July 20, 2022

Dreaming in Color: Nate Wong

Episode Notes

In this episode, we are joined by Nate Wong, chief strategy and social innovation officer of the Beeck Center, an experiential hub to incubate emergent ideas in the social impact space. We talk about his cultural heritage and how his background as a cook helped to shape his current vision of the world. Plus, we discuss why unlearning is necessary in cultural healing processes and how he acknowledges this in his leadership coaching work. Since this episode was recorded Nate has joined The Bridgespan Group as a partner in the Boston office. Join us and listen to this conversation where we reimagine models of coexistence and find keys for an equity-driven system.

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Episode Transcript

Darren Isom (00:04):

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom. This is Dreaming in Color.

Darren Isom (00:21):

Nate Wong is a self-described social “intrapreneur” who creates lasting social change by helping others defy the status quo. Most recently, he served as the Chief Strategy and Social Innovation Officer at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, having previously served as its managing director and interim executive director.

Darren Isom (00:40):

Before that, he was a deputy director for the North American branch of the Center for Public Impact, working with governments and partners around the world in addressing economic mobility, government legitimacy, and city innovation. He helped launch Deloitte's social impact practice and has engaged with over 50 social entrepreneurs through a DC-based social enterprise incubator called Halcyon.

Darren Isom (01:01):

Nate is an all-around thought leader, and we are excited to welcome him to the show. Also very excited to share that, since recording the episode, Nate has joined me here at The Bridgespan Group as a partner in the Boston office.

Darren Isom (01:15):

Nate, it's wonderful to chat with you today. Thanks for making time. As you know, I'd like to kick things off with you invoking the conversation. So hopefully you have something to read for us.

Nate Wong (01:25):

I do. I'd love to read one of my favorite poems. It's actually by the 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, called The Guest House.

Nate Wong (01:38):

"This being human is a guest house. Every morning, a new arrival, a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all. Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond."

Darren Isom (02:15):

That's beautiful. Meet them at the door, laughing. If that's not life, I don't know what it is. So thank you for that one. That's a great one. And really excited to chat with you today. And I want to kick it off, I could kick off in so many different ways, you have so many different things to talk about.

Darren Isom (02:28):

But I love giving people just a space to talk about how in many ways, at least for myself, my early experiences, my childhood shaped so much of my worldview, in a way that I appreciate more and more, as I get older. And so I would love to give you the space maybe to talk about how your childhood, your growing up, shaped your worldview in ways that you're discovering still.

Nate Wong (02:47):

Definitely. I love the notion of discovering still, because I feel like there's things that I reflect back on, early on, that I really don't fully understand until now. But I think food honestly has been such a big memory for me.

Nate Wong (03:07):

I actually grew up with a skin condition called eczema, and it was really, really bad. So I would basically have to have food ... I would have to be really careful about all the intake of food that I consumed. So my mom was a saint and would cook every single meal.

Nate Wong (03:26):

And I remember just so vividly sitting on the kitchen counter, watching my mom cook, being part of the experience. But I think what was so poignant about that is just what comes about when you mix food and family and community and the intention behind it. Just every aspect and choice of ingredient, to just the act of cooking itself, and smelling the foods before you actually consume it and taste it.

Nate Wong (04:03):

And I think that's so true of experiences now, where we actually don't think about food as a slow experience, if you will. We don't really savor it. We don't anticipate it. It's sometimes just to consume, for sustenance versus the enjoyment of it.

Nate Wong (04:26):

And so I vividly am I'm connected to my cultural heritage in addition, and the lineage, if you will, of my family that has had many different circuitous routes, but through food.

Darren Isom (04:42):

I love that. Well, I'm from new Orleans, so you know anything food-related gets me excited. Hilariously, though, what I thought about was, many years ago, living in New York and going on a date with a guy, one and only date, in which at some point I asked him about his favorite foods and he said, "Well, I only eat for calories." And I was like, "Yeah, this is not going to work out. This is not. You have a totally different worldview. This is not going to work out at all."

