In Nancy’s Shoes: Finding the Balance Between Too Much and Too Little Voice

Name: Nancy Chan

Hometown: Montreal, Canada

Where do you live? San Francisco Bay Area

What does it mean to have a voice?

Having a voice to me means being comfortable with authentically expressing who I am while making space for others to be who they are. As Brene Brown says, “Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

How did you find your voice?

I first found my voice through writing and academic achievement. I later refined my voice by learning how to express opinions constructively and encouraging others to express their own views.

What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?

As a toddler I learned that if I didn’t raise my voice, I would be forgotten. My mother overlooked me: she took care of all my basic needs, but she rarely ever played with me. I was an only child and was very lonely, so I did a lot of things to get her attention. Sometimes I was drastic. One poignant and sad memory was when I was 1 and 1/2 years old; I sat in my little rocking chair and thought, “If I tilt my chair back so that it tips over, I will hit my head and cry — and then my mother will come running and pay attention to me.” So I executed my plan and while I didn’t actually feel any pain when the back of my head came into contact with the carpet, I cried anyway and my mother did come to me. I learned that if I didn’t actively draw attention to myself, no one would remember me. This is probably the most powerful lesson that I carry from childhood, but that I also have to unlearn.

I grew up in suburban Montreal with my parents, immigrants from Macau and Hong Kong. Montreal is in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada, and by law I had to attend a majority white French immersion school for four years – grades two through five. It was a very traumatic and isolating experience since I didn’t know any French prior to that, and I was one of only two ethnically Asian people in my elementary school. My second-grade teacher treated me like I was an imbecile. She was impatient that I couldn’t speak French and often shamed me in front of the entire class, telling everyone I was stupid. That had at least two impacts on me: 1. I was determined to prove her wrong and became a fervent academic overachiever (no, I did not have tiger parents; I motivated myself); and 2. I became very self-conscious about speaking in French and have never felt comfortable with it because I associated the French language with this trauma. As a result, I became mute in class and had a lot of social anxiety about public speaking, whether it was in French or English. I lost my voice.

Tell me about when you finally found your voice.

 At the great glass pumpkin patch

I mention above how I lost my literal voice in class, due to my fear of speaking in French, but during my years as a child and adolescent, I found my figurative “voice” by being high achieving and drawing attention to myself that way – as a result, I was incredibly anxious about getting perfect test scores and grades. I had an almost perfect GPA all the way through college. I attended the highest ranked engineering school in the world and lost ten pounds one semester when I was worried I’d get a B.

As I matured, I recovered my literal voice through writing and expressing strong opinions. In one detrimental case, I wrote an opinion piece in the high school paper about how I felt that students who were good at science and math were smarter than students who were more social sciences and arts focused [by the way, I absolutely do not believe this at all now!] A lot of classmates were naturally angry about the article, but sometimes having a strong opinion and knowing how to express it worked in my favor – I won a contest held by the city newspaper, the Montreal Gazette, and ended up being a teen music critic.

My deep desire to be remembered and my corresponding deep fear of being forgotten have shaped my personality. I’m naturally an extrovert and enjoy being a connector of friends. However, the dark side is the need to be the center of attention. I hope to come to a place where I deeply believe that God remembers me, and I don’t need to scratch and claw to capture His attention. Looking back, I realized that I was overcompensating in some ways for my loss of voice from my traumatic second grade experience, as well as learned behavior due to my mother’s neglect. Now I’ve learned that while it’s fine to hold opinions, modulating my voice appropriately is the goal. It’s important to have a voice but I strive for discernment and self-awareness about when to step back and give others more of a chance to express their voices – and not just stepping back, but actively encouraging them to express themselves. As I think about inclusion, this means inviting and empowering many voices to be at the table and giving everyone space and encouragement to express themselves.

How valuable is walking in other people’s shoes, or empathy?

I believe in the importance of accountability, good stewardship of resources, transparency, and measuring success, impacts, and outcomes. Efficiency is one goal, but empathy is another goal that is equally as worthy. I believe they should work in concert to rehabilitate our communities.

Giving away hundreds of free mini donuts at a trade show.

For more than a decade, I’ve been working in the social impact field including policy research, philanthropy, social enterprise, and nonprofit. Social change takes a long, long time. When you work in this field, it’s easy to burn out when you invest so much time and see few results. Learning to be patient with myself teaches me to be patient with social change. I think about all of my own character issues that I’ve been working on all of these years, and how I still have so much work to do. If it takes this much investment and effort for my own personal growth, when I have abundant resources at my disposal, how can I expect impacted communities to change overnight? My empathy grows when I hear people’s stories. I realize how much privilege I have and how many obstacles they encounter in terms of systemic barriers due to policies that were not developed by people who understand their needs, socioeconomic status, barriers to educational attainment, lack of social capital, lack of access to resources and opportunities, and their own mental barriers. I think of how patient God is with us, and that perspective helps me to have patience with others.

