The Evolution of an Advocate

Ishskwaday.

This Ojibwe word for ‘fire’ has always held so much meaning in my life.

Perhaps because I equate it to my first experience advocating for something and someone greater than myself. Or perhaps because the symbolism of a burning fire captures so much of my 15-year journey as an advocate. The passion that has driven me and shaped so much of who I am has truly been like an all-consuming fire — pushing me to strive for heights I could have never imagined achieving on my own.

Even though I feel like I have lost so much of my bright-eyed idealism and youthful naivete — somehow my ishskwaday, my passion for advocating for others, has remained aglow.

I recently pivoted into a venture capital role at the intersection of technology, innovation, and impact and realized how much I have evolved as an advocate. As I reflect on this unconventional journey from human rights law to venture capital, I have 4 key insights that might help others who are also on this, often lonely, path to make a positive impact for others.

1. Start at the Front Lines

The first time I went to a First Nations reserve was the summer before law school. I spent over 2 months in the middle of the Canadian prairies in the remote dirt road reservation of Fishing Lake First Nation — a Saulteaux branch of the Ojibwe Nation.

I had originally envisioned a summer of international development work in some exotic faraway locale. But having become aware of the ‘third-world’ conditions of Aboriginals in Canada — horrifying ‘suicide chains’, systemic over-representation of Aboriginals in the criminal justice system, the mental health system, the child welfare system — I instinctively understood that I had to examine the community needs in my own backyard before venturing out into the world.

I wanted to understand first-hand why there were so many appalling statistics about Canada’s First Nations. How could it be that, just a few hours away from the comfort of my Canadian privileges, there were families ravaged by rampant substance abuse, depression, and suicide? How could my beloved homeland also be home to a parallel dysfunctional universe in the North — a ‘Third World Canada’?

There, in the quiet, far away from technology and civilization….right before I was hit with the tidal wave of career aspirations and the pressures of adult life, I remember finding so much beauty and peace. Despite the painful history of cultural genocide and generational trauma, the people I met were so powerfully resilient, so beautiful. I remember promising myself — a promise that has been wedged deep within the crevices of my heart — that I would devote my career to fighting for the underserved…like the precious souls I had met that summer. Souls that, behind the headlines and textbook statistics, reminded me of our shared humanity; souls that broke me down and humbled me as I acknowledged my privilege.

Since that summer, it has always been my front line memories that have kept me going in moments of utter frustration, bleak discouragement, or that sinking feeling of helplessness in the face of systemic injustice. These memories have been collected from many law school breaks spent in Long Lake #58, the summer where I helped my first bail clients in the basement cells of Toronto’s Old City Hall, the rush of compassion I felt as I held the hands of North Korean refugees for the first time, the warmth of my interactions with immigration clients patiently waiting in our dingy waiting room.

Despite all good intentions, an advocate must start at the front lines. Because without actually knowing the people we claim to want to help— what right do we have to advocate without engaging those who have the lived experiences of what we are trying to ameliorate?

This seems especially true in today’s era of digital advocacy. Although social media and digital platforms have amplified and mobilized efforts around the globe, the principle of starting at the front lines may even be more applicable than ever due to the casual nonchalance and lack of human connection that can come from advocating behind the screen.

Ultimately, starting at the front lines is critical in ensuring that advocates do not embody a privileged ‘savior complex’ and unintentionally perpetuate the very inequities we claim to be addressing. Starting at the front lines embodies the hard work of building genuine relationships and the time needed to learn the depth and substance of what we are really advocating for.

2. Don’t Be a Hero

Like so many others, I assumed that law would be my tool to change the world and to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize that law school was not exactly the epitome of my aspirations for justice and human rights as I had hoped it would be; it was more like a well-oiled corporate-sponsored machinery churning out replaceable attorneys for corporate law firms.

As my disillusionment with law school continued to grow, I found myself returning, every chance I could get, to a local First Nations reserve to try and keep the magic of my idealism alive. After a few more visits and a growing passion to bring more awareness about the plight of Aboriginals, I co-founded “Ishskwaday” — a national Native Identity conference with a vision of reconciliation and empowerment.

It was my second year of law school and most law students were busily preparing for their summer internships. But I was consumed with my drive that I needed to do more, that we needed to do more. If only we could show these young people some leaders and mentors who had ‘made it’, connect them to concrete educational and employment opportunities — they could reach their potential and break the patterns of poverty and addiction. I was sleeping 4 hours a night, working 10+ hour days on Saturdays and Sundays — I was on a clear pathway towards burnout. But I was consumed by self-righteous rage. Why didn’t people care?