Darren Isom (05:04):

I do want to go back to, though, this concept of just the cooking and the eating, because I think it speaks to so many things in life. And one of the things that have been just a true joy for me, during these COVID decades, I don't know what we're doing now, is I love cooking. But more importantly, I love just the slow process of slow-cooking. There's so few things in life you can do and complete in three, four hours. Right?

Darren Isom (05:24):

But I think that, going back to the point that you made, so much of, we use this term a lot in consulting so hopefully won't trigger you at all, but so much of the product is the process, right? And the enjoyment that I get out of the meal, sometimes it all happens before the meal is even served, particularly as the cook.

Darren Isom (05:39):

So I would love maybe just for you to reflect on that process and just your family time and sitting there. I definitely have some fond memories sitting at a table waiting for my grandmother to finish cooking. But what were the lessons that you learned in that space and in that time?

Nate Wong (05:52):

Yeah, I think they've somewhat evolved. I don't think I appreciated, as a kid, the intentionality of picking out the ingredients. And so now, especially in the pandemic, being intentional of what inspires me. Is it a grocery store? Is it a food memory? There's so much packed into just harking back to memories as a kid.

Nate Wong (06:20):

And so, I think the first aspect is what inspires us. Many times, I'm not even sure if I fully understand or know. Is it external? Is it internal? What is the invitation there? So just sitting with that is, I think, part of the process.

Nate Wong (06:38):

And then I think it's what someone would call mise en place, actually putting all the ingredients out, having a methodology. I think of it almost as an orchestra, right? You're gathering all of the different parts. And then the beauty, in my mind, comes when you start to combine the different ingredients. I'm a cook. I am not a baker. So I do not care about the chemistry of it. I like to ad lib a lot, which, to your point, usually means I'm tasting as I go. So I'm probably not the most hungry after we finish.

Darren Isom (07:20):

One hundred percent. I'm so full. I've tasted that sauce a thousand times. No, enjoy it please.

Nate Wong (07:28):

Hundred percent. And then, I actually love the concept of plating and then the community afterwards. And so, even though I may cook just for two, I almost always have the mentality as if I'm cooking for like six people. So there's usually lots of leftover.

Nate Wong (07:47):

But the plating I think is kind of an art form in itself. How do you actually ... And I think there's a parallel to life, of the translation of how you want someone to consume it and the perception before they even take the first bite. Is it pleasant to look at? Is it something that's inviting? Is it intriguing?

Nate Wong (08:09):

I love, and maybe I get annoyed when people don't comment on my food. And I definitely was on the receiving end from my mom and family for that. But yeah, you want to hear, "That was great." All of the slow process that it took was worth something.

Darren Isom (08:29):

It's a labor of love. It's a love language, right?

Nate Wong (08:31):

Hundred percent.

Darren Isom (08:32):

So you want that to be appreciated, yeah. I have two places I want to go with that. First and foremost, I think that one of the things that inspires me from a cooking perspective, and particularly this is at the beginning of the pandemic, there's an absolutely wonderful video of a real life journalist interviewing Aretha Franklin and asking her what things does she worry about, her worries. And she looks over, just very straightforwardly, and it's like, "Hmm, good question. My worries. Every day, just what to cook for dinner." A total, one hundred percent Aretha Franklin move. That's the only thing that she's worried about.

Darren Isom (09:11):

But there is something to be said about, for me, I felt like I would sit in the morning and be like, "How are the elders informing my dinner's preparation?" And it's because in many ways cooking was, you were honoring the elders, right? From a dish perspective, from a perspective of what things they appreciated, what things you love, what things you want to honor from a memory perspective.

Darren Isom (09:29):

And I want to take that sense of cooking as a way of honoring those that you do. And then pick up on the piece that you said around this idea of how you show up in the placing, and being important as well. And I would love to get a sense of, as you think about your career, how you're showing up in your career and have shown up, how is that, in some ways, a way of your honoring both your parents and your heritage and your background?

