Interviewed by Samantha Joo
I saw Laura Cheifetz in a session at an AAR (American Academy of Religion) conference long, long time ago. I was probably bored with the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) conference which runs jointly with AAR and decided to sit at a interesting program. I don’t remember the session, the year, or the location. I don’t think I even introduced myself which is why I didn’t even know her name. But she left an indelible impression on me. I thought she was the very image of elegance. And if you know anything about the AAR/SBL conference where 1000’s of academics, religious leaders, theological students, etc., meet, that was impressive. First, that I remembered anything; second, that I noticed another human being. I am usually oblivious to my surrounding since I am likely to be lost in my thoughts or trying to avoid people. But something about her struck me as a person who knew how to carry herself.
And if you ask anyone who knows me, I am the very opposite of elegant. I am a wanna-be outdoorsy hippie. But in real life, I look like a nerdy, intense loner with a smile (sometimes). So my friends will probably wonder, “how could Sam know anything about elegance?” Well, one does not need to be elegant to know elegance. Anyone can tell you that Audrey Hepburn was very elegant. And it was a different kind of elegance? Not that she did not have the Hepburn- body language. It was more of a queer-bold elegance. Its that woman who is really comfortable in her skin and could care less about what others thought but in an elegant way. I couldn’t fully describe it - it was just a feeling.
Mind you. I only remember that feeling and nothing else. Since she was at AAR, I just assumed she was an academic or someone with a religious affiliation. I thought nothing about it afterwards until I saw a comment she left on PAAC (Progressive Asian American Community) FB page recently. She was talking about an opening at NAPAWF, where she worked. I remembered her face, that feeling, and my curiosity piqued. She previously worked at a Christian publishing company and now was working at NAPAWF as deputy director. And NAPAWF represented for me the ultimate political feminist organization. It was THE organization that anyone would be proud to join.
It was only when I was fundraising and marketing our Spring event that I decided to reach out to NAPAWF and of course, I contacted Laura. I don’t think she even knew who I was or what I did. Remember, I never introduced myself so she would not have known me from a Jane or an Alexandra (my favorite name). But I contacted her anyways and asked if her organization could support us. Rather than ask me a million questions because I could have been a con-woman or a mass murderer, she asked the ED about supporting or marketing our organization. More than trusting in me as a person, which I absolutely appreciated, she went out of her way to help another person who was struggling to fund a project. That was priceless and quite frankly, made me speechless and feel indebted to her. It didn’t matter whether we were actually funded or not; it was knowing that someone was willing to stick her neck out for another person.
When it was time for me to contemplate who I wanted to interview, it was a no-brainer. Not because I felt indebted to her or because I had this memory of her as being elegant, but because I was curious about her journey. How did she go from a religious to a secular organization? You start in one direction and then end in a different direction. That nagging question was guiding my interview with Laura who is extremely versatile and therefore relevant.
Sam: I met you while you were in the religious world, meaning the Christian community, and then next thing I saw you on FB, the PAAC (Progressive Asian American Christian) page, and it said that you were part of NAPAWF. And I thought to myself, “That’s a strange transition.” So what made you make that shift from basically a religious organization to a pretty much secular organization?
Laura: I feel like the work comes from the same place for me. I am really concerned about how everyone, I mean not just the people, but the planet, that we all do well. I really enjoyed my previous work in the religious sector because I felt like I was working on something meaningful. But I always followed policy and politics cause they really impact our lives a great deal. I am not one of those people who can ignore that. I am aware of how legislation, how court cases have decided how we live, and local policies as well. So I’ve always kept an eye on all of that. But especially when I was living in Kentucky and the governor was elected. It was a state with one of the most successful Medicaid expansions, overseen by a Democratic governor in a largely Republican state. He’s a Southern Democrat, so a particular kind of Democrat. With that, I was fine. And then Kentucky elected a Tea Party Republican governor. I was a little less comfortable because me and my partner, we are women of color and we’re queer. It didn’t feel great but we lived in the city proper so we had more safety. Right? Because the city itself is very queer friendly. And then when Trump got elected ... it needed to be all hands on deck. If I don’t take the opportunity to transition now, when is it enough of an emergency to act?
