Michelle Kim, BS 11, on social justice and “talking about the hard stuff”

Michelle Kim, BS 11, is co-founder and CEO of Awaken, which leads interactive diversity, inclusion, and leadership workshops. We spoke with Kim about her political activism at UC Berkeley, why she studied business, and how she’s making honest conversations about social justice happen in corporations. A lifelong social justice activist, Kim has served at organizations including the LGBTQ Speakers Bureau, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and the LYRIC board of directors.

Hear Michelle Kim discuss how to create systemic change.

Can  you talk a little bit about where you grew up and what that was like for you.

I grew up in South Korea and immigrated to San Diego when I was 13. It was a tumultuous time as a teenager, navigating a world that is so drastically different, while also coming to terms with who I was as an Asian person, and as a woman. Right around the age of 16 I started grappling with my sexual orientation. I had my first crush on a girl, and that was very confusing, with a lot of internalized homophobia coming out. When I was growing up in South Korea, there weren’t conversations around LGBTQ issues, at least not when I was in school, where it was a foreign thing. Being in so many different spaces geographically, mentally and emotionally, has a lot to do with why I’m doing the work that I do today.

Were there many Asian students where you went to school?

There were but I grew up in a predominantly white suburb. It was weird because my family was low income, but the school district that I was a part of was not. It was a very stark mix of very affluent families and also folks living on financial  assistance. I was in the midst of navigating what that meant for me and how that was affecting the way that I was showing up in school. My dad was undocumented for 10 years and he was not making a lot of money when we came to the States to live with him.

How did you come out? 

I came out to my friends first. It wasn’t like, “Hey, everyone, I am gay,” because I was not sure. I first started talking to my high school biology teacher, who was an out lesbian woman, and she was probably one of the first people I admired who was a lesbian. She was one of the first people I told. She pointed me to the underground support group that I didn’t know about, where during one period every week, LGBTQ identified or questioning students could meet with an advisor. That group, quite frankly, saved my life when I was in a very confused state of mind. They welcomed me and created space for me to explore without shame and blame. After questioning for awhile, I decided that the term that I’d like to describe myself is queer.

You became politically active at a pretty young age and that continued at Berkeley, right?

Berkeley is where my identity as an activist solidified and where my philosophy, my principles, and orientation toward social justice became defined much more clearly. I chose Berkeley because of its legacy and history with the social justice movement, and it was exciting when I got accepted.

I had envisioned Berkeley to be this very progressive, radical agent of change in the social movement. There was a little bit of a surprise when I got here and saw that you really needed to seek out those groups. I started a student organization that’s still in existence called the Queer Student Union.  It was called Queer Straight Alliance when I started it, and it was a space predominantly for people of color and a variety of identities. I wanted to create a space where we could all come together and talk about intersectionality and coalition building. So we carved out the space for us to be able to really engage in that dialogue. And that’s really what propelled me to be more involved in social justice movements.

How did you end up studying business?

I studied business because this one white boy told me, “You’ll never get in.” That’s what lit the fire under me to do it. But as I began studying, I thought business was fascinating. I wanted to understand how these big corporations really operated, which is a big reason why I decided to go into consulting right after school, aside from the fact that I actually needed to make money. The business degree gave me the language and access to the world that I never knew about before. Neither of my parents had worked in a corporate setting, where they could have helped me to navigate getting a job in a big company.

Where did you work after graduation?

My first job was in consulting. I learned a ton and I also witnessed and experienced a lot of harm. I chose the company based on its external marketing and statements around how they cared about diversity and inclusion. I had my own idea of what that meant, but I had no idea what it really translated into in a corporate setting. I decided to join an employee resource group and figured out quickly that the group was all about happy hours and social networking and not about the movement and social justice work that was needed, so I was so disillusioned. I think in my young, activist mindset, I was angry, upset, and cynical.

So did you leave that job?

I left that environment to go into tech because I’d heard that the tech environment was a lot less rigid, more innovative, younger, and therefore that it must be more radical, which also wasn’t the case. I worked for a couple of different tech companies, building customer success teams, and also trying to push diversity, equity, and inclusion forward. I think time after time what I felt and what I found was diversity and inclusion being diluted to a point where it wasn’t recognizable as a social justice movement.  To this day, I tell people that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is actually just an extension of the social justice work that’s happening in the streets. It has to be founded and grounded in social justice principles.

Do you see attitudes changing now? Does this time feel different?

I will say that I have never seen this level of appetite to actually say and name the things that we need to talk about, so that has been very reassuring for me. I have a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism toward the surge of statements that are coming out of corporations, because I do feel like people are rushing to make statements before taking a deeper look at how their organization operates and what commitments are being made behind these statements. It’s questionable. But I will say that this is the first time in a very long time where I feel like there is space for us to actually go in and talk about the hard stuff, and actually use words like white supremacy and anti-black racism in a corporate setting. We’ve been doing it over the last few weeks and it feels different, and I feel hopeful because of that.