Pressing for Progress with Bee Nguyen & Twanna Harris

Pressing for Progress with Bee Nguyen & Twanna Harris

As part of April’s Values-Based Leadership Conference, we had an intimate conversation with Bee Nguyen and Twanna Harris to talk about how we as leaders in our communities and organizations have led with our values.

As you know, we’re big on values here at The Lola’s – here’s a quick recap of what we base our mission and community on:

Embracing our personal power and opportunities to grow – we never believe we’re a finished product.

  • We challenge and redefine what success means to us, not just the prescribed notions given to us by societal programming.
  • We aim to share our stories honestly and often by practicing radical vulnerability.
  • We shed the armor we wear by opening our hearts for deep connection with each other.
  • NO blaming, shaming, cynicism, professionalism or emotional stoicism.
  • We foster, trust, and raise each other up – we hold ourselves accountable for our words and actions.
  • Respect others boundaries and celebrate each other’s success.
  • We are deeply committed to being an antiracist community.
  • We foster a culture that serves ALL womxn.

Share with us who you are in this moment – not what you do…but who you are?

TH: That’s a deep question right now. My experience these last 14 months has really been an inflection point for me. I’ve slowed down and have been able to really think about who I am – with life’s business, we never get a chance to really question that. Who am I? What are my values? Am I living them? I have two young adults in my home and they don’t believe in faking it, they push for authenticity. They help keep me authentic by calling me out when I’m using “jargon” instead of just saying what I mean. I took some time to sit with that and realized that the “jargon” makes me feel safe to others. It makes me feel like I belong and that I’ll be accepted.

I am finally at a point where I’m embracing authenticity. I don’t just say cute things – I focus on outcomes.

BN: I think about when I was 13 and in the kitchen with my four sisters. My older sister was teasing me about just wanting to save the world and that I lived in the clouds. That always stuck with me because I struggled with what my role was in this world. As the daughter of refugees, I deal with layers of issues and my life was centered around what was going to make my parents happy. What can I do to thank them for the courage they had to move to America to make a better life for us.

Sometimes, I feel like I haven’t lost that little girl inside of me – I’m still trying to figure out how I can help make the world a better place.

This last year was tough, with a really intense election cycle, a pandemic, John Lewis passed, the insurrection, etc. I want to make the world a better place but needed to find a way to cope with everything myself. There haven’t been a lot of moments of joy over the last 14 months, so how can I find that space for myself?

Building on that, can you each give us some insight on what your top 5 values are:

TH: There’s really one word that sticks out for me – TRUST; we’re at a point in time where we have to trust each other to step into the next moment. No other values can happen without trust. I think about my other values of authenticity, community, integrity, belonging- none of those can exist without trust. I’m just now learning to really trust myself. I was fooling myself around who I was – my moniker, my titles, etc that I thought defined who I was. I found out I was actually something else – I’m an activist, I’m a disruptor. I embraced that and decided to project that out into the world.

BN: Truth, justice, compassion, courage, and freedom of movement. I’ve worked with a lot of undocumented students who didn’t have that freedom of movement. It looks a little different for each person but the idea of being able to move in any space without being harmed or feeling fearful is something I want to see in the world. Young black man to go on a run, or an elderly Asian person to walk safely to the grocery store – I want others to be able to exist wherever they want without being harmed.

You’ve both done incredible things in the community. What does ‘Pressing for Progress’ mean to you? What are you doing to push things forward?

BN: In 2009, I started Athena’s Warehouse which grounded me in a way that no other work has. Every time I went into the classroom, I felt better coming out and that’s not at all how I feel about the Capitol. There’s something very restorative about being around young people. Despite the systemic obstacles they face on a daily basis, the students are full of hope and believe that they can achieve justice for their communities and families.

When I felt like it was my time to leave the organization, I appointed Dia Parker to take over the reins. I wanted it to be more community-focused and Dia had already faced all these same obstacles my students were facing first-hand and had already gone through our programming, and lived in the community. In our last conversation, I told her that I really missed the work and she shared some of the stories she’s encountered since taking over. One thing she said that struck me was about the obstacles she herself and other students faced in high school. She mentioned the pervasive depression linked to overcoming poverty – it seems like an impossible task to them.

The legislative work I’m doing can only exist for me in a real and meaningful way because of the work I did in schools. Lawmakers are disconnected from the reality of how their policies impact the community – they don’t understand how their decisions tie back to everyday people. Because of Athena’s Warehouse, I always go back to how does this impact my students? How can I make the legislature work for them?

TH: The definition of Pressing for Progress has changed for me since its inception especially considering what’s happened recently and over the past year. The issues the black community has been dealing with has been tragic. You have to empathize with the people you’re trying to impact – how can I make a better world for my kids? Most black kids are trying to focus on living. They can’t worry about climate change because they’re worried about making it to tomorrow.

The progress to me is all about action – this goes back to me reflecting as a black womxn. Through the pandemic, people have been talking a lot about isolation and as black womxn, we felt isolated even before COVID. We can feel isolated even in the corporate world – we’ve been dealing with that our whole lives.