Nate Wong (09:52):

Well, I think what's interesting is that my background, it may be important to chat briefly about, because I think it does inform how I show up.

Darren Isom (10:03):

Briefly or at length, whatever you like.

Nate Wong (10:07):

So, I'm Chinese ethnically, but my dad grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. His grandparents immigrated to Hawaii to pick pineapples. And then my mom grew up in Fiji. So, British colony. And what's interesting about some of the different and similar island cultures is that there's a real emphasis on not melding everything together. There's honoring the different parts. And so, it's a difference between a melting pot versus actually being able to see every ingredient and honoring them in concert with others, not trying to blend them, necessarily.

Nate Wong (10:49):

So I add that because it's an interesting through line to both honor the part and then understand, how did these parts add up? And I honestly have been in constant tension with those two aspects. And early on, a lot of how I showed up was from a more assimilation point of view, as an immigrant who didn't even fit the classical stereotype, if you will, as Chinese. I had so many other influences. So I felt like I had to conform to a certain view of leadership.

Nate Wong (11:26):

And then also feeling like I had to also translate cultural heritage and different pieces of my story for my parents. So, honoring a lot of Chinese values of respect and honor, along with more island values of hospitality and freeness and less order, if you will.

Nate Wong (11:52):

And so, to be honest, a lot of it has been a journey in understanding how to show up and understanding how ... Frankly, being burned, if you will, to use the kitchen analogy, when people wouldn't know how to put me into a box.

Nate Wong (12:10):

And so I started to put and create those boxes so that people could easily identify myself, like the classic question that many people like me get are, "Where are you from?" And what exactly does that mean? I'm from DC. I grew up in DC. But really what they're asking is, "What makes your face look that way? What cultural aspect?"

Nate Wong (12:38):

And so, depending on how much I want to honor and really pay tribute to that heritage, I will walk people through that. Or I may just say, "Look, I'm Chinese." Which is equally true, but it lacks some of the dimension to it.

Darren Isom (12:57):

Well, it lacks the fuller story, right? And there is a fuller story and a fuller narrative. And I think that where are you from is literally a person's attempt to box you. They're trying to get a sense of what narrative they can attribute to you. And as you made perfectly clear, when you talk about your story, it's been about creating that narrative that you live into, that's your own.

Darren Isom (13:15):

And I would love to just have you share a little bit, as you think about creating that narrative, which is still being written to some degree, what are the things that you feel are most important for you to call out, in shaping that narrative? And then what are the things that, to throw out Kenji Yoshino in Covering, but there are also other things that you talk less about because they're less important to you, as you think about that narrative and who you are?

Nate Wong (13:36):

Yeah. For me, I'm actually acutely aware of who am I gifting my narrative to, because I think it's really important. Depending on who the audience is, it's a gift for them to know different parts of me. And it's not that I'm hiding or covering certain parts. Some of that may be true depending on the audience, but it's also like, what is the point of connection for us and what is the point of asset or value?

Nate Wong (14:05):

For me, some of that moving in-between many different worlds, I feel like I'm able to hold space spaciously, if that makes sense. So, to honor a lot of different values. Because I think I've had to do that with my own family, but also in how I've navigated and honored myself.

Nate Wong (14:30):

Oftentimes in racial equity spaces, I feel like I can play a translator role and very much live into that, as something that is part of who I am. I think that for me, I'm also more of a provocateur. It's taken me a while, but I have learned to embrace being the different one, the odd one out.

Nate Wong (14:56):

At first, there was a lot of angst around that type of role, also navigating my sexuality, all of these other pieces. And now that's something that I actually take a lot of pride in, and I don't mind being different. I don't mind owning being provocative, when it's used for a purpose.

Darren Isom (15:17):

I want to honor the fact that this idea of your narrative, your story being a gift, is one that I will hold on to. That's beautiful. And how do you think about gifting that to others in conversation or just in relationships?

