Meet the 16-year old who got thousands home safely after protesting

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a spark in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The wrongful killing of George Floyd by police has resulted in protests organized in all 50 states and abroad in places like Berlin and Barcelona. Last week, with curfews in effect across the nation, protesters were met with higher rates of violence. During this time, many police agitated and arrested protesters as an attempt to suppress their voices. 

Though many are being tear-gassed and injured by the very people whose job it is to keep them safe, the compassionate American spirit continues on. This is true with protesters like Stefan Perez, a teenager from southwest Detroit who led thousands home safely after a peaceful protest. The 16-year old has since emerged as a powerful leader for the Black Lives Matter movement and even spoke to Detroit’s own mayor. 

SEE ALSO: Very Good Light stands with Black Lives Matter

But being vocal about social injustices isn’t new with Stefan. “My first few raps that I actually wrote around sixth grade were directed towards civil rights and activism,” he recalls to Very Good Light. “I used to write about how it’s unfair that we have to live like this. I talked about social injustices and systematic oppression we must endure on a day-to-day basis because of the color of our skin.” 

The high schooler didn’t plan on becoming a leader in the protests—it happened naturally. “I actually didn’t organize the protest. I just came and attended,” Stefan explains. “There was an organization that was there and I was with them at first, until I realized they wanted to keep people after curfew. This is not a problem, people protest when they want to protest, but I still wanted to make sure people got home.” 

Stefan took the moment to speak out to almost 2,000 protesters. “That was a very different type of adrenaline and I knew I had to get the people home safe because they were listening to me.”  

Stefan and friends at a protest

But it’s his devotion to his hometown that he cares for most. 

He recalls a time in life where he put himself in a predicament that led to housing insecurity. “I left the house and my mom moved out of state,” he says. “At first, I was with my grandma, but then I left and it was just me on my own.”

Stefan describes at this point living out in the streets. He was living with no money in his pocket, little to no food in his stomach, barely any clothes on his body, and couch surfing from place-to-place.  

While advocating for Black Americans, Stefan’s time living on the streets led him to also value helping out the homeless in his community. After protests, if there’s any food or water leftover, Stefan passes it out to the often-overlooked homeless population. “We do have [homeless] people that walk by and so we say, ‘Hey we’re giving out food and water. Take what you need, take what you want to sustain yourself.’ Right now, I’m fighting Black Lives Matter, social injustice, etc. and at the same time. I’m still trying to help fight the battle against homelessness and stuff like that. I’m just trying my best.”

Stefan has experienced many tragedies in his years but he knows he isn’t an isoloated case. He describes the power behind his strength to be through his brothers and sisters that have passed away. 

“I’ve lost many people through gang violence, car crashes, sickness, and jail,” he tells us. “I actually saw one of my close friends die in a drive-by shooting. They always told me that I was going to be something great all my life. But I saw me ending up like them, not being here and alive. I was going to be in a box either way, whether that was going to be a box in jail or a box in the ground.”

Stefan beat the odds that he never knew he would. “I never expected to hit 16, so the fact that I’m here made me question, ‘What does that mean?’” he says. “Every time I march—every time—I think of them, I just remember how they told me, ‘You got this.’ The death that affected me the most was my brother Reggie. He was supposed to be graduating so I’m going to walk across that stage for him. But who knew I would have walked across so many stages before I hit that graduation stage?”

Even though protesting is new to Stefan, he wants to continue doing it and working towards his future. “Besides school and music, I am also trying to support my friend’s real estate businesses. With the connections that I have now with the city, hopefully, I can get them grants and properties. This is, ironically, not just flipping houses, but flipping the community towards us. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted a peaceful protest—because I should be filled with rage, but you have to break down the system, not the buildings.” 

Finally, Stefan describes the future as being like a computer. “Everything needs to update eventually. Systems need to update, such as the police, Congress, and the government. We can achieve that if we put enough power. Even when I was given the platform and opportunity to discuss other things,  I still talked about the message. Because that’s the main focus of what we’re trying to get in there. So in five years, I hope to be alive. I hope to see the people that I’ve marched with and fought with and continuously done this stuff with alive also. I just hope that we can continuously build a future for ourselves.”

