Kai Zhang started her activism and global awareness when she was a teenager and hasn’t stopped since–in fact, her work spans a wide range of subjects. She is particularly interested in transnational women’s movements that are rooted in the “Third World,” Mayan indigenous movements to protect land and natural resources, LGBTQ and sex worker rights movements in India and Thailand, and experiments in cooperative agriculture and production in Spain and India. In addition, Kai studies the vocabularies that have evolved to articulate social good today—you can find out more about Kai’s amazing bio here.
Kai recently answered some questions for us that further delve into her work with social activism, art, justice, and simply being awesome.
How do you raise your voice among a sea of voices in a place like New York City?
In New York City, there are many niches for politically engaged dialogue and organizing. These range from more horizontal, more radical, community-based groups, centered on social justice issues, often advocating for the equal treatment of particular racial, sexual, and class identities – to more hierarchical nonprofit organizations that focus more on gaining a wider reach through building a broader membership base, while often avoiding more radical stances in favor of liberal values and institutions that are more universally accepted. Universities and many media organizations are also centers for political dialogue. I think one finds one’s niche in the city through participating in these clusters of conversations, and participating in organizing work, contributing in small ways over a long period of time, and proving one’s ability to follow through and gain trust within an activist community. There is a lot of turnover and burnout, and certain voices sustain over the long term, and become seen as representative of a larger community, or become the spokesperson for a particular point of view.
What inspired you to travel to Guatemala and work on income generation?
I chose to move to Guatemala after taking a year’s worth of economics courses at Columbia, primarily focused on development economics and human rights I took a class my first semester of college on sustainable development, taught by Jeffrey Sachs, who was the director of the Columbia Earth Institute at the time, and who was involved with the Millenium Development Goals, and one of the advisors to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – he was particularly vocal about poverty reduction through income generation in an incubator form, what he called Millennium Villages – his theory was that you need to cross a certain threshold of capital injection into a country before you can see any results. Anyways, over time, I became more and more critical of Sachs, and this so-called “neoliberal” way of saving the world (or so the Anthro kids would complain…), but at the time, I was very inspired by his message, which was glamorized by celebrities like Bono and Angelina Jolie, and so after spending a year learning about Solow growth models and macroeconomic development theories, I felt I needed to take time to see “development” first hand. I was lucky to be able to intern with an organization called Mercado Global, in Panajachel, Guatemala, and to see how fair trade work with Mayan women’s cooperatives can make an impact on the lives of the women engaged in this work.
You started your own amazing Youth Initiative and Organization at an early age, what inspired you to take action despite ageism in organizational structures?
I had really encouraging mentors who created the infrastructure and support necessary to do this work. I helped to create a weekend language exchange program called the Chinatown Literacy Project and a very short-lived interschool newsletter called Asian American Youth Action! (AAYA!). This was really a long time ago, and I must say, I owe everything to Jennifer Chang, Gloria Chan, Xing Wu, Joyce Li, Wendy Li, and my peers at the time who were working very hard every week to see the idea through to fruition. Since it was a youth-run organization, there was little ageism, and since the organization itself was very young at that point, it was very supportive of new ideas.
Women should ___________ to get their voices heard (Fill in the blank)
Work together —– relationship-building is key to any movement; setting egos aside and focusing on the work; speaking clearly, cogently, and choosing strategic organizing points when engaging with the larger public; always checking to make sure your work is relevant and representative of the day-to-day experiences of the people/issues for which you are advocating; not getting too bogged down by the more critical and divisive discourses of identity politics, while remaining sensitive, inclusive, and “strategically essential” when those critical vocabularies can be empowering – knowing how to differentiate between the two, and continually build alliances.
What are vocabularies of good? How do we keep them from being diluted?
