Social Transformation in the Urban Context (a.k.a. PANAAWTM 2016) By Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Social Transformation in the Urban Context (a.k.a. PANAAWTM 2016) By Grace Yia-Hei Kao
In a few days I’ll be heading to Chicago to attend another conference—PANAAWTM to be exact. PANAAAWTM stands for “Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry.”  As I’ve explained in a previous blog, PANAAWTM’s deepest roots can be traced back to two groups of women: 1) Asian American women in theology and ministry in the West Coast who, with the help of Bishop Roy I. Sano, had begun meeting together in the late 1970s for mutual support and encouragement, (2) women on the East Coast who had come predominantly from Asia for graduate school in theology or to work in ministry who, through the assistance of trailblazing feminist theologian Letty Russell, also began to come together in 1984 to “explore common interests and the possibility of forming a network.” Though I have only begun to attend PANAAWTM for the past five years, it has now become a part of my regular conference circuit. It’s frankly so different from the other annual conferences I attend. How so? First, consider its more intimate size. In the past several years that I’ve attended, I’ve spent a long weekend in March with approximately just 50-70 other participants – a far cry from the hundreds that regularly turn up to the Society of Christian Ethics in January or the thousands that show up in droves for the American Academy of Religion in November (the two other guilds to which I belong and in which I actively participate). The small conference size facilitates the ability for us attendees to get to know one another in light of the more relaxed, “family feel,” atmosphere. Second, consider its “niche” target audience—women academicians in theology and related fields (e.g., Bible, ethics) and women in ministry (whether ordained or lay) who are of Asian heritage. The all-women—and all Asian—constituency is really quite unique for conferences and unparalleled in my personal life that going to PANAAWTM has consistently felt to me like moments out of time. And to be clear, these are no ordinary women — the women who attend are bona-fide, groundbreaking leaders in their fields of study or other areas of influence. These are women who are or have been “the firsts,” who are continuing to upend the status quo in accordance with feminist values, and who will not be content with any secondary class treatment or any attempt at marginalization they receive in whatever segment of society (viz., family, church, academy, nonprofit sector, business world). Third, consider its unusual format when judged from the standards of either an academic conference or a more standard, church-style retreat. PANAAWTM meetings in my judgment have always blended really creative and beautiful opening and closing rituals, sessions devoted to formal presentations (on research or community activism), informal sessions dedicated to personal or professional development, and then special fun times of celebration that usually involve a gift exchange, an auction, and either singing or dancing or some other form of merrymaking. PANAAWTM for me is the space in which I both serve – and am served – by others. It’s where I can build more personal relationships with my colleagues  and also learn from the example of our senior scholars of their tireless service and dedication to PANAAWTM (e.g., in the ways in which they keep PANAAWTM running even with our modest budget as they fundraise and contribute honoraria they receive from speaking engagements to provide scholarships for students to attend). It’s also where I can do my part in helping to equip and train the next generation by leading workshops (n.b., past topics of mine include public speaking, work/life balance, publishing) or serving on panels in various capacities (presider, presenter, respondent). This year’s conference theme...
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A Prayer for our Troubled Times

A Prayer for our Troubled Times
A few days ago, I received a private message from an old friend who’s now living and working in Taiwan. We hadn’t corresponded in years, but he had heard about the recent shootings in San Bernardino and wanted to check-in after realizing that this was second set of mass shootings that I’d experienced so close to home (i.e., I live in a city just west of San Bernardino County and was faculty at Virginia Tech in 2007 during what became known as the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in U.S history). As anyone keeping up with current events in the U.S. well knows, the news has been terrible of late. While liturgically speaking for me as a Christian, the season of Advent should inspire hope, it can be easy to grow despondent upon hearing about the latest act of global or domestic terrorism, the latest heartrending story of desperate refugees, the latest victim of U.S. police brutality, the latest occasion for heightened racial tensions on a college campus, or the latest sound bite of hatemongering by a politician or so-called “Christian” leader hoping to capitalize on the rising fears of an increasingly anxious American voting public. In such times, I find that I am at a loss of words. I feel like I can offer no critique of xenophobia (be it directed at Syrian refugees or at Muslims in general), no argument for greater gun control, or no commendation of nonviolent peacemaking initiatives over the recourse to violence to resolve conflict that has not already been offered by others. Though I’m much more a woman of action than of silent contemplation, it’s strangely times like these that I find myself turning to the wise and thoughtful prayers of others for guidance on how to articulate my own thoughts. So I’ve turned once again to one of my favorite collection of prayers, Prayers for the New Social Awakening: Inspired by the New Social Creed (2008) as edited by Christian Iosso and Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. The book commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1908 Social Creed by featuring prayers with social justice themes from well-known Christian leaders. The following prayer by a fellow Presbyterian layperson and director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Rick Ufford-Chase, really resonated with me and I’ve reproduced (the majority of) it below. For Those Torn Apart by Violence O God, we confess that we are a fearful people. Each day we grow more afraid of those who are different rather than becoming more open to embracing that difference as the mysterious and marvelous gift you intend it to be. We assume the worst intentions in those whom we meet, and all too often we act in ways that fan further the flames of mistrust, causing the culture of fear to grow greater each day. …. We weep with you, O God, for countless families that have been torn apart by violence and war…. We confess our complicity in the vicious spiral of violence that grows steeper with each passing day…. We take what we want at the point of a gun or a missile. We misread the resistance to our tyranny by sisters and brothers around the world as an irrational hate that must be met by force. We turn to simple, foolish answers of violence as we feel more and more afraid. We are seduced by the ways in which we ourselves profit from our involvement in the vast military-industrial complex that drives us deeper and deeper into war. We confess, O God, that we are numbed by our media’s unrelenting reports of irrational acts of terror. Even as we are repulsed, something inside of us continues to be drawn inexplicably toward the commodification of suffering. As...