Change is coming – and Stefan proves it’s never too late (or early) to fight for it.

What it’s like to be a young Black activist in a country that forces you to grow up

Little Miss Flint collageWhen we imagine discrimination we often imagine adults, not children.

Fighting for civil rights can come in all shapes and forms—the #BlackLivesMatter initiative came to life after the wrongful killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  When the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin occurred, the murderer, George Zimmerman, stated that he felt “threatened” and that Martin looked suspicious because he was wearing a black hoodie. While holding Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea in his hands, this young Black man was fatally shot.

Zimmerman fired his gun based on a prejudice and racist mindset that American society feeds off of. Historically, our country has dehumanized Black people. This, including children, a term called “adultification bias.” Adultification bias is described as a form of racial prejudice against minors from PoC backgrounds who are treated as more mature than they actually are by a reasonable standard of development. 

This means that the minor will oftentimes find themselves under conflict more so than not. A look at the Tamir Rice case, for example, proves this to be true. Tamir was only 12-years old and shot on sight by a police officer twice his age because he had a toy gun in his hands.

Adultification leads to a world of turmoil for Black children. While young White children are often disciplined with special considerations for age, Black children are not. According to a finding, Black children are perceived to be nearly five-times older than they are. They are 18-times more likely to be tried as an adult in court, and Black children make up 58% of children that are incarcerated in adult facilities. 

The law is designed to treat all people as equal, but the systemic racism that operates within the current bounds of the law leads to a Black child walking into a courtroom that immediately discriminates based on the color of their skin. Because of adultification discrimination, America has forced these young kids into fight or flight mode. It’s also created a new generation of young Black activists. One such person is Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, aka Little Miss Flint, who’s become a powerful advocate for clean water and continues to use it in the current #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“The first time I used my voice to fight for human rights, I was 8 years old, marching for clean water in my hometown Flint, Michigan,” Mari tells Very Good Light

In an effort to cut costs in 2014, Flint switched its water source to the Flint River. Due to poor treatment and a lack of testing, the water caused many health issues, ranging from skin rashes to hair loss. As Flint’s citizen’s cried out to government officials, the topic was wrongfully overlooked.

As a result, Mari took to social media to raise awareness of the water crisis going on in her hometown. At the young age of 12, through activism, she is aware of the discrimination that falls upon her race. “Being a Black female activist I have found that I have to work a hundred times harder than some of my white counterparts to earn even a fraction of the attention that they get.”

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission stated that the lack of response from the government was a “result of systematic racism,” as 57% of Flint residents are Black and 41% of residents live under the federal poverty level. A town that many were not previously familiar with quickly began to make national news, and President Obama even flew to the State to address the issue, and met with Mari himself.

Through fundraising, Mari was able to share 1 million bottles of water with her city and now works with the Hydroviv-water filtration company for a more sustainable approach. As a seasoned activist, she highlights the importance of mental health during a time where America is marching nationwide. 

Little Miss Flint showcashing her water filternationIf you need to take a day off to make sure you are taking care of yourself, please do. You can’t go out to fight for justice if you are running on fumes,” she says. “I love to vibe out to music and watch anime. I also love to draw and skateboard. I have to make sure I balance myself, or else I get drained both physically and emotionally.”

While she has spent the last few years lifting up her community, she looks to her own future as well with great hope. “In five years,  I will be getting ready for my senior year of high school, applying to schools, and deciding what I want to focus on in college. I hope the world will be at a point where when Black people’s names become a hashtag, it is because they are doing something amazing, and not for being killed by the police. Lastly, I would hope that Flint finally has clean water.” 

At just 12 years old, Mari continues to be a voice for human rights. Her Instagram showcases her efforts daily, and activism runs in her family, as she just recently posted a video of her little sister leading a chant during a protest. 

While trying to understand the Black American experience from a youth’s perspective, she had one impactful thing to say: “It’s not easy,” she starts, “People can be cruel, and you have to work hard to be able to succeed, but being a Black girl in America I am magical.” 

