Managing to Build Bridges - Part 8: Do We Want to Be Right in a Dictionary Sense?

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 8, Nani reflects on the goals and challenges of translation and the ups and downs of working abroad.

Sarah: Is “linguist” a fancy name for “translator”?

Nani: Yup. My primary role was to translate and localize content into Indonesian in preparation for the launch of the Indonesian version of LinkedIn. It’s very interesting work to me because it requires awareness of contextual issues. For example, let’s say we want to point a user to the home page. You can’t use the Indonesian word for “home, ” or “rumah,” because that literally means “house.” I decided to use “halaman utama,” which means “primary page.”

Sarah: Tell me about the challenges involved in translation work of that type.

Nani: One challenge was that by the time I got the job at LinkedIn, I’d lived in the States for a long time. I still spoke ‘90s Indonesian. As I grappled with that challenge, lot of things I’d learned in my linguistics courses as an undergrad became real to me. Because of that training, I remembered to step back and ask myself: What is our objective with this translation? What factors should be considered in arriving at the best translation? Indonesian is much more fluid than English. There are often two or more ways to spell one word. There’s the official listing in the government-sponsored dictionary, but that’s different from the spelling people use in daily life. Besides spelling, there are all sorts of issues such as degree of formality and influences of regional languages in Indonesia—for example if you’re addressing elders versus younger people; ways of speaking between people in big cities versus not; and of course the nuances of language on more than 17,000 islands that are part of Indonesia. Even if you try to come up with the lowest common denominator for a particular term, it still won’t necessarily do the work you need it to do.

I tried to fold all these nuances into my translation work. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m seen by the Indonesian translation community as a hard person to work with, because I often challenged the external translators I was managing.

I once applied for a position at a different tech company, and part of the application process was to take a test, translating English into Indonesian. Surprisingly, I did not do well. But because the company I applied for had a policy of transparency, the hiring manager told me how the test was evaluated. It turned out the reviewer was evaluating my work based on what’s officially correct in Indonesian language, but not necessarily how people speak day-to-day. I illustrated this point by running a Google search for the two terms. The one I chose yielded hundreds of thousands of results, while the one the evaluator considered correct only yielded about 20. This showed not only that spelling in Indonesian language is fluid, but also that the way everyday people spell Indonesian words may not be the same as how those words appear in the dictionary.

As a translator, I think it’s important to ask, Do we want to be right in a dictionary sense, or do we want the most engagement from the people we are trying to reach?

At an art exhibit in Stockholm.

At an art exhibit in Stockholm.

Sarah: In spite of the fact that you considered going to another tech company, you’ve stayed at LinkedIn.

Nani: Yes. I feel that LinkedIn has always supported my professional development and they’re open to my ideas. For example, when I’m ready for a new challenge, I’m given one. I told my previous manager that I was interested in being promoted, and he suggested that I take on a new project. I ended up working with the research team to conduct qualitative research in Indonesia. I also led an international research project in which my team members interviewed members from different parts of the world. It was great because I was able to use research skills I’d learned in anthropology—gathering ethnographic data through one-on-one interviews, doing archival research, creating reports. Because of that work, as well as my collaboration with a cross-functional team, Customer Operations, I was promoted to a senior position. After working with Customer Operations for a couple of years, I also started working with a new team, Marketing. Not long after that, I became a Marketing Localization Program Manager. As a program manager, I streamline processes to help improve communications and operations among multiple teams in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Sarah: That’s a consistent theme in your career trajectory. You love streamlining operations in organizations.

Nani: LinkedIn has given me the green light to make those kinds of improvements. I’ve worked there for more than seven years now and I attribute my longevity to that. I feel valued. I’m also grateful that the company has sent me to Dublin for an assignment; I had always wanted to experience living in Europe.

With colleagues in Dublin.

With colleagues in Dublin.

Sarah: What’s it like to live in Dublin?

Nani: It was difficult at first. I felt overwhelmed by the foreignness, the short days and cold rainy weather, the loneliness. It triggered memories of being 17 and having just moved to the U.S. I remember after a few weeks of being in San Francisco, I broke down in my brother’s kitchen, taking in the fact that I was now in a new place, with no friends, where even communicating was a challenge.

What I’ve realized is that loneliness follows you, no matter where you are. For better or worse, I’ve often experienced loneliness, ever since I was a child. It’s not the kind of loneliness where you feel you have no one to spend time with. It’s more a feeling of alone in the world—what a friend of mine calls “existential loneliness.” Perhaps I thought if I moved away, I would lose this feeling. It turns out it’s still there, but with newer, different distractions. I’m feeling more at peace and accepting of this fact over time.

With colleagues in Sunnyvale.

With colleagues in Sunnyvale.

What I love about living in Europe is the ability to travel to other countries—both the planning and the experience of traveling. Since I arrived in December, I’ve been to eight countries in Europe, including countries I’d never been to before that I’d always been curious about, like Hungary, Austria, and Denmark. I’ve learned more about myself and what kind of traveler I am.

Being based in Dublin has its own challenges in terms of my job. For example, time zone differences between the U.S. and Ireland affect my work hours, which means I sometimes work until 7, 8, even 10 at night. On the positive side, if I plan ahead, my schedule is more flexible. For instance, when I know I’ll need to work late, I do other things in the morning. I once spent a weekday morning swimming in an outdoor pool in Vienna—that was lovely.

With friend Marina in Dublin.

With friend Marina in Dublin.

What I continue to love the most about life, no matter where I am, are those rare moments that give me feelings of gratitude and contentment. A few weeks ago, on a Friday, I attended a company party at an outdoor park. It was almost eight in the evening, but it was still bright, and the air was balmy, very rare for Dublin. I was on my way home, walking to the train station, but changed my mind and decided to walk home, even though Google Maps said it would take an hour. I strolled through Sandymount, a coastal suburb in Dublin, surrounded by elegant houses with shiny windows and beautiful front gardens. I didn’t have any obligations waiting at home; there was nothing I needed to do except enjoy the moment.

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 7: You Just Need to Find a Good Husband

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 7 Nani describes her post-grad-school gigs, including a tutoring job that led her to a position at LinkedIn.

Sarah: What did you do after you received your master’s degree?

Nani: I felt a little lost. My family didn’t understand why I studied anthropology, so they didn’t have hope that I’d find a job that would pay well. During a visit to Indonesia, I got dengue fever, and when a well-meaning aunt visited me in the hospital, she said, “You don’t need a PhD—you just need to find a good husband.”

For a period after I graduated I was moving around constantly, mostly in the Mission and Chinatown in San Francisco. I house-sat and subletted rooms. While the uncertainty created by my lack of a job and my nomadic lifestyle was challenging, there were things I liked about that period. I got to explore San Francisco in ways I hadn’t done before. 

I also busied myself by volunteering at film festivals. I went from festival to festival—the Asian American International Film Festival in March; the International Film Festival in May; and then in June the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival. I earned lots of free tickets. At one point I saw about ten films in one week and I remember  feeling so happy. I was really getting into that whole world—cinematography, directors, international and independent films.

I also reached out to someone I’d taken a writing class with at the American Language Institute; she was the director of a nonprofit called Refugee Transitions, where I ended up working part-time as an executive assistant. While working there I dabbled with teaching English to refugee children and with fundraising. Around the same time, I also got another part-time job through Craigslist as a financial researcher at an obscure hedge fund. I had zero experience in finance, but I was curious about the field. In the interview, the owner asked unusual questions like, What do you like to read? I said, Oh, I like to read the New Yorker. It turned out he loved the New Yorker! I ended up working with these guys in the home office of one of them. They spent all day looking at graphs, and I tried to learn from them about the patterns of international stock markets. I’m still a little bit confused about it. But I needed the money and they paid $17 an hour, which was more than I was making at my other job. The CEO was very patient with me, but I got bored there because ultimately, I wasn’t passionate about numbers and graphs. 

In addition to my jobs at Refugee Transitions and the hedge fund, I also tutored high school kids and professionals in Indonesian, and for a short while, I worked at a retail store in the Mission called Currents, selling soap and candles. Currents was a special place. I was making minimum wage and I didn’t feel confident about my retail skills, but the atmosphere was laid-back. Time was slow. They offered gift wrapping. You can go crazy with that stuff. I would silently judge my coworkers: “How could you do those color combinations? They don’t go together!” The owner was Japanese American. He was very moody but we shared some memorable moments. One evening as we were closing up the shop, he and his wife invited me to stay and served me unfiltered, smoky sake and a Japanese tofu dish they whipped up in the tiny kitchenette. It was one of those spontaneous moments of connection and beauty. 

But my main passion at that time was film. One day, while I was volunteering at the Asian American International Film Festival, I was in the bathroom of the Kabuki Theater in Japantown and I started talking with someone who worked at the Center for Asian American Media, the organization that presented the festival. She was Malaysian and we started chatting about our Southeast Asian cultures and similar, Malay-root language. One thing led to another and I ended up working at CAAM as their office manager, quitting all my other jobs, except tutoring Indonesian.

Hosting a high school friend.

Hosting a high school friend.

With friends in San Francisco.

With friends in San Francisco.

CAAM staff photo.

CAAM staff photo.

At CAAM Film Festival with another staffer and filmmaker  Leo Chiang .

At CAAM Film Festival with another staffer and filmmaker Leo Chiang.

The tutoring job is actually how I ended up at LinkedIn. After two years at CAAM, I didn’t feel I was being challenged enough, and I was getting frustrated by the slowness of the organization, just like I’d felt at the Learning Assistance Center and Refugee Transitions. I had idea for how to streamline operations and I sensed that there wasn't an interest or the resources to implement such changes.

I made a list of things I needed to do in order to get a new job, which included updating my LinkedIn profile. I went onto the site to fill in more information on my profile, and I listed all my current positions, including “Indonesian Tutor and Teacher.” The next day I received an email from LinkedIn, with a list of jobs I might be interested in, and a linguist position at LinkedIn was one of them. I realized later that the LinkedIn algorithm recognized that my newly updated profile partially matched the qualifications of one of their own open positions. I applied and got an interview.

