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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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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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