Generation Z Asian American activists are loud, proud and ready to fight

May is officially Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrating the journey of Asian Pacific Americans, what they’ve accomplished, and what’s to come. For an entire week, Very Good Light is kicking off a series of Asian American stories, highlighting the future of Asian America. From Generation Z activists, healthcare workers on the front lines, music artists, and more, we’re uplifting Asian stories. We’ve partnered this week with Hate Is A Virus, a grassroots campaign that aims to raise $1 million to businesses affected by COVID-19. Together, we hope to spark conversations, change, and community. After all, the Asian American experience is the American experience. We’re in this together. For more on Hate Is A Virus, go here. 

Generation Z asian american activists

They’re fierce, they’re loud, they’re Gen Z.

In 2020 Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing population in the US. Which means the power is in the hands of Generation Z. After all, they’re the future of politics and will become a major segment of eligible voters. The Asian American population has seen immense growth in the past two decades, growing 139%, larger than any other major racial and ethnic group. 

Politics aside, Asian Americans are the undeniable trendsetters in America. A Nielsen study found that Asian Americans are the firsts to adopt devices and digital trends. Which means yes, TikTok, a Chinese company, was used by Asian American en masse, first – then adopted for Americans later. With a collective $986 billion in buying power, this demographic is only quickly growing. 

All that being said, it’s clear that Asian Americans are more relevant than they’ve ever been. But as we’re seeing Asian Americans rise in power, we must reflect on their collective pain. Sadly, we’re seeing a spike in hate crimes towards Asian American communities, one where there are up to 1700 reported each day. Though lamentable, it’s nothing new. Asian Americans have always, always faced pushback. This, starting with Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first immigration law recorded that excluded an entire ethnic group. 

SEE ALSO: Being Asian American means that you’re always enraged

Three years later, many Japanese, Korean, and Indians began to arrive in America. The act of categorizing India as a “Pacific-Barred Zone” country is described as “Hindu Invasion,” one that made it near-impossible for Indians to immigrate with white Americans fearful they were taking over. 

In 1924, all Asian immigrants excluding Filipino ‘nationals’ were denied citizenship; naturalizations and were banned from owning land and marrying a white person. Asian Americans were seen as, “threatening, exotic, and degenerate.” During World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Internment Camps were built primarily on the West Coast separating hundreds of thousands of families. Leaving a lasting impression that has affected the Japanese community to this day.

But thanks to the Civil Rights movements led by black Americans in 1965, there was a lift on bans and 20,000 immigrants from each country would be allowed in on an annual quota. This was the first time that Asians were able to come to America as families. 

Like other PoCs Asian Americans’ strides and monumental efforts and triumphs in building this country into what it is today have been foreshadowed in History by their white counterparts. There’s also been erasure and invisibility when it comes to Asian American stories. Simply put: Americans have benefitted from Asian Americans’ contributions to this country and were built from the labor of all people of color. 

With that being said, we’re seeing that generations later, Asian Americans are thriving. Through their collective pain, the new generation of Asian Americans is making strides to challenge the current narrative. 

They’re loud, proud, unabashedly Asian American, and going nowhere. Here they are, in their own words…

Abe Kim, 22, California, Student, Actor & Model

Abe Yoon for Very Good Light Article

Being an Asian American is living in various states across the country I’m still asked, “Where are you really from?” I feel like all the tribulations that I have faced solely from living the Asian American experience have challenged me to speak up for myself by doing what makes me happy. 

Growing up in a predominantly white community, it didn’t take a lot for me to realize that I was a bit different from everyone else. It was as if my race was an open topic for discussion for everyone who noticed my presence, but when I stood up for myself, I was “too sensitive.” The worst experience was in high school when I finally entered the dating scene. That was the first time people would reject me solely because of my ethnicity. As a result, I started blaming and hating myself for being something that some people didn’t like. 