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 6: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 6 Nani explains how poetry led her to anthropology.

Nani: Through Kyger’s influence I started reading Snyder, who’s a big advocate for anthropology. His work taught me the importance of knowing where people came from, how they live, and why different groups of people live in such different ways. It felt like foundational knowledge to me. That summer at Naropa I also took a class with Joanne’s friend Peter Warshall. His class also had an anthropological perspective. He took us to a sewage treatment plant to understand how we use water and deal with our waste. He wanted us to think about how our society has evolved to the point it’s at now.

Sarah: Were those experiences what gave you the idea of formally studying anthropology?

Nani: Yes. After a year and a half working full-time at the Learning Assistance Center, I spent a semester at San Diego State, taking prerequisites with the intention of applying to their master’s program in anthropology. But I quickly realized San Diego was not San Francisco. In retrospect I realized I went to San Diego to get away from a relationship that I was trying to end. After six months I returned to San Francisco and started my master’s at SF State.

Grad school was intense. For my thesis work I was drawn to one of the most controversial subjects in anthropology (at least at the time): the repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural artifacts. That exposed me to the ugly side of academic life. I was so surprised that individuals with PhDs could be so wedded to their own view that they would get downright hostile toward each other. The fight was primarily between archaeologists and physical anthropologists on the one side, and cultural anthropologists on the other. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists study the past by examining human remains and cultural artifacts, while cultural anthropologists study the present by working closely with present-living peoples, such as Native Americans. Because of their beliefs, many (though not all) Native Americans oppose the study of their ancestors’ human remains and cultural artifacts. One of the primary issues in the battle was that the two groups adopted polarized stances even though actually, even within each group, there was a range of perspectives and opinions.


Sarah: How did you cope with the situation?

Nani: I tried to be diplomatic. Even now I still see both perspectives—although I lean toward cultural anthropology, because if you look at the history of physical anthropology, it’s pretty ugly. The physical anthropologists at U.C. Berkeley, including the renowned Alfred Kroeber, took some deeply problematic stances, from saying that the brains of Anglo Saxons were more powerful than those of other ethnicities, to removing Native American artifacts without permission. They excavated something like 2,000 remains of individuals—that’s still in contention to this day.


I learned so much about the history of various Native American cultures. I hadn’t even known that Native Americans were the original inhabitants of North America. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. That narrative was never presented in Indonesia, given the suppression of critical thinking I described earlier. The Indonesian government didn’t want indigenous Indonesians to be aware of struggles by indigenous populations in other parts of the world.

Ultimately three factors led me to decide to not pursue a doctorate degree. First of all, I didn’t like the politics of the academic world—though I later learned that every field has politics—I just needed to learn the skills to cope with it. Also, as someone who is not Native American, I felt a little out of place speaking about Native American rights and traditions. And finally, I saw the pressure to be a good academic, strive for tenure—for example by writing papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Next: You Just Need to Find a Good Husband

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 5: Poetry Has No Rules

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 5 she describes her discovery of poetry.

Sarah: I think you started studying poetry writing with me right after you began working full-time at the Language Acquisition Center.

Nani: That’s right, we met in the fall of 2002.

Sarah: What drew you to poetry?

Nani: I’d read Charles Bukowski in one of my undergrad classes. Back home in Indonesia, poetry had all kinds of rules. When I read Bukowski, I was surprised and impressed that poetry could look and sound like that. “Wow, you can include cuss words and write in free verse about daily stuff!” I saw a flyer in the campus library about your poetry workshops and consultations. I was curious. When I first started working with you, if you remember, I didn’t join a workshop—I was too shy. You had put on your flyer that you also worked with people one-on-one, and that appealed to me. Then after you told me more about your workshops, I realized it would feel safe—I didn’t have to be somebody already in order to join.

Looking back, I can see that being in the workshop was such good practice in terms of learning how to express myself in a more public forum. I also paid attention to how you taught the class. All the students were working in different styles, writing different kinds of work. The course readers you put together introduced me to a lot of different kinds of poetry as well. I remember you had us read a poem about Frida Kahlo and you pulled a biography of her off your shelf; it had lots of reproductions of her work. You introduced me to Joanne Kyger’s work too. I was attracted to it for the same reasons I was drawn to Bukowski—the frankness, the dailiness, no rules. I wanted to write like that.

My undergraduate studies in English literature and Language Studies were more externally oriented. That’s where I first realized that people can express their individual visions and others might read that work. Coming from my culture, that was such new, exciting idea. Then in your workshops I was looking internally at what I had to say. The two approaches went hand in hand.


Sarah: Tell me about becoming friends with Joanne Kyger.

Nani: After you introduced me to her work, I decided to attend Naropa’s summer writing program, which she taught in. A lot of students wanted to hang out with her but it seemed like they were mostly curious about her personal life and her marriage early on to Gary Snyder. I didn’t feel the need to ask about those things. She told me that she really appreciated that I just wanted to talk about her work. For a while after Naropa we wrote postcards to each other. Then she gave me her email address, and then she invited me to her home in Bolinas. From then on, I visited her about once a year.


I felt our deepest connection came mostly in relation to poetry—I appreciated her work, and she appreciated mine. In person, we were very fond of each other, but I now wish we had a deeper in-person connection.  At one point she invited me to stay overnight at her place and I didn’t do it. I feel a little regretful knowing that I could have formed a deeper friendship and mentorship. She was very encouraging about my work. She published one of my poems in a local Bolinas newsletter.

Next: Human Remains and Cultural Artifacts

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 4: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. Part 3 of our conversation concluded with Nani attending San Francisco State University and feeling connected to her academic studies for the first time.

Sarah: You were also holding down a job, right? 

Nani: Yes. I became friends with other Indonesian students and they helped me look for jobs. My first job was working as a barista at the university’s Café 101. I was really into it. I loved making the perfect coffee drinks. And I liked the public-facing aspect. I felt cool working there. 

Then I got a waitressing job at a burger joint called The BullsHead, near my brother’s house in West Portal. It’s owned by Korean-American family. I had no experience in waitressing but they accepted me. It’s a very popular restaurant. Suddenly I wanted to be the best server. I even told my dad that my goal was to be a classy waitress at a fancy restaurant. 

A colleague at the restaurant told me that a great server is when the patrons don’t even notice you’re there. I learned so much about that. For example, if patrons are having an intense conversation, there are ways to interject without intruding. 


I wanted to move up in the restaurant world, so I left Bullshead and went to Olive Garden, next to SF State. I learned how to pair food and wine, which was fun. But it was a very corporate environment, not at all like the mom-and-pop world of Bullshead. You had to show up when they opened at 11am. They could dismiss you any time between 2–4:30pm—but you had to be back at 5:30pm for the dinner shift. 

And the waitstaff were expected to compete with one another. I remember there was a prize for whoever sold the most desserts. I learned to cajole customers using witty comments—“Oh it’s OK, you have room because dessert goes to a different stomach.” I did get into trouble once. I was serving an older white American couple and I kept saying “you guys.” The gentleman gestured to his partner and said, Look at her—do you think she’s a guy? I apologized but then I repeated the term—it was just automatic for me. The second time he was pretty unhappy! 


Even with the competition to sell, I was making less money than at The BullsHead. My performance started to slip—I didn’t want to be the best server in the world anymore. The store manager said, Nani, when you started you were getting 5+ stars but now you are only earning 4 stars. I didn’t last long. No regrets, though, because I learned a lot about workplace politics. 

Sarah: When I met you, you were working in a tutoring center run by the university. How did that come about?

Nani: When I first arrived and was taking basic English, one of my teachers was a French-American woman. I liked her vibe and felt comfortable with her because English was also a second language for her. A few years later I ran into her on campus and she said she was working at the Learning Assistance Center, which provides free tutoring to students. She encouraged me to apply.

I had my doubts. How could an ESL student tutor native and non-native English speakers? I didn’t think I did well in interview. But I was accepted for the position.

Then I wanted to be the best tutor.

Sarah: Tell me about wanting to be the best at everything you do.

Nani: I remember you once said, Nani, when you want something, you want it now. I tended to move fast and I wanted to be the best, but then if I wasn’t stimulated enough, I lost interest.

I learned a ton working as an English tutor. I felt my managers were more confident in me than I was in myself. Sometimes the director would pair me up with students who had learning disabilities. After a session I would have no idea if the student I’d worked with had gotten anything out of it. But we received training and the managers did sometimes observe.

I worked part-time there, tutoring students in reading, writing, and study skills. When I graduated they offered me a full-time position as an office manager with time built into my week to do some tutoring.

The director of the Center was one of the best managers I ever had. She expressed a lot of confidence in me, and she was compassionate and empathetic. For instance, she noticed that I liked to swim. She said, if you go swimming at lunch and you take a little more than an hour, don’t worry about it. I learned so much from her about how to be a good manager.

That position was a great match for me for a while, but over time I got frustrated by the manual system they used for scheduling appointments. I had learned that you could schedule using computers, which made it much more efficient. I offered my recommendations and was told my thinking was sound, but they were not ready to make the shift. I didn’t realize (and wasn’t patient enough to figure out) that in public institutions, things don’t happen swiftly. It’s not like once you identify a problem and a solution you can solve it overnight.

 Next: Poetry Has No Rules

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 3 of our conversation, Nani describes her initial encounter with U.S. culture and her nascent passion for exercising her analytical skills.

Sarah: What were your first impressions of US culture?

Nani: I was reading an old diary recently and I found observations about exactly that. For instance, I noted that people say “How are you” a lot but, as I learned the hard way, you’re not supposed to pause and really think about how you are—you’re supposed to just say, “Fine.” We don’t say “How are you” in Indonesia so at first I thought people really wanted to know how I was.

I also felt uncomfortable physically. In Southeast Asia, females are supposed to behave in a feminine way, and whiter skin is prized. I’d flunked that test because I wasn’t very feminine and was darker-skinned. Here in the US I had to wrestle with a new projection—I was seen by many as exotic. A lot of people—mostly but not only white men—assumed I’d fit the stereotype they had of Asian women as submissive, weak, nurturing. So I’d gone from feeling unattractive to attractive, but attractive in a way that made me feel objectified, uncomfortable. It took me a long time to develop the vocabulary to understand all that.

