at my childhood it has this duality. I think I'm not the only one. I also believe very strongly that it could have gone either way. It could have gone that I hurt myself, dropped out of school that I just never dreamed that I could be anything. And so I'm very grateful for where I am, but I'm also very humbled to know that I was very fortunate that there were some very caring and loving adults that were around who saved my life.
Birju: Yeah, it sounds like what seems like small interventions on the surface played deep roles in resetting life direction.
Mun Wah: Don't you think that's true all the time, isn't it? I just had my 70th birthday. What happened was, I went to Nepal. I always wanted to go to Nepal and I was there for about 10 days and but unbeknownst to me, my director sent out a notice to all the folks around the country to write me notes about their experiences that they had with me and it was so amazing the letters I got - I got thousands of letters. Many of them said: you know, there was an audience of a thousand people and you saw me coughing, you were on the stage and when we were all paired up you went out and got me a glass of water; you touched my shoulder; you gave me Kleenex; you looked at me and you smiled at me and the way you hugged me was like no other person I've ever hugged before; you really saw me, cared about me. And so I think it is those small moments, perhaps, what it's also saying too, is that you see me, you value me.
Birju: Well, this is a community that is strongly connected to the idea of small acts of kindness as being a pathway for personal transformation. So I think it deeply resonates with this particular audience and I am curious as I hear you alluding to kind of the shift in life trajectory that happened after that. Can you talk a little bit more about what your life was like as you went through that path of a degree and getting those early jobs and where those seeds picked up there.
Mun Wah: Well, I wanted to become a lawyer and not that I liked law, but I wanted to become one because my brother was an ophthalmologist and my other brother was an orthodontist and every time I said I thought of being a teacher, he (my father) would not even smile or tell people about that. And so I said I want to be a lawyer and I saw his eyes light up. So, I took law classes and pre-law classes at San Francisco State College and and then I dreamed of going into government, partly because of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and all these figures important figures -- Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X during that time. Well, first of all in my senior year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated which was devastating for me and then Robert F Kennedy and then Martin Luther King and it was all around the month of April and May. I remember it was pouring rain and and I walked across the campus and decided not to graduate and to change majors to child psychology. What ended up is that I got a BA in child psychology and in political science, but I was horrible at Math which breaks the mythology that all Asians are good at Math. I remember I was going to go on to Clinical Psychology and it said Advanced Statistics. I thought, "Oh no, I barely got past, you know, elementary statistics." I also hated filling out application forms. There was a 4 page one for Clinical Psychology. So, I was in the library agonizingly trying to write out this application for graduate school and across from me was this young man who is filling up his graduate school application and it was only one page long. I said to him what is that for and he said it was for education. And so I said, "Oh really"! And so I became a teacher for 25 years and taught Special Ed.
But I want to share something about that, because you know as part of that moments where teachers helped you out. Because I was such a poor student in the beginning, when I walked into the classroom at Hunter's Point, which is a poor black area in San Francisco, I remember it really well because I looked at the faces of the children, [I write about this quite often and talk about it with other teachers when I'm doing trainings] is that I don't think I ever saw a child who was eight years old in the third grade look so discouraged, so lost, so giving up on life, and so early, because of his life experiences, in the sense that nobody even saw anything in him or her. So when I walked into my first class what I said to the students is that it's not that you can't learn it's just that we haven't figured out a way to teach you. And I really wanted to take away the burden that there was something wrong with them, but that we had to adjust to work with the children that we were told to be caring for.
From that moment on, I started really teaching children how to write. I remember the first thing I said to them is I want you to write on something that you wish that you could write about. So I had to make a list of ten things and many of them wrote down if I were Superman, I was the fastest, or the richest person of the world and they really got into it. Then I thought I'm not going to grade you on spelling or grammar. I'm just going to grade you on every page you write, you get an A. And so the kids were really smart. They started writing one letter or a word a page. But then after a while, I would have the children read their compositions and then they got more excited and then soon they were loving to write and they were writing volumes. Then I had put them all into a book. Then I got a podium and a microphone and invited their parents and interested administrators and teachers and I had them in a room and my students would come up one at a time and this is what they would say, "Hello, my name is Jim Roosevelt or James Roosevelt and I am a poet or they would say I am a writer, I'm an artist, I am a musician, I am a dreamer. Then they would read their work and everybody would applaud them. It was also that we printed it out and soon the children were all dreaming of what they could be.
I also told the students that didn't have to just go to college – that they could follow their dreams and they could actualize their dreams because everybody who graduated college has eventually have to try and actualize their dreams anyway. They became excited about themselves and I also wrote reading and spelling and math program. So the kids could really learn in a way that adapted to the way of learning. We played games. For students who are very verbal and physical like African-American students and Latino students, I did games to the class like spelling games, you know, what's behind the door. And every child who had a birthday, I made sure that I made them a cake so that every child's birth was important and so each of my students really cared about it. Can you imagine in the classroom in junior high and a student would come to me and go like this, "Mr. Lee. Mary looks very sad today. I think we should go over and talk with her or Mr. Lee, Johnny hasn't come to school for two days, I think we should call his mom and see if he's okay." Can you imagine a classroom like that where you actually cared about each other?
I had us also go to each other's homes. We took excursions into Latino areas, black areas, and into Chinatown. So they really got to see places that they had never gone. First, I asked my black students, "How come you don't go into Chinatown?" They said, "Oh Mr. Lee, don't you know? The Chinese butchers would come after us." I said, "Really?" All the Asian kids were laughing and I said to the Asian kids, "How come you don't go into black areas?" They were told by their parents that they would be robbed or raped or they would be beaten. And I said let's go in there and find out if that's true. Let's have those children who are in our classes show us their world.
And what was so beautiful about that experience I did was, that later on when I was doing diversity work in New York City, I was in front of six different high schools; they were all together about 600 students and one of the students, who was Asian, said, "We were told never to go into Harlem because," once again, like in black areas, "we're going to get beaten up or raped. They have food that's very bad and spoiled." And all these Asian kids and white kids told us to avoid Harlem. Then all the people and teachers were stunned like what am I going to say. So, all I simply said was, "those of you who live in Harlem. come on down here." It was primarily almost all the black students and then I had them share what they loved about Harlem. They said it was so beautiful, the smell, and all their uncles and aunts and grandpas play beautiful music and they share food. All the food is just beyond belief how beautiful it is. The colors and how happy and inviting the people are there. Then that same child who was Asian and was scare, said, "Can you show me that Harlem?" Then soon all these other students in the room said, "Can you have us go to see that Harlem?"
