Factually, there are bars I must live under that other leaders do not. To lead as a woman of color means the guarantee that people belittle you no matter your pedigree, undermine you no matter your expertise and preparation, invalidate you no matter your beyond exceptional productivity. Yet the thing to do is not give them time nor regard nor dwelling in the house of your mind. Correct them, move on, achieve, and memorialize charting your own way of leading as you make the world change. Speak the lessons: when blocked, become braver. If you already lost, change the game to redefine leadership. Reimagine the curses we bear: for Asian American women, hypersexualization, objectification, abjectification, pre-mature adultification, intense infantilization, death-in-life, and self-sacrifice. Burdens incompatible with leadership usually. It won’t always be this way due to the work you do and how you do it, so you better document it to show others behind you the way.

Choosing to Lead

Higher education transformed and enriched my life especially in moving the next generation away from docility and subjugation towards creative and analytic power. I revere what higher education can enable in the classroom, the syllabus, and the assignments through the immersion, determination, focus, and humility they require so as to achieve life-long empowerment. I recall my own professors as an undergraduate at Berkeley where Maxine Hong Kingston taught me to create family trees that revealed all the secrets and where Lawrence Levine taught me to read primary sources. Both seeded a long-lasting love for unburying the silences in my story and in history itself.

As a self-supporting undergraduate student, higher education is a real engine for social and economic mobility for myself and my family. I juggled multiple jobs alongside a commitment to lifting others up as an organizer and cultural activist. As a professor, I ambitioned to lead dual careers in my research and creative activity—achieving tenure early and achieving the highest rank of Distinguished Professor just after turning 50. In the past ten years when I became a grieving mother with the sudden death of my child, I came to know the preciousness of life in living with meaning and purpose and leading with empathy and compassion. My research has not slowed down but accelerated, with my best work still unstoppably ahead of me. I published my fourth book this past January and just finished editing my latest film, all the while waking up to hear my deceased son Lakas say, “I am thankful for being alive.”

I started my career at UC Santa Barbara where I worked for almost 15 years. There, I developed as a leader in personnel promotion and advancement processes in really enjoying writing about my colleagues’ work and translating what constituted research in the arts and humanities to the sciences and engineering and in cultivating grants active communities through internal and external panel committees. As Chair of the Senior Women’s Council, I programmed and advocated for the needs of women faculty who sacrifice their own advancement due to service, get stuck at associate due to elder and childcare and need training in negotiation. 

I did not aspire to lead. My dream life was as a professor in teaching, reading, writing and contributing to shared governance. When the directorship of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State came up, I raised my hand and said not me. That day, senior professors came into my office, saying it had to be me. I then realized my teaching would expand to include the larger university community. I would prioritize equity in my leadership to transform the curriculum and the culture. I learned a lot about how to push and how to be trusted both. I worked with faculty and staff who shared with me a commitment to equal access to education and improving the chances of our student body composed of 80% students of color and 70% Pell Grant-recipients within the context of housing challenges, hunger, poverty and lack of opportunity.

Now as Dean at a large public R1, I am responsible for providing a vision for an entire division as its chief academic and financial officer which entails fundraising, curricular administration, and managing personnel and a budget of millions. I also lead as Dean Convener, representing all academic divisions to the central administration and in key committees like the budget and implementation of the strategic plan. I center Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in a country where almost half the states are halting much-needed progress.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

When I started as Dean, I enacted DEI mandates for each and every individual to participate in their departments to create ACTION PLANS with timelines in order to confront long standing problems within their departments and their disciplines. Every Winter, we conduct a division-wide DEI workshop that asks one central question: what will you do today to improve the lives of others in our community? And now, we are working for the past 18 months on equity mentorship plans so as to empower and center the questions of our early career faculty. An emblem of my leadership is to look unflinchingly at problems of climate so that the community is educated on our protocols with the goal of alleviating suffering and removing obstacles for all to thrive in our institution.

In a world of social inequality, brown women like me are classified as wrong and too frequently wronged. Our exceptional achievements and fabulosity rendered frightening even as I am just dressing up, writing books, or making films. Through my education, I learned to deploy creativity to reject the devaluation inflicted by racism and sexism that pornographically focuses on difference from whiteness and maleness. It is a long way from growing up as an immigrant asylee living in the projects, working at Dunkin’ Donuts to help my family and putting myself through college with three jobs.

What stories do we tell ourselves when we as Asian American women lead—especially against the noise of external judgment? How do we narrate events we experience, differently from those who act upon us? Saddening and maddening both, when we are treated poorly and unfairly, that the choices we face for redemption, rising up, and reparation are few. Somehow, we must strive for a better day in building a better place for the hushed and hindered. In understanding and interpreting how we make our way as leaders, a path to our longevity may be unlocked. To know what composes us individually as leaders is to outlast, out-position, and out maneuver our haters who get in the way of our achieving overdue equality and justice today. We all need equal access to our excellence.

In my roles as leader, I find myself in big rooms with small doors, where homogeneity rules. We count our presence in the sea of majority white rooms where decisions are made regarding majority nonwhite communities. As the first and only woman of color dean at UC Santa Cruz, I hold the power to shape culture and climate, and define excellence with equity in the face of resistance. I believe in what bell hooks says: people can change. And I hold on to what Heather McGee says: why be so afraid of what we represent? I believe that when all have access, we get better art, better workplaces, better things. I talk with and confer with other diverse leaders to recharge my power so it is even more visible when I enter and work the big rooms with small doors. Take up space, and speak as Audre Lorde advises, knowing your perspective makes the room and the world better and richer.

