Finding My People

When I made my big pivot to the nonprofit world back in 2019, I imagined that I would have to put in my time, garner enough experience and build a portfolio of wins to be able to choose the organizations and causes I worked for. I also wanted to still flex my public relations and marketing skills but in the service of development work.

My first official foray into the nonprofit world affirmed the need for a strong marketing lens. As a Major Gifts Officer, I saw first-hand the importance of telling the right stories at the right time for the right audience. In my mind, the relationship between fund development and marketing was key. I was surprised to find, however, that synergy between these two essential functions wasn’t always the norm.

Given this set of expectations – putting in my time, building up my portfolio and wanting to leverage my communications skills – it wasn’t easy to find the right fit. After countless conversations with friends and colleagues, so many interviews and oodles of applications submitted, I stumbled upon an intriguing opportunity with a nonprofit social justice organization working in the education space. The organization, Embracing Equity, was looking for a development professional to accelerate their growth on the partnership side. As a startup still building out systems and processes, they also wanted functional skills in marketing along with a demonstrated passion for equity. I found my unicorn!

After an incredible, immersive and collaborative three weeks of exploration and engagement with Embracing Equity, I was offered and have accepted the position of Senior Director of Partnership Development! I am beyond humbled, honored and excited to embark on this next journey.

Embracing Equity is a Women of Color (WOC) social justice nonprofit organization that understands the legacy of systemic racism in education and aims to address these inequities with a holistic approach that encompasses individual learning, interpersonal actions, and institutional-level transformation.

Since their founding in 2017, Embracing Equity has grown dramatically, working with over 2 thousand individuals, across 47 states, accelerating simply by word of mouth from the success of their early participants. In this new role, I hope to leverage and grow their success, helping them to identify and engage with even more institutional partners within the education ecosystem. Our shared goal is to accelerate growth and to impact over 1 million children by 2030!

Getting to this place has been, in many ways, such a perfect alignment of who I am, my values and my goals.

My Story of Why

People see us through the lens of our various identities. As a professional, an advocate, a wife, and mother – those who know me would likely describe me as strong, outspoken and, at times, brave. I believe I am those things on my best days, but I could not draw on these qualities when I was young and most in need of strength and courage.

Growing up in a predominantly white, upper-income community, I experienced endless incidents of being taunted and called out simply for being who I am, Asian. Or the many times I’ve been told, “Go back to your country.” As if I wasn’t already here.  This world that was reflected to me through my peers, my community, and the media, did not look like me and did not see me.

One memory from my high school days has stayed with me. l am in the locker room and a “popular” girl was next to me, talking to her friends. I don’t remember her exact words, but she was mimicking the facial features of a Korean girl (there were only two of us in our high school) by pressing her hand against her nose and then pulling up at the corners of her own eyes, exaggerating the traditional almond-shaped eyes of most Asians but in a mocking caricature of our faces. Laughing and giggling was the response from her friends. In that moment, I held my breath, silently hoping to simply vanish. By then she saw that I was also in the room. Momentarily startled, she smoothly recovered and stated, without a trace of embarrassment, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re more like us.”

I don’t think that girl thought of herself as a racist. Who does? But it was a callous and mean and, yes, racist remark, insidious for its easy perpetuation of the message that I had received many times before: We may grant you permission to be seen but only if you are “like us.”

I didn’t have the language to express what was happening and how this made me feel. I remember it as a general sense of disconnection, as I could not be “like them” in the most fundamental way. I could not change the color of my skin, nor the shape of my eyes. But being accepted relied on my putting up the façade. I was a teenage girl with no allies to support me, and I had not yet developed the resilience I needed to create a different path for myself, or others like me. I have often wondered where my life could have taken me if I had not wasted so much time and energy trying to pass undetected, pretending to blend in, to be something I could not be.

It wasn’t until I moved to a larger city to attend a big public university that I began to see that there were more people like me. But even then, as a transracial adoptee raised by a white family, my family, while well-intentioned, did not acknowledge my Korean birth culture in any meaningful way. This further compounded my feelings of disconnection and lack of belonging. It was only when I became a mother myself that I began to recognize and explore this multi-layered dissonance as part of my identity.

However, being a member of a marginalized group does not absolve us of responsibility to do the work or to keep us from finding ourselves on the wrong side of right. I’ve come to learn that not being racist is different than being anti-racist. To be anti-racist means moving from knowing and into action. I did not speak up that day for myself or for the one other Asian girl. I forever regret that I did not have the courage to act nor the understanding that my silence made me complicit.  

While this happened decades ago, and we have collectively begun to face this country’s systemic and historic racism, we still have not normalized talking about race. It’s uncomfortable and fraught with deeply rooted layers of unearthed traumas and denial. So, can we solve a problem that we can’t yet talk about?

Yes, I absolutely believe that we can. Despite of or even because of my past, I am an optimist who carries hope for progressive, meaningful change in my lifetime. All of us have the power within ourselves to make it happen. This is a core belief that I have often espoused, especially to my three mixed-race daughters.

Embracing Equity in partnership development is my way of showing up and being a part of making positive change happen. Education does indeed power our future.

Embracing Equity’s model for disruptive change in the education space has already proven transformative and successful. They envision a world in which all children can thrive, regardless of differences in race, gender, identity, or socio-economic status. Embracing Equity’s vision states it perfectly, ” A just society where all children are affirmed in their whole humanity and nurtured to their fullest potential.” We can do this.


