Reimagining the Future
Bo Thao-Urabe founded the Coalition of Asian American Leaders in 2013. After almost a decade of leading the organization, she’s taking a step back to find a new path. Chanda sat down with Bo to talk about moments of transition, the keys to measuring impact work, and the systematic approach needed in anti-racism work.
Chanda Smith Baker
I’m so happy to have you on the podcast. And I’ve been thinking a lot about having a conversation over the last couple of years with you, and then saw a recent announcement and thought now feels like the right time.
Thank you. Well, you know, I have been following you and just listening to the podcasts. And you’ve done such a terrific job of just having guests who help us think deeply and share very tangible examples of what to do. And so I am, it’s my honor to be asked to join you.
Chanda Smith Baker
Thank you. So, you recently announced that you’re leaving CAAL, right? For those that are listening, that don’t know what CAAL stands for, will you share?
It’s the Coalition of Asian American leaders. And so, it’s a social justice network of Asian, Asian American leaders in the state of Minnesota, who focuses on building up social justice leaders, both high school students all the way to career leaders, as well as really working on priority issues that matter to the community, both from the angle of research, community building and policy issues. And so, we spend quite a bit of time doing both community building and engagement to really looking at research and data and collecting community stories of impact that drive how we shape policy agendas at the systemic level.
Chanda Smith Baker
And you were the founder? Right? And there’s a lot in there for me that was triggered in that announcement, like, oh, my God, what’s gonna happen to wow, someone who found it like, is it what was that decision making process, to thinking about sort of this great resignation time and how people are recalibrating. And so, I would just love to hear a little bit about your journey with CAAL, and, you know, maybe what led you to found that organization to where you’re at now.
Bo Thao-Urabe 01:12
Great. Thanks for asking. I think sometimes we’re so busy in the work of addressing just what is happening, and we forget to really think about the purpose of organizations, right, like, they serve really important roles. And they do really important things for both the community and to help push us along and systems and things like that. So, I just feel really fortunate that I happen to have had a lot of relationships and experiences that brought me to CAAL, and I was lucky to be at those initial tables, have conversations with different Asian American leaders here in Minnesota, who were grappling with what it meant to be both Asian, Asian Americans in this state of Minnesota, and how we want it to show up, right. And I think that’s really how the conversation started. And so, I’ve had a long career and have been a community builder and advocate for on lots of different community issues. And so was just part of those conversations, when we were talking about just in that moment of what it meant to be who we are in the context of being in Minnesota, the idea really came to be about convening more spaces, so that Asian American leaders could come together, both leaders in different sectors, generations, and across different ethnic groups in the community. And so that’s really what prompted the conversations around CAAL. So, I happen to be at a point in my life where I was working at a job where I was traveling quite often to San Francisco and had just had a daughter not too long ago, and so felt like you know, I really need to be grounded in in this place that I live just agreed to help facilitate many of those conversations. So I think right away, I facilitated many, many small fireside kind of chat conversations with different leaders and just heard overwhelmingly that people wanted a space both to talk about who they are, but to not just limited to their own experience, but to really find space, where their leadership is supported, and where they would have opportunities to really shape the future or this state or their communities and work on the issues that matter to them. And that’s really what created CAAL. I am fortunate that I you know, I’ve had lots of experiences in nonprofits in leadership building and in philanthropy and sort of all of that came together. And when I first spoke about it with different funders, and maybe this is part of the story that you know too Chanda, which is being a woman and a woman of color, and it doesn’t matter how much experience you’ve had, whenever you’re proposing a new idea. People are like, well, where’s the proof that that works? And so, so there were not a lot of enthusiastic ready investors, I would say in saying, oh, you all want to birth, this new thing, like, what is it? You know, how, how will we know it works? And, and so I think when you think about community benefit organizations and being, you know, being a, in particular, a woman of color, people are not investing in your ideas, they want proof that something is going to work. And so, I literally had to be like, okay, well, I’m, I’m still gonna do this. And then I will come back to you come back to you when the idea is more solid, and I hope that you will stay open and that you will support it. And so eventually, when we were able to demonstrate that lots of people wanted this to happen, and that we had agendas, we were able to get small seed funds. And, and I want to give a shout out to Gary Cunningham, because he was at the Northwest Area Foundation. And I remember very specifically talking to Gary, and he shared his own story, but he also shared what the African American community was going through and their own, you know, contemplations about leadership and how you know, how you come together and all of those things. And Gary was one of the very first person who said, you don’t have to know. But if you want to do this, I will support you. So, I can’t thank him enough for like leveraging his role and his resources that he had privileged to be in charge of at that time to be like, I’ll support you. And that small seed bond allow for us to at least pay for food so people can come together, you know, rent space, and all of those things. And that’s really the beginnings of CAAL.