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Finding My Voice

Finding My Voice
In my work with doctoral students, I’ve noticed that what often sets apart “good” graduate students from “good” junior scholars is the ability for the latter to say something important and distinctive. That is, while it may be sufficient during coursework and qualifying exams to master the canon of whatever counts as good scholarship in one’s field, success beyond graduate school will require academic hopefuls to make a bona-fide scholarly contribution to her field of study. For this reason, I am frequently asked by the graduate students I mentor, particularly those who are women, about the process by which I came to find–or claim–my scholarly voice. What follows bellow is a version of a talk I gave at the annual conference of the Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) in 2014 on this very question. The year was 2001. As an ABD, I was delivering a paper at my first academic conference (one for theology graduate students). There were four of us presenters, one from each of the schools represented in the Northeast (Harvard, Boston College, Yale, Brown). Naturally I was equal parts honored and nervous about making my debut. I remember stumbling over a few phrases, but being pleased overall with my performance. The Q&A that followed also generally went well. As it turned out, however, I had mentally prepared for nearly every question save one, which in hindsight had been the most important. In a nutshell, it was this—what say you? A senior white male faculty had noticed that I had let other thinkers do the talking for me. He observed that my paper had mostly been about advancing a theoretical paradigm of a particular scholar for a certain purpose and that I had responded to questions mostly by referencing what this same scholar or others would say. But that gentle soul kindly pressed to hear my authentic voice: he told me that those 50 or so assembled there were eager to hear me and that someday if he or others were to buy my books(!), it wouldn’t be because I had mastered the literature on any given topic, but because I had something unique to say about it. That exchange is one of my earliest and clearest memories of being invited to find and claim my own scholarly voice. Post-conference, I wish I could tell you that I experienced a Saul-to-Paul conversion and no longer deferred to the views of others. The truth is that the process of emerging as a scholar in my own right took longer than that. As I see it, I only started to grow comfortably into that new role in my second or third year as an Assistant Professor. Though certainty about our own motives ultimately remains inscrutable even to ourselves, my best guess of what initially kept me from speaking in my own voice was a fear of being wrong. I had always done well in school and had long grown accustomed to a conception of myself as a good student. And while I continued in grad school to succeed in absorbing and critically interrogating difficult material, the prospect of offering something constructive, something to take the place of what I had in whole or in part undermined, was much more daunting. Who was I to stake my claim on a weighty theological or philosophical question, particularly when some of the brightest thinkers throughout history had yet to resolve or reach a consensus on the matter? What I now interpret as enabling me to overcome this fear of being wrong was a combination of several factors: (1) a few “wins” or occasions where I took a decisive stand...
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Does the Term “Women of Color” Bother You?

Does the Term “Women of Color” Bother You?