I think perhaps that might be the key, isn't it? That when we want to make America great again, perhaps what it really means is not for a select group, not for any to decide who is an American and who is not, but rather let us see the worlds that we all live in- the families and the journeys that we've all had to take to get here and what we all have to contribute. Imagine. I would really invite the President of the United States to eat and sit with immigrant families to really see what it would be like to go hungry, to see how hard they work. I would like him to go to where all those migrant children are supposedly having a wonderful time in cages; to sit in there for one full day with those children, to see what they have to experience. I would encourage him to see what it'd be like to leave one of his grandchildren there; not even tell them, him or her, that he's coming back and to see how she or he might feel after one year. So all of that, to me, is about how we can bring this world together. You don't have to do something really big, but be able to do it with the people around you.
Birju: I appreciate hearing the kind of flipping around, where in the early stage of your life, you were the recipient of these small acts of kindness and here you are, kind of, doling it out to untold numbers of folks. And I love that the both sides of that being shared at least as I'm hearing it, and as I understand it, there were pivotal moments during that period of time for you where you had a shift, shift in your work to be more expansive and so I'm wondering if you could share a little bit more about what happened with your family life that shifted life for you.
Mun Wah: I have a hunch I know what you're talking about. In my book. I write two experiences and one is before my mother's death and after my mother's death. People often wondered how did you shift from being a teacher which you loved and I obviously did. I had wonderful years doing that. It was in 1985. I think I've been teaching for about 15-20 years and the principal came in my office and told me that I had to get home as soon as possible because something happened to my mother. When I got home my two roommates told me that my mother had been kidnapped. It's very interesting, just as today is a beautiful warm day, at least here in California, and that was exactly the kind of day it was. I remember it perfectly. As I was driving home across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I remember thinking this couldn't be that my mother was kidnapped so when I got home my roommates told me that she was kidnapped and I should go to my sister's house.
And when I got to my sister's house, my eight-year-old niece was crying on the lawn and it was then that I knew that my mother was gone. At 10 o'clock in the morning of January 31st, 1985, an African-American man broke into my mom's home, knocked down the front door and shot my mother five times in the head in a robbery and then went down the hill and he killed three other women. Needless to say, I was devastated. I just couldn't believe it could happen. You know, I think I know what those young students feel in Florida. in Charlottesville, and all around the country and even this morning, you know, to have someone you love and then one moment they're gone. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to my mom and so for three years I was traumatized, literally traumatized and I remember a teacher came in and said, "you know, you don't have anything on your walls." I didn't even know I didn't. I usually filled it up with pictures and the work of the kids, but I didn't have anything on there and I was just crying and curling up on my table during my breaks. Finally the doctor said I was getting a condition, so I decided to go into therapy and then I became a therapist and started working with men who are violent and eventually on to the issues of racism and then eventually my life changed. Then I did an Asian men's group to deal with anger, racism, and leadership, which I think were issues that I really wanted to work on because of myself, as an Asian man in this country. Then the American Psychological Association honored me for my 10 years of doing this group, that I had, and being the only one in the United States dealing with Asian men population of these issues.
Birju: Can I pause you there, Mun Wah? I'm really curious to dive a little deeper into some of what you shared. I mean if I were in the boat that you're describing in 1985, 1986, one of the things that would really strongly come up for me is this constrictive feeling and going into the dark parts of myself that would be more in the space of othering, right? See, "My father was right all along" kind of mindset. I'm just curious what happened. How did the anger transform?
Mun Wah: It was a contradiction for me because my father had told me that blacks would do all these things to you and then he said now you see what I mean. And here I was working with all these black children. I saw both worlds. It is not that I wasn't angry at the violence. But I had a very different experience than any of my brothers and sisters because I had the opportunity to meet loving and caring black families that were not much different than ours, but also different in many other ways too. I think that it was the violence, just the pure act of violence, that I replayed for many many years and I had nightmares literally. I dreamed that I would try and save my mom because I was supposed to be in the house that day. I was called away to a meeting. I was going to have breakfast with my mom, which I often did. I took one day a month off to spend the whole day with her. So, I kept blaming myself that I should have saved her and it was driving me crazy. Every now and then, I would be in a cold sweat. We'd be hiding in the house and he'd always find us and pulled her out of my arms and I'd be crying and screaming. I knew I was going to have to give up teaching - the thing I loved. I had no idea what I was going to do. To be honest, the truth of it is I contemplated suicide a number of times because I just felt so badly that I should have saved her and I shouldn't be alive, that I should have been the one being killed and not my mom. The horrible part about this is that I couldn't talk to anyone about it. I couldn't talk to my father. I couldn't talk to my brother and sisters because no one talked about my mom's death. So, I had to just carry all of this inside of myself. I think that was perhaps the hardest part. No one even thought I was contemplating suicide because the pain was just so strong. I couldn't find any relief for it. When I was happy, I was crying. When I was sad, I was crying, you know. Then the hardest part was that life was moving on. It was almost as if nothing happened and I became invisible. So, when people ask me, how did you transform? I have said that my mom's death, the sorrow, the grief, and the trauma has never left me. I think anybody will tell you that. I think when you ask the Parkland students. No, it will never leave them. It is now a part of my life.
Where, perhaps, it slowly happened and I could get back up again was when I started to just look at life; when I started to take very small steps of just wanting to live one more day; and it was really like an alcoholic. I was just (trying) to make it through one full day. And, eventually, it became two days and then three days and then a week. And then the other one was to allow myself to forgive myself.