Mindfulness Stacks

How does an intention become an action? For years, I’ve intended to start a meditation practice. Who doesn’t want to be more fully present in life’s moments and enjoy reduced stress while enjoying personal and spiritual growth? Yes, please. I read books and reached out to expert practitioners, but nothing helped me move from intention to action when it came to meditation.

However, like so many of us during this protracted, unprecedented global pandemic, I developed new modes of being and doing that I did not envision before Covid. While my running habit pre-dates the pandemic, I slipped into a habit of longer daily runs simply because I had more time in the day to do so—and the relative safety of being outdoors remained constant. In no time, I exhausted my music playlists. Too lazy to create new ones, I turned to audiobooks to power me through these longer runs. 

What happened next was a very organic evolution between running and “reading.” Listening to a book engaged my mind in such a completely different way. A great audio book is both immersive and relaxing, and listening while engaged in physical activity allowed my mind to let thoughts and ideas flow freely without judgement from my often-skeptical inner voice. The simple act of clicking on a headset created a separation between me and my external (and internal) distractions.

And this is how I landed on a type of meditation that worked for me. 

I call it my Mindfulness Stacks. It’s a bit of borrowed word play from one of my favorite self-development books, Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear references “stacking” actions that we want to create into habits that last by combining two or more actions that naturally go together. In my case, running + audiobooks are my stack. 

I layer mindfulness into my stack by listening to a carefully chosen group of audiobooks back-to-back that teach me something new and helps me explore ways that our mind hears, processes, and uses information. Though I suspect that the books in my stacks will evolve to reflect where I am at that moment, I have been focusing on a specific set for the last year: books about the nonprofit sector and its role in serving the social good, paired with books about future trends and our overall human condition. 

By stacking these two types of audiobooks and listening to them every morning during my run, I can get myself into a state of mental calm and physical relaxation. This helps me start each day with a heightened mental state that feels open, clear, and focused. It may not look like typical meditation—I’m not sitting on a cushion in a quiet corner with my eyes closed—but I do reach the same goal: inner calm and enhanced well-being.  

These are my three favorite mindfulness stacks. Even if you have read some of these books, I encourage you to re-visit them with these combinations in mind. Let me know what you think and if it works for you. Happy meditations!

Stack #1: A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, What Happened to You, Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, Know My Name, Chanel Miller, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou.

Stack #2: 2030, Mauro F. Guillen, New Power Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, Engine of Impact, William F. Meehan, and Kim Starkey, and The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates.

Stack #3: The 5am Club, Robin Sharma, The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch; The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle, Atomic Habits, James Clear, and How to Train Your Mind, Chris Bailey.


Thin-Slicing 20 Years

It’s easy to judge a decision right or wrong, good or bad after we know the result. On the surface, the story of our 20-year marriage seems no different. My husband, Marcus, and I have been together almost half our lives. We have three healthy and happy children, and our life together looks relatively seamless. But looking back I can’t help but wonder: Was it simply luck? Or could it have been thin-slicing at work all those years ago when we met?

Thin-slicing is our ability to make very quick decisions with minimal information. The concept was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how we think without thinking. In the first few seconds of meeting someone, it seems that all we have is surface level information. Yet, it’s undeniable that we’re making many judgements and decisions under the surface within those short seconds – in other words, we’re thin-slicing. As Gladwell examines in Blink, some of those decisions prove to be remarkably prescient.

I think back to my first chance encounter with Marcus in the spring of 1997. In those first few moments of meeting, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort that could not be explained in any obvious or logical manner. Even if you had asked me, I could not have named it, but in fact I made a split decision that this was a person I could trust, and that changed my future in ways that I had never imagined for myself. 

A Chance Encounter

I was a fresh-faced transplant from Seattle, living in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood and working at Nordstrom San Francisco Centre as a PR specialist during the Bay Area dot-com era. It was a heady time to be a young person living in one of the most incredible, iconic American cities. I was young and happily unattached. Growing up without positive relationship models, I saw no appeal in tying my life to another’s. Cliché as it may sound, my possibilities felt truly endless.

It was one of those golden, late spring San Francisco evenings. I was meeting friends for happy hour at a trendy bar in San Francisco’s theater district but got lost on the way. Frustrated, I was on the verge of giving up and going home when my friends found me – walking in the opposite direction. It was at that happy hour that I met Marcus – who only decided to join his friends at the last minute. 

It seems almost old-fashioned in this era of online dating where everyone’s background is pre-screened, to say you met someone, not with a swipe or via text, but rather in-person, at a bar, over cocktails.

A Natural Evolution

From the very beginning, my first instinct about Marcus proved to be correct. He is a person to be trusted, especially in all the ways you can experience vulnerability in a relationship. At some point, Marcus wanted to let me know that if our future included marriage (as we were both thinking at the time), he knew that it was not his decision alone to “ask” me. In fact, either of us could ask the other. One night he said to me, “I know you don’t have to wait for me to ask you to marry me. But if you don’t mind letting me own this …” I liked that he acknowledged that I did not need to be asked, nor was I waiting. 

A year into our relationship, we went to Germany to meet his family. His dad still lived on Sylt, a tiny resort island in the North Sea where Marcus grew up. Our first morning there we wandered, hand in hand, visiting places that were meaningful to him – his family home with the in-law building where his Polish grandmother lived and often cooked traditional dishes such as cow liver (not one of his childhood favorites). We visited the school he attended and the Strenk family plot where his grandparents were buried, marked by a giant marble headstone from Marcus’s father, Anton’s, masonry business. 