I recently came back from a weeklong camping retreat for Christian faculty and their families in beautiful Catalina (an island an hour’s boat ride away from the Southern Californian mainland). This year’s conference theme was “Power Revealed: Gifts, Dangers, and Possibilities.” Not surprisingly, the topics of race, race relations, and institutional racism came-up repeatedly in sessions and informal conversations. As they had last year, the conference organizers again provided an optional time/space for faculty women of color to gather together for a luncheon. Last year’s meeting (which I also attended) had been so successful that an assemblage of faculty women of color in the greater LA-area have been getting together periodically ever since for networking, mutual encouragement, and fun. Without betraying the confidentiality of what was disclosed in our luncheon, something that surprised me was the ambivalence that a few attendees expressed about the very term “women of color.” I also became privy to some confusion—and even discomfort—that some other folks (outside of the luncheon) felt about the term. For example, one Asian American woman had not thought that the term “women of color” included her since she had assumed that the phrase was simply the newest (perhaps politically correct?) way of referring to black or African American women. And one white guy told me that he had long found the phrase “[X] of color” (e.g., “communities of color,” “people of color”) odd, because wasn’t it simply a reversal of the antiquated and maligned term “colored people”? The ambivalence, confusion, and discomfort I encountered at the conference about “women of color” was something I hadn’t anticipated. For in the academic and professor circles I frequent, the descriptor “[X] of color” is commonly used without comment (e.g., I’m on the steering committee of the Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism group of my professional organization and arguably the most-respected leadership/professional development organization for Christian ministers and scholars in my field provides substantial grant and fellowship opportunities for students “of color,” by which they mean persons of African, Latino/a, Asian, and First Nations descent.) I have since done a quick internet search to see if the hints of dissonance I heard at the conference were echoed elsewhere. Sure enough, questioning the purpose, scope, and desirability of the term is a “thing.” Here are three examples: DiversityInc’s popular “Ask the White Guy” column has provided a response to the question “Is ‘People of Color’ Offensive?” (Short answer: no, “it’s a respectful-sounding phrase…in common use” that is reminiscent of “Dr. Martin Luther King[‘s] us[e] [of] the phrase ‘citizens of color’ in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech”). The NPR program “Code Switch” did a piece a few years back entitled “Feminism and Race: Just Who Counts as a ‘Woman of Color’”? (Short answer: the term is inclusive of Asians and Latinas, among others). The feminist digital media site Everyday Feminism recently introduced a video clip (reproduced below) about the origins of “women of color” with this lead-in: “Have you ever wondered where the term ‘women of color’ came from? Have you mistakenly assumed that it was created by white people? Are you unsure about how you feel about it?” I was heartened to see several sites pointing to well-known human rights and feminist activist Loretta Ross’s mini-history lesson of how the term came to be. Methinks the three minutes it’ll take to watch it will be well worth your time. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82vl34mi4Iw&w=420&h=315] For those wanting these ideas to simmer, gratefully Andrea (AJ) Plaid of Racialicious, has provided a transcript: Loretta Ross: Y’all know where the term “women of color” came from?  Who can say that? See, we’re bad at transmitting history. In 1977, a group of Black women from Washington, DC, went to the National Women’s Conference, that [former President] Jimmy Carter gave $5 million to have...
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Dreaming of Sabbatical

Dreaming of Sabbatical
  In the midst of doing last-minute shopping, decorating, and entertaining for the holidays, I find myself on the eves of Christmas and New Year furiously trying to meet several important work deadlines. While burning the candle at both ends writing and grading, I also find myself from time to time breaking out in a wry smile. The reason? I get to start out the New Year with a one-semester sabbatical leave. Here’s the deal at my school: we tenured or tenure-track faculty work six full semesters and then, pending approval of our application (which nearly always happens), get to take a break from regular teaching and service commitments in our seventh semester. We get to spend our sabbatical time in any way that we wish so long as we return refreshed and provide a satisfactory account for the work we did (i.e., we submit a report to the Board of Trustees of how we advanced in our teaching, research, and service). Since we are paid our full salaries during sabbatical, such policies can be understood as recognition/additional compensation for prior service and as forward-looking investment into our and our institution’s future. (Yes, I know how privileged I am. With adjuncts now constituting 76.4% of all faculty in institutions of all types according to a recent report by the American Association of University Professors and with educational institutions clamping down (or at least threatening to tighten up) on sabbaticals for tenure-stream faculty as a cost-saving measure, I am incredibly grateful that my institution has retained its generous sabbatical leave policy.) The heart of the word “sabbatical” should conjure for anyone familiar with the Bible the notion of “rest” – either for a day, as in the case of God resting on the seventh day of creation and later commanding the Israelites to do likewise (Gen 2:2, Exodus 23:12) or for an entire year, where no work (sowing, pruning, reaping, gathering) was to be done on the land. Regardless of the length of time (day or year), the point has never been to “do nothing” for its own sake, but to spend time honoring God without the distractions of ordinary life as well as to provide much-needed rest for humans, other animals, and the lands so as to enhance all of our ability to “produce” in quality ways for the long haul. Apparently the origins of the modern sabbatical for professors dates back to the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when ten colleges and universities (beginning with Harvard in 1880) established sabbatical leave programs in the U.S. By 1920, some 40 other institutions had followed suit. Of course the translation of the religious concept of “sabbatical” into any modern educational institution (secular or otherwise) will never be wholesale, but it seems appropriate that academic institutions today retain the heart of the biblical notion, which I understand to be spiritual regeneration and the reconnection as well as righting of relationships with all creation (especially when one factors into one’s understanding of sabbatical the “Jubilee” tradition, see, e.g., Leviticus 25, Luke 4:16-30). Practically speaking for me, the origins of sabbatical means that I must resist filling my sabbatical time in nearly exactly the same way I do in my regular life. (For faculty like me whose life circumstances–young children in my case–preclude me from jetting off to some foreign locale for a sabbatical stint, sabbatical life mirroring ordinary life, minus teaching and service, is a real temptation). In short, I shouldn’t think of my sabbatical as merely an ability to churn out more of the same, but to bear different kinds of fruit. I need to plan my time so that the quality, not just quantity, of the work I do improves in the aftermath. So on...
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