But then something profoundly happened. I remembered telling my sister. My older sister and I were really close and I just said, "I just can't stop crying. I just can't stop grieving." And she said to me, and I asked her if it'll ever go away, and she said, "No. It will always be with you, but it will be something that you'll learn to live with. It'll become a part of your life. It won't become all of your life but it will become part of it." And I don't know what it was. Everyone told me, I would move on and would be okay, but that was a relief that I didn't have to, that it would always still be with me. Because I felt like, if I left it, I would have left the memory of my mother. I was so scared that I would forget her. I would so forget the feeling, like I could. Because the grief and the shame and the blame was becoming so familiar to me. I didn't know how to live without it.
And so I had to learn to live with it and then eventually to reach that place that was, perhaps, you know -- I remember at the Great Highway near the beach in San Francisco, I just screamed out, it was almost sunset, and I was just screaming and crying, "Where do I go? Where do I go now?" I was so clear what the course of my life would be as a teacher. But where would I go with all of this grief and this broken heart? Then I realized that therapy was a way that I could help others. Not get past what I was talking about, but to learn to live with it and to grow from it. So that's how I first started off doing grief counseling and then eventually moved into working with men who were violent and then onto this other work. But there is a story here that's very profound and that is when I was asked to film my Asian men's group and it won all these awards and I went on to do The Color of Fear, which then became the best documentary in the United States and then Oprah Winfrey wanted me on her program.
Birju: Would it be okay if you could share a little bit of context on The Color of Fear and Stolen Ground, as just a little context on how you took... You know, what I hear is, now the experience with your mother's passing is now a part of you that becomes this healing tool in a broad platform kind of way.
Mun Wah: Yeah, when I did the Asian men's group, I felt very lost. You see, what happened was, in working with men who were violent, I also discovered I was afraid of men because of my father, and that most of my best friends were all women and that I played sports with men and played cards with them, but I didn't confide in them personally.
I had joined a men's group which was primarily white, but I felt like they didn't understand what it was like for me to be Asian. I remember one time I got really pissed and one of the white men said, "Well, come on! Get angry!" And I said, "I am angry." And then they said, "No, I don't feel it." And I said, "Oh, I see. You want me to get mad like a white person gets mad. But this is really angry as an Asian man, but that's someone that you don't know." Then that's why I decided that I had been imitating white men or feeling like I was always "less than" because of them. So I started an Asian men's group in my home and I started doing it very differently, with food, and us telling our stories and inviting our parents in. Then eventually I moved into the anger and racism that we experienced and it was a very profound experience. I felt like I was with the brothers that I had always wanted to have.
So when the American Psychological Association fell in love with that and wanted me to film it, I did. But then that's where my life changed, because now my work was out there into the public. And then, hence, and that film was all Asian men. And then I thought, “What would it be like if I had men of different colors, not just Asian men?” So I eventually gathered together all these eight men. And all my films have no script. It's all individuals. In that film, all the men get angry without any holds barred, they just let go. And I realized, “My God! I'm filming this incredible experience.” And what was very profound about that one was, I had 15 therapeutic questions, and I only got to 1 and it's always been the same one and that was, "What is your name and what's your ethnicity?" which I think is very general. It was for a sound check and those men exploded until 3 O'clock in the morning. They were so angry at the question. And once again, it was the same thing. I recently wrote in a newsletter, "Who is an American and who is not?"
Birju: So Mun Wah, this was in the 80s and 90s. Is that right?
Mun Wah: Yes. It was in 1995 when I filmed it.
Birju: Can you share, like, how did you process that? Like, what were you learning about the culture that you were embedded in?
Mun Wah: Well, the culture we were living in was Martin Luther King. Muhammad Ali was the first guy who came out and said, "I am beautiful." And I went, “What? He's beautiful!” And Martin Luther King started really talking about the world we were living in, and I had never seen such an eloquent...as well as Muhammad Ali, you know, just saying the truth out loud. I mean, most of that time it had always been white people that I'd heard from and I was told that Malcolm X was a dangerous communist. Eventually, by the way, both Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King were also called that. Most people don't want to remember that.
It also was the time of student protests when we started to want to have Asian Studies, Black Studies, Latino Studies. It was also the time of the Vietnam War, and I also was a draft protester. I could have ended up going to jail because I did not want to kill Vietnamese who looked like me. I was at San Francisco State College which was a really wonderful place to be. I remember when I was in my pre-law and we had one class on "Revolution" and I remember it really well to this day. It was just so poignant for the times. We came in, and he [professor] had these Venetian blinds and they went [whooshing sound] and he lifted it all up, and out the window was police and students and tear gas, and running back and forth and screaming and horses. And the professor looked at us and said, "That is Revolution. Learn about it. Write about it. You're living in it. I'll see you in two weeks. Write a paper." And I remember, I thought, "Wow..."
Birju: It sounds like what you what had experienced there was being lived in each of these people's lives and that's what was exploding forth until 3 a.m.
Mun Wah: Yes. But also along with that is a sense of, when I saw the students protesting, a sense of community, a sense of connectedness to the larger good. So when these men just exploded, I knew what was happening for them, and I think it's happened still today. That's why I believe in the intimacy of anger because what I believe is that anger is not a primary emotion. I think "hurt" is. When hurt is unacknowledged or invalidated, it becomes anger. And we have mistaken it simply to be violence, to be all standing by its own. Like, for instance, the European-American man in the film says something that just so incites the anger in the Black man, but what's fascinating is that, when the Black man gets angry, most White viewers never remember what was said to him prior to that. I think that that's really critical, is that sometimes we see what we want to see. We want to think that anger just spurts out of the ground with no reason or roots at all but, in fact, it's a history of what I call a thousand and million small deaths, both to our great-grandparents, to our parents, to us and eventually even passing on to our children. So that anger, to me, was very passionate and very important.
Birju: I'd love to dive into that a little bit. So (it seems) to me, in many ways, that the topics that you've raised may have felt to the dominant culture, the European man, as you mentioned, as, at the very least, uncomfortable, if not unwelcome. And I'm just curious...