I was feeling my jet lag as walked to an old vine-covered church near his boyhood home and it started to rain. But just as I began to get cranky, Marcus dropped to one knee near his Oma and Opa’s headstone. “When I was a boy,” he said solemnly, “I would walk by this church every day and think, someday I will get married here. The next best thing is to be here with you and ask you to marry me.” 

The Wedding

As most of our friends know, our wedding happened in the days following 9/11 on the tropical island of Kauai in Hanalei Bay. We had taken our very first couple’s vacation to this magical, somewhat hidden garden isle beach destination. It was during one of our return visits, we agreed that if we still felt the same way about each other in one year, as we did in that moment, we should get married. Given the unprecedented realities in the days following 9/11, we did not enjoy the destination wedding that had been a year in the making as we’d hoped. In the end, we understood that it was never about the ceremony, the party, or even our friends and family. It was just the two of us making a pledge to be together, no matter what. 

What I’ve Learned

Listen to each other. Marcus and I genuinely like each other – not every moment, but every day. Do we fight? Of course, we do! Thanks to years of fantastic therapy (mine) and Marcus’ genuinely optimistic perspective and naturally high EQ (emotional intelligence), we have become excellent communicators. It’s not that we don’t have issues and conflicts, but it has been our ability to continually learn about each other and to acknowledge that we can see each other without having to always agree that has held us together. We listen, we resolve, and we move forward.

Be in the moment. This is something I have learned to do because I was lucky to be with a person that seemingly was born knowing that life’s greatest moments are the ones you are experiencing as they happen. Before Marcus, I was always striving, with my check list of to-dos continuously top of mind. I was too busy looking ahead to really stop to enjoy what was right in front of me – the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, a perfect meal, and the sun rising over the ocean. After twenty plus years together, I have ceded to my partner’s ability to relish and to appreciate life’s beauty as it unfolds. 

Better together. We often joke that if we could combine the two of us, we would be near-perfect, blending Marcus’ intuitive intelligence and great communication skills with my disciplined focus and execution. Since stitching two brains together is not yet possible, what we have done instead is we have learned to leverage each other’s strengths to the point that it’s a nearly seamless process. When we’re aligned, the end results are always our very best ones. Life is hard and full of challenges large and small, no matter how pretty the picture. But we have never both been down, or both been wrong at the same time. One of us has always been there to lift the other when needed.

Team Strenk. When we made the decision to have kids, we agreed that we would share equally in the parenting and running of the household. We’ve made many course corrections along the way, but we own the duties and savor the joys, together. We can do this because we started with one simple belief: Neither of us would live for our careers. Our careers would be the fuel to allow us to live. Don’t misunderstand, we are ambitious and motivated but in an ultimate tradeoff between career and family, family would always come first.

Our first real test came when we had an “oops” pregnancy when our two kids were just three and one years old. At the time, Marcus was very much on the track at Microsoft as a senior sales manager and I was at this point a PR executive, managing a team at Williams-Sonoma. But our unplanned third child forced us to abruptly change plans. Given the lack of space, both mental and physical and the accelerating economic constraints raising kids in an incredibly expensive city, we quickly made the decision to make a drastic move to a family-friendly community with strong public education and attainable housing. During my second trimester, we moved across the country to access the wide-open spaces and family-friendly community that we wanted, in Austin, TX.

Now that our kids are all teenagers on the cusp of leaving home for college and the real world, I can say that one key to our success as a couple is our mindset of shared + equal versus any traditional gender roles dictating marriage and parenting. 

It’s nice to be married to your best friend. I did not know how compatible we would become all those years ago when we first met. Luckily for us, thin-slicing skills told me that I could trust this person and that decision opened the possibility that has made these twenty years married feel like a satisfying romantic comedy, featuring two main characters that despite their flaws and missteps, you root for them, you love them together, and you can’t imagine either of them ending up with anyone else.

Happy 20th, Schatz.

Austin, TX August 2020 Photos John Conroy


Finding Joy in the Tumult

I spent the last year of my life helping people find their joy – in fact, it was part of my job description. Now, in the face of an unanticipated setback, the profound sense of joy I found in helping others is grounding me in gratitude in the face of tumult and change.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked on behalf of traditionally marginalized people and groups, whether as a volunteer for numerous food and shelter organizations or as a board member leading fund development effort for YWCA Greater Austin. But I’ve found that working to enable philanthropic giving as a MGO (Major Gifts Officer) for a disabilities non-profit has given me a sense of purpose and motivation that has superseded traditional metrics of job satisfaction. If you’re a disciple of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, fund development is clearly the “how” to my “why.” Philanthropy is the ideal and fund development is the fuel for philanthropic work.

At its root, philanthropy means “a love of humankind.” I saw this time and again in my work with a range of caring donors who aligned their values with their philanthropic giving. Having the opportunity to shine a light on the diversity, talents, and individuality of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities has been an honor. 

Yet, I will not be able to continue this work – at least not with this particular organization. The once robust national development team was reduced by 40% as a result of a new strategic vision and post-covid realities. In other words, I’ve been riffed.

Despite the uncertainty and sadness this unanticipated change brings, I can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of mission, gratitude, and, yes, joy. This sense of positivity has been enhanced by the wonderful words of thanks from colleagues, business partners, and donors for the work I have been privileged to do.