With the rise of xenophobia in the current climate, I’ve experienced discrimination yet again. Before quarantine was put into place, I called a car through a ride-sharing app for a casting call, but once I got in the driver refused. He told me he felt “uncomfortable” to drive me. I tried to ask him why, but I knew with what was going on and the way he looked at me that it was because I was Asian. It was horrible and I felt shaken. Aside from my casting not going as well as I had wanted, I came home feeling like I had done something wrong; reminiscent of the feelings I had back in high school. 

As a Korean American who can’t speak Korean fluently, I feel like I struggle with both identities all the time. But beyond not being able to have a full conversation with my grandparents, I have had a weird experience with not being “Asian enough” in America. I wanted to have Asian friends who understood my experience, but it was often rare for me to find anyone who sought refuge in their ethnic community after experiencing their own internalized-racism. Even though I sometimes feel like an outsider, that does not account for how welcoming other AA’s have been whenever I felt lost. Seeing other Asians being vocal about their beliefs online is a form of representation, promoting our identity that is often undervalued.

Like many other starry-eyed people who live in LA, I love acting as it’s my passion. Going to castings is very interesting. As you would have guessed, I don’t see many Asians. Some may say this is to my advantage, even so, it has been hard to land a job from modeling. The deciding factor may not be because of my race, but the feeling of possibly being the token Asian to fill a quota at castings is very real.  

I am so grateful for those in the entertainment industry who have made time in their schedule to connect with me. This past fall, I had the incredible experience to intern at Saturday Night Live, which also happened to be the first season Bowen Yang appeared on the cast. Even though I was an intern, he was always open to answering any questions I had about his career and gave advice about my own. I am so grateful to have made such a genuine connection that I believe wouldn’t be the same had we not been Asian-American. 

I think it will take more than one generation to change the bias against Asians. I’m glad Gen Z has used the internet in such a revolutionary way where we are finally being taken seriously. In the future, I hope one day to not think twice about seeing an Asian on a show or movie. I hope more Asian Americans would challenge their community once it comes to its anti-Blackness. Although our experiences as AA are valid, I do not think we need to tear down another community to have our voices be heard; especially a community that has fought so hard for the rights of other people of color. 

Pooja Mehta, 24, New York, Master’s Student  & Founder of I Define Me

Pooja Mehta for Very Good Light Article My Asian identity really came into play when I was diagnosed with a mental illness. The South Asian community is generally not accepting of mental health issues, and I was so scared of the response that I suffered in silence for two years. When my parents found out, they were so helpful and supportive, but even then I was told to keep my diagnoses a secret from my community. When I started speaking out about my diagnosis, I knew I was excluding myself from the community, and making myself the odd one out. But it has been worth it.

As an Asian American, you get the best of two incredibly rich cultures. I grew up taking both ballet and Bharatanatyam classes, eating both pizza and pakora, and listening to AR Rhaman and Adele. Sometimes, I do find myself struggling with both identities Asian and American – to me, I see the hyphen between Asian-American as a seesaw, and you’re trying to get it to sit just right. Every time I am with South Asians, I feel like I’m too American. Every time I’m with Non-Asians, I feel like I’m too Asian. But lately, I have been more comfortable in that in-between space–recognizing that there is something unique and complex in my identity and that is something to be celebrated.

I distinctly remember when I was in first grade, my mom had made my favorite lunch–okra sabji and roti. One of my friends and I sat down for lunch, and when I took my food out, she started screaming about how gross my food was and how much it smelled. I was so embarrassed that I threw the food that my mom had spent so long making away.

Project: I Define Me is a project I founded that aims to reduce the stigma around mental illness by showing the person behind the disorder. People with mental illnesses are, first and foremost, people, and I aim to demonstrate that through storytelling. I was inspired to start this because so many times I would tell people that I have a mental illness and suddenly that’s all they would think of when they thought of me. I wanted to create a platform that allowed me and others to define themselves outside of our diagnoses. 

Once I started my journey as a mental health advocate, I realized that the value of my voice was the fact that I came from a South Asian background. I talked about how my identity shapes me, my celebrations and doubts about it, and how that influenced my mental illnesses and my recovery journey. When I started speaking out, someone reached out to me and told me that by sharing my experiences, they didn’t feel so alone and were inspired to get help. That is when I discovered how important and valuable the work that I do is.