Mun Wah: Oh, there's no doubt about it. In fact, when I came out with The Color of Fear, first of all, the country was shocked. I remember the United States Pentagon played it one time and just said, "There is no way he's coming." But something happened that was just, I mean, one of the people who was working for me, her father worked at the Social Security building in San Francisco, and he had already heard about the film, and it was just like wildfire because I was just editing and just showing parts of it so I could raise money to finish it. What happened was, he invited me to come. He said, "I have 25 people in different agencies that would like to see your film." And he was African American which helped a lot. And then, by mid-week, he said, "Could I invite 50 or more people?" I said, "Fine," but I got there, it was 600 people, standing room only, from 50 federal agencies. And, believe it or not, as I asked people to come up after I had them pair up, 25 people came up on stage and guess what? Three of them came out being gay -- in a federal agency -- and then I thought to myself, “Oh my God, this film is giving people a doorway to tell the truth.”
And the film literally was. People were running down hallways -- in corporations, schools, social agencies, throughout the Pentagon -- running down and talking about this film. And then eventually that work for me was to not only show it but to have a dialogue -- which was unheard of when you had film showings -- actually having a meaningful dialogue on discrimination. And that's how I began. Again I'm really happy we talked about what their lives were like.
Birju: Mun Wah, I would love to understand. There are people who are seen and fashion themselves as a sort of provocateur. There are folks who just want to “poke at the hornet's nest” and that's not what I see you talking about here. There's a sense of bringing something up not to be divergent for divergence sake but in service to the whole so that the dominant paradigm is also able to see value at the end of the day and I'm curious how you did that. How did you walk that line?
Mun Wah: Yeah. It's very interesting because what I started noticing that when I kept putting on “Un-learning Racism” or “Looking at White Privilege,” I didn't get workshops. In fact, people were scared. Then when I started writing down for titles for my workshops, “Walking Each Other Home,” “The World Is All Around Us” and suddenly then I could get in the front door. But I also did one thing and it's just very fascinating because I just recently did a workshop on this topic, by the way I never answered the question, which is -- how you can be a good ally. I never answered it. Someone pointed that out, that you never answered the question. And he had a really important point. He said, “You had us answer it.” And so when I went into the Pentagon it wasn't to talk about white privilege, it wasn't talking about racism; what I did was simply this, which is pretty much the same thing: I said, “What do you leave at the door when you come to work as a white, Latino, Asian, black, woman, gay? What do you leave at the door?” And then, “What angers you about that? What hurts you about it? What's familiar? What does it do to you?” And then pretty soon that question they answered.
Or maybe the one I just recently did when I was at the Pentagon. It was the time of Wen Ho Lee, when I was at the Pentagon, who was called a spy. And so when I went in to do my keynote all these Asian people said to me, “Please tell them we're Chinese, but we're not spies.” And so what I did was I tore up my speech. I truly I even told the guy I knew they were really scared to have me do my keynote because of the incident but they were honoring me for my four and a half years of work in the Pentagon. But I knew it that day, I knew it very clearly, that once again if I told the truth, this would be my last day here. But it was and even though I'm getting an award from the deputy head of the Department of Defense and I tore up my speech and I said, “Today things happened and I have to say something, but I first want to illustrate something to you.”
And so what happened was I had a Filipino man stand right next to me. And what I said was, “I'd like you all to tell me how are we the same, how are we different.” And they went on for 25 minutes. He's wearing a suit, you're wearing a kimono. He looks professional, you don't. He's older. He's better-looking. He's taller and so on... they kept going on. And I said at the end, “You've all left out one thing.” And everyone looked at me quizzically and I said, “You all left out that we are both Americans.” And there wasn't a dry eye in the room. And I said, “Today, as I'm standing in front of you, please raise your hand if you have ever been told that you are not an American or felt like people looked at you as not being an American because of your accent, the color of your skin, the way you saw the world.” And all these people raised their hands. And I simply went around the room and had them tell what it had done to them and how they feel. And they did the entire keynote. And, by the way, it was filmed. It's still showing at the Pentagon and it's so incredible for the many diversity workshops there.
And so once again, I didn't give a huge lecture on White Privilege. I didn't give one on racism. I just simply let their voices fill the room. And I think that it why it's so important, why people are "Me Too" and why "Black Lives Matter" is coming so strongly. Because people want to have their voices be heard.
And so what we do is we either defend or we get scared or we deny the reality or we shut them down and we ask them to be escorted out of the room. And it is something that we don't get it. And I was remembering Hillary Clinton, when faced by Black Lives Matter, and the students started really getting angry and a black student said, “Why do I have to be so blatant, so loud before you'll even hear me?” And she said, “Young man, this is inappropriate. You need to leave the room. You need to work in your legislatures. This is not the right place.” And then he got more angry. And people often ask me, what would you have liked her to have said? And I said, “What I would have liked Hillary to have said was: "Young man when you were sharing just now, I was really scared. Most of my life, I've never had experiences with a young man like yourself or a Black. In fact, I lived in a very White, affluent, privileged bubble in my life. I've never gone into neighborhoods like yourself, that you've been in. And so I've also been taught that when black men raise their voices to be scared that something bad is going to happen, is going to be violent or abusive and what I want to look at with you, young man, as you are sharing with me today, is -- we need to look at ourselves. Why is it that you weren't heard in your classrooms? Why weren't you heard in your community? Why don't we take the time to go in and sit down with you? I think it is about fear. And so I need to learn. I need to sit down. I need to be quiet. I need to hear you. I need to not only hear you but I need to take in what you say with my heart. I need to go into your neighborhoods to see what I could do to help. I need to support you to be all of who you are so you don't have to be so loud and to yell to finally to be heard. That your simple presence is more than enough for me to be curious, to be interested in, and to embrace you."
Birju: I'm curious as you share that, Mun Wah. How do you feel engaging in the work that you're sharing supports the inner development of people who choose to take it on? And even on the flip side, how does it support yours, to continue to offer this?
Mun Wah: Well, you know, it's fascinating you said that, because I just finished coming from NCOR, which is this National Conference on Race, and I had a workshop and it was literally standing room only and sitting room only. Literally every inch of the floor was filled in with people and we still didn't have enough room. And at the doorway, because we had opened the door so there could be 4 rows of people to stand in the hallway still, to hear me. In the hallway, I saw these people. And I simply motion, "Okay,” I said, "everybody make a little path here. They can surround me, all around where I'm standing because there's room to sit." And I just simply wave and I saw this young man's face, he was African-American, no actually, I think he was Jamaican. And I had him and all the other different folks to come up and sit next to me and what was really amazing about it was when I asked what was it like, the workshop, because I made it very personal and intimate about their experiences. And what happened was he wrote me a letter just this morning. So anyhow, you ask that, this is probably why it touches people.