Chanda Smith Baker
There’s a couple of things just in terms of those believers and those folks that are willing to take a chance on you. And my story was, when I was at Pillsbury United Communities, the Kresge Foundation gave a big grant to Pillsbury United Communities that was sort of a general operating grant to like sort of seed innovation and creativity at scale across the organization and an idea and as a strategy that I had, and we sort of partnered in the evolution of what it was to look like. But it was because of that, that actually helps see North Market and North news, and where I say, Pillsbury is sort of sort of the genesis of where their work sort of took off from right, the next chapter of its work was because someone believed in the vision that wasn’t fully laid out. There wasn’t a work plan. Right, right. There wasn’t like this three-year thing with deliverables. But there was a very clear mapping and vision. And I remember telling them, I’m really sure that some of my best ideas never made it to the desk. And I was so uninspired at some point by that, and I just want to because we’re talking to folks that are in the space, both that we have been in where we’ve been discouraged. And there were times where I was just like, just forget it and walked away. And then there were times like what you just described, where you’re like, I’m really going to be dogmatic about this and just continue to push through. And I know this is it. Right. So, you know, perhaps just speaking on the importance of just sticking with what you are envisioned with, and the importance of those champions are willing to take risk with you?
Yes. I mean, it’s so important, right? Because one is just to have that kind of belief means that what I often say about the sectors, that it’s a sector that is working on really difficult things that and trying to reimagine a future that none of us have ever lived in before. So, you can’t expect proof. And you have to, you have to, you know, support vision. And I think part of it is to really allow for people to test those ideas out. And I just think that there are a lot of different complications when you are a leader of color that perhaps you don’t both have relationships, or you don’t have, you know, the resources yourself or all of those things. So, I felt really confident about the idea of CAAL just because I had spent so much time with leaders in our communities, right. And everything I was saying was people wanted this to happen and that I felt personally ready and I knew that if I could keep going that that it was going to become something so one is just your own personal beliefs about what you know about your community, right knowing you know your own abilities, but also when you listen to community you just know when something is right, right when an idea is right. And then part of it is to know that, yeah, you need, you need supporters, you need resources and all of those things. And so that both self belief because sometimes the people who have the resources look at you and be like, you know, that’s never been done before, right? I’ve had so many of those experiences throughout my life. And so, I really learned to really listen to my own intuition about things. And then to keep an idea, even if the time is not right to sort of keep it in my head, because there will be opportunities. And I feel really fortunate for CAAL, once we got some support, we were proceeding whether we had support or not. But once we got support, and we spent it on supporting people to come together, and then eventually spent time building those relationships, so that by the time we launched the work, we had a really strong base of people who were supportive of our agendas when we came out of the gates, so to say, people couldn’t believe that, for example, we could win at the legislature because they, they were like, where did you come from? Right? And I said, well, we spend time with our folks. And we train them, and we worked with them, and they’re ready to do this. And so, you know, after 10 years of that, I, I think that I’ve just learned so much about making sure that leadership is not just embodied in me, but that I also believe it in our communities. And so that’s kind of what led to this transition. Because from the very beginning, Chanda, I had always said, the idea of CAAL is never going to work, if it’s synonymous with me, right? Like if I’m CAAL, and we are a network of leaders. And so, we have to believe in that and that I would be committed to building a strong organization, but that there would come a point where it made sense for me to transition. And it just happened to be this period of, as you said, that great resignation, in the field. But also, we are the strongest we’ve ever been, I think we have our work has proven itself. And we have a really strong network. And so, I felt like, you know what, this is how I would have wanted to transition into any other organizations that I had been executive director of before. Also, oftentimes, my own experience is that as communities of color immigrant refugee communities, oftentimes when there’s big leadership changes, that’s really the time where a lot of people question the organization. And I wanted to folks to know, this is actually the strongest we’ve ever been, and it is good for another leader to come. And I and you like we could be anywhere, and we would still be doing, you know, all the things that matter to us and our communities, and that there’s space for us somewhere else. Right. So, I a lot of different thoughts went into it. But I really felt like it was the right time.