On an intellectual level I felt pretty stupid. I remember I went with American friends to see a film and one of them asked me afterward, Well, what do you think? Did you like it? I said, Yes, it was cool. The friend said, Why? I had no idea. My critical thinking skills were still very limited. Under Suharto, critical thinking was suppressed in both the public and private educational systems. You were not allowed to think for yourself. That’s why literature wasn’t offered in schools—literature promotes deeper questioning. Before I moved to the States I had never even heard of the most internationally renowned Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. His books were all banned in my time. After I got to the US I sought out Indonesian literature.

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Acclaimed Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Sarah: What did you major in at SF State?

Nani: At first I declared marketing as my major. I was still enacting the values of my parents and the world I grew up in. After one or two classes I said, this is so boring, I’m not going to do it. But I didn’t know what to replace it with. I had the same old frustration I’d felt in Indonesia—“I don’t know what my skills are; I don’t know what I’m good at.” I went back and looked at my performance at the American Language Institute. I’d excelled in writing and literature. I thought, maybe that’s what I should go for. I ended up double majoring in English literature and linguistics.

After that, I was able to say why I like or don’t like certain movies! I definitely struggled in the lit classes. But I was dating an American at the time. In terms of our communication as a couple a lot was lost in translation, but being with him propelled the speed of my learning. He would help me even with literature stuff, for example if I didn’t understand something I read or when I had to write papers.

Sarah: Why did you want to study linguistics?

Nani: I knew that breaking down the English language—looking at aspects like phonology, morphology, social linguistics—would significantly speed up the process of gaining mastery, which I very much wanted.

All of a sudden I became a proper student. It just proves that if you’re passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, no one even needs to tell you to be disciplined. You just do whatever it takes, providing you have access to the basics (housing, food, etc.), which I did, thankfully. I often went to my professors’ office hours. I would show up with lists of questions I’d prepared in advance.

Next: Dessert Goes to a Different Stomach

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. In Part 2 of our conversation, Nani describes how a car crash almost kept her from emigrating to the U.S.

Sarah: What led you to come to the States?

Nani: That choice was influenced by the fact that I had two siblings who were already living here. In 1985, when I was five, my brother, who’s 14 years older than I, left to attend college in Connecticut. My sister moved to the US in 1992, also to go to school.

Anyway, fast forward to my teenage years. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t finding my niche. I was such a bad kid, very rebellious.

Junior high.

Junior high.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Junior high. Nani is in the second row up, far right.

Sarah: What did “bad” and “rebellious” look like?

Nani: I tried smoking several times—I didn’t even like it but I wanted to be cool. I was skipping school—not a lot, not even every month, but it was a lot by the standards of my milieu. My biggest form of acting out was coming home at night later than the agreed-upon time. I remember coming home at 10:30 or 11 and my dad would be waiting outside, very angry, ready to hit me.

At that time in Indonesia, and maybe even to this day, domestic violence was considered a normal part of family life. Husbands hit wives; mothers and fathers hit their children. Not all families were like this, but my family was, and I knew many peers whose families were the same. I forgave my parents for their part in all that a long time ago. Life is complicated and I believe they did their best in the only ways that they knew.

High school.

High school.

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

High school production of “Indiana Jono” (spinoff of “Indiana Jones”).

Sarah: How old were you when you came to the States?

Nani: Seventeen, after I graduated from high school. My brother who was already living in San Francisco advocated for me to attend university here. My dad later told me more recently that his response to my brother’s suggestion was, Well, this kid is not doing well here; if we send her abroad, she’ll either continue on that path or thrive. They both took a chance on me.

Sarah: What was your mother’s opinion?

Nani: In the back of her mind she was probably thinking, How could Nani ever thrive in a whole new country? Just before I was supposed to come to the US I crashed my parents’ shiny new car, which I’d driven without a license. My mom said, I don’t think we should let her go. I was desperate to leave and I really thought I’d sabotaged the whole thing at that point.

Besides the car crash were other factors that could have kept me in Indonesia. At that time, in 1998, the Indonesian economy was in terrible shape and there were lots of protests. The president stepped down; the US embassy closed. The dollar was three to four times higher than it had been, so studying in the US became way more expensive. I had friends who decided not to go because of that. But my brother had a good job and was prepared to pay for my tuition, have me live with him, give me pocket money.

Sarah: You ended up attending San Francisco State University. Were you already accepted there before you left home?

Nani: No. All I had was an acceptance letter to an intensive eight-week summer language school at the university called the American Language Institute. My visa was only valid for that period, so I could have been asked to go back to Indonesia. But I took the TOEFL at the end of the eight weeks and applied to the university. I met the criteria and was accepted.

Next: I Felt Pretty Stupid

Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl

Nani has a gift for entering others’ cultures in a respectful and sensitive way. That gift, combined with her strong curiosity and sense of adventure, has led to a unique trajectory from her childhood in Indonesia to her current job as a project manager at LinkedIn. This is the first in an eight-part interview I conducted with Nani.

Sarah: What’s your current position?

Nani: Currently I manage localization marketing projects for LinkedIn— primarily for the European and Latin American markets.

Sarah: Can you explain what that entails?

Nani: My team, the localization team, partners with marketers in various business units to localize their marketing content and campaigns. That means we translate and localize marketing communications into local languages. Localization requires sensitivity not just to language but also to cultural factors.

Volunteering at MEDA-Cropped.png

Sarah: Help me understand the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Nani: My job comprises two major elements: active project management and relationship building. On the project management front, I make sure all the localized content is delivered on time—I build timelines, coordinate with marketing partners and vendors and manage tickets for all the projects in progress as well as our backlog.

The other part of my work is to drive strategy and plan with our partners. Localization is often thought of at the end of a marketing project, but really it should be planned for up front. Most of the content creators are based in the US and are still accustomed to thinking in terms of a US audience. But once a marketing piece—let’s say, an e-book with a really nice, polished design—has been produced in English, it’s challenging to go back in at that point and figure out how to create a parallel version in German. If the content creators are planning for localization from the beginning, it’s a lot easier.

So I engage with them early in the process and say, OK, it’s going to be hard to localize this image of San Francisco during the World Series for other markets, because it’s so specific to the San Francisco Bay Area. Or, this quote by Tori Amos might not be relevant to people in Germany or Spain. I’ll suggest they find a more globally relevant example. I’m not the final decision maker, and some teams are more receptive to feedback and changes than others. But I work hard to build relationships and stay engaged with our partners, especially the content creators.

Sarah: I’ve known you for most of your adult life, and you’ve explored a number of interests over the years. It hasn’t been a linear path. Yet looking back, it all seems to support what you’re doing currently. I see this conversation as a chance to trace your path with you. Let’s back way up. You grew up in Indonesia—where exactly?

In West Java, in Bandung, the third largest city in Indonesia.

Sixth birthday.

Sixth birthday.

Sarah: Were you thinking one day you’d move to the States?

Nani: As a child, I resisted a lot of the norms, customs, and rules around me. I couldn’t find anything to feel passionate about. I grew up in a community of Chinese Indonesians where people knew each other’s business and talk amongst themselves about the latest thing that so-and-so’s son or daughter has done.

Sarah: Were you insulated from non-Chinese Indonesians?

Nani: I went to the same school from kindergarten through high school—14 years—and about 90 percent of the students were Chinese Indonesians. I did have a couple native Indonesian friends. But as kids, we never explicitly addressed racial issues.

Seventh birthday.

Seventh birthday.

Sarah: Was there a sense in the Chinese Indonesian community of needing to stick to their own due to discrimination by the wider culture?

Nani: That’s a narrative that is real for many Chinese Indonesians. But I also think Chinese Indonesians tend to use that narrative in order to hold ourselves apart. The discrimination is real, it’s there—but sometimes, like many racial issues, the perception of discrimination is tied up with lack of openness to one another.

Maybe I was naïve, but it was very rare that I was directly discriminated against for being Chinese. That might be due in part to the fact that my skin color is darker than that of many Chinese Indonesians. Once a cousin of mine, who like me has darker skin, was out with her friends, who were all Chinese Indonesian. They were mugged by a native Indonesian. When he got to my cousin he stopped and said, I’m not going to do this to one of my own people.

Sarah: So it sounds like you didn’t feel like an outsider so much in terms of the larger culture, but you did feel that somehow you weren’t connecting. Can you tell me more about that?

Nani: I felt like I had to conform to what was expected of me, but I didn’t want to. I did very poorly in my first decade of school; I just wasn’t interested. The subjects emphasized in the Indonesian educational system are life sciences and math. I felt pressure from my parents to be like some of my cousins, who excelled in those subjects.

Eighth birthday.

Eighth birthday.

I also felt pressure from my peers and family to be a certain type of girl, very feminine and materialistic. People were wearing a lot of American brands—Guess, Esprit—they were eager to catch up with all these Western materialistic obsessions.

On the other hand, I loved watching and imitating English-language TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and a Canadian series called MacGyver, about a resourceful guy who gets himself out of crazy situations. The emotional language is so different—Indonesians don’t speak about their emotions the way people do in North America. I’d hang out by myself in my bedroom and practice talking like these characters, saying things like, “How do you feel?”

Next: Such a Bad Kid

Leadership Without Ego - Part 6: Mayberry with an Edge

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the last in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how arts in the prisons was finally reinstated, addressed critiques of arts in the prisons, and explained how he segued into his current position running all the volunteer programs at San Quentin.

Sarah: You and your family live on the grounds of San Quentin. How did that come about?

Steve: When I applied to transfer from Duel Vocational Institute in Tracy to San Quentin, I told the administrators of San Quentin I needed a house for my family. There are only 85 houses on the grounds, so only a select few get to live here. So when the administrators granted my request, I took it as an acknowledgement of the value of my work.

Sarah: What’s it like to live at San Quentin?

Steve: I think of it as Mayberry with an edge. We live on a quiet, tree-lined street, in a quaint little house that was built in 1920. The gym down the block used to be a schoolhouse. It’s strange because I don’t really engage with most of my neighbors. They think differently about political issues than our family does. But they’re friendly and treat us with respect. We’ve very close to our East Indian neighbors across the street.

