INTERVIEWED BY SAMANTHA JOO
Daring. Why did I choose this adjective to describe women who have been the focus of Platform’s mission? It’s because of women like Juliette. She is exactly the kind of person I had in mind when I visualized Platform’s role in mentoring daring women.
Over a year ago, I was looking for a nonprofit organization that focused on social justice in Colorado. I googled key terms and found Chinook Fund. By chance, its program director was a Korean-American, Sueyeun Juliette Lee. I have spent most of my youth in Colorado but did not know a single progressive Korean-American (KA) who was invested in social justice. And it is only this year that I found three KA women who not only embodied the values but were in key positions to effect change. One of them was Juliette.
I tried to reach out to her last year but life happened. So I made a concerted effort to meet with her this year. And I was grateful to have finally connected with her. In our two meetings (one face to face and the other by video-conference), I realized how consciously Juliette had charted her life. I am not saying that she had a 10-year plan which she followed to a T. If anything, she was a very spontaneous person who looked for inspiration to motivate her. Rather, she was thoughtful in making her life decisions. She did not take the obvious or the expected path. Though she has a couple master degrees, she chose to go into nonprofit instead of academia. She chose a path that allowed her to make the biggest impact in her community. I find it remarkable and yes, daring. She created her own path, one that is potentially full of uncertainties but at the same time, right for her. It is always scary but more meaningful and promising for the individual.
This daring attitude was carried into the daily decisions she made at work. Throughout our conversation, I was impressed by her passion to “transgress” the norm to transform her community. She was not tethered by traditional methods but sought to find and execute her innovative solutions. So she is constantly challenging herself to push the boundary. Since she was not motivated by social status, money, or fame, she is willing to take risks, not for selfish gains but for the community. How can anyone not respect her for such a noble goal?!
Lest you be concerned that Juliette is working all the time like a cape crusader, she has a creative outlet that energizes her. She knits …. yes, knitting. It is a great stress-reliever, almost a form of meditation - according to her. I personally would not know - I am more of a remote control couch potato. But I can definitely appreciate the need to get lost in the present, in the rhythm of repetitive motion. For me, that would be basketball. So in a way, she creates even in her downtime; I just conserve or burn energy in my free time. But more than anything, it is clear from her enthusiasm, the energy in her voice, her bodily engagement, and starry eyed look, that she absolutely enjoys being in and working at Chinook Fund. She is energized by her work, her very passion. So you would think that her daytime is consumed by work at the nonprofit. Well, not really. She is also a professional poet (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sueyeun-juliette-lee). I know. A POET. I am stunned … so much so that I am speechless. Artistic, altruistic, and very zen. She is, folks, the whole package.
Chinook Fund was judicious in hiring her; she is a great asset. But that perhaps tells you something about the character of the organization as well. Chinook wants to empower its community through bold and creative methods. And it was lucky to find such a person in Juliette who is able to carry them out.
Sam: What strengths do you bring to Chinook Fund?
Juliette: Part of my job entails fundraising coaching for volunteers—that means helping people get over their anxieties asking for money. Having been a Canvass Director, I know very well that people decline to give all the time for various reasons—but they ONLY give if you ask them to! So, I think I’m pretty good at helping volunteers see the incredible importance of what it means to be a fundraiser, and to help them take the plunge. Our social justice movements need it.
I also bring a lot of humor to my job. I’m incredibly silly! For me, laughing and helping others find joy or humor in the hard times is an act of self-care and resilience.
I think I’m also a good mediator. Maybe it’s from being the middle child, or maybe it’s just my personality, but I can help hold a middle ground when things get crunchy.
Sam: If there is just one characteristic about yourself that you can change, what will it be and why?
Juliette: I’m not the most detail-oriented person. I’m very relationship-based and vision oriented. I wish I could be more detailed—if I absolutely have to be, I can make it work. That said, managing things like finances or contracts, etc., is not my happy place. I have to do some of that, but I’d rather be meeting with a volunteer or recruiting a new partner for our organization.
Sam: Who influenced you the most in forming your views on social justice? And how?
Juliette: I worked closely with feminist sociologist Miliann Kang when I was at UMass Amherst. She encouraged me to apply to join the Advanced Feminist Studies certificate program, to participate in community discussions leading to the launch of multi-college Asian American Studies certificate program, and basically just believed in me. Through her, I deepened my understanding of systemic oppressions and intersectionality. This framework shapes the best of my contributions and effort. She’s an incredible scholar, and someone who I personally look up to in all ways. I love her commitment to community, to dialogue, to fighting the good fight. She also planted the thought in my head that I didn’t have to be a scholar—which was where I was headed. I’m grateful for that.
Sam: Working in nonprofit can be quite challenging sometimes. What keeps you sane?
Juliette: Knitting. Science Fiction. Time with friends. Laughing.
Sam: What role does Chinook Fund play in Colorado now and how does it plan to grow its impact in the new year? Do you think your own role will also change?
Juliette: Chinook Fund is a seed funder for grassroots social justice organizing work throughout the state. We have been a first funder to some of the most progressive groups in Colorado and continue to support radical organizing and highly marginalized communities. We also work closely with volunteers through a participatory grantmaking model that I direct called The Giving Project. I think that The Giving Project is an EXCELLENT way to respond to our current political climate. Through the Giving Project, I train every day regular people to become organizers and advocates. They move money through our granting process to essential organizing work. They also practice what it means to share power with diverse community—we intentionally recruit people from all backgrounds, so it’s an amazing community space.
As far as what Chinook Fund will be doing next year--we’ll be deepening our investment to being a statewide funder and bolstering our rural network, so I’ll be on the road more in the spring! Also, we’re going to keep staying the course. The Giving Project has proven to be an incredible model, and so we’ll be looking to grow our capacity to support is sustainably.
S. Juliette Lee grew up 3 miles from the CIA. The daughter of orphaned war survivors, she is dedicated to assisting minority, displaced, or disadvantaged communities. Juliette earned a BA in English and Masters in Teaching from the University of Virginia, and an MFA in Poetry with an Advanced Feminist Studies Certificate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Juliette’s training includes critical pedagogy and intersectional feminist praxis from an ethnic studies standpoint. She has extensive experience mobilizing communities through grassroots fundraising tactics and community dialogue.