Sam: I have a couple of follow up questions. You talk about policy and politics in a Christian publishing company. Now, I write a lot and in my arena, the Hebrew Bible, there is resistance to incorporating policy and politics. Lots of the major journals and traditional publishers don’t want you to get into policy and politics because they are saying that it is not objective. But it seems like you were with a different kind of publishing company.
Laura: The publisher that I worked for, we had a range of things and I was not editorial. I was PR. So of course, there were resources, like the hymnal for instance. And the Bible stuff, we had an editor and a team that worked on this. But we also had more general reader books and I was a little more capable of helping out with them. And being aware of some emerging work on ethics, I had a lot of personal interest. In addition, the PCUSA [Presbyterian Church U.S.A.] has a lot of policies that addressed particular things and so I was very aware of them. And also I did a lot in my own free time. We had to pay attention to the gamut. And there were some areas where you can’t really be very partisan at all because of the nature of the what’s being published. But there are some other areas that tend toward the partisan. You publish something like Walter Brueggemann [influential progressive Old Testament theologian] who clearly has a point of view.
Sam: The second follow up question, you were talking about Trump. So you think that his election triggered this path into NAPAWF?
Laura: Yes and no. It pushed me to think a little more deeply about where I could be helpful in this moment that we find ourselves. And also, I had known the ED of NAPAWF for several years. She had asked if I was interested in this kind of work.
Sam: So it was not an open job search?
Laura: It was not like I threw myself out there cause I saw an ad ...
Sam: The second big question. Do you see any difference between the organizations? In Christian publication, you run into a lot of Christians whereas in NAPAWF you run into a more diverse group of people from different religious background or non-religious background. Are there any differences?
Laura: Not really. I think my group of friends has always been inclusive of people of different religious backgrounds and no religious backgrounds. I probably know more people who are religious because of my work. But my family is very diverse. So we have Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, non-practicing people, and atheists.
Sam: Just within your family?
Laura: Yes. Just in my family. So I’m pretty literate, shall we say.
Sam: So in terms of differences, you don’t see any, in the select group you interact with. But in the type of work that you’re doing, is it different?
Laura: Yes. Now my work handles issues that clearly impact my life. Does that make sense?
Laura: So where I have worked, we’ve been inclusive of queer people and we have been inclusive of people of color. But this was the only place I have worked where I am fighting for my own rights as an AAPI queer woman. And that I think is the most different.
Sam: Since its more personal, do you find yourself more invested in the organization, in the issues they fight for?
Laura: I wouldn’t say more but probably. Probably ... yeah (with some hesitation).
Sam: [I had relayed an example of someone I knew who worked in both API and non-API organizations. While there was more money in non-API organization, she did not feel personally invested in it. She felt “lost” in the non-API organization because she did not know how to relate to the people at the organization on an emotional level. It was not her story, her family, her community, her tradition, her culture. She did not know how to put her whole heart into the non-API organization.] Do you find it more personal?
Laura: I think I am always invested. I’m that kind of person who gets invested in the work that they do. I don’t take jobs that I don’t care about. But I think that my all the places I’ve worked fit into a narrative. People who are closest to me fit into this narrative. So all the work I do is very important. But I am proud to be able to do this [work at NAPAWF]. A lot of people don’t have the privilege of working for their own communities, cause we all have to find a way to support our families. It feels like its a huge opportunity.
Sam: The third question: These interviews will hopefully be read by young women who are wanting to enter social justice and nonprofit work. You personally have moved to so many different cities and worked at different organizations. How would you define a “life journey" for someone who is about to embark on her life?
Laura: I feel like my path is not very linear. Actually, that’s true for a lot of people. And I think sometimes we get this idea that it will be easy to figure out our lives. But that never happens. And so I have the ability to be more flexible. My spouse can move for my job; she can work anywhere. But I think its more like, where do I see opportunities to grow and learn. If you can do it, you should go do it. Because no job is forever. There is no such thing. But learning is forever ...
Sam: So, basically, it is an open book?
Laura: I think so.
Sam: So potentially you can move from this position to a different role in life?
Sam: Even in my life, it has taken a different trajectory and I don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. For good or for bad. I don’t know. We’ll see. Its learning how to be flexible because if you’re not flexible, you’re gonna be miserable. If you’re set upon that one goal and your life takes you in a different direction and you’re still set on that one goal, you’re gonna be stuck and unhappy.
