Jen Chau, founder and director of SWIRL, (and an eagerly anticipated contributor to JVoices) will be presenting this Sunday at Inside the Activists’ Studio (which JVoices is a co-sponsor) on how activism needs a serious make-over, and tools for building a sustainable activist life. We caught up with her before the day’s event to ask her a few questions about her work, the celebration of SWIRL’s 8th Anniversary, and how the Obama campaign raised awareness of mixed-race experiences in the United States.
CK: Today you’re celebrating the 8th Anniversary of the organization you started, SWIRL, and it’s continual growth and success as a national multi-ethnic organization that challenges society’s notions of race. Tell us how this all got started, and what it’s like to watch your organization continue to grow.
JC: My work with Swirl primarily grew out of a real need for community. Since I had grown up very much between and outside of communities, I was determined to create something for those who had also experienced having “one foot in and one foot out” – mixed race individuals. Additionally, I decided at the start that Swirl would also serve interracial couples and mixed families. We have always been inclusive of anyone who feels that their experiences challenge this country’s traditional notions of “race,” culture, and identity.
I also created Swirl because I wanted to raise consciousness about what it means to be mixed race. In 2000 (and still to this day), this country is challenged by an unfortunate dynamic. Many of us still prescribe to old notions about what it means to be “this race” or “from that culture.” There are a wealth of misperceptions without many opportunities for dispelling racial myths in a cross-cultural space. People of all communities are challenged by these sorts of racial assumptions every day whether they are subtle instances or painfully obvious, and mixed heritage people are no exception. I knew that mixed race people needed a space to challenge these ideas and a platform for voicing their realities. I wanted (and still want) people to know that being mixed is not about being the most beautiful because we represent the coming together of races or that we are gifted with “the best of both worlds.” These are superficial notions and don’t represent the wide range of experiences that one might have if mixed. As any community, Swirl represents a diversity of experiences. Just as there is not one way of being Black or Asian, there is not one way to be Mixed. Swirl has always aimed to be a thoughtful voice on mixed identity and how “mixed” fits into our country’s larger conversations about race.
It’s amazing to see Swirl continue to grow, especially considering that I didn’t initially have expectations that we would go beyond New York City. I also didn’t always anticipate that our mission would shift in the ways that it has, but it was hard to truly imagine what we would be dealing with 8 years later. Mixed race organizing was still not happening widely when we first got started, so we weren’t quite sure of what to expect, how things would shift, and what the community would need from us several years later. Today, we are still building communities, but with a wider reach. We want to continually challenge society’s notions of race and we want to work with other communities to do this together. We realize that we will never really successfully confront this nation’s dysfunctional ways of dealing with race if we don’t collaborate cross-racially and cross-culturally.
CK: What changes have you seen in your work since the 2008 election?
It is amazing to see the kind of momentum that has been building since Obama started campaigning. We have had multiple chapters start up in this past year and I think his leadership and presence has had something to do with that. The fact that he speaks about his mixed heritage openly and proudly, and that he talks about diversity inclusively (recognizing that it is more than just a black/white issue) is inspiring to a lot of people. I think that he has given hope to our younger generations in particular, which has gotten a lot of people involved in ways they weren’t previously. It’s encouraging to see so many talented people stepping up into leadership for Swirl in cities across the country.
Listen to Jen Chau and Carmen Van Kerckhove of Racialicious.com on The Brian Lehrer Show, discussing the implications of a mixed-race future and how Barack Obama’s candidacy changed the discussion about mixed-race identity.
Since the elections, I have been bothered by the claims of “racism is over!” Yes, Obama becoming our President-Elect is a big and meaningful step for this country. However, we cannot rest assured that this takes care of all of our issues around race. How I wish his Presidency erased racism! If you aren’t convinced, visit some of our nation’s urban public schools. The racial achievement gap is still here and going strong. Perhaps what Obama provides is an opportunity – with him in office, we will hopefully confront issues of race because he models it. But I know, and Swirl knows that our work continues. We are excited for the momentum that has been created, and we will continually work to support change in this country. To shift the culture of how we deal with race is going to take effort from all of us – it is not enough to have a President of color in place. We all have to take responsibility.
CK: This Sunday, you’ll be joining Inside the Activists’ Studio as a featured presenter, a Jewish change-maker. Give us a taste of what you’ll be discussing about your work at SWIRL.
I am excited to meet with other Jewish change-makers – how often do activists come together to really support one another and share our learning? Most of the time we focus on our work, not ourselves. I will be sharing some of my experiences on how to continue to fight while maintaining a healthy and happy lifestyle for yourself. It’s a challenge, especially when you are so passionate about your cause and want to throw everything into it, but it is important for us all to ensure sustainable lives for ourselves. We need to be in this work for the long haul! I am excited for us to reflect on this and share support.