Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders” 

An hour-long teleconference with 

Su Yon Pak and Jung Ha Kim 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt Introduction: I am happy to welcome Su Yon Pak and Jung Ha Kim who will discuss the purpose and process of their book Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders. The book is a weaving of the stories of Asian and Asian North American Women who found their ways, sometimes circuitously, sometimes unexpectantly into leadership. It can be purchased from Westminster John Knox Press.

Su Yon Pak is the Senior Director and Associate Professor of Integrative and Field-Based Education at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In this hybrid faculty-administrator position, she envisions, creates, and oversees the curricular and co-curricular work of the Office of Integrative Education including Field Education, Clinical Pastoral Education, and Lifelong Learning and Ministerial Formation. I can say from knowing her at the American Academy of Religion and through Union colleagues that she is a highly regarded scholar/executive who knows how to make things work as well as what issues to prioritize in our increasingly unjust world.

Jung Ha Kim is a sociologist and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Georgia State University. She served as the first co-chair of the Asian North American Religion and Culture Group at the American Academy of Religion and also served as the chair and co-chair of the Women and Religion Section of the AAR. My friend Professor Monique Moultrie from Georgia State who I presume is one of your colleagues, Jung Ha, and she too has joined us in this setting.

A warm welcome to you both. I hope people have had a chance to read at least the Introduction and the chapters you suggested: 3, 6, and 16 to get a flavor for this wonderful work which is both a useful history and a challenging look forward.

Jung Ha Kim: I’m first going to give an overview of the context and process of creating this book, and afterwards Su Yon will concentrate on its content. Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders was commissioned to mark the 30th year anniversary of PANAAWTM, which stands for Pacific, Asian and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry. It’s a mouthful of a name that hopes to acknowledge the real variety and complexity of the sisters in our network. Ten years ago, we also worked on and published the book Off the Menu to celebrate our 20th year anniversary.

The commissioned work, such as this book, is intrinsically collaborative. We worked within a community of accountability, where we continuously updated back-and-forth with PANAAWTM members. The authorship process was communal.

As the name of the book denotes, we focused on largely two topics: leadership and wisdom. In terms of leadership, we wanted to document how Asian and American Asian women experience leadership. The women’s stories in our book change conventions of leadership in society. We set out to address this question of what leadership is in general, and we wanted to lift the voices of Asian and Asian American women in this larger question of leading in the 21st century. A challenge in documenting these leadership experiences was that the women contributing these articles were not quite claiming themselves to be “leaders.” Almost all contributors expressed reluctance or the accidental nature of taking up leadership in their lives.

We also examine wisdom as a theme in these stories. What is it about these women’s way of leading that conjures up the word “wise” in an American context rather than “strong” or “politically savvy” or “smart”? What do we really mean by wisdom and being wise leaders? These questions led to the three subsections of the book: Remembering Wisdom, Unsettling Wisdom, Inciting Wisdom.

Our purpose for the chapter recommendations was to read a chapter of each section. In “Neither the Suffering Servant nor the Syrophoenician Woman” from Remembering Wisdom, Hee Kyung Kim reflected on gendered leadership models growing up and how these worked or not for herself. From the section Unsettling Wisdom, “I Shall Not Bow My Head: Ghostly Lessons for Wise Leading” by Mai-Anh Le Tran juxtaposes stories of wisdom from various historical, spiritual, and regional contexts in her life. Finally, Deborah Lee’s “Wisdom Crying Aloud in the Streets” imparts some of the wisdoms she encounters through her work in the street.

Su Yon Pak: I’ll go into the content of these three chapters. The section Remembering Wisdom delves into historical and biblical sources in attempts to remember what wisdom might look like. In “Neither the Suffering Servant nor the Syrophoenician Woman,” Hee Kyung Kim observes her mother and father’s different leadership styles. She explores and critiques both as insufficient and buying into gender roles, since her mother embodied a self-sacrificial model while her father enacted a top-down authoritative leadership. She then finds inspiration in the Syrophoenician woman, but ultimately concludes that although the model is helpful, it is not enough. In a certain sense, the Syrophoenician woman goes against the grain, displays strength and bravery, and is not afraid to ask for what she needs for her daughter. She breaks norms as a marginalized woman and goes up to Jesus to ask for healing. Jesus then calls her a dog, but she comes back and argues that even dogs get crumbs at the table. While she is strong and brave, in the end she also accepts herself as a dog and does not break out of this social structure.

The author proceeds to describe a leadership model that works for herself– the metaphor of a wise cook. She creates this metaphor using the tradition of kimchi-making, in which women come together as a community to prepare huge amounts of kimchi. This image of leadership involves the ability to balance components of taste and texture, to balance and find resolution to situations. The model of leadership is based on being contextual.

Mai-Anh Le Tran explores what it means to be wise in “I Shall Not Bow My Head: Ghostly Lessons for Wise Leading.” She is a theological educator, and explores this question by examining her own life in Vietnam. She comes up with three lessons, or three types of wisdom: being life-wise, being able to live in the dark, and being able to work with what you’ve got.