I do get to see staff who I work with in a different light because they’re out mowing their lawns. And I’ve been embraced a little more by the correctional staff than I would be if I were just a commuter.

Sarah: Tell me about the “edge” part.

Steve: There’s a gun range not far from our house. You hear the officers practicing. You hear alarms. It’s pretty weird to live prison life 24 hours a day.

Mayberry with an edge.

Mayberry with an edge.

Sarah: Do you ever feel imprisoned?

Steve: Not at the house. But I get called in a lot on weekends, like if there’s problem at the gate with a volunteer’s paperwork.

On the other hand, we live so close to beauty. I can see Mount Tam from my neighbor’s house. And living here has provided great opportunities for my family. Dana has taught at San Francisco State for years and is teaching middle school in Marin now. And my daughter has been able to attend good schools in the area.

Sarah: Do you have any regrets about paths not taken?

Steve: No. Social justice work has changed my understanding of art’s purpose. I learned that art can be a lifeline for someone. When I went through my MFA program, I got caught up in academics and art criticism. Now, I don’t care if someone in an art class can only make a terrible scribble. If they’re making it, I’m excited about it. And if they’re excited about it, I love it.

It hasn’t just changed how I feel about teaching art; it’s also changed my approach to my own art. Before, I’d gotten all stuffy. I thought I needed to have gallery exhibits and be recognized in that way. Now I just want to make things, explore, without the need for it to go anywhere in particular.

I read something about how some Native American tribes pick leaders. The person they choose as a leader isn’t the person who wants to be the leader. I can relate to that. It wasn’t my vision to be running prison art programs or do what I’m doing now. It happened through a series of missteps. But I’ve learned that I do have an ability to work with people. I’ve left a bigger footprint than if I’d had a solo art career and pieces in galleries. I can point to a guy who came from a background of doing harm, and who learned in prison to make classical guitars and still makes them. And they sell for five to 10 thousand bucks each.

Sarah: Describe your art.

Steve: I make fine-art furniture. The pieces are functional and sculptural at the same time. I primarily work in wood but I sometimes inlay stone or other materials. These are one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces. It’s different from traditional woodworking, which requires a certain kind of exacting work. This work is exacting too but at the same time it’s more freeform; it evolves as I work on it.

Early in my art career I worked making guitars, and a lot of my pieces are influenced by that—the bending and shaping of the wood; the finishes I use.

Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Sarah: What do you want to do next?

Steve: I haven’t been actively doing my art so I’m not sure how it will evolve. I do want to do pieces about my prison experience. I want to do something related to the huge, rusted iron doors and entranceways at San Quentin. They’re over 160 years old. When I leave the prison, I go through what’s called a sally port, then into a cage, through another door, and finally reach the outside. It’s always a relief to get out of the main perimeter of the prison. Inside, something could happen. Outside, I’m free to walk. I’m always thinking about the parallel between that and art. Art frees your mind. I want to make a doorway. And what would be inside would be an open cabinet, or multiple doors that would open.

Sally port.

Sally port.

Original metal gate.

Original metal gate.

Exit door.

Exit door.

I’d also like to take a printmaking class and work in two dimensions. And I contemplate writing about my experience. But that will have to wait until I’ve gotten some distance from this environment.

Sarah: Where will you live when you no longer live at San Quentin?

Steve: I’ve worked in the prisons for almost 30 years now. At some point I’d like to live closer to nature and have an art studio. I picture having a cup of coffee on the porch and not needing to be anywhere. I’m also looking forward to more family time and more travel.

Sarah: What else would you like to say?

Steve: Once I’m done with this work I’d like to have more interaction with the men I’ve worked with in the past. I’m connected with guys who are doing well, and once I’m not working for the Department of Corrections I’ll be more free to interact with them, do projects with them, and advocate for them. Beyond working with guys I know personally, I want to help support the reentry of inmates into society. I’ve spent all these years focused on helping people inside but there’s a big need for support on the outside. So I’m looking forward to that.

Leadership Without Ego - Part 5: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fifth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how he kept working to reinstate art programs for prisoners even while he was working as assistant canteen manager at San Quentin.

Sarah: So how did it come about that arts funding was finally reinstated?

Steve: Laurie and I started getting access to politicians—Senator Leno and others. But Leno told us, Look, there’s no one with the political will to support arts in prisons right now—how can I ask for money for prison art programs when we’re cutting Medicare and Medicaid to people who desperately need it? But Laurie hung in there. A couple important developments really helped our cause. For one thing, we got California Lawyers for the Arts on board. Their political clout and connections gave us more access to the legislature. Then when Jerry Brown was reelected governor in 2007, that also created a shift, an opportunity. And keep in mind the economy was improving. Long story short, in 2014, the California Arts in Corrections funding was finally reinstated—at six million dollars a year. The highest it had ever been before that was three million. But keep in mind, six million is still only half of one percent of the Department of Corrections budget.

Sarah: That raises a question that was bound to come up in this conversation: What do you say to people who see you as greasing the wheels of a fundamentally unjust system?

Day of Peace - Chalk drawing competition.png

Steve: Progressives have realized over time that if you keep standing outside the system throwing stones, you may not get as big a change as if you go inside. By going into the prisons, I’m changing culture. Laurie and I, by working hard for a decade, were able to bring back funding for Arts in Corrections. If we hadn’t somehow kept the San Quentin program going, as a demonstration program, with guys who could talk about how much it had helped turn their lives around, I don’t know if that would have happened. Instead, at this point the Department of Corrections and the public at large have made a 180-degree shift in their thinking. Before, the thinking was: Lock away the troublemakers. But now people realize, there’s no room in the prisons for all these people and it’s not good for the economy anyway. That’s what working within the system can do. 

By working inside, I influence the prison staff. I’m able to help them realize that they have an opportunity to change inmates by working with them. And in my position now as the coordinator of all the volunteer programs, I’m even able to work with Laurie to help influence legislators and politicians.

This same dialogue goes on with the public school system. It’s easy to criticize the schools from the outside. But my partner Dana’s a poet who teaches in the school system and she gets so many comments from parents of students she teaches: “My son would never write and now he can’t wait to get to your class and he writes poetry and he’s completely engaged in school.” These things are small but they’re also huge. By working within the system, Dana has helped those parents learn to appreciate the arts. And she’s nudged those kids toward a different approach to academia and even to life. Administrators take note of things like that. That has more impact than if Dana were just to say, “The system sucks and I’m not going to be part of it.” 

Sarah: I’m also curious how you answer the opposite challenge: that prisoners don’t deserve fun, meaningful, rewarding activities like art classes.

Steve: Yes, there are people who say, My kid doesn’t get art at her school but you’re giving these prisoners art classes. My response is: Everyone everywhere deserves to make art. And these guys’ experience with art is helping them develop into better citizens. The classes help them develop communication skills, and to create good art they have to get in touch with their humanity. They come out safer for your community and for themselves. Their recidivism rate is lower. So art in the prisons saves money for you, the taxpayer.

Sarah: I want to loop back and ask about your transition from assistant canteen manager into your current position as director of all of San Quentin’s volunteer programs. That’s a giant leap! How did that happen and when?

Steve: While I was the assistant canteen manager I returned to school to get a high school teaching certification because I knew I needed a more stimulating job. In 2012, right after I completed the coursework, the person in the position I have now, Laura Bowman, decided to move out of state. She approached me and urged me to apply for that job. She then approached the warden and recommended me for it. Because of my years of working with volunteers at San Quentin, I was given the position. So ironically, I wouldn’t have needed to do all that coursework.

Next: Mayberry with an Edge

Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fourth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 3 ended with Steve explaining that right after receiving a “Heroes of Compassion” Award by the Dalai Lama, he was handed a pink slip.

Sarah: What did you do when you got the pink slip from the Department of Corrections?

Steve: To remain at San Quentin, I took a job as the assistant canteen manager. In my position I was mainly responsible for receiving large shipments of ramen soup packages and cereal and shaving cream. The shipments were offloaded in the warehouse. I received them and broke them into smaller deliveries to be taken to the canteen. I also supervised the canteen workers.

It was quite a step down in salary and stature. I went from running my own arts program to running a forklift. I’d grown up as a laborer in a farming area and I’d worked construction, so in some ways the transition wasn’t that difficult for me. But it was quite a blow to my ego. And the staff resented me because they viewed me as this guy who doesn’t know how to do all these things. Plus they were angry because I’d been given the job over one of their peers who wanted it. But eventually I was able to turn it around and get on good terms with the staff.

Sarah: How did you do that?

Steve: I just acknowledged, Hey, I’m here because I lost my position. I talked to the person who had been hoping to get the job and I said, I didn’t try to take your job. In the end we all got along well. I work hard and I have a fairly cheery demeanor. And the staff are really good at what they do. They have high school educations and I have two masters degrees, but they can run the till and balance the register faster than I can.

But it’s not the most fun work. You’re working at the windows where the inmates line up to buy stuff, and you have to tell some guy he doesn’t have enough money to buy something he wants, and now you have an upset customer who happens to be in for murdering someone. Sure, you have a little window between you and him, but on your work break you’re going to have to walk by this guy.


There’s a funny story from that time. To appreciate it you have to know that I try never to swear. So this inmate was at the window trying to get us to exchange something he had bought. I said, Look, you ran out of money and you know the prison policy—you can’t exchange goods. He kept arguing with me. Finally I said, Goddammit, I already told you, no! Then I said, And now you’ve made me swear! All the other guys in the line started saying, Look, man, come on, you’re making him swear, that’s not cool!

After that, the workers would say, How’s your day going, Steve? And if I was feeling stressed I’d say, I’m about ready to swear. They’d say, Oh boy, Steve’s having a bad day!

During that period of 2010–2012 when I was working in the canteen, I continued working to keep the arts program alive as best I could, including serving as a liaison between the prisoners and the prison staff. Laurie Brooks, who was working for no money, had to step up and take more responsibility for the functioning of the studio. An artist named Carol Newborg was also volunteering to do program management.