It wasn’t until the end of law school, that I finally understood the insolence of that question and the arrogance of my self-righteous rage and ambition. I was at a law school event when I heard a profound piece of wisdom from a revered Aboriginal Canadian judge that has stayed with me since. He too was sharing about his burning desire to bring awareness about his community and to keep doing more. But he said one day, he woke up burnt out. And he realized that he wasn’t a hero; he couldn’t be a hero — all he could choose to do was one heroic thing a day.

I realized how much of a “hero” or savior mentality I had taken on. But wasn’t this the very paternalistic thinking that had colonized and exploited indigenous communities? Not being a hero is still something I struggle with to this day; it is too easy for those of us who ‘want to help’ to get caught up in a colonial savior complex. Indeed, it is this natural human tendency to want to be a hero that makes starting at the front lines all the more critical.

Part of not being a hero is relinquishing the spotlight to the very people we claim to want to help. Over the years, I have realized that an advocate needs to amplify the voices of those for whom we are advocating; the face of a movement should always have the lived experience of the cause.

True advocacy is not about me doing something for someone else — but about me, doing what I can to help someone else be so empowered that they can sustainably help themselves. This is why so much of my work has shifted from ‘helping’ or ‘advocating’ to empowering others.

3. Be Relevant

I distinctly remember the first time in my career when I acknowledged my irrelevance. This was such a pivotal moment for me because I had been so zealous in my advocacy, so meticulous in my research, so thoughtful in each argument and policy I had published or articulated. Yet, I remember being in a roomful of innovators and entrepreneurs — considered to be the leading minds of the next generation — and realizing that no one in that room was ever going to read my 50-page-paper about North Korean human rights.

It seems laughable when I reflect on that moment now — but at the time I was rightfully devastated. Driven by my ongoing desire to make an impact, instead of being defensive or deciding to shout even more loudly upon deaf ears, I decided to listen. And as I listened, I heard incredible stories of creative innovation — actually solving some of the most complex problems within our communities. It was the first time I heard of concepts like social entrepreneurialism, positive social impact, and ‘win-win’ situations.

I have felt the reverberations of the irrelevance I experienced that day throughout the entire realm of human rights. We are supposed to care when universal norms are so blatantly breached. But it appears that international law as we know it, civility in politics as we know it, even the very foundation of American democracy — are all becoming irrelevant.

People just don’t care. Morality and conscience alone do not lead to action, to enforcement, to political will. Over the years, I have realized that relevance is what moves us. And to stay relevant, to really make a difference, we need to see what is capturing the attention of the world and strategically turn — at least some of — that attention to human rights. To the underserved. To things that should matter to all of us as humans.

Having been an advocate now from grassroots movements to international campaigns — I am convinced that perpetual relevance seems to live at the intersection of technology, innovation, and access to capital. As advocates, we need to bring human rights into this ‘relevant’ intersection and ensure that we build strategic alliances to unleash the power of technology (and capital!) to do good. I believe that advocates, technologists, and investors — if they so choose to collaborate — will achieve true innovation; the kind of innovation that is directional and actually solves problems.

4. Evolve Your ‘Why’

Just as our identities are constantly evolving, the “why” that drives us also evolves and changes throughout different seasons of life. I have realized that the true sign of an advocate is not only the ability to articulate our ‘why’ but to constantly reevaluate and evolve it; ensuring that the ‘why’ that drives us is actually empowering those we claim to help, that we are not just trying to be a ‘hero’ driven by a colonial savior mentality…that our tools and methods are relevant and effective.

I first learned to articulate my ‘why’ when I embraced my ethnic heritage as a Korean. Ironically, it was while I was advocating for First Nations communities that I was challenged by the keynote speaker at our national conference. I will never forget the moment when Richard Twiss — a Native American leader known for his expertise in reconciliation and community empowerment strategies — looked me straight in the eye and asked me to articulate my ‘why’. I remember the inner turmoil I felt as he, albeit lovingly, challenged my ‘savior’ mentality and uncovered my own hypocrisy.

After that conference in 2006, I went to South Korea for the first time. My parents had immigrated from South Korea in the 1970s and I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. My conception of being ‘Korean’ consisted of going to church and owning a convenience store. I am often ashamed to admit that I had no idea about the complex history of the Korean peninsula nor that both sides of my family were originally from North Korea. As a proclaimed student of human rights, I did not even know about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea — the ongoing repression of rights, the gulags…the only place in the world today with ‘concentration camps’.