She describes her own personal model of leadership by remembering the mythical Trung sisters of Vietnam, who sustained hope in the face of trouble. Leadership doesn’t mean winning, it means being capable of sustaining hope. Mai-Anh reflects on the events of Ferguson and the Moral Monday Movement where she personally experienced being locked in arms in protest. They are “full of one,” in a community of leaders, not just a solitary body. I want to read a passage on page 196 that explores not just what it means to be wise but how we as people show up in our bodies:
“There lies the potency of bodies as public pedagogies– bodies as means of explicit and implicit public instruction. A body bleeding on the ground… a body in locked arms with another… a body drenched to shivers… a body shielded uneasily behind riot gear… a body twisted in sorrow… a body stiffened by anger… a body elongated by the hand of a stranger… each teaching us lessons about the moral imperatives for leadership when communities are fractured by close contact.”

The author of “Wisdom Crying Aloud in the Street,” Deborah Lee, ministers on the streets, particularly undocumented youth, the homeless, and immigrant families. Her own practice of martial arts informed her about her own leadership. She has been doing tai chi for 20 years, and it requires the same kind of practice, intentionality, and mastery. She also looks at the artform of leadership, and how it centers around the question, “am I free?” Wisdom leadership means tapping into the body, healing wounds of oppression, being fully free. How do we cultivate our bodies and ways of moving through space so that we are leading and bringing forth wise leadership?

Jung Ha Kim: I want to back-up what Mary said at the beginning, which is to really read the whole book, since each one of the stories is so different. There are so many different strategies to see what type of leadership we’re talking about.

Su Yon Pak: We have contributors from many professional backgrounds: a lawyer, a former Army Chaplain, church leaders. We try to have as many contexts as possible represented. All the contributors are participants and members of our PANAAWTM network.


Q: You mentioned how challenging it was to find contributors because they didn’t see themselves as leaders. Did anyone express to you that their understanding of themselves as leaders changed because of their contribution?

A: Su Yon Pak: Actually, our contributors were very willing to explore it but not own it, and say “I’m this kind of leader.” There were multiple ways for them to enter the conversation without first identifying as a leader. One contributor called back to us almost in tears. She had lots of challenges and barriers, personal and professional, in order to own herself being a leader. Through writing, editing, and giving feedback, the process became almost a coaching to owning her leadership.
Jung Ha Kim: The book project was commissioned, meaning that from the beginning it’s been a group process. When envisioning the project, people had already volunteered. We didn’t lack people to write and reflect. What we wanted to pause and think about was the idea of authorship. Authorship in itself is different coming from the communal context. Su Yon and I have known each other for a long time, and sometimes she will finish one of my sentences, and I’ll think that the way she finished it was even better than what I had! In intimate collaboration, the boundary between “you and I” was a learning experience. We also tried to express this group reflection in the book.

Q: I loved that quote on leading hope rather than leading to win. The rhetoric of politics today is leading to people who’ve completely lost hope. As an activist, I agree with that quote of leading with rather than winning.

Q: Mary: I was struck in Chapter 1, which talked about women in the 16th to 18th century, by the important of that historical evidence in terms of what is going on today in such fraught discussions such as women in the dioconate. Are there other instances as editors where the historical material in chapters gave you a sense on how to move on contemporary issues?

A: Jung Ha Kim: In terms of history, when we celebrated 20 years of PANAAWTM, Off the Menu featured many 1 and 1.5 generation members of the organization. Leading Wisdom mostly features 1.5 and other subsequent generations. In the previous book, we decided to focus on presenting the women’s accomplishments. However, in this volume, we went back to focus on the women themselves rather than their achievements. Every year we come together, these are still ongoing discussions– struggles experienced by the 1st generation continue on. This is the cyclical way of experiencing PANAAWTM. Time and time again, we end up getting together to value and share these stories.

Q: Mary: I found some of these chapters hard to read, in particular chapter 4, because of the pain of women’s experience in clinical pastoral education. I wonder if you have a sense on how this has changed. The author described her experience in 1991; it seems like this worst form of racism where her chaplain was put down with racist connotations. Where have you seen places where some changes have taken place? Are there places that are more differentiated around these questions particularly for Asian and Asian American women not to mention other women of color?
And to add a footnote, what’s next? What’s the next celebratory volume we can look forward to in your community?

A: Su Yon Pak: There are more structures in place now that would be open to people in marginalized community. Because the model is based on a psychological clinical model, depending on the advisor, it’s a mixed bag. Some advisors understand and are knowledgeable on structural power and social context. Unless there is a movement of leaders swelling from the ground up, these structures won’t change. On one hand, reading those chapters, I was not surprised; on the other, I was hopeful because of the changes happening currently.
The third book coming out is now entitled Embodying Knowledge. It’ll be a combination of older and younger generation scholars and writers. The main questions here are, “How has your identity as an Asian American woman affected your scholarship, and how does your scholarship affect your field?”

WATER thanks Su Yon Pak and Jung Ha Kim for an insightful presentation.