Sarah: What kinds of things were you doing as a liaison?

Steve: For example, there would be a conflict over the tool inventory. Not all the tools could be accounted for, which as you can imagine is a big deal in a prison. In situations like these, the studio would go into lockdown. I’d go in and meet with the artists and the inmates and figured out how to remedy it. Then I’d meet with the prison administration and said, Here’s what we’ve done, we’ve fixed it, please allow us to open back up. And they’d say, OK, but moving forward you need to do X or Y.

So I was mostly working in the background but when big things came up like that, I’d step in. That’s still the case now. Something will happen that locks down the art studio and I can negotiate to get it opened up. I try not to misuse my position. But I do mediate when there are conflicts with officers. And not just for the art program, but for all the volunteer programs.

Next: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Leadership Without Ego - Part 3: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the third in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 2 left off with Steve’s description of the difficult period beginning in 2003 when Arts in Corrections was cut by the state government.

Sarah: Wasn’t it during that period that you were honored by the Dalai Lama?

Steve: Yes, that’s right. In 2009, we were still deep in the struggle. Laurie was working for no money, and I was keeping the art program going as a volunteer in addition to my full-time job in the Bridging program that I described earlier. I received a letter informing me I’d been anonymously recommended to receive an “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award. This is an award granted by the Dalai Lama to 50 people from around the world from Zimbabwe to Thailand to India to Sweden to the US.

When I got that letter, I felt undeserving. The recognition seemed way over the top. I thought, Wait a minute, how can I be put alongside a doctor who does eye surgeries in the mountains of Nepal, or someone who comes up with a way to get money to families in India so they don’t have to sell off their daughters?

But a friend said to me, Just embrace it—someone noticed that you’ve put in 25 years in a place a lot of people are afraid to go into, and they thought that merited recommending you for this. Hearing that really helped me.

The evening before the ceremony, my partner Dana and I were at a dinner hosted by the philanthropist who had funded the whole experience. A Navajo woman who’s a school principal leaned over to me and said, I feel like an imposter. And I realized that a lot of the awardees felt the same way. They were a humble group, many of whom, like me, had stumbled into the work they do.

The day of the awards ceremony, the Dalai Lama’s security staff met with us and gave us all these rules. “You can’t touch him. When it’s your turn to receive your blessing, you’ll walk onstage. He’ll put a white scarf around your neck. He’ll bow. You’ll bow. Then you’ll exit the stage.” But the Dalai Lama breaks all the rules. At the meal before the awards were granted, I was sitting at a table with Dana and my older sister, along with people who’d paid $500 a plate just to be at this event. The Dalai Lama walked in. As he moved through the room, he high-fived Dana, and paused to connect briefly with other people too. It seemed like he could sense who needed a special touch.

The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

He touched us onstage too. As each awardee walked onstage, Peter Coyote read the person’s name aloud, and when we reached the Dalai Lama, he took our hands. I don’t cry easily, but I was moved to tears. There were a number of traditional Buddhists at the event and for them this was a life-transforming moment, the equivalent of a Catholic person receiving a personal blessing from the Pope. They broke rules right and left—gave the Dalai Lama gifts, hugged him. His security guard was freaking out but the Dalai Lama was fine. You can tell he’s just present for what happens. People talk about that all the time and it’s true. He has a special presence, an amazing aura that’s palpable. He would look very somber and serious one moment, and then laugh the next, totally in touch with his emotions.

Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

It was inspiring to learn about the projects other awardees were doing. There was an American woman named Lynn Poole who worked with Zimbabwean women who sew dolls and make earrings out of coke bottles to support themselves and their children. These are disabled children who are socially ostracized so they especially need support. Lynn Poole’s husband was teaching at an international school in in Zimbabwe. Another expat drove up to them in a truck and said, My visa has expired and I’ve been ordered to leave the country. This is the project; here’s the truck, loaded with materials for the dolls. It’s all yours if you’ll take it on. Lynn stepped up, on the spot. Not only that—over time she expanded the project so the dolls could be sold internationally through fair trade.

After we heard about all these amazing projects, the Dalai Lama gave a speech and said, Look, we’re recognizing you, but your work’s not done. And the work you’re doing now won’t be widely appreciated till way down the road or even after you’re gone. The work is the reward.

Leaving that ceremony, I looked back over the 20 years of my career. I saw that people I’ve worked with have gotten out of prison and are successful. Even though I don’t work in an exotic place, it’s certainly a place where a lot of people would never be willing to work. My job has allowed me to help and support people that needed it.

But at the same time I realized that that award was tied to circumstances I don’t necessarily have control over. I worked at DVI for 10–15 years, but I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of recognition while I was there. San Quentin has a much higher profile. Also, the purpose of the awards ceremony was to get funders and people in positions of power to recognize this work. So I don’t have delusions about how great I am just because I got this award.

The irony is that I received that recognition by the Dalai Lama in 2009, and in 2010, prison education was eliminated statewide, and I was handed a pink slip. My friends said, Too bad about the Dalai Lama award—it jinxed you!

Section 4: I’m About Ready to Swear

Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the second in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 1, we left off with Steve explaining that after running the Tehachapi Prison arts program, he transitioned to a position at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, CA.

Steve: When I went to DVI I got involved with the William James Association.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.


Sarah: Tell me about William James.

Steve: It’s a nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Corrections to place artist teachers in prisons in Northern California. William James screens and places the artists and ensures that they get paid in timely way. I’d let the William James staff know what kinds of artists I needed, and they’d do the matchmaking. I developed a close working relationship with the executive director, Laurie Brooks—which proved important strategically later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I ran DVI’s art program through most of 90s. The program was already in place when I got there, in a very nice studio space set up by artist Bobby Altman. We offered woodworking (I taught that class), guitar making, ceramics, painting and drawing, and music. The program was hugely successful. We had a core group of inmates who were dedicated artists, and because of that we were able to raise ten grand a year through art sales, and give visibility to the artwork. We contributed all the proceeds to the Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Juaquin Valley.

I still have a close connection with a lot of those guys, many of whom are out now. They’re off parole, citizens with good jobs who are still making art. One big success story is Vincent, who learned to make guitars at DVI. He’s been out 15 or 20 years now, and he makes high-end classical guitars for a living. His son is also an artist and has become a prison arts teacher.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

Around 1998, I was feeling burnt out at DVI and wanted to try something different. I took a position at the Youth Authority in Stockton. I coordinated programs in six juvenile facilities for young people aged 14–26. I found that work a lot more heart wrenching than working with adults. At that young age, you really can’t argue that these kids are locked up through any fault of their own. The staff were more encouraging than at the adult prisons but the environment was still draconian. Officers, barbed wire fences. And kids are harder to deal with in those environments. Fistfights would erupt.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

The worst moment for me was one time in a paper marbling workshop. One kid was trying to become a big shot in one of the gangs. I saw him order two other kids to clean up his area. I said, No, everyone cleans up his own area. He started to walk away from me. I grabbed his shoulder. He whipped around and said, Don’t ever touch me again—you don’t know what might happen. He was the kind of kid who could have played that up, because there’s a rule against touching the kids. The art teacher called in officers and they dealt with him. At that moment I realized, OK, I don’t have the patience that’s required to work in this environment.

Working with juveniles wasn’t the only aspect of that job I didn’t click with. I’d gone from managing my own program to managing programs in six different places. There are always problems that crop up when you’re bringing people inside—for example, the artist doesn’t have the proper paperwork or messes up a protocol. Previously, when I was running my own program, I had credibility among the staff, so I knew who to call to resolve an issue. But in this situation a lot of my work was by phone. So I couldn’t be as effective.

Wards making books.

Wards making books.

Sarah: Were there any heartening moments there?

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Definitely. I remember a bookbinding workshop where the instructor had the kids making these very complicated books. They were really into it. We had photos posted of them holding their completed books—they were so proud. Others would see the pictures and say, Hey, that looks really cool! The kids melted under that praise. They were so starved for positive attention and feedback.

We had a unit for kids with mental dysfunction. I wanted to place this older woman artist in there as a grandmother figure. At first the administration resisted because they thought the kids would act out. But eventually we were able to get her in there. This one kid was especially dysfunctional—he’d refuse to bathe, spread feces all over his cell. We got him into this class. The staff would tell him, You really need to watch it this week because she’s coming on Saturday and you want to get out to go to your class! He totally improved his behavior.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

The Youth Authority staff started realizing that instead of this program being an impediment, it could really help them. They started picking out the kids with the worst problems to send to art class. And other juvenile facilities started requesting art programs.

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

But even though I saw lots of positive things happen there, I still wanted to go back to working with adults. And my family wanted to move closer to the hub of the Bay Area. So in 2003, I took a job running the arts program at San Quentin. The person who’d been running that program had moved into an education position at the prison.

That program was very successful as well. But right when I got there, the Department of Corrections eliminated their contracts with William James and another nonprofit that provided the same service for Southern California prisons. Soon after that, my own position was moved under the prison education department. I lost a lot of independence. I was assigned to a program called Bridging, which serves inmates in the reception center. The reception center holds guys in the process of transitioning from county jail to prisons all over the state. Until this point the Department of Corrections had not provided programs for that population. So the Bridging program was an attempt to remedy that. I set up drawing, poetry, origami, and collage classes. These were short-term classes because the guys were shipped off to other prisons after six weeks or so. One of the challenges of that job was that the inmates were assigned to these classes, whereas in the past, I’d only worked with guys who volunteered to take art classes. So it meant I was working with students who didn’t necessarily want to be in class.

William James executive director Laurie Brooks and I started strategizing about how to keep prison arts programming alive. Laurie and Jack Bowers, a retired artist facilitator, testified before the state legislature. But that work didn’t bear fruit right away. We survived in those years on small grants from nonprofits.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Next installment: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the first in a six-part series of posts featuring an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system.

Sarah: Tell me about your work.

Steve: Currently I oversee all the volunteer programs at San Quentin Prison. My office is in charge of reviewing background checks on volunteers. I also manage the program schedule, coordinate with inmate groups’ schedules, review proposals for new programs, and recommend proposals to the warden for approval. Inmates can pitch proposals, but most pitches come from outside groups.