I am so grateful to know the impact I’ve made on this organization. And it has had just as much on me. These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking with me:

Relationships Above All
As an MGO, you are charged with identifying and building authentic and meaningful relationships with donors who have the capacity and the heart to give to your organization. I‘ll never forget feeling unsure and nervous before my first call with a major donor, afraid I would come across as too salesy. By the end of the call, I was elated. Because what we had was an easy and deeply satisfying conversation about a shared vision for a better future where all people deserve to be treated with dignity and care. The global pandemic had created so much isolation for all of us that I found most of my calls were often a welcome opportunity for connection and a sense of shared humanity. 

Be Audacious
I appropriate this wisdom from others, but it’s a good one for anyone in this field. Although I was a new MGO with limited development experience, I wrote my first proposal to a major donor within my first five months on the job. The ask? One million dollars to create ABA support services as a branded extension of a current behavioral supports service that had limited reach. Although this donor did not ultimately make the million-dollar gift, I believe that my bravery in making that request created a deeper connection to the org for him and a more meaningful relationship for me, which ultimately led to a major year-end gift.

Don’t Be Silo 
At a non-profit organization, fundraising is not the sole responsibility of the development team. Everyone plays a critical role, beginning each day with that same sense of mission fulfillment that the MGO or other fundraising folks do. We are all stakeholders in the success of fundraising. No money. No mission. This mantra remains relevant for good reason. As fundraisers we are focused on external audiences – donors, foundations, partners – we also need to build relationships across all levels and functions of the org, especially on the program delivery side. In my case, to understand the operational side of the business, I had to know the employees providing the services – the front-line service workers, or in our case, the DSP (Direct Service People). Working with them, learning from them, and understanding their world was integral to my ability to successfully tell the “Why we exist” and “How we change lives” part of our story.

Change is Constant 
I love my family, but my daily runs while listening to audiobooks became the needed break from 24/7 family time during this pandemic. In a normal year, I go through two pairs of running shoes with a half marathon every January. Covid year and no group runs or races? I cycled through six pairs of running shoes. I have over 30 books in my Audiobooks library. I have listened to them all. Some more than once. In my current listen, Great By Choice, by Jim Collins of Good To Great fame, Collins posits that chaos and uncertainty are the conditions in which we live rather than aberrations to the norm. They are the norm. In my own varied career, this aligns with my personal journey, starting in retail at Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle, WA as a newly minted college graduate, to the heady start-up days in San Francisco in the late 90’s as a single person to an executive position at Williams-Sonoma Inc., married with children. Today, I’m living in Austin, TX having made the transition from corporate PR and marketing to the non-profit world as a fund development professional against the backdrop of a global pandemic. I feel confident that my ability to adopt to and anticipate change has been the key to my enduring and always challenging career opportunities.

As my last day passed on this first non-profit job in development, I am uncertain what the next opportunity will look like. What I do know is that my vision and my values remain intact, more so now than ever. I will find that next right fit non-profit organization whose mission aligns with my values. I can’t wait to be a part of helping to drive the engine that enables their philanthropic vision to become realized. 

Spreading joy and receiving joy in the name of working toward a world that reflects our shared love of humankind? Yes, please.


Synchronicity 3.0

After a truly wonderful career in public relations, I am about to embark on a completely new path. I can now employ all the skills and knowledge I have honed from over two decades in one field and start anew.  As daunting as this is, it also feels like a transition that makes perfect sense. It has been the  moments of synchronicity that have punctuated the very best parts of my career journey. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, synchronicity refers to “the meaningful coincidences that occur in your life.”  

I have accepted a position as a Major Grants Officer (MGO) at Bethesda, a national non-profit organization that elevates the lives of the IDD (Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled) community with innovative programming, services, and an authentic corporate culture focused on service. While it may sound like an incongruous transition – Public Relations to Fund Development, viewed from the lens of synchronicity, it has all the hallmarks of meaningful intention.

 My decision to transition to a career in fund development is something I explored in a recent blog post, “Show Me The Money.” After many successful years helping companies sell (mostly) wonderful products and services, I found myself feeling ready to create impact in a more personal and meaningful way. The rush of big wins marked by market share gains no longer felt as satisfying. Once I made the decision, I immersed myself in the hands-on work of fund development. As synchronicity would have it, as a board member at the YWCA Greater Austin for the last two years, I had numerous opportunities to gain valuable insights into the tremendous value of strategic and sustainable fundraising. 

Another “meaningful coincidence” not as direct but just as potent: this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law in July of 1990. A recent series of stories in the New York Times, “Beyond the Law’s Promise” presents a comprehensive overview of the myriad ways in which this piece of landmark legislation has changed the landscape for Americans with disabilities. 

When it was introduced, the ADA was called “the most sweeping anti-discrimination measure since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The majority of my non-profit volunteerism and engagement for the last decade has focused on giving voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized as exemplified by the mission of the YWCA mission to empower women and girls and anti-racism work within the mantel of social justice. 

Today, with this new opportunity to become a Major Grants Officer, I get to continue working in the social justice space – still as an advocate  – but my bottom line will be to successfully bring big vision and major funding together in a mutually beneficial relationship. Matching the aspirations of major donors to the promise and the vision of Bethesda’s mission and work will become my new measurement of success. Being a part of a team of seriously smart, dedicated, mission driven people working together to fight for the dignity and quality of life for a marginalized group of individuals? Synchronicity has struck once again and for that I am deeply grateful. 