Laura: And not every job has to have so much meaning? And sometimes we do jobs because they’re perfect ... in that moment, but they never end up being perfect ... because jobs involve people and organizations. Sometimes a job is a way for you to be able to do what you want. I feel that for me, I’ve been able to find jobs that have meaning but it is a privilege because not everyone is able to find that. So then it makes sense to think like, “what does this mean for your whole life?” Maybe this is a great way to pay bills for a couple of years until you figure things out or maybe it gives you more space to go hiking on weekends or something else that you really care about so you’re gonna throw yourself into it. All of those are possible and all of those are right at one time or another.
Sam: [And of course, I had to share a personal example] The next question I have: the source of your inspiration because I think everyone has one or many sources of inspiration. What is one that you could sort of share with us?
Laura: The sources of inspirations are in generations. So the generations before, like all of these people, my relatives and other people, like the AAPI women in social justice movement who really went through a lot to make all of this possible. I don’t take that lightly. Like all the different things they advocate for, from simple to very complex. Some people die doing this. And spent their whole lives disenfranchised so I wouldn’t be. But then I also think of generations that are coming after us. I don’t have kids but I feel responsible to all of them. Right? Because its on me as well everyone else to make this place better. To make the present better, to make the world a better place. And so that’s what I feel like. That’s my inspiration.
Sam: Is there anyone in particular who inspired you more than anyone else?
Laura: I'm really broad in my inspirations. Why limit myself to one when we have a wealth of inspirations? How about Yuri Kochiyama. I love her and her story, because she is complicated, and different from me, and fierce in her convictions.
Sam: I don’t have kids. But I have a lot of nieces and nephews and sometimes I don’t want to leave the world a better place. I want them to suffer because they’re not concerned about anything. [I am not the best aunt in the world though my nieces and nephews think I am :)]
Laura: I have those moments.
Sam: We have to contribute because otherwise, what is the meaning of our lives if we don’t contribute. And the final question: nonprofit work is always stressful, so much is on the line, so how do you relax?
Laura: I have a really great partner, really great friends, a very cool family, and 2 dogs.
Sam: Let’s see the dogs. [And she kindly showed me a picture of her dogs]
Laura: Being with these friends, we’ll go out and eat with them. Its super fun. And we have these other friends - we just go to their house and watch a movie. And everybody will get a drink and sit there with their phones and watch a movie. Just relax. And with family, we have nieces and a nephew. I try to see them and our siblings are good about making that possible. So I would say, people and family. Now, I am learning more about where we can go hiking with the dogs. So that’s been fun too.
Sam: It seems like most of your friends and family are in Atlanta?
Laura: I would say that lot of our friends are in Atlanta but lot of our friends we only see online. I am always talking to somebody online. But her family is in Florida or Puerto Rico mostly. And my family is mostly in California.
I realized through this conversation, the importance of having diversity in one’s life. My family and community is somewhat homogenous, Korean Christian, and therefore lacking in the richness and depth of personalities. Laura has that and you can tell she has been favorably impacted - she is open and engaging. And she’s not afraid of difference, of challenges, of obstacles, of life. I hope we can all have this diversity of interactions in our lives.
Laura Mariko Cheifetz: Deputy Director of Systems & Sustainability
Before coming to NAPAWF, Laura was Vice President of Church and Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation in Louisville, KY. She helped provide strategic leadership in publishing, edited a quarterly devotional with a circulation of over 80,000, engaged with regional and national church bodies on behalf of PPC, and served as a spokesperson for the organization. Prior to PPC, Laura served as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Forum for Theological Exploration (formerly the Fund for Theological Education) in Atlanta, GA, working with new pastors and partner institutions and organizations committed to developing the next generation of Christian leadership. Before that, she was director of the Common Ground Project (formerly the Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Exploration, Nurture, and Transformation Project, or AADVENT Project), expanding a program for Asian Pacific American young adult Christians and pastors to include Latinx and black/African American young adults and pastors in engaging vocational discernment and mentoring for the next generation of diverse Christian leadership.
Laura is multiracial Asian American of Japanese and white Jewish descent. She was the fourth generation of her family to be born in California. She grew up in eastern Oregon and western Washington. Laura has a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Spanish from Western Washington University, an M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary, and an MBA from North Park University. She and her partner live in Decatur, GA with their Shih Tzus, where they enjoy lively discussions on politics, race, religion, and whatever else one isn't supposed to talk about in polite company.