I encourage others to talk to the people who are having the problem so they can be part of crafting a solution. People who don’t have the same life experience aren’t the ones who should be making the decisions.

What unique abilities do we have that can bring change? All voices should be heard, valued, and embraced. How do we get ACTION? That’s what moves us across the goal line.

Values-Based Leadership: What does that mean to you?

TH: Being the change we want to see in the world. Not only do we need to be that change, but we also need to inspire others to have those opportunities to change the world. I want my daughter to feel empowered to stand up and use her voice. We must champion others along the way. As we push forward, we have to look at where the voids are and amplify the unheard voices. We need to give them a place to exist and to thrive in this world. I’ve been taught over the years in traditional learning to soften the blow for everyone to make them feel comfortable. But now I tell it like it is.

“It’s not about reform – we can’t build new systems based on a faulty structure. We have to recreate the foundation on which these systems are built to create real change. ”

BN: Not just making space for others but making sure they have the opportunity to become leaders themselves. We need to recognize when the decision should be ours and when it should be left to others. I do want to mention the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial and the framing of it. We were all holding our breath for the outcome collectively – we weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be and luckily we were able to have some sighs of relief from the conviction. We also need to recognize that this is accountability, not justice. But what would justice look like? It’d be a world where George Floyd was thriving; not just one where he wasn’t killed.

My position is that I don’t support anything that increases incarceration. The hate crime bill is not preventative, it’s in the aftermath. When discussing the AAPI shootings, I was very forthcoming about calling it a hate crime. Many emailed me arguing my position and blaming the victims. The labeling of a hate crime was important because it was acknowledging that this happened because of who they were and because they were Asian. We need that recognition. Even though it’s not justice, recognition is necessary. We can’t deny that systemic racism exists.

At the Lola, we don’t believe we’re ever a finished product. How do you see your role as a leader evolving? Specifically, as it relates to leading with your values.

TH: What’s being said right now isn’t being done. We need doers to step up. Civil defiance has brought about change. We can break the rules in a peaceful and professional way. That may be uncomfortable for some but it’s time for these uncomfortable conversations because there are people who live in discomfort every day. Even on the frontlines of policy, there are so many that aren’t being enforced due to the faulty foundation supporting them.

BN: A pivotal moment for me was when taking a vote on the supplemental budget. One unspoken rule is you can’t vote against it especially if you’re a freshman. I didn’t support the budget because of various reasons but ultimately it wasn’t based on my values. When I voted no, my cell immediately started ringing telling me I was making a huge career mistake. I was told to retract my vote and apologize. I felt horrible but knew that I couldn’t do that. This experience freed me from having to participate in a system that’s based on false rewards. I didn’t change my vote, but nothing happened to me or my career. These were empty threats. I made the decision that I would never base my votes on whether or not I’d be reelected. I will continue to vote based on my values and that’s freedom for me.

You are both clearly disruptors, what advice would you give to others on how they can lean into their values bravely?

TH: We need to be more focused on what we are doing, who we are being vs. what we are saying. Stop telling people you’re an ally – just do the work. Show people that you’re an ally. I’m finally learning to speak up for myself. There are so many of us that don’t do it even when we know something is wrong.

We have to call out what we see in the world. It’s time to own your voice and your decisions.

BN: There’s a lot of freedom in being able to deprogram yourself of what you were taught.

I did a lot of work to train myself to not be attached to outcomes or be in control of every situation.

I’ll speak to the theory of detachment. Even in relationships, we often confuse love and attachment. When we become too attached, we lose a lot of our autonomy and freedom and that’s not an empowering place. It requires courage and the ability to reflect on the work that needs to be done – both internally and externally.

We talked a bit about the AAPI and BLM hate crimes here in Atlanta – is there anything else that needs to be said that’s not being said?

It’s really important for the Asian and Black communities to take this moment in time and learn to continue to build solidarity with each other.
— Bee Nguyen

BN: I spent some time learning about Asian American history in our country and it’s really startling and scary how it’s been erased and that this model minority myth is what prevails now. The model minority myth was very successful in creating a wedge between communities. It’s hard to talk about and very complex but there is anti-blackness in the AAPI community. The oppressed can be the oppressor but I’m going to call on my community to do better and stand with BLM. I’m willing to do the healing work to figure out how we move forward and stand in solidarity. Sometimes Asians aren’t included in the POC discussion but I’ve never been treated as a white person. I grew up in Augusta, GA but I didn’t eat American food or speak English at home. It’s been really hard navigating all those different pieces but I’m committed to the Asian and Black community building and standing together.

TH: It’s bigger than the Black and Asian communities – it needs to be every minority community. There’s still too much division. I have white friends that check on me but if you’re not on board to truly support me, that’s not enough. There’s been assimilation in every community (i.e. change your name to Heather.) It’s impacted all of our communities in different ways. For myself, I have slaves and slaveowners in my bloodline and that gives me a unique perspective.When we can show up as one, we’ll have a bigger impact. We all need to be respected as HUMANS.

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