Administrative service and leadership are not for everyone. Your interests and strengths may not be there. There are many fronts to the struggle and I hope you find them in order to lead a meaningful life exactly as you define it. There are very few of us, committed to undoing inequality, who will find access to these spaces of leadership by how we are measured: do you have the vision for truly inclusive excellence that will mobilize all, do you have the temperament to face relentless grievances, do you have the ability to keep the utmost calm, confidence, integrity and confidentiality in the face of gossip, do you have the track record of accomplishment to judge the work of others? There is your health and your wellness at risk in the belly of the beast. Yet. I find no space in the world where inequality and the forces of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism are not present. As a filmmaker, I use the technologies of cinema to undo its harms in our communities. I occupy these spaces with this same ethos.

Advice for Growing the Next Generations of Diverse Leaders

Sit in your power!  

Do not be shocked when people do not compute that you are the leader: Are YOU the dean? Looking behind you, they may search for the archetype of the tall white man. Say it. I am your dean. And this is my dream. Join me to do great things!

Prepare for all meetings. Meet deadlines. If you think it, ask it. If you do not yet know it, say it. Then go get it. Model ethical leadership for the top and bottom. Stride in with confidence and humility.

Advocate for the needs of others whom you represent by asking hard questions and asserting the importance of what needs attention. Offer solutions and not just the identification of problems.

Surround yourself with people who believe in your mission and support you. If not, let them know this is not the right place. Call out problems as they happen. Manage performance systematically. You deserve support! Do not lose sleep; let them ruminate, not you. Trust your instincts. Hire well.

Policy is Your Friend, Protocol is Empowering

Bring out the best in people like the filmmaker you are. Dare to change the discipline, as the scholar you are, and in this case, change preconceptions of leadership—to have the courage to be disliked because you did the due diligence to do the right thing. Know policy is your friend and the decision you made, hard and pondered consultatively. And if policy needs changing, make it happen.

Kindness can hurt others. Be frank and forthright. Let the world make sense by following protocol. Be trustworthy in an above-board process. Be a model of honesty.

Strong as Your Butterfly Sleeves

Look like the leader you are in a world that does not yet exist. Wear the terno. Always wear the hat.

Pay attention to why you wore camouflage and combat boots to that meeting. Interpret and assess the events of leadership. Every day, design your approach and perception with consciousness.

Stand out. Do not hide. Be inviting. Let students talk. Celebrate when they claim their education. Hear them. Help them. Educate them. Champion your faculty. Empower staff. Enable opportunity.

Look unflinchingly at the problems you inherit from cultures you did not establish and actualize change. It will take time. Play the long game. Leave the institution better. Help those who come after you to succeed.

Be a Gardener of Peace, Not Chaos

Do not get sick from the sound of your own voice repeating your mission and vision. Leadership is repetition to get everyone on the same trip and ship.

Do not go on train rides with those who do not take care of themselves and like to be in fire. Find out more than one side of the story. See the perspective of others. The grievant. The aggrieved. The boss. The assistant. Know your story and deploy it. Use your resources and your experts.

Pay attention to the people producing and contributing and not just the people who do not produce, who do not contribute, and who get in the way of others.

When I became chair, my relationships changed. I have to be chair for all. Fair to all. I had to remove myself from intimacy and familiarity while remaining accessible and available to all. Know your people.

Avoid email after 5pm and before 8am. Schedule email. I always ask for permission to text. Email is best. Do not be available 24/7. You get to establish culture. Do it for the health of the community.

Stay Well

Get good doctors, dentists, dermatologists. See them. Go to the gym and to nature. Get a therapist. Get advisors. I have three. Get your haircut. Get your physical, mammogram, colonoscopy and pap smear annually. Go to the bathroom. Bio breaks are needed. Do not get a UTI. Packed schedules are not a badge of honor, they are an inability to manage time.

Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Before I was dean, I slept five hours a night for most of my life. Now it is 6-8 because the job demands rest!

Love your family. Take care of them and let them take care of you. Go on vacation. Go on vacation. Go on vacation and do not check email. You are not that important. You are important.

Bear the burden of leadership by communicating so as to ensure comprehension. Do not share the anxiety you must bear. Get the care you need in bearing this burden.

Women of color are the least represented in higher ed leadership and this is part of why higher ed is in crisis. Bring yourself to leadership. I lead as a grieving mom who understands compassion yet knows I cannot be my full self at work. It is work, a professional space.  

Do not yell at work. When they call you angry, distinguish your loud and passionate voice. Be kind to others. There is a power differential. Let those in power know you will not tolerate abuse.  

Create and Not Just React

Write your story of leadership in charting a new way. The world will not always be intolerant and unimaginative about who leads and how.

Read. Learn. Act. Do your own work. This is why you got into this. It will give you strength to be in the beauty and freedom of your ideas and your contributions. To get your own work done is testament to the mission of the university that you defend and protect to make sure all have access. We generate needed ideas here. This is why this is a good gig.

Approach everyday with curiosity.  Take challenges in stride. Every day is an opportunity to do great things with your community.

Outlast all haters! Be fabulous! Take up space in the big rooms with small doors to impact the world inside and outside the institution.

Earlier versions of this article were delivered at Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education on April 5, 2024 and the presidential plenary at the Association for Asian American Studies on April 26, 2024. 

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