To learn about Bethesda and their vision for the future, check out this video: https://youtu.be/wf4yb0TcYgs.


Managing Non-Profits Through Pandemic Times

I’ve had the honor to serve on several non-profit boards for causes I care deeply about, but it has been during this pandemic that I have found myself more deeply connected to the cause of the YWCA. I’ve been a board member of YWCA Greater Austin since 2018. At our board planning retreat last year, my colleagues elected me to chair the Fund Development Committee. Not so sure anyone else wanted it – but I was genuinely honored and up for accepting the challenge. The timing felt right as I had wanted to amplify my non-profit work with hands on fund development experience. 

Who could have foreseen that in less than three months we would be here? Fund development during a global pandemic? As the saying goes, timing is everything… 

Three months into flatten the curve, shelter in place, here’s what I am seeing so far. Because of the volatility, our priority path has been to take a short-term view of the organization’s funding needs and to focus on best case outcome opportunities. Fund development for a non-profit entity in normal times is critical to the livelihood of any organization. We are responsible for ensuring the organization has the financial resources to realize the mission and enact the vision. Layer on a global pandemic, even for someone hardwired to take on challenges, it has been a continuum of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows. 

The challenges have forced me to jump in and to problem solve in creative ways that have somewhat upended what I considered traditional lines between staff and board member roles. Not to mislead, ours has always been a working board – no posturing, no VIP lane – we have always been a working board, but this pandemic has forced all of us out of our comfort. Board work during pandemic times is not for everyone.  

However, it has not been all stress and panic. The surprising, positive outcome?  Bearing witness to the quite literal heroic efforts of the staff making sure Austin’s longest and inarguably most impactful social services agency, continues to deliver on its mission to empower women and girls and to fight for equal rights and social justice. In a perverse way Covid-19 has validated the very existence of social services organizations such as the YWCA by laying bare and exposing even more clearly the social and economic inequities in our system that have always existed. “Covid-19 represents a new and additional disparity that sits atop the already existing mental health and social justice issues that have been at the heart of our (YWCA) organizational mission for over 100 years,” stated CEO, Executive Director YWCA Greater Austin, Naya Diaz. See the full story behind this quote at the organization’s official Covid-19 response, “An Update From Your Greater Austin YWCA.”

When we talk about “additional disparity” we are looking at a complex web of societal and institutional inequities that are so baked into our institutions and societal norms that many of us may not even question their very existence. Shortly after doing the fact finding needed to communicate the agency’s initial Covid-19 response, I came upon this New York Times article, “A Terrible Price: The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America.” When I read this comment from the current president of the United States, “Why is it that the African American community is so much, you know, numerous times more than everybody else?” I paused. Well, at least he asked the question. 

According to this story, the reasons are complex and deeply multi-faceted: “The conditions in the social and physical environment where people live, work, attend school, play and pray have an outsize influence on health outcomes. Those in the public-health field call these conditions social determinants of health.” This is exactly why non-profits exist – to meet the tremendous gaps in our social construct wherein the private sector cannot adequately address these disparities. 

Social determinants are not a new concept for the team at the YWCA. Deploying culturally and linguistically sensitive therapies and trainings is the hallmark of the YWCA Greater Austin’s approach to healing the most vulnerable in our community. In fact, they have been recognized nationally by YWCA USA as leaders in the field.  According to YWCA Director of Clinical Services,  Laura Gomez-Horton, LCSW, “We view all of the women and families we serve through a lens of oppression.  What does that mean? Rather than seeing the person as the problem, we ask: What have they experienced?  What social determinants need to be considered with regards to this person’s mental health?”

Very few organizations can claim the deep historical footprint of progressive social change of the YWCA, an organization  with over 200 affiliates deeply embedded in communities all over the country. This model makes their reach and impact possibly unparalleled in the world of economic empowerment for women and girls, social justice and elimination of racism. Here in the Southwest region alone there are nine (9) YWCA affiliates which includes Greater Austin. All affiliates share the same mission – empowering women and eliminating racism – with each location developing their programmatic strategies and priorities based on the needs of their community. 

YWCA Greater Austin has been an integral part of the fabric of Austin’s community, leading at the forefront of the most pressing societal issues since the early 1900’s. Being ready and able to address the many impacts in our community from this global pandemic is why this organization exists.

When the city wide shelter in place mandate was instituted in early March 2020, YWCA very quickly made the difficult transition to all-remote work. Easy enough for a high-tech company, but for a social service agency that serves the community primarily via face to face counseling, care coordination and training services? The logistical and operational challenges were intense, while at same time having to “answer the phones” to ensure they remained responsive to the many needs of the community they have always served. 

While the agency has been on the front lines of this pandemic, providing mental health services and support to already marginalized communities throughout the eight (8) counties in and around Austin, their financial health has been at times in jeopardy as they are largely reliant on Travis County, City of Austin and Office of the Governor contracts. Technically these are termed awarded “grants” but they are in essence contracts for services with very specific guidelines and benchmarks to meet. As the state and the city have struggled to enact emergency measures, agencies with contracts have been living a day to day game of Whack-A-Mole securing one essential source of grant funding then learning another grant renewal is in jeopardy.

During the past three months I have become more integrated with the agency’s day to day operations in addition to the short and long-term finances and fund development pipeline.  Working alongside our incredible CEO, Executive Director, Naya Diaz and key members of her staff that oversee fund development, government contracts, and the clinical team. I have learned the importance of really listening, asking the right questions and conducting timely next steps with the right subject matter experts. I have loved learning the language of equity, justice and equal rights from these incredible women with deep expertise in social justice work. 

