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By Olivia Liu

Summer 2020

Organizing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I’ve heard this phrase over and over again during my time as an organizer. It is frequently accompanied by warnings of not burning out, or encouragement to stand my ground and push on after being deterred. Pace yourself. Keep going. Don’t look back. Focus on the finish line.

Marathon running is an individual sport. You run for and by yourself. If you’re lucky, you might see some friends on the sidelines, but even they disappear the further you go. If organizing is a marathon, then what a lonely job it must be.

I joined HANA Center last year as a college fellow. HANA Center is a Korean organization located in Albany Park that seeks to empower both the Korean community and other multi-ethnic communities in Chicago through social services, education, and civic engagement. We participate in both neighborhood-focused events and national level campaigns, making sure that our communities’ voices are heard everywhere. Through their program last summer, I learned how to position myself in this organizing, both in what I could do to contribute to campaigns and how I could create one of my own. I was ready to start running my own race.

All of this screeched to a halt in March. Instead of chugging along the path, I was sitting at home, grounded by a pandemic. The finish line came in and out of sight as more and more detours came my way. I quickly realized that I would soon be at a crossroads. It was no secret that the pandemic had undercut the funds that allowed me to stay at the HANA Center. As a first-generation low-income student, I would need to choose between staying in the race at the cost of my financial wellbeing or dropping out, short of victory yet again.

Through the Asian American department’s community summer fellowship, I was able to stay at HANA Center through the summer, both as a part of the organizing team and a facilitator of the very program that had introduced me to them: the Civic Leaders Fellows. I spent the majority of my internship focusing on the latter, which included not only being present for the meetings but also coming up with a curriculum to teach and guide the Fellows. We had only six weeks, and in that time, I needed to figure out how to condense the history of Asian Americans, our roles in revolution, and our position to other groups in America into 4 concise and engaging lessons. In short, I needed to convince them that this was a race worth running.

I spent most of my days researching Asian American history, particularly in movements such as the Third World Liberation Front, Yellow Peril, and even the Northwestern Hunger Strikes. I read the texts of revolutionaries such as Angela Davis, Paulo Friere, and Grace Lee Boggs as a foundation for the lessons I would teach. To me, it was important for the Fellows to learn about their identity through a non-Eurocentric lens, and instead, one that highlighted the work and the people that have brought us to our current position. This was reflected in one of my favorite projects, a timeline activity, in which I built a comprehensive history for the fellows to fit themselves into. They were asked to place their own history, such as when their parents immigrated, or when they were born among large historical events. I believed this to be an effective project, not just in the way that many of the fellows learned about Asian American history, but also realizing what fights brought them here.

Besides these lessons, I was also in charge of helping the fellows with creating a project that helped promote the Fair Tax Amendment campaign that HANA Center was currently working on. I ran into some of the most frustrating challenges with my fellowship here, as the project would force us to reckon with the fact that we were all remote. Not only did this limit us on what kind of projects we could work on, but it also was challenging to collaborate over Zoom. Brainstorming became awkward lengths of silence, role delegation fell flat, and inspiration was at an all-time low. I became acutely aware of the marathon metaphor here. Despite having a shared finish line, we were at completely different places.

Ultimately, we were able to overcome our frustrations by relying on each other to be honest and responsible to one another. By being transparent with each other about being out of ideas, or thinking out loud about what could work, we came together as a unit, and not just as individuals on different paths. In the entirety of my Zoom career, this was the first time I felt that I had active collaboration between individuals. In the end, we hosted a documentary screening about the inequity of Chicago public schools and invited both the director and multiple CPS students to speak on a panel. It was hugely successful and was an incredible learning experience in online base building, teamwork, and organizing for both me and the fellows.

Organizing is not a marathon.

If anything, organizing is a relay race, one in which my goal is not the finish line, but the next runner. Being able to participate in teaching the new group of Civic Leader Fellows helped me see this with much greater clarity. The more time I spent reading and teaching about our history and our ancestors, the more I began to feel the baton in my hand. It isn’t my job to finish this race alone, an impossible and lonely victory. It is my job to transfer the torch into the hand of the next person. As long as I trusted my team, we would find ourselves at the finish line. To triumph at a relay race is to work together seamlessly, to pass the baton onto someone who is just as ready to run the race as you are. I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by those people.

The finish line may be far, but we will get there together.