Now, thanks to the passage of Prop 57 last fall, the Department of Corrections gives rehabilitation achievement credits. Prisoners who participate in volunteer programs that pass approval by Corrections are eligible to get time off their sentences. That’s added a whole level of data entry to track attendance and calculate time spent in those programs. I’m the final reviewer, so each time an inmate earns enough hours to have a week off, I’m the final button.

I’m also responsible for big events, such as performances by outside groups, or events organized by inmates like the Breast Cancer Walk or the annual Day of Peace.

Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Breast Cancer Day 1.JPG
Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Sarah: What does that entail?

Steve: A group submits a proposal, which at San Quentin is called a narrative. For example, the narrative submitted by an inmate group called "San Quentin Cares" said something like, We all have mothers, relatives, and friends with breast cancer and we want to support the cause by doing a walkathon; inmates can contribute money to participate, and people on the outside can contribute via a designated link on the official Breast Cancer Walk website. Or another example of a narrative is the one inmates submitted for the Day of Peace. That one said something like, We want to have a day on the yard that encourages everyone to get along across gang affiliations, religious faiths, and so forth; we want outside people to perform music; we want a treat provided for every inmate.

2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

I review the narrative to make sure it’s realistic based on any number of factors, for example when the prison opens and closes. It all has to jibe. I clean it up and then it goes up several levels of the administrative hierarchy till it reaches the warden. I work in a system that’s paramilitary.

Sarah: Does the prison system consciously emulate the military?

Steve: Yes. The correctional officer, who’s in there with the inmates, is like a soldier. Next comes the sergeant, who oversees a team of correctional officers in a given location in the prison. The lieutenant oversees a whole cellblock, and the captain manages several cellblocks. Above the captains are the associate warden, the chief deputy warden, and the warden.

Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Sarah: How long have you been in this current position?

Steve: Five years.

Sarah: How long have you worked in the prison system?

Steve: This is my twenty-eighth year.

Sarah: How did you get into this work?

Steve: After getting my MFA in fine woodworking in 1986, I got a yearlong teaching position in a community college in Ridgecrest, in the desert, off Highway 395. The college serves military personnel and their families from the nearby army base. When my contract was about to run out, the local Kern County arts council contacted me about setting up an arts program in a nearby prison. Prison arts programs were on the rise, thanks to the visionary work of Eloise Smith, the first executive director of the California Arts Council, which was started during Jerry Brown’s first governorship. She responded to requests from inmates to set up an arts program and then she helped it expand throughout the state. It became a full-fledged program called Arts in Corrections, funded by the California Department of Corrections.

Steve's MFA solo show.

Steve's MFA solo show.

When I was first approached to work for Arts in Corrections, I said no. My view at that time was that inmates were in prison because they had done terrible things, and they belonged in there. I wanted to stay on the college-teaching track. But like so many MFA grads, I had a whole file of rejection letters. So when I got another call from the council, I went to the interview—and was hired a week later.

That first prison job was at Tehachapi, not far from Bakersfield. I was given a room in the prison. I started teaching drawing, and I brought in other artists to teach other media.

Sarah: What was it like to segue from teaching college students to teaching inmates?

Steve: I found that the inmates were much more dedicated and interesting to work with than the college students I’d been teaching. In prison, you’re working with people who have bottomed out. They latch onto art as avenue of expression and a way to have a different, more positive identity—the Artist.

Eloise had felt from the beginning that inmates would be more receptive to learning from high-level artists than from art therapists who come in with the agenda of getting the inmates to talk about their feelings. A lot of inmates resist the touchy-feely approach—“Oh, I was terrible, I robbed this bank.” The Department of Corrections didn’t want outside artists coming in—they didn’t think artists would be able to handle all the security procedures. But Eloise said it would work. She argued that if inmates were taught art by gifted artists, their engagement with the artistic process would lead them to investigate their own character and be able to contribute better to the community. That’s what finally sold it with the department. And as soon as I started working at Tehachapi, I saw the wisdom of Eloise’s approach.

Sarah: Can you give me an example of the positive impact of this approach on inmates?

Steve: I had a ceramics instructor teaching a group of guys how to throw on the pottery wheel. This inmate, a very awkward, nerdy guy, tall and lanky with thick, scraggly hair, would stand in front during the instructor’s demonstrations, blocking the other inmates’ view. He couldn’t grasp the technique and he was getting really frustrated. The instructor said, “Sit down, breathe, feel your body. We’re each going to make a bowl. Now you’re going to follow exactly what I do. Pull up the clay as slowly as an ant crawling up the side of the bowl.” And so on. Well that day that inmate finally was able to make a hollow form. It was thick and ugly, but it was a hollow form. And the next week, he showed up with a haircut and stood in back of the group so everyone could see. Later I followed up by reinforcing what he was already figuring out—“Yeah, you have to be aware of how you’re impacting the people around you.”

Inmate throwing a pot.

Inmate throwing a pot.

Not that that always happens. But experiences like that hooked me. I felt like I could really help make a difference. Guys would be worried if I didn’t show up. They’d say, “If something happens to you, we’ll never have this class again.” “You can’t just take a week off—we need this class.” I’d never had that experience at the college. There, the students were taking five classes, participating in various clubs—they were spread so thin. But inmates are in a monastic situation. In a cell, there’s time to reflect and think about what they’re going to make. If they get this opportunity to make art, they can focus on it. If they’re into writing, then they’re writing all the time. The guys in the Shakespeare class are walking around the yard practicing their lines in British accents.

Sarah: Were you welcomed by the prison staff?

Steve: Hardly! At the time I was hired at Tehachapi, the mission for corrections was only to keep inmates housed safely. There was no mission to teach them, beyond helping them get a high school diploma. My first day on the job, the warden called me in and said, “I didn’t want this program. Keep your house in order. If I see anything out of line, you’re out of here.” They thought a teacher who was already working in the prison would have been a better bet security-wise. But just a week later, my direct supervisor told me, “I didn’t want to hire you. But I’ve been watching you—you’re all right.” He told me, “That lady [Eloise Smith] wouldn’t stop pushing her agenda for us to hire an artist for this job. She waited us out.”

Bit by bit, the prison staff came around. The warden and officers would walk by the art workshop and see rival gang members communicating, black and white guys sitting next to each other. The workshop was neutral territory.

Sarah: When I first met you, you were working at Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI), a medium-security prison in Tracy.

Steve: That was my second prison job. I left Tehachapi and went to DVI in 1989. I wanted to get closer to San Francisco and Northern California. Tehachapi in an arid and politically conservative region. I prefer Northern California’s landscape and culture.

Next installment: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the final part in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. In Part 4, Joann described her transition from health care to program evaluation and how her path led her back to her alma mater.

Sarah: Tell me about your current job—it has a long, fancy title.


Joann: Yeah, it’s a mouthful: Program and Organizational Effectiveness Director at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. My role involves assessing the impact of Stanford’s public service and civic engagement programs for students. The work involves data analysis, identifying what’s working well and what can be improved.

S: How do you go about doing that?

J: We collect data through different surveys that ask questions like, “How satisfied were you with this experience? What skills or insights did you gain? How has this impacted your career or academic trajectory?” In addition, we may conduct focus groups, immediately after the students’ engagements end or a number of years later. We have also started looking at trend data.

Stanford has gone through a major shift in how we contextualize service programs. Thirty-plus years ago, Stanford’s President Don Kennedy recognized the value of a life in public service and initiated efforts to better understand the different ways students engage in service at Stanford.  This process revealed the need for greater institutional support. Without that intention, university administrations and students can lose sight of the value of service. Ultimately, the university established Stanford’s Public Service Center in 1985. Since then, we’ve always offered service opportunities at varying levels including fellowships for domestic and international placements where students work with community organizations or engage in public service that links theories learned in class with practical application in the community.

Two years ago, just after I came on board, the university launched an initiative that ramps up its already strong commitment to infusing service into all aspects of an undergraduate education.

The Cardinal Service Initiative has four components. Cardinal Quarter is an immersive, nine-week public service experience at an organization for at least 35 hours a week. There are funds available to support students to participate regardless of their financial situation. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a survey to identify areas of the program that work well and areas that need improvement, in order to understand which aspects provide a really meaningful experience for the students and the community partners.

Cardinal Courses integrates service learning into an academic setting and links students with hands-on service opportunities with community organizations. Also, students who meet certain criteria can apply for a Cardinal Service notation on their transcript. The university’s support and approval to incorporate this notation on students’ transcripts is a major milestone in acknowledging the importance and value of students engaging in public service.

Cardinal Careers provides advising and other programmatic elements that strive to link students with opportunities to explore work in the public interest either as a primary job or in a volunteer capacity. And Cardinal Commitment, the newest component, addresses the fact that many students are already doing service in a regular way, for example tutoring youth on a weekly basis or working on an advocacy or social issue, like the environment and climate change. Through Cardinal Commitment, we’re recognizing that contribution.

We hope incoming students will choose Stanford because service is an integral part of the University’s culture and Cardinal Service has been infused in our admissions and outreach materials.

Jo and colleagues

Jo and colleagues

The Haas Center for Public Service

The Haas Center for Public Service

S: How’s it been being back at your alma mater in this new capacity?

J: As an undergrad, my home at Stanford was the Haas Center. So it’s amazing to be working there now.

But as much as I love Stanford and the Haas Center, it’s not always easy being in a bastion of privilege. There are times I wonder if I might have a greater impact in helping others by returning to work with a community organization. The past two years since Trump was elected, I’ve been heartbroken and shocked to see that privilege and entitlement runs deeper than most well-intentioned white people are even aware of. The racism my parents had to endure is stronger than ever. Sometimes I tell colleagues I’m scared I’m going to become this angry person of color who shuts down and can’t listen. Yesterday I was at Whole Foods, buying a honeydew melon. Good Chinese shopper that I am, I was searching for the best fruit. I spotted one at the bottom of the pile so I was carefully stacking all the other melons to one side. Someone behind me said, Watch out, someone’s behind you. This woman was hovering. As soon as I uncovered the melon I wanted, she reached and took it. I said, Oh, I was going to take that one. She looked at me and turned and walked away with the fruit. I wanted to say something nasty to her about being an entitled white being. I’ve never wanted to say something like that in the past. Then I reminded myself, Jo, it’s a melon!