Chanda Smith Baker
Yeah, I you know, I recently talked to Rapa from Nexus community, and he talks about more of having a vocation versus a career, and you just sort of mentioned it, right? Like, no matter where we go, right, it’s, you know, our work is so much beyond sort of the place in which we’re employed, like how we show up in community, the expectation that we have, how we lead on the boards that we sit in sort of our commitment beyond ourselves, to give back to our community. And I think that this is true for a lot of people working in this space, particularly people of color, do you see this as a consistent sort of theme? Do you think it’s a different sort of demand on leaders of color?
Bo Thao-Urabe 14:01
I mean, all I know is that when I walk into a room, I can’t determine how individuals in that room will see me, right. And sometimes they relegate me to being an Asian person, a woman being a certain age, or whatever the case. And so I think I try to really listen for what the questions are, because then that helps me to understand like, what is the situation in this room? Right? And then oftentimes, I do think that, unfortunately, for leaders of color, we don’t determine that and oftentimes, we’re not seen as our own individual leaders. And so when we walk into space, people have predetermined how they want us to, to be showing up in that space. It’s from the ridiculousness of someone sitting next to me and saying, you know, I think Asian babies are so cute. And so, you’re just like, really? You’re trying to, like, we’re on this board together, I didn’t get, and I don’t, you know, I don’t need you to make me feel comfortable about being Asian. And you don’t need to convince me that you’re comfortable with an Asian person next to you No, but it tells me a lot about that person, right and how they perceive me. Or whenever we talk about certain things, people will, you know, this will look at you, and they’re expecting you to say something, because they’re talking about, you know, either, any of their perceived identities of you. And that’s how I know that in that room, they must think I represent everybody from that group of people. So, I try to really pause and say, This is my experience, but like, I can’t speak, even for all Hmong women, right? Or for, for immigrants and refugees, if I can tell you what I have heard, I can tell you what data says, and I can tell you what our agenda is around particular things. But that takes a lot of leadership skills to be able to get to that point. And so, I try not to start from the place of being offended because somebody is ignorant. But just being mindful that what people say to me exposes their own lack of both knowledge or exposure or any of those things, right. But it is hard. I mean, there are some days where you’re just like, you know, racial equity is not something that just matters to me, it should matter to this organization. Right. But how come when we have a conversation, everyone pauses until I say something, you know, and I’ve been on the board of an organization where that was truly the case. And I really had to tell the board chair and the Executive Director, I do not want to be coming into that board meeting where we’re talking about an organizational issue around racial equity. And everyone thinks that they can’t say anything until I speak, right, or until I bring it up. And I think that’s really that that is often the burden that we carry. And so there’s a heaviness that we have to I guess bear, but also just being conscious about what are the right steps to take when you personally experienced it? Because it’s not just a mistake, it really does emotionally, sometimes trigger you, right?
Chanda Smith Baker
Yeah. So governance is an interesting one. And I know we have some, some shared perspectives on this from previous conversations. And we both have sat on a number of boards. And we’ve seen a transition at the governance level of boards that want to become more inclusive, more diverse, and more aware of what’s happening around issues of race in our community. And so they’re taking, training and efforts to do so. Have you experienced anyone doing it right? Or could you share? That what sort of a trick question.
