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Conversations with Annie Lam

Today we’d like to introduce you to Annie Lam.

Hi Annie, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Born and raised in Sacramento, I now call both Sacramento and Lakewood home. My lifelong pursuit of change-making began in the farm fields of Sacramento where I worked alongside my family picking fruits, starting at the age of seven. I learned a lot in those fields about myself, about my family, about grit and power structures, and as a byproduct of a system that wasn’t created for people like me or who have stories like mine.

Like many other children of immigrant families, my story starts with my parents’ journey to the United States. Like the Syrians, Afghanis and Ukrainians of recent years, my family escaped war and persecution for a better life. There were many obstacles and a lot of pain along that journey. Some of my family members did not survive the escape by boat to safety and freedom. For that, I am forever grateful to my parents for risking their lives to give me and my siblings an opportunity for a better life.

It was especially meaningful to start my first job out of college, nearly 20 years ago, working in halls of power at the California state legislature for two prominent and inspirational Asian American legislators. But I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in. When I looked around, there were so few of us and that question has persisted all my life in every space I’ve been in. I have spent my entire life exploring that question and made it my life’s work to bring change so others won’t have to go through similar situations.

My passion work focuses on transforming culture and creating structures that will lead to a future where the identities of marginalized groups will one day be celebrated instead of questioned. And as the proud Girl Mom of a multiracial daughter, it is my hope that she and future generations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), as well as their Black and Brown siblings, will grow up feeling like they belong and can lead as their full authentic selves without having to ascribe to our current definitions of success and leadership, which are based on non-diverse and non-inclusive values and characteristics.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
As a daughter of Vietnamese Refugees, I grew up feeling like I didn’t quite belong in the White dominant culture that exists in our everyday society and daily living from going to school to purchasing groceries at the market, seeking medical services, and working in the professional sector.

Growing up, I often felt powerless to help my family and I struggled with English early on. I dreaded my English classes and I didn’t understand my homework assignments. The schools I attended then, as they are still today, were under-resourced and my teachers were under-compensated. Walls were built around my elementary school to keep us safe from bullets and it was normal going to bed hearing gunshots. The 14 year old me would never have dreamed that one day I would be able to write at a doctoral level and obtain a doctoral degree.

Throughout elementary school, middle school, high school and even today, I constantly talked to “authoritative figures” to translate for my parents. For the majority of those times, if not all, it was with people who didn’t look like me: from school principals, medical administrators to doctors, and who I saw on TV.

That feeling of not belonging continued to follow me throughout my life, including in my first job working in the California state legislature. The imposter phenomenon is powerful. I didn’t feel like I was smart enough, I didn’t share the same family background as many others who work at a place like the state legislature. For those reasons, I did not share my family story openly with others at work.

However, through education and a lot of self-reflection I realized that I felt that way because our institutions weren’t built to make all of us feel included. They were not built with inclusion and equity in mind. We live in a society where it feels normal to “adjust” so we can fit in in the professional sector. It is normal to “adjust” so we leave behind our cultural values so we can be viewed as leadership material. These cultural systems do not allow for all people to be their authentic self.

I am grateful for my public education, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I started to understand more about my identity. In Asian American studies, I was exposed to the history of injustices and I learned that I was a part of the struggle of the Asian Pacific Islander community, immigrants, and women.

I had a political awakening after learning the story of Vincent Chin, who was murdered 40 years ago this June. His life was taken away solely because of his perceived race with no justice served. His perpetrators never served a day in prison and were only given three years of probation. That injustice inspired me to become involved in politics to help bring change.

Through my mentor, I was provided with an opportunity to work at an exclusive place like the Legislature, which has been the cornerstone of my career. Since then, I’ve devoted my life’s work to ensure that institutions and systems uplift and value diverse identities and to create spaces for young people and professionals to transform and realize their power to impact.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I’ve spent my entire career creating change and empowering others to do the same. I started a consulting firm that builds on this work and I have expertise in organizational change, leadership, advocacy, social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. I have scaled and transformed multiple non-profit organizations that have made significant influence on the representation of women, system-impacted groups, and communities of color in the areas of electoral politics, public policy, and leadership.

