|A conversation with Phoebe Eng
By Heidi M. Pascual
|A conversation with Phoebe Eng
Phoebe and the "language of power"
My first question to her was 'Why do you do the work that you do?'
"That is what I ask everyone else, and nobody has ever asked me that question," Phoebe said. "I am going to share the story tomorrow and it's a story that I tell to women mostly because I think it's important. It's about why I'm so interested in making sure that women's voices get out there in the world; that we have visibility; that we have presence in the world and especially in decision making places like the media, like our elected public offices."
Phoebe related the influence of her mother on why she does the work that she does. "It really started from when I was very young when my mother told me that I needed to become an attorney," Phoebe recalled. "I never knew why she thought that was so important. She had said ultimately -- because she needed me to learn the language of power. I never understood until that moment that she actually felt very powerless because she was the head of the household. She bosses everyone around. She was always the one we look to for strength."
Phoebe's mother is from China, and she came to the U.S. when she was about 25 years old as a nursing student. "She met my father here in the United States, in Philadelphia, and they got married," Phoebe said. "They speak two different dialects, so they never spoke Chinese together, and so they taught my sister and I only English." Phoebe wanted to learn Chinese very badly, but it never happened in her home. "I learned how to speak Chinese when I was already in college," she said.
Phoebe spoke in-depth on her mother's experience as an immigrant and elaborated on her idea of the "language of power." "I think that as an immigrant woman, she always felt like she's being taken advantage of," Phoebe said. "She didn't know exactly when and where, but she definitely needed a second pair of eyes; she needed to know that there was somebody in her family that will speak for her when she couldn't speak for herself. She knew that even though she was the boss of all of us in our house, as soon as she crossed over the threshold and out to the outside world, that people saw her as a little Chinese woman and would treat her that way, as if she had nothing important to say."
Phoebe observed that a lot of Asian women in the United States feel the same way. "I think that's something they shoulder -- even the young women here, even you and I," she said. "We understand how much weight that we hold, of having to answer for all the generations past, and that is a lot of weight. In both kinds of spiritual terms, in terms of holding it all on your own shoulders, but also in terms of our own ability to lead our own lives, how much choice are we giving ourselves when we have so much weight to hold? And so, I think it's really interesting for an Asian woman to figure out the balance between discovering who she is and what the power is and what her life is about specifically and also to be responsible and answerable to not only her family, her children, but all the generations before. And not get completely overwhelmed."
When I asked her about A Magazine, Phoebe smiled and recalled the circumstances under which she got involved with it. "It was a long time ago, in early 1990," she began. "I was practicing as a mergers and acquisitions attorney, which meant that I was in corporate law, and it wasn't me. Corporate law is contracts; you're behind the desk; you're working with the minutiae of contractual language which are not that interesting. They are big corporations that don't have a face behind them."/It was her desire for face-to-face interaction, of meeting communities and understanding people's lives and the day-to-day things that they go through, or that makes life special that made Phoebe leave her legal practice to go into publishing. "A Magazine was something that opened a door in a way," she explained. "There was this wonderful brilliant group of young people who just graduated out of college and had this school project that was A Magazine. They had started it together with a number of friends. I was a few years older than them and I was trying to figure out how to use my law degree and all these wonderful abilities to be able to put together contracts and financing and things like that, and so I wanted to put it to good use. It was a partnership that was wonderful. This group of people already had a magazine that was in development, and we just made it a little more official by bringing it out on a regular basis, by giving it a look and a feel and a voice that people could rely on. By getting other people involved from the corporate world, both as potential advertisers as well as investors, we started to expand the audience for it."
Phoebe likewise admitted the difficulty of starting A Magazine as a business. "It was very difficult because a lot of people didn't understand why you need an Asian magazine in the United States," she said. "Because there was no voice for us. Sure, we're Americans; but that doesn't mean that we don't have a unique set of perspectives that deserve to be noticed. There's a hunger for this voice. Our young people need to know how to be proud of where they come from and that they can have a way of looking at things, a way of reading books and taking in the media and having a political voice that is very unique. And so, that's what America is about."
A Magazine folded in the late 1990s, years after Phoebe had left and moved to other undertakings, but she had hoped it would grow and still be around. "It would have been great if it still existed today," she lamented. "I think that it went through a lot of the growing pains that many magazines and media go through. It takes so much work and there's a high level of burnout, and media -- especially magazines -- are very expensive to run, very expensive to print, very expensive to put together, very expensive to distribute because it's heavy, it's paper. But people love to be able to feel and touch it. It's not quite the same as a website, you know. So I'm so happy that it exists in various different ways such as your magazine. A Magazine was inspired by magazines that came before it, and each generation of magazines that comes -- 'I can do this in a different way, or I can do this with the particular emphasis that is uniquely mine.' And I think that is just beautiful that we can learn from each other, we can pass the knowledge forward, even to the extent that current publishers and current media owners can ask people at A Magazine and other magazines questions so that we're sharing the knowledge."