Over a recent Zoom, I asked Naya Diaz to take a moment to share her experience as the executive director overseeing the organization’s transition.

When did you know this crisis was real? “Within a week of shutting down our physical office and everyone working from home we saw a dramatic spike in calls from our current clients as well as lots of new people seeking help. We began hearing from families and their children about what was happening to them.”

What was one of the first needs that you identified as a result of the coronavirus? “We learned that several agencies here in town had shuttered their services completely and / or eliminated their help/crisis lines. As a result, many of those calls started coming into us. Because of the dramatic increase in calls and the broader range of needs of those callers, I quickly saw the need for us to develop a centralized warm line. A warm line is an alternative to a crisis line that is run by trained and experienced peersUnlike a crisis line, a warm line operator is there to hold space for those going through a crisis such as suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors. Trained peer support specialists can get them to someone who can handle this level of crisis.”

What is one surprising and positive impact as a result of this? “Even though I had to focus very quickly on the operational challenges of getting our telemedicine and training services running at full capacity, the one thing that stood out was that everyone on our staff just understood that we all had to step up and be problem solvers in a way that we had never had to be. Our team already worked very well together – but this situation made me really see everyone’s strengths very quickly. Each person took on an even higher level of ownership and accountability. As mental health providers, we don’t have the Hippocratic oath, but we don’t need one. We instinctively understand what we signed up for. Many of us are women, women of color. We are the lived experience of women supporting women.”

As the mother of three teenage daughters, I am feeling right at home living this language of inclusion and empowerment. It’s a scary time thinking about the world my children will inherit. But knowing that there are incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate women working together to make our communities stronger and more inclusive, gives me hope. As a member of a non-profit working board, we get to do more than just hope. I know that collectively, we are all making a difference.

Social Justice for Everyone. Really

I have long identified social justice as a core value. There was never a “moment” of decision or clarity, it’s always been there, an integral part of who I am. Living my values has meant engaging with my whole heart in a multitude of roles – as a donor, an advocate, a volunteer and through various leadership positions as a board member to support organizations that are working to fight for social justice.

My definition of social justice is grounded in the belief that as human beings we are deserving of the right to live our lives to the fullest extent of our ambitions and talents. Sounds pretty good right? Well, this last year has both humbled me and energized me in ways that have shown me just how far I have yet to go in fully understanding the depth and complexity of this ideal.

In my August 2020 blog post. Synchronicity 3.0 I shared the news of my big pivot – leaving the corporate world of public relations and diving headlong into the non-profit space as a Major Grants Officer for Bethesda LC, a national organization in the disability space. Major Grant Officer is simply a fancy sounding title for development – my job is to bring the “big transformational gifts” to the table so that the incredible people doing the actual work of empowering individuals and their families with disabilities can do just that. No money. No mission. 

However, I am chagrined to admit that it was not until I became a full-time advocate for individuals with disabilities, working with incredible, generous philanthropic minded individuals, did I come to understand that my world view of social justice had not made the connection between social justice and the disability space. Seriously. I am not kidding. Insert red, embarrassed emoji face here.

For this, I actually had a true “a-ha” moment. In order to explain, I have to confess my addiction to audio books. As a runner, I discovered that I could be entertained, learn something new and get my daily run with the tap of an app, in my case it’s Audible. For one hour every morning I am literally in my flow, no angsty teens, no needy pup, no deadlines, no one tugging at me and no stress! It was during one of these runs that my moment of connection and understanding took place. I had used up my monthly credit and was weeks away from my new allotment when I found myself perusing the section of free downloads. Normally I am not into biographies nor have I had more than a cursory interest in reading about famous families. It was here that I stumbled upon the book, Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Game changer.

I found myself quickly immersed into this well written, historical account of the Kennedy family and their journey with what was then called, “mental retardation”  of their first-born daughter, Rosemary Kennedy. The Kennedy family is widely recognized as the force behind sweeping transformation for the disabled community and their families. Their personal experience with ID/DD led them to forge a historic path for all individuals with disabilities and their families. President Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, the eldest daughter of the Kennedy family, was born with developmental issues that could not be overcome, even given the intense focus and incredible financial resources that her family was able to bring to her care. 

The tragedy of her story is that she was born at a time when there was no research and no understanding of the capabilities inherent of an individual that did not progress developmentally as a “normal” child. Because of the Kennedy family’s personal experiences, they championed the cause to recognize disabled individuals in mainstream society. This served as a precursor to future landmark civil rights legislation that sparked another important societal shift much later: the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) in 1990.

While listening to Rosemary’s story, I soon learned that the nascent movement for disability rights was in fact a part of the 1960’s social justice movements. During this time, we started seeing mainstream references to “social justice advocates.” In fact, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was heralded as an early social justice pioneer for the disabled. Among her many accomplishments, Eunice started Special Olympics as a vehicle to advocate for and to bring awareness to the potential of all people with disabilities when given a chance to succeed!

I heard this during my morning run and literally gasped in stride – I had not abandoned my work in social justice by joining an organization in the disability space – I had in fact come full circle in my journey to make a positive impact within the social justice space.