Darren Isom (15:27):

And I do want to build on that point just a little, because I think that this also speaks to ... Just being able to honor your difference as a gift also in many ways makes you honor other people's differences as their gifts, as well.3

Darren Isom (15:39):

And I think very often, you talked about this role as a translator, being a really good translator actually means you have to be a really good listener, to listen quite generously and graciously and lovingly to what the person is saying and actually appreciate that difference, in order to translate it properly. And I would love to just hear you talk a little bit more about this role as a translator and how that's shown up in your life, professionally and otherwise, and what does that look like, to do it well?

Nate Wong (16:05):

Yeah. I think growing up, some of it was literally translating culturally between my parents. My grandparents actually died before I was born, or when I was at an early age. So I didn't necessarily have the opportunity to fully engage with them. But understanding the different cultural elements that underpinned how my parents grew up in the world, and I would say very much in a survivalist mentality, to the world that I was living in, which was actually very different. So being able to play that translator role I think was one.

Nate Wong (16:45):

I also grew up right outside of DC and so very much had a lot of different perspectives inform my own. My best friend is Nigerian and another really good friend was from Iran. I mean, I had a lot of other cultural perspectives that came into play that always made me curious.

Nate Wong (17:13):

I think part of that translator spaciousness role is, for me, like a curiosity and then not jumping to assumptions, because there were so many assumptions that were broken around me. I couldn't actually easily put people into boxes. So I think that, early on, has informed things.

Nate Wong (17:35):

From a career standpoint, I've also seen it very much happen across different sectors, where the private sector has a completely different language and culture, if you will, in operating than the public sector or social sector. And so, having an early career in management consulting and almost being groomed into a very particular worldview of how to operate, the importance of order, efficiency, productivity, showing up, almost like your external side mattering a lot more, if not the only thing that mattered, than the internal.

Nate Wong (18:16):

And then also being in worlds where, especially at home and other places, where they didn't know anything about ... My parents thought I did accounting for a decade, because I worked at Deloitte, even though I was doing consulting. So I think there was a-

Darren Isom (18:34):

Yeah, consulting is a tough sell. Consulting is a tough sell to parents.

Nate Wong (18:37):

Yes, very much so. So I think bridging just language and cultural elements. And for me, the translation really comes with questions. What's the question that kind of unearths either a point of connection or unearths an assumption that we didn't fully call out, that then creates more dialogue? And so, for me, it's always going to deeper layers.

Darren Isom (19:06):

That's wonderful. And I want to build on that point as well, and I'll throw out a life example for me. And I joke all the time, growing up in New Orleans, I may have the unique experience. Very often when you speak with people of color, they can share the first time that they realized that they were whatever grouping that they were. And for me, I grew up in a Black home, a Black city. My story is, I remember the first time that I realized that everybody wasn't Black. That was, "Wait, there are people that aren't Black?"

Darren Isom (19:33):

And I joke all the time that, you live in New Orleans, so you saw white people on TV, but there were a lot of things on TV that didn't exist in reality. Santa was white on TV. People were eating tuna casserole. What was that? So I thought white people were one of those things, as well.

Darren Isom (19:47):

And I do think that, going back to your point of being curious and being able to question, there is also an underlying, this also goes back to your provocateur, there's an underlying questioning of the world order. It's not necessarily being the right one, right? There's a general hopeful cynicism that makes you ... You see things as they are, but that doesn't necessarily mean that that's how they have to be, right?

Darren Isom (20:12):

And so I would love to hear more about, as you think about, you talk about those assumptions that you call out, to your question, what have been some assumptions that we operate under that you have found completely invalid and useless? Or things where you're constantly being like, "We really think that's the truth? Yeah, obviously not. Let's talk about that a little bit more." So, unpacking some of the assumptions that you like to disrupt or you find completely invalid and unhelpful.

Nate Wong (20:37):

Oh my gosh. Do we only have-

Darren Isom (20:39):

So many. I know, right?