I am fascinated with leadership: how it was historically defined and shaped to how it’s learned and perceived over time, and what we as a society can do to change the established understanding of leadership in the United States as it has not been inclusive of all cultures and identities. I explored these questions in my dissertation during my doctoral program in Organizational Change and Leadership at USC Rossier School of Education, which I completed in 2021. The study’s topic focused on the upward career mobility of Asian American legislative staffers in the California legislature.

I currently lead and manage several nonprofit organizations that all serve a common purpose: to build a foundation for historically excluded groups to rise and succeed in industries and professions in which they are typically under-represented, ranging from politics and public service to music and the creative arts. I am also working to produce groundbreaking work that intersects academia, arts, and politics to uplift our system-impacted communities.

I’ll share a bit about just a few of the organizations, listed below, that I currently lead that are redefining what leadership means through programs that build equitable power structures and networks of support.

APIs Mobilize
I founded APIs Mobilize in 2017, a non-profit organization that empowers Asian Pacific Islanders (API), young leaders, to be agents of change through public service. The program is grounded in understanding our history, and our rights, and recognizing the power of our own story.

Our students get access to hands-on learning through legislative internships, leadership development training, and in-depth learning sessions. They also build confidence and learn from inspirational leaders. We also host our signature youth leadership programs in Southern California and in the East Bay. This summer, we are launching an innovative youth program in Sacramento to strengthen Asian-Latino-Black-Native solidarity and to help them foster leadership skills.

I hope that the program will be impactful to high school students the way Asian American studies impacted me as an undergraduate.

California API Legislative Caucus Institute
The California API Legislative Caucus Institute is dedicated to training API elected officials and commissioners to run for higher office. Many current API legislators and constitutional officers participated in our program. The training provides an unprecedented opportunity for participants to gain a unique perspective of the legislature by shadowing a legislator-mentor in their day-to-day activities as well as learning from senior political and policy experts. In 2017, I helped launch the API Legislative Staff Academy, the first of its kind in the nation that helps develop API legislative staffers with upward mobility in the legislature.

Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation
Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation (PBA) is a nonprofit created by Far East Movement, the first Asian American group to score a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts. PBA was founded to support a new generation of API creatives by providing the support, access, mentorship, and community that they need to succeed in the music industry. With support from key leaders of PBA, the Recording Academy Los Angeles Chapter, and the GRAMMY Museum, we launched a collaboration with the GRAMMY Museum to increase opportunities for API high school students to participate in their distinguished summer music education program, known as the GRAMMY Camp, with full tuition covered. Because of this program, young APIs will learn from the best in the field, and be exposed to the inner workings of the industry and leaders.

We’d love to hear about how you think about risk taking?
I believe that risk-taking is key to growth and living a fulfilling life. When I reflect upon the word “risk-taking,” I think of my parents. They are the most courageous people I know and they are so humble about it. They are the epitome of what it means to have courage and I deeply admire them for it.

It took extraordinary courage and selflessness for them to risk the dangers of escaping by boat, especially after witnessing the loss of so many close friends and relatives at sea. They arrived here in the United States with nothing but a dream for a better life for their children. They didn’t have any money nor could they speak English. I can only imagine how scary that experience was for them to step into a new world with so many unknowns. Nevertheless, they kept charging forward to build for our family.

Growing up around my parents, I learned how to be resourceful with the little that we had. From things like saving up piles and piles of plastic bags and reusing them to witnessing my dad working in our yard transforming what one may throw out as “trash” to things we can make use of. It was our way of living that was normalized in our family and I have much more appreciation for it now than before. I remember my dad reconstructed an abandoned shopping cart that was left behind in our neighborhood. He converted it into a tool cart with wheels and he still uses it to this day. It’s a beautiful innovative piece of art that has so much meaning.

My parents instilled in me early on to take risks, have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, be resourceful, and innovate by testing out my ideas and transforming them into something tangible and meaningful.

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