By the way, if my dad had been in my situation, he would have cussed her out! Butchers swear a lot. My brother points out that my father always spoke English with a Chinese accent—except when he swore.

S: How’s it going with work-life balance?

J: I’m back to full-time work. But I’ve gotten better at setting clear boundaries. I’ve learned to say no when I feel I need to and am more direct with requests regarding my needs as they’re aligned with my principles and values. Faith now plays a significant part in the way I view my work. I see what I do as ultimately God’s plan, so I’m not as invested in trying to control things as I was in the past.

S: When you say faith, do you mean Christian faith? Do you consider yourself a Christian?

J: Over time, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and reconnecting with my spirituality. I identify as Christian; I believe in Christ. This is a whole other conversation, but I have issues with Christians who use their faith to push their agenda, particularly political agendas. That’s not what it’s about for me. My perspectives are influenced by how my piano teacher carried herself as a Christian and how she treated others. I’m aware that my time here is temporary, and I view the gifts, opportunities and challenges in my life as part of a plan I can’t even understand. I go to church, and Fred and I are united in wanting to have a home that’s based in faith.

S: You mentioned to me in a recent email that you’re mentoring a group of Stanford students. What’s one thing you want them to know?

J: Embrace change—recognize the importance of flexibility and fluidity, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And know that things really do work out. If someone had asked me 20 years ago whether I’d be working at Stanford now, I would have said, No way! I live by the mantra, Follow your passion. Hone in on what sparks joy and excitement—what you feel a connection to. Don’t be afraid to explore it; develop experiences that honor it. Whenever I’ve tried to work just for money, I didn’t enjoy it. Work has always been far more fulfilling to me if it brought me joy and provided me with a meaningful way to contribute and support others. That’s when I’ve thrived and done my best.

The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the fourth in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. Part 3 ended with Joann describing her focus in grad school on the relationship between HIV infection and domestic violence.

S: What drew you to work on domestic violence?

I knew of cases of domestic violence in my own community growing up. In one case I even knew of a death that resulted from domestic violence. Over time I recognized that this was a real issue in the Asian American community—as in so many other communities. I felt called to address it.

S: Tell me what happened after grad school.

J: I’d been planning on working on the international stage but my thinking was shifting. I saw a lot of Asian Americans going into medicine, engineering, law—not so much public health. Yet there was a huge need, domestically. I witnessed this close to home—my dad’s sister was a garment worker who never learned English; access to health care was an issue for her family. So when I finished grad school I got a job working as a development director at a San Jose organization that serves Asian Americans. I later became director of their programs that oversaw a range of services including programs for seniors, youth, and survivors of domestic violence. It was great way to apply my public health background, but there was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and some of organizational dynamics of the agency. I ended up leaving, without another position lined up.


Amazingly, right after that happened, a job opened up at Asian Health Services. It was the same position I’d applied for earlier, and they asked me to come in for an interview but by that time I had already accepted a position at the San Jose organization. This second time around, though, the timing was perfect! I was hired to work for Asian Health Services and stayed there 13 years.

S: Why did you leave?

It was a very tough decision. I had thought I’d continue working there till retirement and really loved the people I worked with. But there was a transition in leadership and I wasn’t totally aligned with the values of the new team. As I mentioned earlier, I’d always been raised by my parents to stick to my values and principles—especially living with integrity. So I felt I had to leave.

I knew my mom would be ecstatic at the news, because she always felt I worked too hard and wasn’t treated very well. My long hours had taken a toll on her, too, because I depended on her a lot for child care. On Mother’s Day we took her out for dim sum and I gave her a box with the question, “Guess what?” on the outside.  When she opened the box, an image of balloons, stars, and a party hat greeted her along with the messages, “I quit my job!!!” and “Happy Mother’s Day!”  She looked at me, her eyes brightened, the tears fell. She thought I’d finally made the decision to put family first.


Goofing around post-quitting.

Goofing around post-quitting.


But as it turned out, I didn’t even stop working! Someone from another health care organization immediately asked me to work with them as a consultant. I realized I wanted to remain connected to community and service; I couldn’t just stay at home. So I consulted for this organization for the next year and a half.

S: That was your last job before you went to work at Stanford, is that right?

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

J: Almost. I had one more job at another health center in the Bay Area before returning to Stanford.  But I felt an increasing desire to leave health care and work on program evaluation again. I had coffee with someone I knew at the Haas Center and I asked, do you have any needs that I can help out with? She tried to connect me with folks she knew in the health care field and I told her I was actually interested in doing more work with data analysis and program evaluation. She said, Funny you say you’re interested in this area because we may have a position opening up for evaluation in the future. I started volunteering there, and in that same period I interviewed for a curriculum development job at a health center in the Bay Area. The health center offered me the job. I told them, I’ll need to work part-time so I can attend to my kids and to my mom, who has health issues. I’d always put the job first and I was clear that that needed to change. I also told them, Being honest is important to me so I want to let you know that there may be a job opportunity that comes up at Stanford that I am interested in; if this job comes through at Stanford, I will apply for it. They hired me anyway, at a high salary.

That experience showed me the importance of going into a job interview with clarity and resolve. You need to able to say, “This is what’s important to me and if that doesn’t fit with your needs, so be it." Be willing to walk away.

And then six months later, the job came up at Stanford. I applied and was hired in October 2014.

Next Installment: Watch Out, Someone’s Behind You

The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the third in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. At the end of Part 2, Jo described a six-week trip to China shortly after graduation that changed her relationship to her roots.

S: What had been your relationship to being Chinese American up to that point?

The Beijing YWCA.

The Beijing YWCA.

J: As an adolescent, I fought it. My mom would speak to me in Chinese and I’d say, I’m an American, we should speak English. My mom would lay into me: “Joann Wong! You are Chinese! You look Chinese! When people look at you they see Chinese!” I’d look at her like, OK, whatever, I just don’t want you to yell at me any more. I didn’t get it—what can I say, I was a stupid teenager.

S: What effect did this awakening during the China trip have on you?

J: It was pivotal. When I returned to the States, I was determined to work in the Asian community.

At the YWCA I’d had a chance to work on program evaluation and I’d really liked it. Putting that together with my experience in China, I was inspired by the idea of going back to school to study public health, in particular international health, with a view toward doing program evaluation.

I got into Boston University’s public health school and deferred so I could spend a year in Asia. My idea was to find an NGO where I could work on HIV issues while studying Chinese. A program called Volunteers in Asia placed me in Taipei because China wasn’t open about HIV issues—this was 1993.

I had an uncle who lived just outside Taipei, a half brother of my dad’s from his father’s earlier marriage. I didn’t know him; I’d only learned as an adult that he even existed. The idea of developing our relationship was an added draw.

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Attending a conference in Taipei

Attending a conference in Taipei

In Taipei, I spent mornings studying Chinese and evenings teaching English. In my free time I volunteered at an NGO called Living with Hope, which supported families living with HIV/AIDS. Taiwan was a decade or so behind San Francisco in terms of the fear and misinformation flying around. One of my best friends at the NGO was an activist/organizer named Zhang Wei. Inspired by him and other staff there, I went to my first gay rights protest. I’d been such a goody-goody growing up; I’d never protested before. But somehow in Taipei it made sense to me. Zhang Wei said, You’re weird—you support these things that in our culture are so taboo and stigmatized.

When I came back to the US to attend grad school I experienced an intense case of reverse culture shock. I realized how big and loud Americans are compared to life in Taipei. And Boston was another new environment. But I embraced it. When I’d gotten into school in Boston, I thought, I wonder why God is sending me to Boston. And you know how that turned out—I met Fred there!

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.


Much  of my grad school work focused on the connection between HIV infection and domestic violence. In 1996 I volunteered as a Logistics Chair with the Names Project to help with their display of the entire AIDS memorial quilt in Washington, D.C. I was on my feet twelve to fourteen hours a day for the duration of the display. I’ve never been as exhausted as I was then. I remember being in tears by the end of one day because my feet hurt so much; as a grad student living on the cheap, I didn’t buy more comfortable shoes! But somehow the incredible love, compassion and support from thousands of people who came to see the panels carried me through. I also volunteered with the Multicultural AIDS Coalition in Boston and with a shelter for survivors of domestic violence—one of the first in the country tailored to Asian women’s issues.



Next installment: Fireworks and Tears

The Alchemy of Service - Part 2: Mom, It's Only a Nickel

Jo as a toddler with her parents and older brother.

Jo as a toddler with her parents and older brother.

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the second in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. In Part 1, Joann described her parents’ traumatic beginnings, immigration to the States, and resilient adaptation strategies.

S: You went to Stanford as an undergrad. What did you major in?

J: I started out pre-med but realized at some point that I wanted to explore other options in health care. I ended up majoring in Human Biology with a concentration in Child and Adolescent Development.

S: What had initially drawn you to medicine?

1977—Jo (far right) with her brother, cousins, and maternal grandmother.

1977—Jo (far right) with her brother, cousins, and maternal grandmother.

J: When I was ten, my mom’s brother got a rare form of cancer. I was really close with his kids—we spent summers together. We watched my uncle deteriorate and die. My mom played a big role in caring for my uncle and she was really important to my cousins, because our families spent a great deal of time together. Being so close to someone with terminal illness impacted me. Also my dad really loved kids, and that rubbed off on me. When I went to college, I thought I’d be a pediatric oncologist. I volunteered at a camp for kids living with cancer. I loved the kids but the fact that they were so sick was hard on me. And academically, while I was inspired by science, I didn’t excel at it. I didn’t do well in the famous freshman weed-out course, Chem 31.

I thought, That’s fine, if I don’t become a doctor, I could…. I couldn’t finish the sentence. That scared me more than giving up my plans of going into medicine. A doctor I had been shadowing said, what matters most is following your passion. So I asked myself, What sparks passion and excitement in me? I knew I wanted to stay in health care but I realized I was more called to the service side.