Nate Wong (20:40):

30 minutes?

Darren Isom (20:42):

I know. I know. Pick a few, Nate. Pick a few. Because America's a whole mess of bad assumptions.

Nate Wong (20:50):

Yes. You know what's interesting, if I can take one step back. I have learned over time to actually trust what my body is telling me. And so I think, especially in a more polarized world that we live in now, it's very easy to put things in polarities, right? Is it right or wrong or black or white?

Nate Wong (21:15):

I think that's never sat well with me. And so, even in simple ways, I feel like I've had to learn to trust my body of, if I'm feeling uncomfortable, that actually is okay. It's not a, "Okay, just move past that emotion to get to an answer." And so, it's almost an invitation for others to hold the tension. There's something beautiful about holding those tensions, because I think it allows us to actually confront assumptions without dismantling all of our sense of what's right or wrong.

Nate Wong (21:55):

A few ones that come to mind are market forces, right? "The market will just tell us what to do or will guide us." We're told about a lot of these different outside forces around us.

Darren Isom (22:09):

Folks can't see my eyes opening wide and my eyebrows raising. Yes. Market forces. Oh, those market forces. It's like the other god.

Nate Wong (22:17):

Exactly, exactly. And I think those, over time, I think have been real assumptions that I think we all have to confront, even in the social sector. We can't talk about philanthropy without talking about the systems of capitalism. We can't talk about capitalism without talking about redlining and policy.

Nate Wong (22:42):

And so, it's interesting to see the siloing based on people's assumptions of market forces will work to correct X, Y, Z, when really the systems were designed for a reason. They're working exactly the way they were designed. And if we want a different outcome, we're either delusional to not correct it, or we actually need to invest in that.

Nate Wong (23:09):

I think honestly, as an Asian, I've had to really confront the myth of the model minority, this assumption that we will get there because of our work will show, or this sense of meritocracy. And I think that meritocracy only makes sense when you're benefiting from the system. When you're not, it's not a meritocracy. And I think most of us can agree and can point to numerous examples where it's not a meritocracy.

Darren Isom (23:40):

Or when the term meritocracy is used as a blatant facade for white supremacy.

Nate Wong (23:44):

A hundred percent. A hundred percent. And so I think those are two. And then maybe the third, which we can unpack more, is that there's a singular view of leadership. I do a lot of leadership coaching, and in some ways it's my own external therapy, too. And seeing other people who I would call the first, the few, the only, but many of them are BIPOC leaders.

Nate Wong (24:13):

And so much of our upbringing and models of leadership are conforming to a very white-centered view of what leadership looks like. That you have to be super charismatic, that you have to lead in a more aggressive manner, especially for men. That it is a zero sum game. That it's kind of a checklist of how aggressive you can be in certain areas.

Nate Wong (24:45):

And it's not true. There's many different forms of leadership. And especially if we look at other non-US centered versions of leadership, it shows up in very different ways. And even within the US context. So those are ones that I feel like I work pretty hard to confront, and that's probably when my provocateur side comes up the most.

Darren Isom (25:12):

Can you talk a little bit more ... I want to do, so perfect segue, thank you, to your work in coaching other leaders. And I would love to hear more about, you expressed this idea of it being something that offers some sense of the importance of healing, the importance of inner work from a success perspective, from a sense of honoring who you are and your stories and all that you bring to the table.

Darren Isom (25:33):

I would love to hear more about that coaching work from a healing perspective, but I would also love to hear more about, as do this work with others and learn from others, what are the assets that they're bringing to the table that they often hide, or are often underappreciated in carrying out the work and leading?

Nate Wong (25:50):

Yeah. I think what the sad reality is, especially for BIPOC leaders is that we have ... I mean, I think all leaders, but especially BIPOC leaders have these inner voices and saboteurs that have believed these delusions. And it's not surprising. The system of white supremacy is like the air that we breathe, so how could you not even think about that?