He said, “Thank you for your ongoing work of healing and yesterday was like a divine appointment. You see, for the longest time, I have struggled to succinctly identify why did I do the work of empathy and equity training. Your workshop and encounter helped me do that. I was the man standing at the door for the bulk of my life, and I did not have words for it. Whether it was because I did not force my way into spaces or was not invited in, the hurt of being on the fringes of spaces has fueled the drive to help people build relational bridges. So when you asked me to come up, when you noticed me, when you saw me turning around to leave, you saw me.”
And I realize now that is what I was trying to do for everyone else, is to see them. And I think what other people were saying is that I modeled. The room was packed. One woman said, “I was so angry that you packed the room like this. We were just like right up against each other. And then as we continued the workshop I realized, oh my God, he made sure that we noticed that we needed to make room for each other. That no one should be left out. You modeled what you were talking about.” And I think that is what we can do, is to model it.
When you talk about the inner journey, I think we're all looking. Even today, we're looking for somebody who can model for us our dreams, model for us what we were told we were supposed to be like, what our country was supposed to be like, what it was built on. I think that we're all looking for that. I think that when people looked at Gandhi, that what it was all about was we were always so discouraged when people would do it for money, for power. And there was a man who didn't care for the power. He didn't care for the greed. He had a simple life and yet he continued daily to take care of the animals, to take care of the people around him. I think it was that simplicity that we wanted to trust that the person didn't have ulterior motives.
There was someone who said to me, "I've been to many workshops, but what you did was when you talked I felt like you looked at us." Hence when they did their exercise, they looked at the person they were talking to. They really shared. By the way, the first exercise was to simply look at the person in front of you and tell them your assumption that you made about them simply by the way they're dressed and you had to be honest. And then the person would check out to see if it was true or not. People just laughed and said, "oh my God, I had so many assumptions that just were not accurate!" I said the only way you can break those is to get to know them. And the only way you get to know them is to really, truly, open yourself up to telling the truth and be willing to hear a story that might be totally outside of your own.
One of the things that I talk about quite often is that I want us to embrace our differences. I want us to be curious about our differences. I want us to learn from our differences. I want us to be able to integrate our differences into the every way we move in the world because we get so caught up in the similarities. One thing I learned very quickly was that when I had White people tell me, "my God, Muh-Wah it's just amazing how much we are similar." And then I started to realize, well, how nice, he likes me or she likes me! And then I started to realize no, they liked me because I was like them, parts of themselves. But yet I talked about all these beautiful things that my family did and the beautiful things I saw in the world differently because I was Chinese. But those weren't mentioned at all. And so I started to realize that we do this, we have more similarities than we have differences. That it is our differences that are dividing us. But that's not true at all. It's like Virginia Woolf said that "We're all different, but what divides or separates us is the value we put on those differences," and that's why we are where we are today. That's why when you get all these shootings in the schools, it's primarily by white people, by white males.
Not only that, what they have in common -- when I help police chiefs in the United States to decide what is the common factor -- I said they were all bullied and they were all bullied for being different. And today that's really what it is. That's what racism and sexism is about. It's about being different and not being able to embrace that person. When you talk about the inner, the inner is really all part of the outer; they go together. I think that someone put it beautifully that perhaps racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism were put on this Earth to teach us compassion. And I think that is true, because when you think about religions, religions are probably the most violent institutions. And what are the wars about? Because they're different. That one claims I have the only God, the one and only God. So we go to war because of that, in the name of God. In many ways, we haven't learned how to fully live and embody the principles that we should care for each other. I was just telling someone that the American Indians asked us three things when they met the settlers: take care of the land, share what you have, and take care of each other. How beautiful is that? And when you think about all three, we didn't do [them]. That's why we're still paying the price for it today, for our separateness.
Birju: Thank you for that. One of the topics that we bring up in the ServiceSpace context is this idea of a Mobius strip, where the inner and the outer are indistinguishable. I heard you articulating that. You've been doing this work for decades now and I'm curious, what are the edges and the frontiers of your own personal development at this stage of life? What are the big questions you're asking now? What supported you to get to that place of asking?
Mun Wah: You know, I'll be either 73 or 74 this year. I'm usually always one year off. I think it might be my reluctance to go one more year. That's a really deep question. Because of my age, I think that right now I don't see a whole lot of life ahead of me. I see the shortness of life, but also the importance of living it well. I'm learning how to pass on my work to others. I'm literally passing it on, and that's something I learned from Nipun, one of my teachers. I just did a workshop and I did some new things with it and I was agonizing and scared to try a new project out, a new exercise out in front of hundreds of people for the first time. At around 3:00 o'clock in the morning, I thought, "no, just do it. Do it." I think it was to make it simpler. To continue to be simple in my gestures with people, to be simple in my love for each other, and to never complicate it with words or huge concepts or PowerPoints. It has always still been my acts of kindness. I also want to add some word on to this: I feel that what we have today is many thousands, random acts of violence. So it's also my responsibility and the responsibility of each of us to point those moments out, and to help the people who are victims of those acts of violence, to bring light to it, and to protect, to stand up, and support those people, and to also work with the people who are violent. Not just with people who are kind, not just people who think the same way we do, not just the same people who do yoga and meditation with us, but actually to come out of our worlds, the comfort. I believe that that's exactly what Mahatma Gandhi did, Muhammad Ali and Malcom X and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa went out to work with the lepers. She could have chosen a whole other place in her life and it shocked the church to have to go to those places. Mother Teresa said it's not the beautiful churches that we try and build, but rather the churches that we build are the communities, that we work with people. To me, that is the work we have to do which is the hard one.