At the heart of my values is my Christian faith, and the story that resonates is the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 in the Bible. The shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the other 99 sheep unattended to go after the one sheep. This is symbolic of God’s deep love for us. From my experience in the nonprofit / social change sector, there’s a tendency to help motivated people who want help, because it’s easier and more effective to focus on them. It feels more rewarding to serve motivated people because that produces better results than serving unmotivated people.

But I’ve been pondering, what if we’re also called to serve the hardest to serve? In other words, what if we should remember those who are so easily forgotten? [I resonate personally with this desire to be remembered!] Are we sacrificing empathy in the name of efficiency and optimization?

So back to the parable. The shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in the open country to find the one lost sheep. Why would the shepherd risk 99 sheep for the one lost sheep? But he goes regardless, without knowing whether the sheep is still alive or how far he’d have to travel to find it. A risk/reward calculation does not drive his decision. He simply wants to find that missing sheep because he remembers and cares about the sheep. His actions defy logic. I’m realizing that sometimes relationships defy logic and efficiency. If we had ten children and lost one, we’d turn over every rock to find that lost one, and not just take solace in the other nine. I love that the gospel of Christ is so crazy and radical that He would risk all to look for the one lost sheep simply because He believes that the one sheep is worthwhile — somehow the picture isn’t complete without bringing that one sheep back into the flock. I feel as though Jesus is saying, “I remember you and I’m coming to find you!”

How has your voice influenced others?

Traveling in Venice

I feel that I have helped my community, many of whom are upper/middle class, well-educated Asian American Christians, engage with social justice issues. I’ve exposed my friends to different opportunities for volunteerism, charitable giving, and civic engagement. Many of them had very little exposure to people from impacted communities, so I think it’s been important to help provide awareness and learning opportunities. Most recently, I’ve helped educate people about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. 

There was also a situation where I went to a hotel and noticed that the wallpaper was “racist” — it had a colonial image depicting Native Americans happily welcoming George Washington to the New World. I assume that the designer chose the wallpaper because it was quaint but, like black face, there are many historic relics that are now culturally inappropriate. My reflexes were to take a photo and write a scathing review on TripAdvisor; and to write a strongly worded email to the hotel’s general manager.

I thought better of it and wrote a firm but gently worded email to the hotel general manager. First to inform him as to why I found the wallpaper offensive, and then to ask the hotel whether they would consider removing or replacing it. He responded that the wallpaper image was historic, and he had no intention of removing it. At this point, I almost felt justified in both sending him an angry response and exposing the hotel on social media. Yet I chose instead to email him a reply expressing sadness at his response and asking him to consider how he and the hotel could care for minority groups. I also offered a cheaper alternative to removing the wallpaper as suggested by a museum curator friend. Surprisingly, he agreed with me, and they did indeed implement the idea.

Where will your voice lead next? 

Interestingly, I feel as though I sometimes use my voice in defiance of my intersectional identity as an Asian American / Canadian female. Asian women are stereotyped to be meek, submissive, non-confrontational, and compliant — and I want to add, unopinionated and bland. While I don’t want to neatly conform to that stereotype, I no longer want to be expressive as a reaction to it; I want to express my opinions in a way that is authentic to who I am, versus expressing myself in a way to define who I am not.

Our society also seems to value and reward verbal sparring. However, I’ve learned that it’s as important to make room for other voices as it is to voice my own. I strive to listen and understand other perspectives. I went to an inclusion seminar where the trainer spoke about the differences between debate, discussion, and dialogue. Debate is about two people actively trying to win an argument. Discussion might be viewed as a tamer form of debate — the parties share their opinions but with a view to change the other parties’ minds. But dialogue is about deep listening and all parties being open to being transformed by what the other parties are saying. It’s not about winning an argument but building a shared connection. I think debate and discussion are much more common in our culture. I’d like to aspire to dialogue.

On the professional front, I’m excited to be working in philanthropy to support critical justice issues, including criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and affordable housing.

On the personal front, I just launched a blog to share career advice with people looking to transition into social impact work, including entry-level folks straight out of school as well as mid-level career switchers. I share advice I’ve learned through my own career, and also give voice to many others who have worked and/or currently work in the social impact space. There are so many things I wish I had known before I had decided to make the leap into social impact work.

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Audre Lorde once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Truer words have never been spoken. The Team behind Walking in Other People’s Shoes supports and stands in solidarity with the Black community. From George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Atatiana Jefferson, and many more names. There have been far too many race-induced police brutalities for us to remain silent.

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