Nate Wong (26:24):

And so, things like people have to work two or three times, five times harder than their white counterparts. Which I think is actually some of the reality, but we don't name why. And so it's actually really interesting. So much of it is unlearning. And I think that's where healing can come, when you stop trying to conform and just own, "This is my authentic self, and this is how I want to show up. This is the game that I thought I needed to learn how to play, but this is the game that I actually want to play."

Nate Wong (27:00):

And I walked through this with a leader this past week, and she was talking a lot about essentially trying to do some strategery. It was like a chess game with a white colleague who she felt was basically stopping her from doing a lot of the intentional inclusion work that was part of her job.

Nate Wong (27:25):

And we paused, and I asked her to identify, "What game is he playing? And what game are you playing?" And essentially it was like, "Actually, I don't need to stoop to his level to do this strategery. And that is a lot of extra head space for me, to think about counter moves and other moves." Especially for people of color. And I don't want to make huge generalizations, but I think there's more of a collective mentality for many of us, either culturally or because of legacy of persecution. You do find kindred ... You have to survive in community, so there is a different mentality than a pure zero sum game.

Nate Wong (28:13):

And so if you confront, almost, the system that you're actually operating in and start to identify, "How am I showing up? And am I showing up authentically?" I think there's real power and healing that comes from it, but like anything that you have to disrupt and unlearn, those are deep grooves that we have to course correct. And to me, the power of coaching is confronting those. How do we start to build new grooves and start to channel energy in the water, if you will, to pathways that are more efficient and healthier for us as individuals?

Darren Isom (28:54):

And I think it's interesting, though, this point that it's definitely a question of unlearning. It's definitely a question of all these things from a healing perspective. What makes it even more tricky is that, in many ways, those things that we have to unlearn are things that we think of very often is being the reasons why we're successful, right? So we almost have to unarm ourselves with the on only arm that we have, right?

Darren Isom (29:13):

And so, there's a whole level of fragility and vulnerability that comes with that, because you basically have to be able to adopt new practices that you don't know. And so I think that's a really interesting point.

Darren Isom (29:23):

This also reminds me, I joke all the time as, I went off to college, my uncle gave me, I may have shared this before, this very helpful advice, as a reminder, as I went out into that great white world, that I would never beat white people at being white.

Nate Wong (29:35):

That's true.

Darren Isom (29:35):

You're not going to win their game, right? They're going to be better at being white than you could ever be. You can beat them at being Black. And so basically, how do you redefine that game in a way that allows you to leverage your assets and allows you to leverage your community and those things that are important to you, in that sense?

Darren Isom (29:53):

I do just want to make a little bit of space, because you mentioned this idea of understanding the connections from a philanthropy perspective, from a broken systems perspective, from a capitalism perspective. And I just have to give you some space to talk a little bit about this idea of just reimagining capitalism in a way that's equity focused. And it's a bit of a jump, but for me they're related because I think that there's something to be said about reimagining the world and the innovation that comes with that, but also this ability to question what's the norm and see it differently. So I would love to just give you some ... If you have any thoughts, any advice, please help.

Nate Wong (30:26):

Well, I can also point you to some amazing authors who've spoken a lot to this. But I actually want to build on some of the asset pieces that we were talking about, because I think it actually directly speaks to the system that we're operating in.

Nate Wong (30:42):

One aspect that I'm continually thinking about is something like creativity. And I use that as an example because it's really hard to quantify. It's hard to quantify the output. It's sometimes hard to quantify the input of it, in certain spaces. And I think what's rich for many BIPOC leaders is that they do bring different assets, if they viewed it as an asset and if other people viewed it as an asset.

Nate Wong (31:16):

I look at something like this medium that we're doing now, a podcast. Right? Storytelling is such a rich tool. And for many people, it comes from rich traditions and families where stories were the medium for connection. We think even about these traditions of the Bible. And we think about them as written words, but they weren't. They actually were stories that were passed down, that were really honored generation after generation.