How did I end up doing this? An act of violence from my mom forced me to move into this new world that I was totally unprepared and did not want to go into, to be honest with you. It was not the world I would have chosen. I think I could have stayed in my classroom. I could have stayed with my children. But there was one thing that kept knocking on my door. Every one of my children were talking about racism. They were talking about homelessness and hunger and the lack of enough food. So already I was becoming very aware of a world that I did not know as well as they did, that I could easily have shied away from all of that and my therapeutic practices could have also shied away and [made me] become wealthy. Same thing with my films. I could have just lived off my films and not go into these communities to do workshops. I could have showed my films and never have to go into in depth on racism or discrimination and just simply have them talk about it and say really nice things. But I knew I had to bring people together. I had to have them have dialogues with each other. So I didn't do just lectures or PowerPoints. I walked in the middle of audiences as people tell their stories. I didn't just go from one person who talked and go "next, next, next." I stayed with each person and simply stayed with them and said, "share with this audience what it feels like, how tiring it must be, what you really need from this agency for you to be able to feel fulfilled as a person, as a woman, as a gay person. What do you leave at the door?" These are uncomfortable questions for companies to hire me for, to bring up what makes people not want to stay, what makes them want to leave. It took courage to stay with that for all these 33 years of doing this. But I know that I have a responsibility. I'm willing to tell the truth and have others tell the truth, that I really want to need to stay in that institution to make sure the change takes place. So that's all the commitment I make. I think that if each of us did that in our little worlds -- like someone once said to me, “Do you think you have an impact?” And I said, "I don't know if I do. But I do know the people that I have touched make an impact on others." and perhaps maybe all I am is simply the beginning drop to help others create themselves or see themselves, that they too could be that drop, to be that ripple. And if enough of us do it, then we'll see the changes in the world we live in, in the world around us.
I often tell people when you're discouraged, make no mistake about it: you are not alone. There are thousands. And your ancestors are always with you and grateful and supporting you and will be there for you and are waiting for you someday.
Birju: The word that comes up for me as I hear you share is choosing “surrender.” Yes, you could have not done X and Y and Z in your life, but it's not like you sought it out either. It's almost like you allowed the river to take you where it was going to take you and you stopped saying no.
Mun Wah: Yeah, you're so right because there was one thing I wrote in my book about when people ask me, "how did you get where you were?" and I said reluctantly and involuntarily at times because I kept thinking I was going to be a teacher and then later on I was a poet and storyteller and then author and then filmmaker and then diversity trainer. I kept thinking I'm so comfortable. Eleanor Roosevelt said everyday do one thing that scares the hell out of you. I think it's so true, but then what happened was it all came together; my father beating me made me more sensitive and aware of mood changes, of someone hurting somebody. When I was a poet and a teacher, it helped me be able to stand in front of a room and be spontaneous and open and being aware and hearing stories. And when I became a Tarot reader, I learnt how to summarize and see the connectedness and threads between different events. Each one brought me to this place.
My largest audience was 14,000 people and someone said, "how did you do that group?" And I said, "simple, I just simply looked at everyone." By the way, when I start a workshop, I don't say a word for 45 seconds. I go out to the room. I just simply go all down the rows and I simply look at everyone. I ask people, "what's that like?" and they said, "It's so scary. Why aren't you saying something?" I said, "but I am, I want to see you. I want you to know that I want to see you. I want you to know that when I talk to you, I want to talk to you, with you. And I want you to know that when you do share, I want everyone to pay attention to what you're saying. And then when I'm going to talk to you right now, it won't be anything that I planned or canned, but I really want to get to know you and for each of you to get to know each other." People say, "well that's so different." I said, "no, it's what you got in your families. It's what you did with your loved ones. Then why can't we do that with each other?" We're only one question away in one moment to be with another person.
Birju: Thank you so much for that. I want to allow LuAnn to jump in. I know that we want to create some space if people do have questions but I want to keep going too if I may.
LuAnn: Yes, I want to invite any of our callers to press *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak or you can email us at email@example.com or submit a comment or question via the webcast form if you're listening online via live webcast. I will mute and let Birju go for a few more minutes because I am just so thoroughly enjoying this conversation. I do have one comment very quickly. It is from Michael Rosen and his comment is "We do not fear the unknown. We fear what we think we know about the unknown. -Teal Swan. Deeply moved and illuminated by your shared insights and by your personal shared truths. Thank you for the gift of you. In gratitude, Mish, New York City"
Mun Wah: Wonderful. I was just thinking about that quote. It's not just that we are afraid of the unknown, it is about what we have been told about the unknown. And I remembered that you were sharing that Birju was talking about the shadows. It's that we have been told about the dark and the unknown. Darkness is also often times connotated with the unknown and scary and evil and the devil and things like this, but I think that it is actually in the darkness are those things that we have not spoken of. I remember somebody once said that it isn't pain that kills us, but rather our resistance to it. So we just need to learn to walk in there with some faith. There was this famous film Raiders of the Lost Ark and at one point he always gets all these maps, but there's one that tells him to come out, so he comes out of this cave and and it just drops downs miles down. Then across the way is another entrance but there's no bridge. Part of the map says that you have to put your foot out first, and he goes, "Am I crazy? I'm not gonna put my foot out." It said that he had to have faith, and so he put his foot out and a step appeared. Then each step. It was not that each step wasn't still filled with fear. The Buddhists have a saying "Great faith, great doubt, great faith, great doubt." I think that we will always keep being faced with our shadows. We will always be faced with our fears. Then we'll also have great joy and great discovery, but it'll be a continuous cycle. We never master either one. I remember woman once said to me, "I'm 84 years old now and I'm not going to let any negativity into my life." I was in the backseat and I put my hand on her shoulder and I said, "Well Ruth, good luck because life is just life."
LuAnn: Thank you. I have one more comment. It is from Lynn Troutman and he says he experienced your short workshop at an Engaging the Other conference. You exhibited so powerfully how to help people consider the other's daily life from the moment they wake up in the morning. Would you like to say more about that?