Upon my return from Korea, I co-founded HanVoice, Canada’s largest human rights organization advocating for North Korean human rights. For the first time in my life, I experienced a newfound sense of ‘rootedness’, the powerful sense of empowerment that came from owning and claiming my cultural identity as a Korean. I somehow understood that I came from a long lineage of resilience and that I belonged to a people group with whom I shared traits of passion, of fire, of revolution.

After a career in criminal law and access to justice policy work, I re-entered the field of international human rights in my 30s, a mom of two already by then. I zealously reinstated my dreams of old and vigorously pursued all academic explorations into how international law could be a more effective tool for advocates. I researched, I wrote, I spoke.

I then experienced a pivotal evolution of my ‘why’ — another distinct moment just as poignant and unforgettable as when Richard Twiss asked me that consequential question so many years ago. I was busily flying back and forth from SoCal to DC as I pursued my advocacy efforts on behalf of North Korean human rights. My parents had flown in from Toronto to help take care of my kids. One night as I was telling my son, who was just 5 at the time, how I had to go back to DC the next day, he innocently asked me, “Mommy — do you love your work more than you love me?”

I will never forget the searing heartbreak I felt when he asked me that question. I felt the shame of my hypocrisy; how could I purport to advocate for others when my own son questioned my love for him? I realized then how narrow my ‘why’ had been…only focusing on the external or public parts of my life. My ‘why’ needed to be expanded in order to resonate within the most personal and intimate areas of my life. Since then, my ‘why’ has become so much more than just my desire to help and positively impact others; it now encompasses my identity as a mother, the legacy I want to leave through my kids…and a promise to equip and empower the next generation of leaders — starting with my own kids.

In late 2017, my ‘why’ underwent yet another transformation. I spent some time doing a spiritual leadership development program that was supposed to help me find my God-given ‘destiny’. I was feeling tired and a little lost in both my personal and professional journey. I was still struggling to reconcile my identity as both an advocate and as a working mom and, after a decade of pursuing justice, I was feeling burnt out. The word that kept coming to me throughout that program was ‘ishskwaday’. Like a whisper from the past, from a time that felt so long ago…that first summer experience on the front lines.

It has taken me years to finally figure out what it means to have ‘ishskwaday’ be the word that encapsulates my ‘destiny’ and the ultimate expression of my ‘why’. Ishskwaday reflects my life-long pursuit for justice and the fiery passion that was ignited over 15 years ago. But the flames, so prone to burning out, only burn stronger and brighter when it is coming from a place of spiritual peace and self-empowerment. It is also a reminder that whatever my pursuit is in this life — it can never be achieved by my individual efforts alone. The pursuit of justice, of impact, of legacy…is collective…and inexplicably intertwined to our inner state of mind. Ultimately, it is empowered people who empower others.

There is an undeniable spiritual dimension to ishskwaday and only the supernatural can explain my personal evolution as an advocate and how I am currently in a role where I am living out my ‘why’ at the intersection of technology, the empowerment of the underserved, and access to capital. But ishskwaday also reminds me that, like the glow of a burning fire, my ‘why’ must also bring warmth and light to the innermost parts of my life and to those I cherish most.

So may we embrace the evolution of our ‘why’ and the transformational journey it takes us on as we constantly evaluate what drives us throughout different seasons of our lives. Above all, as advocates, may our ‘why’ not be a source of burnout and frustration, but one of fulfillment, inner peace, and self-empowerment.

Selah.

This Hebrew word, often interpreted as an invitation to pause and reflect in the psalms or a musical piece, has brought me to yet another new chapter in my evolution as an advocate.

Last year, I made the difficult decision to pause, to take a break. To really clear my mind and re-strategize before my next career pivot. It wasn’t until I took that pause, selah, that I was able to re-imagine and re-define the kind of impact and legacy I wanted to leave behind.

As I now lead a fund that manifests so many of my dreams and thoughts around true advocacy, empowerment, and impact, I am excited to continue growing and to keep my ishskwaday burning…while also practicing the inner peace and self-empowerment of selah.

The four insights I’ve shared throughout this piece have been life-changing; it’s how I’ve stayed true to myself. I know I still have more to learn — that my evolution is not quite complete. But hopefully, my insights and the lessons I’ve learned along the way can be helpful for fellow advocates — especially for younger advocates in the generations to come.

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