Nate Wong (31:48):

And for me, there's something powerful about exploring other mediums, and it speaks to this notion of how do we value things. And capitalism has distilled everything of value to a dollar amount, or a currency for it, and against a certain timeline and timeframe. I think as we look into this notion of ESG and how do we measure environment, social governance, all of these things, I'm a really big proponent of some of that work, but at the same time, some of the stuff isn't always quantifiable. And does that make it wrong, if we can't quantify it? And I think the answer is no.

Nate Wong (32:30):

And so if we can hold that space, how much more powerful would some of these notions of capitalism be, if they didn't force us to distill every single aspect of our time, our resources, to these singular metrics? So that's from a really philosophical standpoint.

Nate Wong (32:55):

I also think the thing about capitalism that's a little bit tricky for me is, we don't often times think about what are the healthy bounds for any type of system. We don't think about the philosophical elements of power corrupts people. And so, is it really that we want everyone to be Jeff Bezos? I don't think so. I hope not.

Nate Wong (33:22):

For me, I've been really thinking about this notion of what is enough, enough being both as a cap and as a floor, if you will. There's a healthy amount of things and wellbeing that we need that is enough. And we also, there's a certain cap to that. Do we need a bajillion dollars, every single one of us? No. And I don't think we ask ourselves that question. We use market as a determination of our value.

Nate Wong (33:56):

I think salary and recruiting is a perfect example. How much would you want to make Darren, for your next job? It's usually a question that people ask. And in some ways, the question that I'm asking is, what truly is enough, if I really were to think about it?

Nate Wong (34:14):

And it has no bearing on my actual intrinsic value as a human. Making $400,000 or $25,000 should not dictate my value as a human, but how much of us actually believe that? To your point before, it's human fragility around some of those notions. And that I think is the problem with some of this capitalistic culture. We've reduced everything to these quantifiable metrics, versus actually asking ourselves, "What is our value?"

Darren Isom (34:53):

No, and I think that there's just ... I mean, powerfully said, thank you. But at the same time as well, as you think about this reduction of everything to a dollar amount, when you reduce wealth to a dollar amount, how much wealth are you actually losing, and not paying attention to, and not appreciating and not elevating and not valuing? And who are the people who are quite wealthy in other ways that just aren't respected or appreciated, that you're leaving out of the narrative? Things that are necessary. Those things are critical, right? That you just aren't valuing and then corrupting-

Nate Wong (35:22):

And who determines that value? Right.

Darren Isom (35:25):

Who determines that value. Right.

Nate Wong (35:27):

Yeah. Why can't grant makers and funders be just as fine giving money for food. I think food in communities, if you want people to show up to do a survey, have food.

Darren Isom (35:40):

Pretty straightforward. No, totally, totally.

Nate Wong (35:42):

But then all of the money is like, "Oh no, we want survey tactics. We want these very quantifiable measures." Which are also important, but also food is kind of the center point for different communities. So, just provide that.

Darren Isom (36:01):

I'm down with that. Well, I do want us to finish up the conversation. I would love to close it out, one of the questions I've been asking folks is, I had a wise mentor, and I joke that by wise mentor I mean a wonderful therapist, many years ago, who shared that sometimes hope comes from experience. And as you think of the world that we're in now, I would love to hear some words of hope that you have for us and what experience gives you that hope.

Nate Wong (36:26):

Such a good question. I am actually hopeful for the next generation. I know that sounds cliche. I taught a class-

Darren Isom (36:36):

No, not at all. I think it's incredibly optimistic to be thinking about the next generation already, so that sounds-

Nate Wong (36:41):

Yeah. We've screwed it up ourselves, so we need the future generation to help us. But I teach a class called Building a Social Impact Consciousness at Georgetown University. And I'm just so struck by the power of teaching to dismantle some of the things that we're talking about. And how do you use the classroom as a true laboratory to experiment with power and identity and how you show up and how you have tough conversations.