Let me think about that. Well, I’d love to hear your perspective to Chanda about, given your own experience, what you see working well, right, but I think it’s that space, of being able to understand that ultimately, when you’re on a board, or if your reason for coming together is the organization, right? That that needs to be kept as priority, because otherwise, it’s very easy to go on a personal journey of enlightenment. And that takes a lifetime, right? So there is only so much training that you can do with individuals. to, to, to, I guess, get them to that point. And so, I have to say, you know, I don’t know what the right process or steps are for any one organization. But I do think that it’s really important that organizations by, you know, by way of creating opportunities for individuals to be in service to that organization that that be kept as the priority when you’re choosing tactics for discussing how you support individuals, starting wherever they’re starting in their journey, to then being able to get that group of people to work together to make decisions in the interest of the organization and things like that. And I think that what I see often is that people pick one or the other, right? Like, it’s almost like, well, you know, we’re starting wherever we’re starting as individuals, so we’re gonna support individual enlightenment and create opportunities for people to talk about What they want to or need to and be educated? And I think, you know, that’s well in fine. But how does that impact the decisions that you have to make as an organization? And how will you measure yourselves in terms of what how you’re able to actually then decide together something that benefits the organization and the communities that you’re intending to be in service to? So, I think, you know, there’s room to grow there. And I think it’s just a constant process of both growth that yes, involves a lot of individuals, but also when we lose sight that it’s organizational, and then we only go to the personal place, I have seen often that it’s hard to come back to the organizational place, because everybody then starts to say, well, this is where I’m at, I’m not ready for that, right? Or, or, you know, I don’t have exposure to that. So how will I get it, and then you spend a lot of time on the individual journeys, that that oftentimes hinders organizational decisions. So yeah, I don’t have a good solution. But I’d love to hear your experience about works.
Chanda Smith Baker
I guess that, you know, I would say basically, the same thing that I’ve been on boards that are intentional about how they engage, and how they talk about their work, and in an inclusive way. So, it’s embedded in how they do their work, right. And they challenge your thinking in an intentional way that in creates right sort of this path towards a more just way or a more inclusive way, or a more diverse way of doing their work. And I find that to be the most attractive for how I’d like to be at the table. I think that individual road, you know, I sit at that table a lot where everyone wants to go on this individual journey. And, you know, sometimes I will say it, and you know, people will hear it now is that, you know, I’m always questioning. So, what does this mean for the diverse folks that you’ve brought on the board, or the people that are living this every day, and their work, so you are creating a plan that actually isn’t inclusive for the people that actually live this in their lives like this is their experience, right? Or you’re bringing in people from the outside to enlighten the group on an issue where they haven’t even built relationships or invited the people of color, to their homes, to their events to their gatherings. So, you’re not even building the relationships with the people that you’re sitting across from, but you want to learn about the issue, and some sort of disconnected way from the relationship that you could be building. So, it doesn’t feel like it gets to the crux of what I think is trying to be accomplished. Right? Mm hmm. And then I guess, lastly, when you build it into the work, and people understand how it applies to the work, so that they can be a better champion to the organization for, for which they’re serving, and volunteering for I think it, it allows it to be applied in a way that hopefully allows for that same learning to happen. So what I can appreciate, though Bo, is that at least the conversation appears to be happening more. Yes. So, it feels like it’s some blast from the past when you know, yes, it was at the People’s Institute, and all that stuff was right to do. And it feels like we’ve come we’ve come a bit full circle, maybe that’s my age. But
Yes, yeah, I just recognizing, like, I think, as you said that the conversation is happening and that people want to do something about it, right is a good thing. And then you know, and then I think like challenging ourselves about the ways in which we think about how things should happen in an organization because of course, like when you join a board or staff you’re being hired because of both, like, the expertise and the experiences that you have. And that is always important. But I think just realizing that in the social or independent sector, much of the work that we are doing is fixing what is broken in systems and that means that we can’t accept that our expertise is what’s going to solve the problem. Right? So how do you remain open to that and that takes you to that place that feels uncomfortable? Because you know, if you’re a financial expert, you know how to do financial models, you know how to make money perhaps right and you think that and that is valuable experience but when you are coming, you know to work in a nonprofit or in philanthropy or you know, on the board, any of those positions. I think you really have to push yourself to be like okay, this is valuable skills that help the business of this organization. But how does it work when a lot of the things that we’re trying to address are about broken systems, right, or things that haven’t worked. And that’s why we have situations we have. And so I think that’s what makes people uncomfortable, because we tend to, I think, we tend to rely on expertise, instead of really questioning whether both what that expertise, if deployed, reinforces right? In terms of organizations, and what we do, and, you know, and so that means all of us have to be able to kind of push that or be open to recognizing that we’re valued for our expertise and our experience. But when we come together and try to figure out like, what’s the best way forward, there has to be openness. And we actually have to figure out what is uncomfortable, versus just saying, if you could just learn about this community, somehow, magically, you’re going to make the right decision. And then because you have expertise on something somehow, if you deployed that tactic or strategy, it’s going to be the thing that fixes the problem, because it most likely won’t be okay.
