It seems with each passing day, there are more instances of performative activism and racial harm being inflicted on marginalized groups. Both companies and individuals alike are missing the mark and more must be done to better understand how to cultivate spaces where the most oppressed individuals feel safe. The Wake Up is a forthcoming book that explores these topics and more in detail. Author Michelle MiJung Kim sat down with Forbes to unpack her intentions behind writing the book, discuss divesting from grind culture, and share how she has found healing within her community.
Janice Gassam Asare: For the Forbes readers that may not be as familiar with you, could you briefly share a little bit about yourself and also what was the catalyst to your recent decision to include your middle name MiJung? You explained this on LinkedIn, but I would love for you to go into that in more detail.
Michelle MiJung Kim: In terms of my journey, I like to think back to, all the identities that we hold. I always lead with that because I truly don’t think that I would be who I am today, the person who is experiencing the world that I do, without the identities that I hold. And for me, that’s me being a Korean American person, being an immigrant who came to this country when I was 13. It’s my being queer, being a queer woman, being a queer woman of color. And also, so much of my identity was shaped and politicized when I was a youth activist. So, I in high school, began my political activism work as a queer youth organizer.
And that was the beginning of my social justice work. So much of my work has been, how do we get back to the foundation of social justice principles when we’re talking about creating change inside systems and doing work that many call diversity and inclusion, and how that for me is just an extension of social justice work that has been somehow co-opted and sanitized and whitewashed. And now we just need to breathe back into it, some of the more foundational principles and the historical context that’s been devoid of it for so long.
So, all of those experiences have shaped who I am. And of course, once I became politicized, I started to see the connection between my oppression and so many other communities. And then I did a whole 180 in terms of the work that I was doing by going into corporate America. And I remember feeling so disillusioned and feeling so incredibly disoriented by the cognitive dissonance that I felt when people started talking to me about D&I. And of course, I joined an LGBT ERG, thinking it was going to be like a student organization that I was running in school and then realized all we were doing was happy hours and celebrating pride month in a very surface level whitewashed way. We weren’t talking about how queer and trans people were getting killed on the streets. We weren’t talking about the pay disparities or the institutionalized homophobia and transphobia which were the topics that I thought D&I would be tackling.
So, the very long sort of history of how I got here today and the name…so MiJung is my Korean name, my given name and it’s also my legal name. That’s what’s on my paper. And I consider it also my first name. So, it’s not a middle name. People have been calling me Michelle, or nowadays, some people are calling me Michelle MiJung, which is great too.
Asare: What really sparked your desire to write The Wake Up and was there a singular event, or it was sort of the culmination of different events, like what you shared, that kind of made you think this is something I really need to do?
Kim: Yeah. So, it’s a couple of different events that happened. One, I have been thinking a lot about Awaken and for the last few years, I’ve felt really burnt out by it. And for people who don’t know, Awaken is an education programming and workshops company. And we’ve been working with a lot of different organizations from Fortune 500 to tech startups and tech giants. And we’ve had such an honor to work with thousands of teams all over the country and world and running a company inside a capitalist system is incredibly taxing, especially when it comes to holding and witnessing so much trauma in and outside of the workplace all the time, while managing my own mental health and different health scares that I’ve had. And I’ve been thinking about my relationship to social justice work and so much of that being centered around trauma and pain and supporting other people’s learning journey.
And I realized it’s not sustainable. And I’ve been searching for ways for me to create something that feels more sustainable for me and accessible for other people and that’s not bound by the systems of white supremacy and capitalism in terms of the structure of the work that I’m delivering out into the world. And I think a book is an excellent way for me to be able to share my lessons learned and the principles that I’ve been teaching through Awaken, and to be able to reach so many people who may not be able to access me or Awaken readily.
Asare: How do you, you mentioned this and I’m really glad because it’s an excellent segue into the next thing that I wanted to ask you. But how do you prioritize your mental wellbeing in a world, especially as a business owner, that is always demanding so much of us?
Kim: Yes, well, truthfully, I feel like it’s an ongoing lesson and practice for me that I’m not at all great at. I am not the beacon of hope for mental health for anyone because I clearly have not been able to prioritize. And I think by design our society makes it really difficult for marginalized people to prioritize our wellbeing and mental health…I go to therapy every single week and that is my way of carving out time for myself to care for my mental health. It just feels like such a band-aid solution to what we’re experiencing at the societal level, in terms of the recurring trauma that we’re experiencing and witnessing as a whole. No amount of therapy will heal us if the violence doesn’t stop.
And to then get at the root of the cause of what is causing so much turmoil within so many marginalized communities is to actually root out the violence that’s causing it. And so, I feel like at the individual level, yes, I’m doing what I can to draw boundaries and to divest from systems that are essentially trying to kill me. And by either running me 24/7 constantly in productivity mode or mentally just diminishing my worth by equating my worth with productivity and visibility. And I love the quote, I’m sure you saw it, at the Emmy’s Michaela Coel’s quote ‘don’t be afraid to disappear.’ And that really resonated with me because of the place that I’m in, because the fear of becoming irrelevant and becoming forgotten is so real, especially for business owners where our livelihoods depend on our visibility to a large extent.
And that’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this book out. So at least that gives me a little bit of the, I don’t want to say reassurance because I don’t feel assured at all, but a little bit of myself out there that I feel is important to exist for people to be able to access and learn from will be there…I don’t know what’s next, but I’m giving myself permission to rest. I’m giving myself permission to just exist without having to explain myself all the time or to fight to survive all the time. And it’s an incredible privilege to be able to do that in a society that doesn’t afford people like us rest.
I’m really trying to be present with that and I think the way that I’ve taken care of myself is through therapy, but also community and constantly reminding myself of the love that’s fueling this work for me, not the anger, not the hate, not the desperation and trauma, but knowing I do this because there’s also so much joy in our community and so much strength in our community. And that’s what fuels me.
Asare: I know it was very therapeutic for you as you were writing it. But one of the things that you say is that you’re ‘closing the gap between good intentions and real change.’ What sort of impact do you hope that your book has on the audiences that will be reading it?
Kim: I hope that this book feels grounding for a lot of people who are wanting to do this work beyond the performative activism and allyship we see. And I want to believe that there are so many people who [are] genuinely wanting to be a part of the movement in the way that is useful. And I made sure to address that in my book where I didn’t write this book for white people. I believe that white people will benefit from it. But I think writing without the white gaze is so important for me to be able to be honest. And so, the audience for this book for me is people who are sincerely and earnestly trying to transform the world and also themselves. People who are taking seriously, the work of transforming themselves with accountability and being who they say they want to be.
And I want those people to be supported by the principles that I’ve learned and lived, the frameworks and the inquiries that I provided in the book to feel grounded, amidst so much complexity. This work is not as simple as a 1, 2, 3 checklist, but this work is nuanced and it requires discernment. It requires context. And I want people to feel empowered and grounded by the lessons that I’ve shared in it. And so that will challenge them to reflect on themselves and on their environments so that they could do the work that is more aligned with their real values and is more aligned with the movement that we are trying to build collectively.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.