Nate Wong (37:17):

And I'll give one vignette. We were doing a module around power, more so power and how it has influenced philanthropy and all these different sectors. And the class, I've instituted feedback loops after every module. And so students will get up and share, here are some things that I'd like to change. And one of them said, "You know, I really wish we had more conversation with each other. It's usually the traditional classroom format of you, Nate, as a professor speaking, we react as students. But I actually am really interested in hearing the perspectives of my other classmates."

Nate Wong (38:02):

And this class was majority BIPOC, actually. And we changed the classroom setting. We literally got up, changed the chairs so it was a diamond instead of everyone facing front. And it was so simple, but so powerful. And even being able to ask that question was huge. And I think it really changed the dynamic, A, that someone would be able to ask that question boldly, that there was space to hear it, that there was immediate change. And I think it built trust between me and students.

Nate Wong (38:37):

And so, I'm just very hopeful for students that are able to ask these tough questions, that are able to actually do the tough interrogative introspective work. That, to me, has to come before you do the external. I don't really care about your intent. I care actually about how you're actually thinking about yourself situated in the action that you want to do. So it actually leads to better outcomes, not just good intent.

Darren Isom (39:09):

It's a wonderful closing. And one hundred percent, the kids are all right. And I'm reminded all the time that, I was joking with a friend, sad joke, that five years ago, our advice to young queer youth was, it gets better. We literally told them just wait. And they realized that it gets better right now because of things that we do right now. Right? So there's something to be said about the next generation. And their tenacity hopefully will save us all.

Darren Isom (39:32):

Thank you for your time, Nate. This has been wonderful. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I do. And I'll to talk with you again soon.

Nate Wong (39:37):

Thanks so much, Darren. I feel like I need something to eat now.

Darren Isom (39:40):

I know, right? I'm starving.

Nate Wong (39:43):

Thanks so much.

Darren Isom (39:44):

Of course.

Darren Isom (39:46):

Both my grandmothers were truly skilled in the kitchen, but I credit my grandma Lucinda for teaching me how to cook. My mother, her daughter, was the second youngest of six children and the only girl. My grandmother being a bit of a feminist, did everything in her power to protect my mother from housework.

Darren Isom (40:01):

Her entire life, my mother was spared the task of cooking and cleaning, and instead encouraged to study, to read more, to focus on the books. So much so that as my grandmother lay on her deathbed, when I was in middle school, my mother held her hand and joked, as New Orleanians joke at death's door, "But she can't die yet, Mama, you haven't taught me how to cook."

Darren Isom (40:18):

My grandmother looked up, held my mother's hand tightly and responded, "Well then, sounds like I've succeeded as a mother." For all she ever wanted was to raise a daughter who didn't know how to cook, a daughter for whom the kitchen offered no sense of comfort or belonging.

Darren Isom (40:31):

But for me, her gay grandson, my grandmother's kitchen offered a place of refuge my mother was denied. I would sit and do my homework at the kitchen table as my grandma Cindy would stir the pots and cut the seasoning, all as she hummed deep and off-key some song that was familiar to her, but unknown to me.

Darren Isom (40:48):

She called me over to explain what went in when, how much, and why. And most importantly, how to fix things when they didn't go as planned. For being a good cook was as much about knowing the right way as it was about knowing the way back to right when things went astray, as they often did.

Darren Isom (41:03):

I remember the stories she told as we waited for pots to boil, ovens to bake, and dishes to simmer, some happy, some sad, but all punctuated with humor and offering lessons for a world I'd yet to enter, a world so different from her own, but one they were all preparing me to master. My grandmother died over 30 years ago, but I remember those cooking lessons like they were just yesterday, important and irreplaceable lessons in leadership.

Darren Isom (41:35):

Y'all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan supported, StudioPod Media production. A special shout-out to our show producer, the wonderful Theresa Buchanan, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge thank you to my ever brilliant Bridgespan production team and family, Cora Daniels, Michael Borger, Christina Pistorius, and Britt Savage. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.

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