Chanda Smith Baker
I guess I’ll go to data next, because you’re sort of talking about sort of how people connect sort of their learning and outcome. We’ve talked a lot about, you know, communicating impact in our community making a difference. Difference making is defined in all kinds of ways. And who gets to determine it, and how we even disaggregate data here is quite interesting. And who’s even included in the demographic information is also quite fascinating here in Minnesota, you know, I’ve listened to you give sort of the data, stories and analysis and from a, I guess, the culture of impact in our city, do you think we have a way to go in terms of determining what’s working and what’s not working? Like? What do you think needs to shift and how we’re looking at that?
Yeah, I mean, data or the site, the site of I guess, what’s considered a science is important, because it, it sort of creates this blueprint that then other people can try to implement, right. And, and so from that perspective, data is important, right? But data should not, I think, be in the place of determining what is important to communities. And it in itself should not be what determines impact, right. And, and so I think just thinking about that means that we, we often rely on data to tell us what the problem is, and to tell us what the solution is. And we forget that actually, the process is, is really important, both for the determination of what to capture, and then also the process of meaning making to then say, what actually does impact mean, for those who are most impacted. And I think that’s the challenge that, you know, in particular, I see, having worked in a community that both is where data doesn’t represent really anyone because it’s so aggregated, right, in a particular way. And then it’s used by decision makers and all kinds of spaces to determine what the issues are, what investments are worthy, and then how impact is discussed. And so, and then when you turn to the community, you recognize that there’s so much that is not in data, right? That is really about people’s stories, and what they define as important and things like that. So, data can’t just be number crunching, or that kind of way, and that stories do matter as well. And that stories have always been the first form of disaggregated data, is what I’d say. And so how do we make sure that that is a part of our own processes, in particular, for communities where complexity and nuance really matters for outcomes, right. And so I think there’s a lot to learn because it is, in particular, probably in cultures, wood that are really about relationships, and about passing of knowledge in a way that is beyond just writing or those types of things where we learn a lot about how data is seen differently, right. So, like at CAAL, we published a report recently Chanda on wealth and how wealth is defined, right? Because we have all these indicators around housing, jobs, education, all of these things that are indicators to help us figure out whether a community is wealthy, right financially, but when we spoke to the community, actually, what they talked about is wealth defined by relationships, the connections between elders and children have the ability to pass down heritage language, right? Those things that matter for our family and a community is doing beyond finance, right. And that money is a vehicle for relationships and for wellbeing but using money alone to determine wealth drives us in a whole completely different direction, right. So it was very, you know, even though intuitively, I knew that, because that’s, you know, that’s similar to the culture that I grew up in, and how we care take for each other and all of those things, but to actually then have gone through a process that validates these experiences and turns it into a study means that now other people can use it to say, Okay, here’s a different way to look at wealth, right. And so, then what are the tools that we are providing? And what are the policies that we have created to actually facilitate this kind of wealth building that is different than just financial literacy, or home buying or increasing wages? And those types of things alone? Right.
Chanda Smith Baker
Yeah, I know, at one point, sort of social cohesion, social network, social capital were really important elements of community or they are but in terms of being captured, particularly with our young people with our communities, saying that how you’re connected actually matters for your future success, like we know that that happens, and communities of means, right. But in communities that are sort of mobile, we don’t see them as just as critical. We don’t make those types of investments and how they build community, we’re more trying to get them programmed into their next opportunity versus connected into their next opportunity.
