I was interviewed for a course on ethical leadership a couple of months ago. One of the questions was what drives my value system and priorities at work. I suppose I had not thought of this before, but it was during that interview that I realized providing equal access to opportunities, inclusion, and appreciating diversity are very important values of mine. As I was asked additional questions about why these were so important to me, I realized it was my experiences feeling marginalized while growing up, in college, and and even at work when I did not fit in the norms that really drive me to ensure those around me have the opportunities to be included and differences are valued.
Being different was not necessarily a good experience growing up for me. Not when other children made fun of how I dressed and how I spoke as a new immigrant from the Philippines. Classmates in 6th grade, my first year in the United States, used to make fun of my “Fresh off the boat” (FOB) accent. These teasing led me to to missing school when it was time for me to make oral presentations. Public speaking apparently is scary enough for most people but because of how I was teased during this time, I must have developed a strong fear of public speaking because I did not want to be made fun of.
Some of the teasing continued in junior high school. Actually, there was one student who bullied me after school while I waited for my bus to go home. There were a few times when he would take my backpack and would not return it until the next day. I often had to lie to my parents and tell them I had forgotten my backpack in my locker. There was another time when a half Filipino/half White student openly mocked me at the playground with his friends by yelling Chinese words like “ching chong” and other things at me. There was a time when we had a Spelling Bee at school when parents in the audience seemed to mock how I spoke and how I pronounced the words I had to spell. I really felt bad for my mom who was in attendance because those in the room watching were openly rooting for other kids and against me. I am sure my mom’s feelings were hurt but she tried to hide it from me. One of the things I resented was that because I was placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) class, I must have been classified as an idiot and so I was not placed in the higher level math classes. There was one time when the school held a team trivia type competition, students in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program vs some of the teachers. I always loved trivia even as a very young kid and so I wanted to compete. I wasn’t in GATE program but I asked one of my teachers if she could talk the GATE teacher to include me. I had to tolerate the other GATE students as they seemed to try to exclude me when we were preparing for the competition.
High school was not a bad experience for me. Although I went to a school where the majority of the students were Mexican Americans and there were only a few Filipinos, I never felt out of place. My closest friends were Mexican-Americans and race was not an issue at all. I thrived academically and I enjoyed being part of the golf team.
It was when I attended UCSB as a freshman in 1991 when race, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds became issues as a minority in a school of mostly white students. My roommate and I could not have been more different. I came from a working class family with my father working three jobs to support our family. I worked at least 15-2o hours a week for my allowance during high school. My roommate came from a wealthy family. I still remember how he discussed real estate deals for the commercial properties they owned in Orange County on my phone. Although I was in a residence hall for students interested in Economics, I did not have much common interest with my hall mates. I started to socialize with other Filipino-American students and ultimately, they became my strong support system throughout college. However, even within this social circle, I still felt initially out of place. This feeling, I think was more of a result of my own thinking. Part of me could not relate to my friends’ experiences. I was eleven when my family and I immigrated to the United States, a 1.5 generation Filipino-American. I was bi-cultural though I felt stronger association with the Filipino culture, as opposed to the American culture. Most of my friends were born in the U.S. and so I had a different view when it comes to the Filipino culture and politics. I remember getting into a little bit of a spat with a friend of mine, a Filipino student who mocked how the older Filipinos residents of a local community we played basketball spoke. I took strong offense to it personally but I don’t think many of my friends felt as strongly as I did.
While most of my colleagues outside my IT organization see me as very technical, there was a time early on in my career when my approach to how I developed was ridiculed because it did not meet what I suppose the “best practice” or generally accepted approach would be. I was self-taught when it came to learning web development and I had no mentor at that time so whatever I knew, it was not from formal education. There was a sense of elitism that I detested when alternative approaches other than “best practices” were ridiculed. It’s for this reason that to this day, I have this heightened response and quick-to-defend reaction anytime I hear anyone dismissing other people’s work because it “wasn’t done how it’s supposed to be done.” There have been times in my career when I’ve had to question as to why others act the way they do with me. I would like to think I’m as capable and qualified as the next person but how much of my appearance drives how I am perceived, including this one incident I consider a defining moment in my career.
I personally don’t like myself or others marginalized or excluded because of appearance, backgrounds, and because we don’t necessarily conform to the “norms” dictated by those in position of power. Maybe I can be idealistic at times, and I do try to temper my reactions. However, my negative experiences have led me to value differences and promote equal access to opportunities. As someone in a leadership position, I have the moral and ethical responsibility to ensure those around me are treated with dignity and respect and that they are afforded equal opportunity to succeed, not in spite of their differences but because of the uniqueness they bring to our organization.