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Creating Community at Cal and Beyond

May 24, 2018

By Courtney Cheng ’16

Michelle Kim ’11 came to Cal with a mission: to become a part of Berkeley’s history of political activism and social justice movements.

At the Principal’s Office

Michelle was born and raised in South Korea by her single mother, whom she saw constantly struggling against the stigma of divorce. “Back then, divorce was not very widely accepted [in South Korea],” she clarified. At the age of 12, Michelle immigrated to San Diego to live with her dad, where she witnessed firsthand the challenges and exploitation he faced in America as an undocumented immigrant. “From a young age, I saw a lot of the inequities my parents had to go through,” Michelle said. “I grew up low-income with my dad and I was exposed to a lot of different social issues from a young age.”

At 17, she developed her first crush on a woman and came out as queer/bisexual. The experience, she recounted, shaped her youth. “Through my coming out, and through my own understanding of my identity, I started learning more and more about the issues facing the LGBTQ community,” she explained.

Michelle’s high school environment compounded her feelings of marginalization. After coming out, Michelle threw herself into the LGBTQ community as an activist. She organized events like Day of Silence, anti-defamation week, and allyship week; and led protests and demonstrations to raise awareness about LGBTQ youth issues and bullying on campus. Sometimes, she got called into the principal’s office. “Parents were calling to complain about the messages I was trying to send out,” she recalled. “The neighborhood I lived in was pretty conservative.”

Cal, with its long history of the championing free speech, activism, and social justice, was an obvious choice for Michelle. “I was very excited to be a part of this movement and history.” She added, “Number one though, I was super excited to get away from San Diego.”

Michelle Kim marching at Pride
Michelle Kim marching at San Francisco Pride | Photo: Michelle Kim

Growing Her Own Community

In spite of Michelle’s early passion for Cal, she wasn’t immune to the usual first semester struggles of finding her niche and keeping herself financially stable. She actively sought to become a part of the LGBTQ community on campus, but the spaces she encountered felt detached from each other. “Most queer spaces were affinity-based…but there wasn’t a space that met across all these different identities that talked about the intersections of being queer and being a person of color, for example, or being queer and being a woman in the same space,” Michelle recalled. “I understood the importance of having these separate spaces, but I didn’t feel like I fit into any one of the many different groups on campus.”

Receiving scholarships from the Cal Alumni Association—the Cal Pride Scholarship and The Leadership Award scholarship—helped begin to alleviate Michelle’s financial burdens. Michelle’s experience at Cal changed more fully, however, after she found a job at the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq). At GenEq, Michelle found the community that eventually became her on-campus home as well as mentors in the GenEq staff. Folks like Director Billy Curtis; Director of Women’s Resources, Sexual Harassment/Assault Resources Cici Ambrosio; and Marisa (Mac) Boyce welcomed Michelle and continued guiding her toward finding her tribe at Berkeley.

At an LGBTQ conference on campus, Michelle met Kevin Franco Torres. As the two began talking, they realized they both struggled to find an LGBTQ student org where they felt they belonged. At last, Michelle felt her uncertainty dissolve. She had originally feared she was the only person who felt distant from the existing LGBTQ groups on campus; now she knew she wasn’t. “There was a need beyond just myself. There are other people who are also looking for this [intersectional] space.” The more she and Kevin spoke, the more she thought, “‘This is something we can create together.’”

“There was a need beyond just myself. There are other people who are also looking for this [intersectional] space… This is something we can actually create together.”

In Michelle’s first year, she and Kevin founded QSU—Queer Student Union (then known as Queer Straight Alliance)—with the support of her GenEq mentors and a small team of students of color identifying as queer, trans, or gender non-conforming. Now, more than ten years later, QSU is still an active, popular student organization that offers LGBTQ students and allies a community to call home. “I’m an entrepreneur now, so maybe [founding QSU] was a sneak preview of how I like to create and be a part of the solution instead of going with the status quo,” Michelle joked.

The Founding of Awaken

Michelle always sensed she was on a different track than some of her peers who wanted to climb the corporate ladder, but she didn’t immediately tap into this drive after graduating from Berkeley. In fact, she went from being a “fiery, feisty go-getter activist on campus” to working in large corporate spaces as a consultant. “I always thought I would go into social justice work or nonprofit work after college,” Michelle admitted, “but it was also important to me to be financially independent because I was supporting my family, and I wanted to bring my mom over to the States from Korea.”