Mun Wah: [laughter] Well luckily it's still morning. Think about how many people get up every morning to go to work. I often tell people that because my workshops are eight o'clock in the morning sometimes and corporations and pretty busy people and they're squeezing me in and things like this. I always tell people before I do my workshop, I always look outside. I want to feel the wind and the air. I want to see life around me so I look at the trees and the light. It doesn't matter what kind of a day it is. It's really noticing that around you. So when I walk in the room, I get to notice that in the room. There was something that I wrote, it's in one of my other books that's coming out. I'm just going to read it real quick because it really pertains to what this person is talking about. It's about when entering into a room:
Be aware of the leaders and the followers. Seek out the warriors, peacemakers and elders. Be ready to comfort those who are angry and those who are broken, for those who are not yet born and the ancient ones are always waiting by the door.
When I'm listening to people talk and paying attention like I did the outdoors, I wrote this piece:
In every word and gesture, there is a reaction that ripples across the heart of a room. Be still and you can feel its pulse, and how it manifests itself moment-by-moment, traveling from one person to another, sometimes the path of destruction, sometimes the beginning of a garden.
So every day we have these opportunities to be more mindfully observant and not just simply with ourselves, but with each other. But we have to still ourselves and we have to be open and willing to look at the world around us. We also have to be willing that when we're disruptive, when we're irritated, when we're angry, that that too will distort or change the way we see the world. All we have to do internally is just to make that shift so that we can see the world around us rather than to be closed and afraid.
Birju: Thank you Mun Wah. I want to ask you a question in terms of some of the edges of this work and I'm curious what your reflections would be for those who may see this category of work as being for those with values on the political left; this question of like "oh this is not for me or for my kind or for a red state or etcetera.” I'm curious what you would reflect on that.
Mun Wah: [laughs] Well, I've been in every single state. I've been in every single Southern state, so every "red state" if we like to call it like that. I think that if we were to simply look at it simply, is that fear is really false evidence appearing real, that people are afraid. I also believe that people want to be connected. And I think that's what I do. I'm not doing political arguments, even though I make wonderful political jokes when I'm in rooms, and I am a lefty and I am a Democrat. I just don't call myself a humanitarian, but I really strongly move towards a sense of community. I think that when we're faced with a physical disaster, we come together with each other. When we come to one like this morning where in Virginia, 11 people are killed, we come together. I think that that's what we need to do. I think it's always in us. So if I were to tell people that today somebody in your life will be killed and won't be coming home today, would you care for them? The people you live next to. If you knew someday that the climate would change and your children would die, would you do something today? And so I believe in people. Like Danny Glover said in Grand Canyon, I don't think it was supposed to be this way. I think this wasn't the design. It was for us to be a family, to be a community. Someone said, "well, I have an unhealthy family." I said, "but you always in an unhealthy family dreamed of a healthy family, one that was loving and caring. It's always inside of us."
Like I once said that when I was teaching in Sunny school and the kids wanted to know where God lives and I said he lives in this box. They wanted to know what's in that box and I didn't know until the last day that I was shaving that it came to me and when I went to class I opened it up and it was a mirror and I said a piece of God is in each of you.
But sometimes it's hard to see that God, that goodness because of all that's happened to you, because of our fears and our anguish and our rage and our hurt and our sense of feeling invisible, are beaten or raped and all these other things. But that goodness is still waiting there. It's still hoping one day to be able to come out again and I say that with tears because I had to find a way to believe in life again myself to trust life after my mother was taken from me. My best friend, the woman who brought me into this world, and so brutally taken away. To this day, I find myself still closing doors. I find myself scared still to take showers. So when I had to move out in the world, it was not easy for me to open the door and walk out or to open the door and to allow people to come in again. I know what that's like, but that dream of loving again and having been loved has never left me and I want it again. That living in the 60s, a sense of community, where we cared about each other, we stood up for each other has never left me and I want that again. So when I put people into dialogues is because I want to re-light, to reclaim their voices, to reclaim when they had a dream. I wrote a section in my counseling book where I wrote about hopelessness. That hopeless means it's not that you're hopeless. It means less hope. The work then is to find out when you did have hope and what it would take to bring that hope back again. So I don't give up on people. I just know that we're all waiting, praying and hoping that when people come to my workshops or see my films is this the day. Is this the day I'm going to have hope again. Is this the day that the person who's next to me, who was so angry and hurtful, that is this the day that they will make a shift. I remember once I did this exercise and this woman got up and shared how she had been so hurt by someone in this institution. She was so put down and so neglected and trivialised that it's so devastated her life. And the man who did it to her stood up and said I want to take the responsibility. I was that man. He said I did not know until today what I had done to you and I wish to apologize in front of everyone. And with tears in her eyes she said, I never dreamed that you would do this and least of all in public. And I want to thank you because it gives me hope again because I was thinking about leaving. And I think it's those miracles that happen because when we have faith that people will come through that. That people want to do the right thing. They're just scared to do it or they've been taught to go and hate somebody or objectify them. And what we have to do is to still see the goodness in people to come through.
Birju: I'm curious if you could share the perspective of those in the power positions here. You know, there's this woman who felt marginalized and then the person who said oh, I didn't know I was doing that. What's in it for that person. Where is their growth opportunity and how have you seen that lead to changes?
Mun Wah: Well, you know, there's no one way it happens. I couldn't just figure that out or define it for you. I think that there's something miraculously powerful about the truth. However, painful it is, the truth, it's very disarming. I think there was something that Chancellor Merkel said at her Harvard graduation. She said for the graduates to never describe lies as the truth or the truth as lies. She was talking about President Trump and she got a standing ovation. Those students will never forget what they just heard and it was the truth. Someone once said every time you tell a lie, everybody has to keep going with it, but those in power are not just one person, it's all of us. Look what happened in Germany with the wall. It took thousands of people to stand up. Today when you think of Tiananmen Square you think of a young man who put a flower in the trunk of the gun tank. And so what happens is that the changes take place because the heart can't look away and I think that I do not believe just because you're in power that you don't. I think that you know what that truth looks like.