There are many conflicting vocabularies of “good” – from human rights, to post-Marxist, Third World, feminist, positivist, corporate social responsibility, organic/local, social entrepreneurial vocabularies, etc. etc. – there are many fundamental disagreements between them, though they are all fighting for “justice.” I don’t think this is a bad thing, or that it constitutes “dilution” in any sense. Though I think any ideology, or idealization of particular human behaviors, is actually pretty dangerous. Human rights can be a dangerous vocabulary because it focuses so much on abstract entitlements from the state based on this notion of “shared humanity,” which is often a bit divorced from realist politics that it blindsights certain people immersed in this righteous paradigm from the particular wrongs that we all commit, the unfair distribution of material resources across the globe, and the necessary complicity of everyone in society in the suffering of those on the harsher end of that distribution, for which we are all responsible to engage in some action, at least to do less harm. It often takes such a legalistic form of “claiming rights” through particular governance institutions, that it may underplay the real responsibilities that necessarily accompany any such demand of rights.
Human rights, as a less radical, almost apolitical, vocabulary of “good” survived after other more militantly political vocabularies failed, after the disasters of Marxism and the post-colonial dictatorships in Latin America and Africa. This is a positive and also not-so-positive thing – I think it’s great to have an ethical language that more and more people across the world can agree on, and appeal to. I also think that to the extent that human rights discourses are continually coopted and used on a local grassroots level, in surprising ways, which lend voice to marginalized groups that are often heeded for the first time on the sheer basis of their being “human” – such as LGBTQ groups, sex workers, prisoners, drug users – is a very positive and revolutionary development; it really gives people on the social margins a chance to rearticulate their position in society and demand a difference presence. However, just as human rights vocabularies can give a voice to certain people, they also marginalize the voices of certain movements; for example, human rights is often soft on class and wealth distribution issues, and plays well into Western liberal “free” market paradigms, perhaps suffocating movements that demand social and economic justice over civil and political rights, and marginalize those that take a more radical/risky stance on social change than the internationalist, legalistic, and NGO-form human rights organizations generally do.
The critical legal theorist, Janet Halley, who is very skeptical of human rights, writes that there are some very fundamental problems with rights-based activism, and victim typologies, which create identities for the subjects it seeks to “empower,” in order to solicit political entitlement for that identity, but as a result, these identities also become traps in themselves, and become ceilings, which by their very definition can not be transcended without forfeiting the rights that came with them. Those sort of paradoxes in “vocabularies of good” interest me a lot, in an academic and theoretic sense.
Everyone talks about social change nowadays (Our young selves were really on the cusp of the beginning) and its become a real buzzword…is change always good? What does social change mean in your daily life.
Yes, it’s funny – I think we were both growing up along the same crib as the “social entrepreneurship” movement, with its buzzworthy optimism, its beaming young leaders, and its fund-driven prizes. That baby really grew to be a much bigger adolescent, and I think this is, overall, a really positive thing. It encourages younger and younger people to be more creative in their engagement with society, and it definitely inspires humanitarian values.
I’m also wary, though, of the way that this individual-targeted heroism can be a bit too ego-driven, prize-money-driven, recognition-driven, and does not necessarily encourage thorough community engagement, research, or critical thinking before the launch of another “save the BLANK” effort. It also may encourage people to go into situations not adequately prepared to deliver the help they idealize, and may end up causing harms they never intended. Doing “good” is a really messy business, and kids who engage in social entrepreneurship can grow up in that messy work to either really become stronger from inevitable failures along the way, or be really broken by the process.
I think this “social change” paradigm, especially “social entrepreneurship,” also has a strange relationship with free market Capitalism, in that, on one hand, it’s telling business leaders they have an ethical responsibility in the world to do “good business” and has a great optimism towards how these “good businesses” would also be profitable in a conscious consumer society (though this optimism is often a bit misguided, particularly during this recession) – so in that sense, it seems to be chastizing businesses and telling them to do more socially beneficial work. On the other hand, it also legitimizes the role that business should play, in philanthro-Capitalism, which may delegitimize the necessary role that governments and civil society continue to play, and if there is not enough regulation and civic watchdog groups holding that type of philanthro-Capitalism accountable to its marketing, it can really be nothing more than a pleasant PR narrative.
