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Featured Changemaker: EMILY SUN on Community, Commutes, and Learning Moments

Emily Sun is a graduate of the Youth Global Leadership Program. She currently attends Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and is interning for YGL over the summer. In this Featured Changemaker interview, Caitlin Mendenhall, another Program Intern, got to sit down with Emily and learn more about her experience in YGL and how it has shaped her.

You are a graduated YGLer and now an intern for Philanthropiece. How and when did you originally find out about YGL?

I became a part of the Youth Global Leadership Program in the fall of my junior year of high school, so I spent a little over two years in the program. I graduated from high school last year and just finished my first year at Brown University. I found out about YGL because I was applying to the Boulder Youth Advisory Council, but I didn’t get in so they sent me list of similar opportunities. After I graduated from the program, I wanted to be an intern for YGL because I thought it would be interesting to come at the program from a coordination and administration perspective.

What projects are you currently involved with?

Through transitioning out of the YGL program and into university, I had a perspective flip of the diversity and inclusivity of the YGL Program. For example, I started thinking more about how the program is serving youth that are normally underrepresented. A lot of the community organizations where I go to school specifically work with youth of a very different demographic and socioeconomic background than the youth that are a part of YGL. My goal is to find out how I can translate this knowledge back to where I’m from and to this program that is doing amazing work, but not reaching certain people for reasons that I’d like to find out. That’s the main research project I’m working on right now.

Philanthropiece really supports a methodology called “participatory action research”, where the goal of the research is to engage with the people in the community that have the most to say about the issue. I’m going to interview a few community leaders who work with youth programs, as well as some youth themselves, and bring that information back to the YGL program to see how we can better cater to the needs of youth in the Boulder community and be more inclusive of youth from diverse backgrounds.

What is the most exciting part about your work?

Through YGL, I got to be around people and communities that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. However researching community contacts has shown me how many people I didn’t get to meet and talk to while in the program. It’s been reopening my eyes to the community and all these people that are doing great work with youth programs similar to YGL. I love getting to make all these new connections and go back into the community.

How is community important to you?

Culturally, it’s important because it can connect people across geographic distance. For me, being a second generation immigrant, it’s interesting trying to find community with family members in China who I feel very disconnected from. Conversely, I feel a very strong sense of community with others like me who are second generation Chinese immigrants in the U.S. with similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This is important to me because I think sharing those experiences and finding that community is important. To me, community also means learning about different people, working together, and talking about needs in the community. It is the first step to creating positive change.

Is there anything that’s missing in your life right now?

I’m always interested in the larger structures of things. College courses have opened my eyes but I still feel like I’m lacking a better ethical and sociological understanding of what it means to for someone of my privilege to go into an “underprivileged” community and do good work. How ethical is that? Even though we think we’re doing a good job, I’m still negotiating with the morality of it. How do you do good work without being paternalistic? These are all things I’m still trying to figure out.

What events in your life have shaped your values and how does what you’re doing reflect those values?

My involvement in YGL has shaped a lot of my values. I’m a curious person and I wanted to get involved in the community. Participating in this program and volunteering with other youth who are also interested in engaging in the community and thinking critically about what we’re doing has been very valuable.

My Cor project was also really formative for me. I facilitated an art exchange between middle school students in Boulder, Colorado and Chajul, Guatemala. I’ve always been a creative person and my project allowed me to see how I could identify a need for creative opportunities for youth and combine my passion for the arts with sustainable change to address that need. It also helped cultivate diversity with cultural exchange. Addressing community needs is something I will continue to think about and challenge myself with.

Lastly, being at Brown where there is a large social justice community, opened a space for talking about issues of race and privilege. This has been extremely valuable to me and I hope to continue to facilitate opening that space for others. This ties nicely back into the work I’m doing now as an Intern at Philanthropiece.

What key relationships have shaped your life path? Any role models?

It might sound cliché, but my mom has always been a really strong role model for me because she’s such an independent woman and has done so much to support her children. I’ve tried to be bigger than myself by going out in the community and doing community work, but it’s not even comparable to her kind of selflessness and what an independent mother does to provide a better future for her family. That kind of strength has always been really inspiring to me.

I’ve also met a lot of community leaders through YGL who are very engaged and speaking up for their communities. I’m amazed by people like the YGL mentors and the YGL program coordinator, Alicia Conte, who believe in you even when you feel like a young person who doesn’t know much, and encourage you to take on these extremely complicated challenges. That kind of mentality is great to nurture in other people and I hope to be able to mentor others in that way with whatever career I go into.

How do you make space for yourself? When are you happiest?

I’m most relaxed when I take time for myself and my artistic activities. I love going from place to place. I love commutes, like taking the bus, bike riding, walking, running, and just moving outdoors. It puts me in a really reflective and creative place. I also love reading. There are so many great works of literature in this world and I’ll never read them all, but I really enjoy reading books and newspaper articles, etc.

You keep mentioning art and being creative. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

When I was young I started off writing and always wanted to be a writer, but then in high school there weren’t many writing classes so I took a bunch of art classes instead. I really enjoyed them and started developing the techniques. My Cor project with YGL, and volunteering in a museum in high school that provided free art events to youth, trained to me to see art as a vehicle for community building. Art can be a collaborative space and not just a personal practice. I’m always seeking ways to do that by volunteering to teach art at a school or a community center. I care much more about opening up other people’s creativity than, for instance, becoming a really good painter in the technical sense or winning the Nobel prize in literature.

We all have days where our hearts and shoulders feel a little heavy. Where do you draw your inspiration from in these moments?

Again, I am inspired by the actions of people in my life who have supported me, like my mother or certain mentors. I’m also always inspired by my peers. At college, everyone I know is doing incredible work, challenging themselves, and thinking critically. They’re asking all these big questions and not afraid to do something about them. It’s great to be in that sort of environment.

What are you best known for in your family or circle of friends?

I’m always known for being kind of the artsy, spacey one. I’m interested in so many different things. It makes declaring a major really difficult!

What was a moment in your life when you were particularly proud?

A moment when I felt really proud was actually a small moment during my Cor project. I traveled to Guatemala to meet and build relationships with the Philanthropiece Scholars who were helping facilitate the project down there and to transport a mural from the Boulder school to be installed in Chajul. I was also working with the middle school students there, which was difficult because my Spanish is kind of rough and a lot of the students were really hesitant to speak up and participate vocally. It was so hard to ask a question and not even have one outgoing person who wanted to answer. So there was one moment where I thought, “How can I, as an educator, get these students to participate in a way that doesn’t require them to speak up, since I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable?” After we finished a session of painting, I asked everyone to step forward if they painted a certain part. Just changing the format of what I was doing, from asking them to speak to asking them to physically move, made a huge difference. I found that movement helped encourage participation. As an educator, I hope to draw from this lesson in the future. I don’t know if proud is the right word to describe how I felt, but it was definitely a learning moment for me.

What do you want to tell our community?

I really love talking to people in the community, so if anyone is interested in talking about cultural exchange, arts education, empowering youth, etc., please reach out. I love having conversations with people and learning from them. Also, If you’re a young person interested in developing leadership skills or getting involved in your community, there are plenty of opportunities. Communicate and get out there! There are a lot of ways to be involved and I think that’s really important.