Right? Yes. And it then drives how we design different things, right. I, we often talk about, you know, for example, funder driven initiatives that say, if you could train a person, and they could increase their income, somehow the measurement of that person alone, and their ability to increase income means that they have moved from, you know, being in poverty to middle class. And what we heard back was, well, but you don’t know how many people this person is taking care of. Right? And if they come from a, a place where they are responsible for their parents, their children and their siblings, you know, even a six figure, they are still having a difficult time. Right. So how do we look at the whole family? And not just necessarily the one training, but how do you address the context of that person? As well, I think there’s more to think about. But ultimately, you know, what, what I kind of take away from this work is that there is a lot of community caretaking that is happening that we often don’t recognize, and that we all often don’t incentivize, and by default of money being the only measure that sometimes we actually have become punitive to how communities take care of each other. Right. So
Chanda Smith Baker
Speaking of communities taking care of each other, it’s been, you know, it’s been a hard couple of years. And we have seen anti-Asian hate and violence be more visible than what I’ve seen. Right? I certainly have learned more than I knew, as a result of it in terms of the biases, the discrimination, the violence, sort of the pain within the Asian community that I actually felt like, wow, have I been so focused in my own community that I was not, you know, able to sort of see, you know, people around me also suffering. And I know, we talked briefly, after the incident in Atlanta, have those visible incidents created? Is it creating more safety because now people are more aware. So they’re now seeing it more and it’s subsiding? Or is it still on the rise? Do you have a sense of that?
Yeah. Well, I think that there’s different responses for that, right. So, one is just the visibility that I think in the context of COVID and you know, at the very As level of our government being using language that stigmatized a whole community that then sort of created, I guess, a sense of permission to act out in violence towards a community, because everybody is living through a very difficult time and in a pandemic that is experienced by everyone. Right. So I think in that context, the community has felt an increase in incidents, certainly CAAL, we had never had that many calls from people talking about, you know, a fear, just like that sense of like, well, I knew that people were discriminate, you know, discriminating before, but I’d never had this personal fear that if I went to the store, someone was going to actually call me out or not serve me or, you know, push me, purposely bumped me or those types of things. Right.
Chanda Smith Baker
And these are residents of our state that are. Fear from their fellow neighbors.
That’s right. And so I think when you have that kind of leadership that gives permission, and people can say whatever they want, but when you have the president of the U.S. saying, you know, this is caused by China, what people don’t get is that the reason why it’s systemic is that when we say something happens, and, you know, between Russia and the U.S. white people don’t get the same reactions, right. But anytime we named China, Asian Americans experience that the output of that in discriminatory kinds of ways, right. And so that’s important to recognize that that stems from the very same system of racism that judges every other community who is of color, right. So that’s why it’s important to really for our own communities to understand that we are not exempt from racism, right? We may have been used at this and systemically convenient ways to be able to talk about how communities of color are doing. But when it comes to acts of violence against people of color, we are not exempt, right. And that people can point to and interpret interpersonal violence in this moment and say, Oh, it’s just those bad people. But systematically, our kids are not being educated about the diversity of our communities, they don’t get histories that reflect them and then reflect their peers. And so, we are growing in systems that intentionally invest or divest from, you know, Truth in History, right? In truth in this history in this country’s history, so, so I would say that, you know, I think overall, the community still feels and is still experiencing those types of violent acts that are in the forms of both a lot of racist derogatory terminology, but also real physical fear. And, unfortunately, Asian women and Asian elders, have tended to bear, you know, bore the brunt of the most violent acts, right ending and deaths and those types of things. So we have a lot of work to do. And I also want to say to my Asian American brothers and sisters, and families, that that’s why it is really important for us to work on anti-racism systematically, because these are not just in for personal acts of violence against individuals. It is really embedded in so much of our systems, and we have a lot of work to do to make sure that we are part of the solutions for ending racism in all kinds of systems, right? Because we stand to benefit as well. So.