Michelle hoped to strike a balance between her two wants—being financially independent and continuing her social justice work—by joining the global Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Committee at a consulting company. From there, she moved into the tech space and worked similar roles at various startups, but the feeling of fulfillment just wasn’t the same. In the corporate and tech world, Michelle felt frustrated by the conversations around D&I that felt “so surface level.” She elaborated, “[These conversations weren’t] effective at changing people’s hearts and minds, nor changing broader company culture. It just felt like so many companies were just putting on some sexy marketing slogans about D&I, but it was mostly just lip service. There was no real action or commitment behind it.”

Michelle Kim speaking to a room full of people for an Awaken workshop
Michelle Kim speaking at a workshop for Awaken | Photo: Michelle Kim

After several years of working in tech and experiencing toxic culture, Michelle decided it was time for a change. The results of the 2016 election had just been announced, and there was a resurgence of people wanting to do more, a momentum of people who wanted to talk about the new realities that existed. She felt the time was ripe for something “more real, [something] deeper than the surface level.” Just as she’d done with the founding of QSU, Michelle found a similarly minded peer—this time a former startup colleague, Beatrice Kim—to co-found a new organization to fill the gap that existed in the D&I education space in tech and beyond.

Michelle and Beatrice’s brainchild, Awaken, aims to “create compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations” in order to develop inclusive leaders and teams. Ultimately, Michelle wants to “create some breathing room for marginalized people in their workplaces to do the jobs they want to do without having to shoulder the extra burden of having to educate others or deal with microaggressive, exclusionary culture.”

Awaken forms partnerships with companies and organizations who are committed to creating an inclusive culture by providing experiential D&I workshops and inclusive manager training programs to their workforce. The Awaken team travels across the country to facilitate interactive workshops that empower people to lead inclusively.

“In a few years,” Michelle considered, “it would be so great to have changed the way we talk about D&I, in addition to changing company culture, to focus on not only celebrating our differences inside the company, but truly looking at equity in a critical way that also makes room for conversations around broader social justice and systemic issues. There are systemic and institutionalized inequities at play that affect the way we do work internally inside companies, and I want to start breaking these barriers for people to expand their scope when we talk about D&I, to adopt a broader social justice lens.”

Michelle Kim speaking at the Haas Women in Leadership Conference
Michelle Kim speaking at the Haas Women in Leadership Conference | Photo: Michelle Kim

Michelle is an irreplaceable champion of these causes. Each day, her work looks a little different as she travels across the country to facilitate workshops and speak at engagements, while also staying grounded in her social justice and community work. She was nominated Grand Marshall of San Francisco Pride in 2013; served as a Board Member of LYRIC, an LGBTQ youth nonprofit based in San Francisco; and also sat as a group chair on the SF Human Rights Commission’s LGBT Advisory Committee. She is currently a part of the SF LGBTQ Speakers Bureau, spreading awareness about LGBTQ issues at K-12 schools and college campuses. Michelle has become a highly regarded writer and public speaker, speaking about the importance of inclusion, equity, and social justice in and outside of the workplace.

Paving the Way for Young People

Michelle’s dedication is unshakeable, but she’s aware of her own cynicism about her work at times. It’s been years since Michelle first became an advocate for social justice, and she still has to remind herself to “keep going.” Disappointments come hand-in-hand with her work, when progress seems to come slowly compared to the magnitude of issues we need to solve. “I don’t think I’m done struggling with this,” Michelle admitted. But now, she’s better equipped to keep going.

“Community really is important. When I look back at everything I’ve accomplished, it’s all because of the people who were able to support me and stand with me in solidarity,” Michelle said. “I always tell people, especially young people, to build these communities. It’s people who carry you through life, and nothing else. The more we connect with each other, the more we see we’re in this struggle together, the more empowerment we can feel.”

After growing at Cal as a student activist and becoming a pioneer and entrepreneur for D&I and social justice causes, Michelle believes it’s her turn to give back through mentorship and providing access to resources and opportunities to youth. “Do whatever you can to increase visibility and empower our young people. My ultimate hope is in our young people. Awaken’s work is not just about changing adults’ minds and behaviors; it’s also about paving the way for young minds to thrive when they arrive.”

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