In the spring of 2018, I was alone in bed in my 3-bedroom college apartment.
With only my bedside lamp on and a cup of hot tea, I was trying to come to grips with the most vulnerable part my being. My identity.
After two years of college in the US, I was feeling lost. As a Filipino-born, American-educated, Taiwan-raised international student, the usual equilibrium between the three was out of balance. I was becoming more American, but felt increasingly anxious about my place in the world. I looked Filipino, but didn’t feel the part. Heck, I was more comfortable going into a dim-sum restaurant than going into a Filipino grocery store. I wanted to get into a form of community work, but was afraid. How could if I didn’t feel like I belonged to either the Filipino or Taiwanese community? Which tribe did I belong in?
So I looked for answers.
That midnight, I opened the pages to a book that kick-started my journey as a writer and community organizer.
It’s called “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama.
Published in 1995 during his early 30’s, the book is the coming-of-age story of not only the first African-American president of the United States, but first person of color, first Third-Culture Kid, and first bi-racial person to be leader of the free world.
It encompasses his journey growing up in the melting pot of Hawaii, going to a private school as one of the few Black students, and the glowing memories of his three years living in Indonesia. He admits to his trouble-making streak in high school with the absence of his father, and writes lyrically about his move to Occidental College in Los Angeles — his first foray into issues of civil rights and race relations in the mainland. After transferring to Colombia University in New York, he befriends a Pakistani international student and dives into a self-described ‘monk-like’ lifestyle; reading books about race, identity, and politics; and distancing himself from the immediate world around him.
The turning point of his career is what inspired me to make the leap into community work.
His move to Chicago.
In his quest for identity and meaning, he works as a community organizer for a non-profit organization in the South-side of Chicago, reaching out to churches and community faith groups to help their residents. There, he lobbies with city officials to remove asbestos in low-income housing apartments, works with at-risk youth, and hosts community meetings to discuss the most urgent issues facing their families.
More importantly, he writes about how for the first time in his life, he gained a community he could call his own. It was in Chicago where he learned about the struggles of the common people, their hopes and fears, and how to create change at the grassroots level.
And like many young people today, he writes about the struggle between idealism and realism; fighting for the world as it should be, but with the tools of power necessary to change the world as it is. He enrolls at Harvard Law School, becomes a civil rights attorney, and returns to community work in Chicago. The latter part of the book then deals with his trip to Africa upon his father’s death and his marriage to Michelle Obama; the merging of his past roots with the new life he had chosen to forge.
The book is incredibly poignant, lyrical, and reflective. And it’s largely apolitical.
Whether you are an aspiring activist, entrepreneur, business leader, international student, or scholar — there is plenty to take away from.
It highlights the human need for belonging and community; importance of courage and risk-taking; the role of race and power in our politics; and the journey of self-discovery in a world more diverse than ever.
Barack Obama often says that nothing he did in his Chicago days ‘lit the world on fire,’ but it’s worth noting that the seeds of his success were planted by the work he did as a young adult. This approach has been a guiding principle in the projects I have tackled on ever since I graduated from college.
After flipping through the last page that spring, I began my own quest. I took a college class on Asian-American studies, got involved in the Filipino-American community, became a columnist for a local newspaper, and now work as a community organizer in San Diego.
As we continue our own journeys, what seeds are you going to plant this summer? How are you using your time to work towards a world you want?
A good way to start is by reading up on history and flipping through stories of change-makers. Their experiences are no different than ours. And this book is a great way to start.
I hope it transforms your life and career the same way it did for me.
Then let’s get to work.
Original piece featured in Medium.