Fairness is core to the concept of social justice. The movement has evolved to align with the fight for human rights. In application, human rights concern the distribution of resources, how people are treated, and access to services. When we hear the words “social justice,” we tend to think of inequities based on gender and race. But when we think along these linear lines, we make the mistake of further marginalizing one of the most forgotten groups of people – those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). For the more than 6.5 million Americans classified with some form of disability, gender and race does not discriminate. 

I now understand that we cannot limit our understanding of social justice as a defining tool of progressive social change without understanding the fight to recognize ID/DD individuals in this country. Doing so through the lens of social justice is the embodiment of fairness. 

Despite current Federal and State civil rights legislation, people with ID/DD remain marginalized and viewed as “less than” by society even today. They are systematically excluded from the economic and social opportunities routinely provided to those without disabilities. These were the realities before the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020. 

While we may think of donating to ID/DD as a feel-good initiative, I hope that my a-ha moment can help others who are as in the dark as I was. I hope to challenge this concept that disability rights are somehow outside of the social justice narrative and affirm disability rights as a social justice imperative

I work every day to be a part of educating people to do more than “give from afar “out of pity or mercy for people with disabilities. I hope others can see the “justice” of acceptance of all people with ID/DD as wholly and equally deserving of the opportunities to live life on their terms, to the fullest extent of their ambitions and abilities. Honoring the many Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities is to never forget that their individual rights as citizens have been and will continue to be a part of the march toward social justice. As a society, we can, and we should challenge ourselves to do better. For my part, I am still running, still learning.

Learning to Shelter-in-Place

I have often felt a sense of disconnect with my inner sense of self and reconciling the obvious reality of being a suburban mom. In my mind, I’m still a somewhat cool wife and mom, juggling  a career, living and working in a bustling, crowded and chaotic city. My reality – I am a wife and a mother to three daughters, living in the rolling suburbs of Austin, Texas. 

Although it has been 13 years since my husband and I moved our young family from San Francisco to Austin – it has taken a protracted global pandemic, shelter-in-place mandate – for me to fully appreciate the true beauty and value of being right where I am. 

We are now four months into Austin’s city-wide shelter-in-place, which for our family officially began on March 19, 2020 when we all returned from our shortened spring break travels. Time has taken on the quality of an endless summer day.Thinking back to the beginning when we made the decision on March 11th to move forward with our family’s spring break travel plans feels akin to a lifetime ago. We could not have forseen that within days of making that decision – with all three of my children in different cities across the country –  we would be cringing with literal embarrassment over our parental decision-making. Despite our school district making an 11th hour decision to cancel all school sanctioned group travel, we still sent our oldest daughter to Florida’s Disney World with many of the members of her high school dance team; we sent our middle daughter halfway across the country on a ski trip to Colorado with friends; and my husband and I flew with our youngest daughter to Florida to enjoy the beautiful coastal communities and most importantly to meet our new baby nephew. 

As the realities of this worldwide pandemic, Covid-19, shelter-in-place magnified, I found myself ruefully laughing at the thought that this is possibly the only time suburban living may possibly elicit a sense of envy from my urban friends. The “bubble” literally and figuratively of living in the suburbs has felt like + positive for the first time. The wide-open spaces, relative lack of congestion of people and space makes this an almost perfect shelter from a deadly, quickly spreading, highly contagious viral infection that is at its most lethal when introduced into densely populated environments. 

The irony of course is that what I miss most about living in a big city is that feeling of being most at home when lost in a crowd. Even if I didn’t interact or make eye contact, just being a part of the bustle, shoulder to shoulder among so many people, from all walks of life, backgrounds and ethnicities and where being Asian, being Korean, did not make me at all special – is exactly what I loved most about living in San Francisco and before that Seattle. 

Now that we have mostly settled into what feels like our new normal, notwithstanding an underlying layer of persistent privileged survivor’s guilt, I finally feel able to acknowledge and to appreciate just how thick the insulation has been and how much protection it has provided for my family as the worst ravages and impacts of Covid-19 have caused barely a ripple in our day to day existence. 

It is not until I read the news, watch endless videos, live updates and talk to our friends living in the densely populated big cities, that I am reminded how precipitous life is and how uncertain our world has become. 

While I will never, ever drive a minivan, I appreciate the comfort and camaraderie of our sweet suburban community and I am deeply grateful that my family has been spared the ravages of Covid-19, and for now, we are safely riding out this exceptional and unprecedented time in the safety and security of our home.

Shelter-in-Place Positives: reading books, listening to audiobooks, cooking with new recipes, diy ginger lemon cayenne shots, economy of grocery shopping, using what we have, morning yoga, baking, family dinners, sister bonding, renewal of friendships past and present, more conversations, and deeper mindfulness.


Show Me the Money

With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I want to share my decision to transition my professional career to the non-profit world. This represents a seminal moment as I am the product of the go big or go home 80’s and 90’s. For me, career success defined me as a person. In the spirit of being real, my success was narrowly defined by title and salary. While I had friends that chose to pursue careers in social work or teaching, I admired them but at the same time I could not fathom making that same choice. Late to the game, but I’m now understanding that a professional life can mean real world impact that measures more than profit and loss. While I come to this with some insights and transferable skills, I also know I have much to learn, and that’s honestly the best part.

Perseverance, luck and some skills enabled me to enjoy an incredible and rewarding career as a communications/ PR professional in the private sector. I am now ready to use my ‘powers’ for the social good focused on broader issues around empowerment of women and girls and within that framework, social justice. 