"I wrote this in the late '90s. It's called 'Warrior Lessons: an Asian American Woman's Journey Into Power,'" Phoebe said. "I used that word 'power' -- and I knew a lot of people wouldn't like it because they would think that I was very stuck up or very presumptuous. I used it because I think that women in general and typical Asian American women have a problem with that word, and I wanted us to get comfortable with that word."
She wanted to redefine "power" to make it a positive word and not something to avoid. "If we can redefine power so that it doesn't mean exploitation, it doesn't mean something bad, bossing people around for no reason, but it means you have something inside you that deserves to be out in the world, and if we can think about power in that way, then each of us deserves to develop that power," Phoebe explained. "We have to ask that of each other. Whenever you see it in a young or in an older Asian woman, you just have to throw it out, to make sure she understands that she is a teacher as she has something to share and something worthy of viewing."
"Warrior Lessons" is an account of Phoebe's interviews with Asian American women all over the country. "I got as many people as I possibly could, I looked at any research that existed, and I also told my own story," she said. "I put it all together and broke it up into four chapters. Each chapter is a theme that women I spoke to cared about a lot, so it went from things like 'How do you say no?' 'How do you have boundaries?' to 'How do you fight for what you believe in?' 'How do you not try to be a people-pleaser all the time?' 'How do you learn why you love what you love?' 'How do you learn to get angry?' They're lessons; and they're like lessons on how to be a warrior. The thing is, at the time I wrote it and even now, I have so many more lessons to learn."
Phoebe looked at a copy of Asian Wisconzine magazine and said, "The more I see faces on the cover of this magazine, the more I feel like 'Yeah, I'm empowered. I can say something too.' Otherwise if you're invisible, you feel that you don't count. And I think that we just have to make sure that we're as visible everywhere as we possibly can be."
Phoebe Eng's latest project is called "1000 Voices," a national archive in New York that will consist of 1000 voices of storytellers all over the country who are going to share their stories about the values that mean the most to them and why they do the work they do. It's three- to seven-minute video shorts that are going to be on a website. I was one of the voices that Phoebe interviewed here in Madison, Wis. I will keep you posted!
Phoebe Eng is a national lecturer, strategy consultant, and author of "Warrior Lessons" (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a memoir-based account of race, empowerment and leadership in a rapidly changing world. She started her career as an attorney with a New York-based law firm, then left the legal profession to become the publisher of A Magazine, an Asian American issues magazine, and chair of its holding company. She moved to other undertakings in the mid-1990s, including several communications campaigns nationally and globally to help companies and organizations understand the complexities and challenges of providing access and opportunity in a multicultural society; and elevating the voices and perspectives of women of color in local, state, and national public policy. She is an active national speaker, addressing dozens of groups every year on race-related issues.
|Waiting for Phoebe
Phoebe was scheduled to keynote the YWCA Racial Justice Community Summit on Tuesday, October 30, at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, but that Monday before, she was in the company of the Girl Neighborhood Power members and mentors at Kennedy Heights Community Neighborhood Center on the north side of Madison.
Alyssa Kenney, executive director of Kennedy Heights Community Center, was very excited while we waited for Phoebe. "We wanted to give her the opportunity to see more of Madison," Alyssa said. "She's also going to the Overture Center to see the art exhibit that the girls have done. We want her to see some of the work of community centers and the YWCA here in Madison; to see all of Madison, not just the downtown."
Lisa Duchateau, the GNP leader of the center, was busy preparing the room where Phoebe would be received. "The girls will give her a tour of the center so she can see where they come hang out everyday," Lisa informed me. "Then they'll show Phoebe our scrapbooks, what Girl Neighborhood Power is all about and what we have been doing this fall. Because we have a big Hmong community here, this is inspiring for the girls for Phoebe to come here and meet them."
When Phoebe entered the reception room with YWCA's Meme Kintner, we all felt the magnet of her presence. Tall, slim and beautiful, Phoebe instantly captured our full attention. Her warm smile and her immediate "connectedness" with us readily removed any barrier from our thoughts in terms of her being a "somebody."
After introductions, some of the girls gave Phoebe a tour of the center while I took their photos. Phoebe was very gracious, talking to everyone present, getting inspired by the girls' work and inspiring them in return. I felt that Phoebe was indeed inspired by the emerging power of girls and young women in this part of Madison.
|Phoebe Eng talks to girls and young women at Kennedy Heights Community Center.|