14-year-old Jo and her family.

14-year-old Jo and her family.

1987—Jo with her maternal grandmother, parents, and brother.

1987—Jo with her maternal grandmother, parents, and brother.

S: That ties back to what you alluded to earlier, that your family’s emphasis on supporting the family somehow translated in your mind to supporting others far beyond the family unit.

J: Yes. I was also very inspired by the example of my piano teacher. She had a strong Christian faith. She was patient, loving, and devoted to helping others. Interestingly, I was surrounded by Christianity as a child—the uncle who died was a pastor—but my parents kept Christianity at bay. My mother felt that the gossip at church didn’t model Christian values. And my dad thought all Christians were crooks because he knew there were these wealthy televangelists cheating people out of their money. As an adult, though, I identify as a Christian.

S: When you first graduated you worked on HIV issues, is that right? What led you to that arena?

J: I was a product of ’70s and ’80s, and the HIV epidemic was a fact of life. I was drawn to the social justice aspect of the disease as well as the compassion I felt for people being discriminated against because of their illness. I’d learned from my parents to stick up for my principles, fight against discrimination. Once when I was 12, my mom and I were in a parking lot and some white guy shouted at her, Why don’t you go back to your own country?

With other undergrads, Halloween 1988.

With other undergrads, Halloween 1988.

Graduation Day, with Stanford President Donald Kennedy.

Graduation Day, with Stanford President Donald Kennedy.

My mom said, Why don’t you go back to your own country because the only people who belong here are the Native Americans! (Actually she said “Indians.”) I thought, Here’s this supposedly docile Asian wife who cooks and cleans and drives her kids around, being such a bad-ass!

I do have to say sometimes it goes too far. Once we were coming out of Safeway and she looked at her change and realized she’d been short-changed by a nickel. She started marching back into the store. I said, Mom, it’s only a nickel, let it go. She started lecturing. “Joann Wong! This is about the principle!” I always know I’m in trouble when she uses my whole name.

S: Tell me about the work you did in HIV.

All grown up.

All grown up.

J: Right out of college I received a fellowship to intern at the State Department of Education in Sacramento. I worked on a program called “Healthy Kids, Healthy California,” doing a literature review of HIV curricula being taught in schools.

After that I got a job teaching HIV prevention education to middle and high school students in Santa Clara County through the Mid-Peninsula YWCA in Palo Alto. That position helped me understand women’s and diversity issues more. I had phenomenal role models there—including my boss, Kay Philips, the executive director—who were working to empower women and eliminate racism. They were strong; they spoke up. 

When a development director position became open at the YWCA, I applied for it. I was up against a woman who was maybe 15 years older, but I got the job. I was given intensive training in fund development, communications, and media relations. I saw that the people who hired me were walking the talk of empowering women of color.

In that period I took a six-week trip to China with my family. I got a deeper understanding than I’d ever had of what it means to be Chinese American.

Next installment: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup

I’ve always known that my brother’s wife brother’s wife, Joann Wong, had a cool career. But when we’re in the same room, it’s usually for a family gathering—we’re too busy dishing up food to have a real conversation. Recently I invited her to talk with me about her work. Her vivid storytelling riveted me. And I learned how, by expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, she fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the first of five installments of that conversation.

Sarah: How did you first get enamored of service?

Joann: I always wanted to serve others. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, the product of immigrants who lived through food-shortages and war, and sought something better for their children. I learned from my culture and my family how important it was to support the family unit. But somehow in my mind, “family” expanded to “world.”

S: Tell me about your parents’ experience.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

J: My mom was born in Macau, a small Portuguese territory. During World War II, Macau was initially a neutral area. Refugees from China flooded the tiny island, leading to food shortages and appalling living conditions. Then the Japanese took power. My mom tells stories of how people lined up for rice rations every day. After they left the line, they’d discover that under a top layer of rice the servers had filled the bowls with sand. Early in her life, my mom became sick and lacked proper nutrition. She was so malnourished she lost all her hair. Her grandmother cooked a soup made of mice—so my mother would get the nourishment she needed to grow her hair back. Her grandmother insisted on using field mice, because they’re cleaner than street mice.

My dad was born in Hawaii when it was a US territory. My grandfather had come from China to California where he found work building railroads. Later he went to Kauai, where he worked for the Wilcox family at what is now called the Grove Farm Homestead, as kitchen staff, and he and my grandmother started a family. One day, when my dad was around four years old, my grandfather had his palm read and was told, “You’re going to die in the next five years.” When he heard this, he told his family that he wanted to die in his homeland. So my grandfather packed up the family and moved everyone back to China. My grandfather lived another ten years. My dad emphatically advised us, “Don’t ever believe palm readers!”

Once back in China, my father and his parents lived in a village area called Hoi Ping, outside of Guangzhou. My dad told me less about their living conditions and more about what his father was like. My grandfather was extremely strict, and corporal punishment was typically the discipline of choice. When my grandfather got home from work, if his slippers were not properly set out, someone got hit. If family members talked during dinner, someone got hit.

When my father was 14, my grandfather died from what my dad thinks may have been a heart attack. This was during World War II, when the Japanese attacked China. My father remembers being chased through the fields by a Japanese soldier as a teen. My grandmother was a tough, sturdy woman. She’d walk for miles carrying two buckets of salt slung on each end of a stick that she balanced across her shoulders. She’d walk to the edge of the main road where she could sell the salt, and then walk back home at the end of the day. That’s how she sustained her four children.

S: As immigrants to the US after the war, what work did your parents find here?

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

J: While living in China, my dad’s family stayed in contact with the Wilcox family in Hawaii. When the war ended, one of the Wilcox family members wrote to my Uncle George and advised him and my dad to go to the US Embassy in Guangzhou to try to return to the US since both my uncle and father are American citizens. Ultimately, my dad and his brother returned to Hawaii on a US military ship that was coming back from Guangzhou. They worked for the Wilcox family on Kauai. My dad was a gardener for Sam Wilcox. Sensing more employment opportunities might exist on the mainland, my dad moved to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, he ultimately became a butcher. He dealt with a lot of racism on the job; he was called “Chinaman” and “Chink.” He had to put up a front, act like it was all fine. Ironically, my father’s youngest brother died serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War—we’re a Gold Star family!

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

My mom came to the US at the age of 16 and did well in school, particularly in math. She enjoyed tinkering with mechanisms and figuring out how things work. She wanted to study to be an engineer but didn’t have enough money to pay for a college education. Instead she took classes at a trade school and became a beautician. She worked in a beauty shop at JCPenney for a little over a year, then opened a salon with two other business partners. My mom also experienced her share of discrimination, including a time when one of her clients exclaimed how hearing my mom speak in Cantonese to another customer at the salon gave the client a headache. She asked my mom to stop speaking Cantonese.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Anyway, as a result of my parents' struggles, they encouraged us to work hard, always do our best, stay committed to our family, and get a good education. My father would say, "Don't end up in a situation where others can boss you around. Be your own boss." As a kid, I didn't have many chores; I was expected to focus on my education. When I would offer to help, my mom would say, "No, you go and study."

Next Installment:                             Mom, It's Only a Nickel

Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

This is the last in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1–3.

Eighteen Years of Defeat Is a Strange Space

[When we left off with Hazel's story in Part 3 below, she had revised her manuscript yet again and sent it—yet again—to Stephen Motika at Nightboat.] He wrote back after some time. He didn’t like the changes. But he didn’t out-and-out reject the work.

Six months went by. One day I pulled out the manuscript again. I cut a third of the quotes and embedded the remainder more carefully in the manuscript. I sent it back to Stephen and wrote something like, “I’m not certain that I’ve fixed anything. If you could let me know your decision by Sunday I’d appreciate it. If the answer is no, I completely understand.” I almost wanted a rejection. There were many times during the whole process when I wondered if I were mentally ill.  Eighteen years of defeat is a strange space.

Stephen wrote back and said he loved the rewrite. He had a lot of praise for it. But he also didn’t come right out and say he’d publish it.

I went to Brooklyn in the fall of 2016 and met him for breakfast. I was grateful that he had spent so much time on my manuscript and I was also nervous he might still be thinking it wasn’t done yet. I said hesitantly, Stephen, is it yes or no? He said, Yes. He said, Sorry, in my feedback I’ve been harsh on you. I said, That’s true. We laughed. He knows a lot about landscape architecture and admires Isabelle’s work, so he cared about this book. I’m of course very grateful now.


Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

I’ve thought a lot about why this project took twenty years. I’ve come to understand that as an English person, I wasn’t writing about a Southern California landscape from the perspective of someone raised here. I had to take up habitation in a foreign aesthetic. It’s very hard to have lost one’s original place. It’s even harder to write about that. Yet I felt I might never encounter a more mysterious or necessary subject. So what choice did I have? I had to address that desperate resettling.

I also think I was jealous of Isabelle’s power as an exquisitely intuitive maker. I wanted to write as powerfully as she created gardens. The project became finish-able when I realized I would always fail to fully get the experience on the page; that instead, I needed to allow the failure to enter the work, become part of it.

A third challenge to completing the work was my guilt that I was making an experimental poetry book, not the gloriously successful coffee table book Isabelle and I had originally envisioned.

But about six years ago I realized Isabelle wasn’t holding a grudge. Around that time she arranged for me to stay in the guest house at the garden she had created for Lillian Lovelace. The Lovelace garden features a pool with boulders in it, set under oaks, with a teahouse at its edge. It’s that placement of the human-made lines and the wild lines I described earlier, that reduces me to a noodle. I stayed in the teahouse for three days and nights. I swam in the ocean and in mountain creeks. I slept with the door open and in the mornings there were mountain-lion footprints on the deck. I wrote several poems.

Blog #10 - Photo Hazel White Part 4 - Lovelace teahouse and pool.png

Isabelle always knew I was more of a writer than I knew. She told me early on to stop calling myself a garden writer. She said I was an artist and a real thinker. By the time the book was finished, she had come to see me as being more true to myself as an artist than perhaps she’d been to her artist self during that time. So in the end, she’s glad it ended up how it did.

And so am I.