Chanda Smith Baker
Yeah, and I know after, you know, George Floyd, there was a lot of conversations and groups really cross-cultural understanding and unity and coming together and sort of an infinity and an understanding, you know, because a lot of times we get grouped, right, we’re BIPOC, we’re communities of color. We’re like all these things. And and I think there’s an assumption that because we’re BIPOCS we like, understand everyone’s issues and work, we’re automatically aligned. Yes, we’re automatically on the same page. And I think that’s a, you know, unfortunate, you know, I have my own feel about the BIPOC language. I’ve shared this before. But you know, and I understand it for grouping and data purposes, I suppose. But I know you came out and talked about anti-blackness and the importance for the Asian communities to be part of that and vice versa. Why was that important? Why do you think it’s important for us to do that work?
You know, I’ve had to spend a lot of my own time learning about the history of this country, because what I was taught was actually not sufficient, right. And so, in that personal learning, I really came to understand that like This country is really built on slavery, right? And Asian Americans did come. And we’re in an essence, very, very low-wage workers. But I think the ways in which we have benefited from black labor, building the foundations for this country to thrive, I think that’s really important. And I think that, you know, learning about the history of how we’ve gotten the civil rights that we’ve gotten now and things like that, and it’s, it’s not complete. But really, it’s been the leadership of black leaders and communities who continue to believe in the idea of a representative and vibrant, multiracial democracy in a country that has been most abusive to them, that helped me to understand that I need to know more. And I need to know that my struggles are connected to black struggles, and that, you know, what, and that anti-blackness does exist in our community, because what we don’t teach our kids about racism, right? And so, when we haven’t learned about each other, what do you think is going to result, right? The result is anti-blackness, anti-Asian, and all of those things, and people can’t believe that that happens. And I go, well, if you’ve never learned about each other, and we are only learned, learning what the system teaches us, then that there’s a lot of ignorance there, right? I really have been very bothered by the portrayal of I think, this moment of increasing anti-Asian violence being seen as individual acts instead of a systemic responsibility. But also, the reality that some of our communities feel members feel a comfort and continuing to say the solution is policing. Because that really means that we haven’t thought through a lot about what the relationship is to other communities of color in terms of policing, and that policing is not what’s going to keep us safe, more community building and more, addressing more systemic issues is actually really important anti-racist issues and things, policies is gonna be more helpful to us. So, you know, I don’t have a magic wand. But it is just really important for us to keep understanding that the problems of racism are not, they may be acted out in interpersonal ways, but it’s still a system. And it’s really important for Asian Americans to understand how anti-blackness lives and shows up in our communities, and then how we are part of figuring out how to be anti-racist ourselves, right?
Chanda Smith Baker 42:49
Yeah, I imagine that you’re going to continue this work in some way. I may have seen, what you’re going to do on LinkedIn. But what are you going to do next?
Bo Thao-Urabe 43:01
Well, first, I’m going to just take a little bit of time to pause. And I really have just been going nonstop for almost this 10 decades. But in particular, in the last two years, I think Chanda you know that I lost both my parents and I literally haven’t even really fully processed what it means to be without them, right? Because the work has kept you so busy or kept me so busy. And for I think for folks like you and I who care so much about what’s happening in the communities, you could keep going and working and working and working on these issues, right. But I’m also recognizing that it’s important to pause and give myself a break and that that that is needed. And so, I will do that. But I’m also just lending support to different efforts, in particular in philanthropy and social justice movement building that I feel like, I can help. And so, you know, I don’t have a clear plan. But as you said, I am not I’m very much present.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:13
Don’t need a clear plan that’s been evident. You just have a good vision and a vocation and you know, where you can be impactful. And, you know, you’ve done that over and over again. And I also want to congratulate you on becoming a regent at the University of Minnesota. I know that that was a bittersweet moment for you but congratulations, we are super thrilled that you are there.
