Emily Sun graduated from Philanthropiece’s Youth Global Leadership (YGL) program in 2014. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Argentina and will soon begin her senior year at Brown University. Philanthropiece interviewed Emily back when she was an intern in 2015. Teal Witter, one of tour 2017 YGL Summer Interns, took the opportunity to ask about updates on Emily’s previous thoughts and experiences.
How was your experience in Argentina?
Well, I’m still processing it. I began studying Spanish in college and decided to travel to Argentina with the Consortium for Advanced Study Abroad (CASA). Through CASA, I was able to enroll in local universities and meet new people. The experience was challenging because my Spanish was “eh” going in. Plus, people in Buenos Aires speak very quickly.
I noticed a big difference between the higher education system in Argentina and the one in the United States. We have a very stratified system. All the resources accumulate in the top schools. While the elite universities do cover a lot of the tuition for lower-income students, very few students can actually get in. In Argentina, all the national colleges are free.
I also had trouble navigating my visible presentation as an Asian woman because I was perceived as “fresh off the boat”. I wasn’t able to use my tools and skills for dealing with that because race is perceived very differently in Argentina. Nonetheless, I did have many positive experiences. In particular, I enjoyed dancing (for free!) at a local community center.
Tell us about your thesis.
I started out broadly interested in art history because museums tend to represent artworks unequally. There’s little inclusion of certain artworks and that plays into identity politics. My thesis then evolved because I was chosen as a Mellon Mays Fellow at Brown. The program supports historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities in higher education.
My current focus is on art that “destabilizes” the body. Racial and sexual norms regulate the way bodies are perceived in the West. I’m curious about how artists undermine that. Right now, I’m reading a lot about art theory and I hope to apply the theory to my favorite artworks. For example, Patty Chang is a performance artist. She does a piece where she puts eels underneath her shirt. That’s interesting because it raises questions: what are the boundaries between human and animal? Who has been compared to animals in the past?
What impact did the YGL internship have on your recent experience?
YGL has always been a supportive community. I developed facilitation and coordination skills as an intern there. That experience is important to me because I want to be an arts educator or at least engage in programming. I hope to pursue graduate school, but even so I want to know how complex theories can translate to real life.
I researched diversity and inclusion in Boulder youth programming during my time as a YGL intern. That information is still useful to me. While my choice to study abroad and thesis do not directly come from YGL, YGL definitely strengthened my values. In the future, I want to do something that matters more for community rather than just burying my head in theory books.
In your responses to the recent alumni survey, you mention that YGL “can continue to incorporate more of a social justice framework where students are encouraged to explore their own identities and privileges”. Why is that framework so important?
I was supported in YGL, especially with the “no judgment zone”. In college, however, I learned about frameworks and educational tools. That really opened my eyes and helped me to come to term with my identities. I’m interested in what that would look like if I had encountered that space earlier; thinking critically about racial, class and sexual identity.
I recognize that this conversation requires a level of maturity and distance that I may have only achieved in college. It’s possible freshman year in college was the right time for me. I also wouldn’t have sought out that space without the privilege and power thinking I experienced in the YGL context. In YGL we talked about power in terms of service. One step deeper would have been becoming aware of how your identities operate and affect your experiences wherever you are, however you move in life.
In your last Philanthropiece interview, you wrestled with the question of how one does good work without being paternalistic. Have you come to any conclusion around this?
Some people think, “Oh I’m so privileged, I don’t know what to do.” That mindset leads to paralysis. Thinking about privileges should not be an excuse for not doing anything. Ethics are complicated but shouldn’t scare someone away from thinking through them and committing to community and schools in these “dark times”. There is no one ethical standard; everyone works through it for themselves.
My approach to service has been to ask myself several questions. What am I really good at? What makes me excited? Art and art history. But museums tend to reek of elitism. Who the hell goes to a museum? Will my work help anyone? There are tensions that I wrestle with between material, physical needs–hunger, matters of life and death–and any abstract or emotional effects of an art exhibit.
But art is what I’m good at and art shapes cultural values. For example, there was an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that showcased Black women’s art and their role in rights movements, in a time where more than ever our culture needs to assert that Black Lives and Black Arts Matter. The curator definitely thought critically about the art exhibition’s purpose. My approach is to take what I’m good at and open it up.
In 2014, you did work on diversity inclusion in YGL. Today, the majority of YGLers are still privileged white youth and the program is struggling with how to confront that identity. How do you think your research could apply?
The questions today are the same ones I was wrestling with two summers ago. One of my suggestions was to connect different youth groups in Boulder. It’s possible that YGL will remain a space occupied by predominantly middle to upper-class white youth. But there are other, really awesome programs in Boulder for youth from lower incomes, immigrant, and/or Latino backgrounds. These programs meet their needs. I suggested that YGL build relationships with the these groups if they’re interested. As of right now YGL has shaped into what it is but it doesn’t need to be closed off from what it isn’t.
There are also a lot of ways to think through these questions outside of recruitment. For example, the concept of service changes when you identify from the community that you’re trying to support. I believe YGL’s perspective is currently limited because it doesn’t have many youth with that perspective. I hope an opportunity like YGL can become accessible to people from different identities and backgrounds, but even if that doesn’t happen, I hope going forward YGL continues to value and make space for conversations around inclusion.