It’s difficult enough to make a business profitable and survive – to have it do social good as well, and on top of that, to have it be run by kids! That’s a lovely ideal, which I think, in reality, is often not quite the halo it projects. And who deals with the mess afterwards? Are people even acknowledging the messes that are often made? (Inevitably made, because the expectations are often just unrealistic, the support meager and all too green-backed, and the narrative too simplistic and too encouraging of clumsiness in the name of aid?) I think it could be very dangerous if there is not enough room in the dialogue around “social change” about how mistakes get made, and how to deal with them responsibly. To be frank, I’ve made a lot of mistakes – really, a lot. And I’m not proud of all the work I’ve done, though I have gone into every project with a generously caring heart, I think, and a total desire to give my utmost to people. And I must say, I feel pretty burned by the narrative of “social entrepreneurship.” But that’s cool, it’s ok. I don’t want to be too critical either, because that just causes paralysis, and throws the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, it’s something to be wary of, and the “social change” movement, particularly as targeted towards youth, needs to work on improving these problems inherent in its narrative.
Right now, social change in my daily life is focused around being a better friend and ally, understanding the people in my life better, learning more about different social struggles and perspectives , and being a more disciplined and organized worker. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of objective, critical evaluation of the motive, strategy, process, and outcomes of my work. The motive is key, because that’s where integrity lies, and without integrity, you’re useless. In my thinking, there are three basic “good” motives: 1) acting out of a strict sense of DUTY/responsibility towards particular people you have committed to (friends, community groups, family, organizations/institutions, society at large); 2) acting out of a sense of CARE for people, that takes their best interest at heart, and follows through to make sure those interests are continually met in the best possible way; and 3) acting out of a sense of DILIGENCE, in doing the best work you can do as consistently as possible. The “bad” motives are self-indulgence in pleasure/adventure/romantic idealism, vanity/personal ambition, a quick career gain in any way – these motives are inevitably present in some way or form, but they should always be made far subordinate to the real work, which can not be focused on one’s own interests. I really try to detect those bad motives and nip them in the bud, and will disengage from any opportunistic “social” work, because any self-interest can be dangerously blinding and can negatively effect the quality and integrity of the work. The strategy, process, and outcome must also be examined critically, honestly, brutally. (Maybe I am just speaking for myself, because I can often be a very lazy and self-indulgent person, with a prickly sensitivity/insecurity at times – so I must constantly monitor myself and disarm myself of any potential for unintended harm.) I really believe that one is constantly engaged in a battle with oneself, and the wrong self must be defeated at the hands of the right self; never indulge in an easy pleasure, because it quickly snowballs to bankruptcy. I am currently in a stage where I believe being very strict with myself is key, and I’m reflecting a lot on past projects for lessons – I have a lot of building to do, and this building is done through caring for others, honestly, consciously, with consistent and reliable follow-through. I know I have a long way to go.
What are the most important rights for women to be aware of about themselves? Are they textbook rights or something more? (Is this a silly question? I’m asking it because someone told me the other day “How do you do human rights for young women…and when I suggested a culturally relative model of safe spaces to create what fits the community, the interviewer was not happy)
I don’t necessarily think women’s rights are different from rights in general. Rights are legal claims. Where they differ most from “men’s” or “trans” rights, women generally should fight to secure improved control over their sexual bodies and choices, gain improved protection from sexual violence, and gain improved support in motherhood.
How can art and expression protect and promote womens rights?
Education and communication is always important in passing on the social values behind rights. Since women are usually valued in all societies primarily for their caretaking actions, and are often discouraged from expressing their own needs and desires, I think art and expression are important for women to articulate our identities in a way that may be very different from the expectations and representations of us that we are fed from a young age. Gender is a funny construct, and I think women, men, and other folks should really do some creative damage to it through art.
How does one respect culturally relative norms and traditions, while trying to break the status quo?
This depends entirely on the specific context, but in general: try to be respectful, sincere, and kind to people – then you can be really critical of their ideas.