Bo Thao-Urabe 44:36
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And it’s I’m learning a lot is all I can say. So yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:44
Those are the best faces though where you can walk in and learn a lot and you know, add value. I know I’ve been in some spaces. I’m like, I think I can be valuable. I certainly am learning a lot. I’m certainly getting a lot and then pretty soon I’m like I figured out where my value add can be, right. If you had any, like your best advice that you’d like to share that is really sort of maybe helps you even get through these last couple of years, what would you have to offer?
Bo Thao-Urabe 45:11
It’s what a lot of the lessons that my mother have taught me, right. This is a woman who has never gone to school and who has really lived through so much before she passed. And I and you know, when we came to this country, I always say by the time I was in second grade, I was I already spoke more English than my parents. So, I became kind of their navigator, because I happen to kind of like, talk and did a lot of things. And so, and by the time I was in high school, my parents had freely offered all of my services to read, read, read, read the paper, or read mail for everybody who wanted to and so I came home one day from school. And there were like several aunties, who had brought stacks of mail, and that they had kept and a lot of it was just junk mail. But they needed someone to review them. And I often help them to complete paperwork for their public benefits, because you had to complete a whole thing to verify that you indeed were job searching and all of these things to get public benefits. So I knew that that was kind of a routine. But on this particular day, I was just really upset because I came home as a teenager. And here were these aunties with stacks of paper. And so, I kind of blew up that my mom and said, I don’t understand they have kids, why can’t their kids do it? Why do you tell people that they can come to me, right? Because I want to just be a teenager. And so, my mom, just let me rant. And then after my Auntie’s left, she came in my room and, like, gave me that very stern looked. And she says, don’t ever do that, again, you are so lucky, that you grew up in this time that we came to this country and you got education, and that, that you have a skill that people need. If you don’t have a skill that people need, you can rest assure that nobody’s gonna be here. And so she said, you know, as long as you’re alive, remember that if you have some skill that is helpful to communities, that’s what you do, right? And so that lesson has always kind of stuck with me. And there are hard days, but I tried to really think about, you know, I don’t know everything, I know some things, I know how to do some things. And if I can help, you know, make things better for, for community. And if I’m able to be useful, then that is good enough for the moment. And many of the things that I’m working on, I don’t have to see the end result, right, because in fact, many of them might not even happen in my lifetime. So, I just have to make sure that I’m contributing to making progress.
Chanda Smith Baker 47:59
Man, what, what a great story and you know, bless our mothers and your father and the lesson and the expectation that they put on us for how we show up in our community, like there are days. Yes, but certainly they raised us to know that it’s not about us. Yes. But, we’re sure. My mom would be like, I don’t know, who told you it was about you, but it’s not. So, I think about that a lot and just smile and she saw right and I was I was so privileged and, and I know you are and I know in this moment of lots of transitions. I wish you lots of peace and clarity. Thank you during this during this leg.
Bo Thao-Urabe 48:47
Well, I appreciate it. And I am so really fortunate Chanda that. We’ve had many spaces to be together and you know that I really am supportive of you but also admire your leadership. And I know we’ll be in touch.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:03
For sure. Thank you, Bo, so much for being on the podcast. Thank you.
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Bo Thao-Urabe is a practice-based possibilian with over 25 years of impactfully building community-centered, asset-based solutions. She recently transitioned as the founding executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) after nearly a decade of building a successful organization. She continues as Senior Advisor to CAAL and provides her expertise to other social justice efforts locally and nationally, and serves as a Senior Consultant for the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund and the Common Counsel Foundation.
Bo’s lived experiences at the intersections of war, poverty, immigration, gender, culture, and race have continuously shaped how she connects the dots to reimagine and create solutions. She has built and led local, national, and global efforts. In addition to founding CAAL, Bo co-created Hmong Women Achieving Together, RedGreen Rivers, BMPP Giving Circle, MaivPAC, Building Our Future: A Community Campaign, the Anti-Racism, and Intersectional Justice Fund, and the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Gender-Based Violence. She currently serves on the Boards of the Minneapolis Foundation, Drake Bank, Propel Nonprofits, and is a Regent at the University of Minnesota. Her leadership and impact have been widely recognized. She enjoys traveling, time with her daughter and family, and storytelling.