In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m proud to offer my perspectives as an Asian American woman in the Junior League.
I joined the New York Junior League in 2006, having just moved to New York City after college. I wanted to better know my new community and be an impactful citizen of the City. I didn’t know then how impactful the Junior League would become in my own life.
While progress toward gender parity in the average workplace remains slow, the Junior League is where leadership opportunities abound for women and we can step into new roles and take on great challenges. In doing that, I have honed my skills and found my voice. Through our partnership with community-based organizations and elected officials, I have also learned the power of responsible execution, consistent presence, and collective voices—especially for organizations stretched beyond capacity, for populations who experience instability, and for all families who are impacted by governing laws.
My identity informs my experience.
While the diversity of our membership is growing, the Junior League membership remains predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, and of high socioeconomic class. This creates a dominant culture that excludes folx on the margins, shapes how we partner with organizations and work with client populations, and has influenced my experience.
The relational aspect among Junior League women is both beautiful and foundational in training and empowering women leaders. Unfortunately, our women of color experience daily microaggressions from other members as well as racial bias in our Junior League institutional systems—processes, traditions, social norms, and unspoken agreements. We assume best intentions, yet the very real impact is that no matter how adept a woman of color is at navigating these difficulties, our longstanding Junior League culture prevents us from fully carrying out our mission and our commitment to welcoming all women who believe in that mission.
During my term as New York Junior League Executive Vice President (2017–2019) and subsequent service on board work groups, my identity strengthened my work and priorities in breaking down barriers, increasing accessibility, and removing bias across systems and structures. I placed an emphasis on training leaders and members to unlearn and learn anew how we think, feel, and act in anti-bias anti-racist ways. And today, I continue to practice radical empathy and transparent communication and fuse managing, leading, and uplifting women.
The Women of Color Affinity Group chose me.
The birth of the Women of Color Affinity Group came at a timely juncture in my Junior League journey when I was embarking on my term as Executive Vice President, eager to connect with and learn from Junior League leaders around the globe. I was invited to an exciting conversation about resources and support for women of color in leadership positions, and soon thereafter the affinity group was established at the 2017 Fall Leadership Conference. It wasn’t a conscious choice to join the Women of Color Affinity Group—I was quite literally invited to the table at the conference, asked to fuel up on breakfast in kinship, and beckoned to happy hour in revelry.
It is incredible how we have grown as a community since, and I have proudly accepted following in the footsteps of our co-founders Tiffany Blackman and Carla C. Smith as President of the affinity group. In the face of the past year’s physical constraints, the Women of Color Affinity Group has actually expanded our reach and delivered programming we might not otherwise have imagined. Out of the world’s continuing racial reckoning, we have strengthened our purpose and brought women closer—to one another and to the Junior League. Our goal is to ensure Junior League women of color feel as I did many years ago, invited and chosen.
My experience is only one of many.
Amid the inexorable rise in already present anti-Asian racism this past year, I have lived in fear, in sadness, and in reflection.
As a second-generation Taiwanese American woman, my experience is only one of many: in the United States, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders originate from more than 50 countries and speak over 100 languages. Two-thirds of U.S. Asians speak a language other than English at home, 8 out of 10 Pacific Islanders in the United States are indigenous to this land, and multiracial Asians make up roughly 17% of the Asian population in the United States.
It is impossible to encapsulate an intergenerational and intersectional experience in a few words, but I can share that many Asian women feel as I do: my experience in being treated as a perpetual foreigner, of society dismissing racism as my hallucination, and of simply being forgotten is complicated by my own internalization of invisibility and doubt in what others might call “minor” feelings.
And still I go on.
My personal experience is inextricably linked to my ancestors and my community. There is grief and pain, there is hope and faith, there is joy and resistance. Every day, I hold multiple truths, beautiful and dark truths, as I straddle and embrace disparate worlds—and still I go on.
If we are to heal and reimagine a world for all, we must be hopeful—hopeful enough to speak up and be heard, to lift up Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women and tell them they are worthy, and to deepen our work for justice and love in solidarity with our Black and Brown sisters. As activist Dr. Grace Lee Boggs implored, “…linking Love and Revolution is an idea whose time has come.”
Charlene joined the New York Junior League in 2006. She served as Executive Vice President from 2017 to 2019, sitting on the Board of Directors and chairing the Management Council. She has served on a range of board work groups including Strategic Planning, Governance, Finance, Development, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which she chaired. Prior to serving as EVP, Charlene served as the Adult Education & Mentoring Council Head; co-chaired the Milbank/Pelham-Fritz, Da Vinci Explorers, and New Beginnings committees; and sat on the Nominating committee. Charlene is currently serving as the President-Elect on the Executive Board of the Junior League Women of Color, an affinity group open to active Junior League members around the globe. Professionally, Charlene educates and advises in PK–12 independent schools.