Although a career in retail PR doesn’t necessarily translate into big salary, it was my entry point for falling in love with the profession. Retail is an ever-changing landscape of consumer sentiment, new seasons, new products, and multiple influencer audiences. By 2001 during the dot-com days in the Bay Area, when I switched over to technology, I was earning a three-figure salary, bonus, and stock options. After the bubble burst, I returned to retail PR. By that time, I had enough gravitas and experience to land a coveted executive level, director role at Williams Sonoma, Inc. overseeing a PR team for several of the company’s younger brands. After a decade in the city, a marriage and a third baby on the way, we moved to family friendly Austin, Texas. I then switched gears from being a PR insider to a consultant. 

Dial forward today. A lot has happened. On a national scale, #MeToo has disrupted our sense of institutional power structures and the people, primarily men who are the collective gatekeepers when women have tried to come forward. It has done much to evolve my own thinking in terms of speaking out and being less willing to be complacent. On a personal level, the tipping point for this seismic shift was actually three concurrent, but unrelated events. 

The first, as a mother of three school age daughters, over the years I have lobbied our local public school district on issues ranging from anachronistic and gender shaming dress codes to equitable funding for boys’ and girls’ programs. With each of these inquiries, the outcome has quite literally been in the hands of a man. After one particularity frustrating exchange of mansplaining and quite literal obfuscation after months of lobbying, hearings, and a letter campaign with zero impact – I felt unheard and unable to affect positive change. It’s telling that even in the public education space, that is dominated by WOMEN at every level except the executive suite – when it comes to leadership positions they are invariably held by men. Why is that? With each query on behalf of issues of equity and fairness for girls, once I made it through the first levels of contact, the highest level of decision making power was always held by a man. Seeing that men hold the seat of power in this arena came as news to me. However, I sense the majority of women in public education would not find this to be a newsworthy fact. 

At the same time, Melinda Gates made a significant announcement, Melinda Gates 1Billion fund to promote gender equality. The goal of this new fund is to make financial investments in innovative impact making, non-profit organizations working to elevate women and women’s causes specific to leadership. This quote from Gates struck me as so timely and salient, “For most of our history, women’s absence from positions of power and influence wasn’t newsworthy; it was normal. The fact we’re now talking about these inequities is itself a sign of progress.” Reading about this effort to start putting real money behind women’s empowerment made me realize that as a PR professional, I have been connecting my clients / companies to their most important stakeholders my entire career. Who better to prospect, identify and close a deal than a PR veteran? We’re like salespeople, but with better communication skills. PR pros that survive in the business long term, naturally develop a thick skin. We rarely hear a no that can’t become a yes. Natural optimism? Not really. We’re just determined. Often we win over our audiences by both educating and romancing the multiple third party influencers to convince them that our story/product/issue is worth paying attention to.

The third event was a keynote at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. YWCA USA CEO, Alejandra Castillo was the speaker. In her speech she talked about the critical need to raise money, not just a few thousand or even hundred thousand but real money, in the millions from large tech companies and private foundations. The decision makers at these corporate and private foundations? Yup, men. Castillo spoke of the need for us, for women to learn to speak the language of big money and to effectively make these large asks by getting women into these historically all men’s clubs of big money and making those connections and speaking the language of these large patron donors.

As an active board member for YWCA Greater Austin (current), Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation (former VP Marketing), and others, the common thread across all sectors and all organizations is the need for long term, strategic, fund development. Often in even the larger, well-known non-profits, fund development gets short shrift and yet it is the single most critical piece of the puzzle

With all of the skills honed from a career in the private sector in consulting and in-house for large corporate entities to start-ups, targeted, relevant story-telling, building relationships, identifying key decision makers and closing deals that enables everyone to walk away with a win – who better than me to connect the money to the causes that need them?  

Wish me luck as I will be actively seeking Fund Development opportunities with large national or even global non-profit organizations i.e. non-profits that have the scale to invest in me. I will continue my volunteer work as a board member, but our family of five still needs my W2, even if it will no longer define me as a person nor be reflective of my whole value.

Applause Applause Applause

Well, it’s been four years since my last blog. Not for a lack of life moments worthy of sharing, said the mother of three. Rather than try and play catch-up, I will just share my latest with a small slice of perspective.

I recently completed my third half marathon when I ran the 3M Half on January 20, 2019. Even if you are a seasoned athlete or a weekend runner, it is significant and worthy each time you put yourselves out there to compete in public, in front of family, friends and strangers.

For me, the first year I ran the 3M Half in 2017, I had never run a race, ever, not even a 5k. To finish that race was truly a highlight moment in my life. I remember being so nervous before the race. The second year, I was nervous too but I had some confidence as I had proven to myself that I could in fact run 13.1 miles, in a row, without stopping.

This year, I had some injuries leading up to the race (plantar fasciitis) but overall healthy and strong. My training run times were slower than the previous year’s. I knew I would finish, but kind of assumed my overall time would be slower. But when I finished the race with a PR (personal record) of 1:53:55 I felt really good.

Even before I looked up my official race time, I said to myself, “I can do better.” Universe willing, I will run this race every January, even though the sense of accomplishment changes and maybe diminishes somewhat with each completion. I will run this race because my daughters are watching. As the grateful but really busy parent of three wonderfully achieving student athletes – my ‘little’ race is the one time a year when my husband and my daughters stand on the sidelines and cheer me on. “Go mommy” has never sounded so good.

This was probably taken just before I crossed the finish.
Post-race brunch with my crew at one of our faves – Elizabeth Street Cafe.