I remember that a young child said to the Board of Regents of UC Berkeley when they were going to raise the tuition. She said, “I'm only 18 years old or 19 years old and when you raise it, I won't be able to come to college and I won't be able to afford it. As a father, as a daughter, I want you to look at me. So tomorrow you will be proud of the decision that you make today to not raise the tuition for us. That you will look back and how you helped change someone's life because it could have been your daughter.” And I think it's in those moments that whether it was changed or not she will have learned that act of courage. Board of Regents will never forget what they heard. They could selectively try not to hear it but how could you not when you see someone? And so I think that it takes a lot of energy to go down. It takes a lot of energy to not love and it's unnatural. And that's what I can only hope for. I mean, I've been all throughout the South. I've been in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana telling these stories and their stories that they hear about people they love and I always tell people when you hear the people whom you love what they have to go through that you didn't know about. One woman said, “you know, I worked here for 25 years. Have you ever at all noticed that I walk up the hill every day and I don't take the bus?” and someone said, “yes well, we just thought you like the exercise?” She said, “No. I walked up to the hill every day since I have been here as a teacher as a librarian because the bus driver won't pick me up because I'm black.” And they all looked at her with tears in their eyes. Oh my God. Oh my God, we never asked you what it was like to be black. And those stories will forever be with folks and it comes with stories with people they love and care about. You see when you put a face to oppression it changes you. When you see all those shoes lined up in the national Holocaust Museum and the faces you will never be the same again and that's my faith that we will embrace the truth and be changed by it.
Birju: Thank you for that. I'm aware that the audience for this conversation is the ServiceSpace broader ecology. That's the umbrella behind the Awakin Calls and one of the approaches that ServiceSpace takes is this exploration of gift culture. The idea of non-transactional living where you approach relationships as though they were familial as I hear you describe. There is a Native American story that came to mind for me when thinking about this. There was a person who was going for making sure that their work in the world could be done and a piece of that meant fundraising and so he decided to be really honest. He said he spoke to a fundraiser and said, you know, I don't really know how to do this because in my culture we don't come before the feet of those who have held the most. We come before the feet of those who have given it all away. And I'm really curious where socioeconomics and this possibility of the familial relationship as it relates to being in gift with each other fits in to what I hear you describing or does it?
Mun Wah: Well, I think that as you're sharing that story, that it's also very cultural isn't it? And so it's really important that we remember that the ways of practices that we may have might run very counterculture to someone else, and what I probably would have said to that person is tell me more. When you hear that we go to the rich for funds and donations, tell me what it does to you. Tell me what it means to you. Tell me what the meaningfulness of going to those to go to the feet of those who give so much. I think that's very important. You know, it's like when I was telling my son is to never give money to somebody without looking at them. I am remembering that one of my children, many of my children that I worked with were very poor, and one day (he was African-American) he was sharing a story about his mom that taught him about giving and she gave a dollar to a man who was begging out in the streets and she said to her mother, "Mom, don't do that, why'd you do that mom, we barely have enough for ourselves." And she said, "Someday that could be you. I would want someone to give that to you and we don't know his story and they won't know your story, but I want them to give to you." And when I watch rich people just give a quarter, I wonder why. You have so much more and I think that it's because they don't look at them. They think that's all about just give them something, but rather they haven't given them themselves. They haven't felt what it would be like to be who they were. And at my last workshop I was sharing that we were in the car, we were talking about my workshop and a woman came and I took a look at her I said, you know, everybody's walking around her. She's got one shoe. She's cold. She's barely able to walk because of the cane she has on and then she comes right up against our car in the front and I could tell that the person I was with was very uncomfortable, like, "what you're doing, you know, like entering into my comfortable space with Lee Mun Wah,” and then I rolled down my window and I gave her five dollars and what I said was, "I know it's not easy and I did see you, here use this to get some tea to take care of yourself, and I wish you well,” and I looked at her. And I remember the look on her face was disbelief. And I think that that's our connectedness and when we get to practice it, you know, and I think that each of us has to find our own way whether it's like some folks that I know in Berkeley who just sit and they spend time, they get to know the person's first name in the story of their lives. So when they walk by, there's a friendship between them. They go in to get them soup, they go and they talk, you know, so there's a way we can personalize that work but what it means for us and they're all different ways of giving, it's not always monetary.
Birju: Mmm, that really speaks to me. I'm really grateful for that additional articulation, particularly as it relates to these ServiceSpace oriented values and grateful for the opportunity to be in conversation with you today. I'd love to hand it off to LuAnn for our closing process.
LuAnn: Yes. Thank you. Your conversation has sparked so many memories and questions for me. I wish that we could spend another two hours, but unfortunately. Or I wish I could sit with you and ask questions and I can't wait for your book to come out, but I do have one last question. It's one that we ask in the Awakin Calls as a tradition and it is - How can we as the larger ServiceSpace community support your work?
Mun Wah: Well, I feel like you're already doing it and I think that one of the most beautiful things about the interview that you [Birju] did with me today was something that rarely happens to me in other cultures is that I want all of you to notice, all the listeners as well, as for you LuAnn is that every time I spoke about something that really touched me, you said something about it, Birju. You were moved by it, or touched by it, and you commented on it. I have so many times people interviewing me and they just go right to the next question and I wonder did we become disconnected, was it just a list of questions? And so each time, I can feel it. Just something that gave me a sense that you were there in present and I think for all organizations to never forget the incredible importance of that relationship and connectedness. And so it's that our usefulness in this is not to simply by our services, but our willingness to connect and be of service emotionally, physically, and financially and so I feel like you have given me that gift and the access to so many folks and, as I shared with them Nipun this morning, well I said is a whole new set of friends that I may not have had before and they'll open up my world and hopefully they will pass it on so that would be the greatest service to me of all to and gift if they passed on.
LuAnn: Well, I want to thank you. I am going to let you know that I was the fortunate one to be able to write up your biography. I cried and I cried and I cried and I have been silent through this one because I've been crying all morning. You have touched my heart in ways that have been profound and for me, just disarming. I have been surprised, but your story is so personal to me and I want to thank you very much for this conversation. You could never know how deeply I appreciate it.
So, thank you very much for being our guest today. I have enjoyed our conversation immensely and I'm looking forward to reading and seeing more of your work and your new book and thank you Birju for moderating so beautifully and thanks to all the invisible hands and hearts working behind the scenes for making these calls possible. I would like for us to hold a collective minute of silence in gratitude for what we've shared here and to take into our day.
Thank you. This concludes our call. Thank you again Lee and Birju for this wonderful conversation and thank you both for your service. I hope you have a beautiful beautiful day.
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