Being a child of immigrants, trying to balance these two defining aspects of my identity, and living with mental illnesses puts me in a space where my experiences are needed in the world. I promote the beautiful parts of my culture, speak out about the flaws in my culture, and work to make sure that the Asian American Identity, as it relates to mental illness, is one that is receptive and positive. I hope for a future of celebration for our identities and our cultures within the Asian American community. I hope for a future where we can be unapologetically ourselves, without the shackles of stereotypes. And I hope for a future of wellness, where trauma doesn’t get passed down through generations and where we can all thrive together.

Fynest China, 21, Hawaii, Digital Content Creator

Fynest China for Very Good Light Article The first time I went back to the Philippines, I was really able to reconnect with my cultural identity. The entire trip helped me reconnect with my childhood memories and I was also able to see how I used to live my life back then. When I moved to Hawaii as a child, it was never a challenge for me to balance my identities, because I still connect with my culture whenever I’m home by speaking Tagalog and eating Filipino dishes that my mom cooks. Growing up in Hawaii I was exposed to various cultures because it is a melting pot with a variety of different ethnicities and cultures. On the island, we have a variety of food places to eat, whether it’s Korean food, Chinese food, Filipino food, etc. A lot of people also speak different languages and are very open to diversity.

That doesn’t mean that growing up, I didn’t face challenges. In middle school, I went through a time where I was getting rid of my Filipino accent in order to try and fit in with the other kids. I got rid of my accent because I didn’t want to be made fun of by other kids. As a result, kids were nicer and less harsh to me when I got rid of it. Now, I wouldn’t care at all if I had an accent. Today, I’ve grown from these challenges. It is a process but I have been feeling confident and really working on accepting myself.

A way that I do that is by sharing a lot Filipino-related videos on my social media and I believe it’s a huge way to really promote my culture. I’m doing all of it for fun and to make people happy. Every time I meet or run into someone who knows me, I always cherish it and feel special from it. 

Being an Asian American, I have a broader perspective and understanding of both sides. Having the knowledge to speak both languages is an advantage. Since I live here in the US, it is easier for me to communicate, and still be fluent in speaking my maiden tongue when I go home in the Philippines. I hope for other Asian Americans to not forget their culture.

Holding onto your culture/identity defines who you really are and you can’t really take that away from yourself no matter how much you try to do so. The connection will always be in you. No matter how insecure and emotional I may get, at the end of the day, I still know who I am. And that person is unstoppable.

Eugene Kim, 23, New York, Ad Sales Programmer at Forbes

Eugene Kim for Very Good Light Article When I lived in Alabama I experienced discrimination here and there, maybe some side comments etc. And now, for the first time in my life, I felt weird knowing that whenever I stepped in public, somebody I don’t even know might be out there with malicious intent towards me. I’ve experienced glares from strangers walking down the street and it only got worse when I wore a mask to protect myself. To me, being Asian American means having a deep personal understanding of where you and your family members are from while being able to see the bigger picture of what we call “Culture” within the United States. 

I feel like I struggle with my ethnic identity every day but the biggest moment of realization came to me when I first moved from Hawaii to NYC because Hawaii’s demographic is predominantly Asian. When I moved to NYC, I was put into a world where I was now categorized as a minority. On top of that, I was someone who wasn’t the best at speaking his native language either, so for a while, I felt as if I didn’t truly belong anywhere. I realized that the discovery of “self-worth” is a lifelong journey that requires constant tweaking and improvements.

As I grow older, I’ve come to realize there are certain things you can and cannot change about yourself. To promote my own identity in society, I try my best to network and support my friends who are deep within this community and to those who are making a difference. One initiative I have recently been a part of is We Power NYC. I was a part of their campaign in encouraging young voters to take action and make their voices are heard in the New York primary election. We Power NYC is a group that consists of the next generation of change-makers. Not only should we be exercising our rights to vote but these actions are what’s needed to bring positive changes to our country. Without action, thing’s stayed the same and we’re in a time where we need to be constantly improving. 

In five years, I hope I’m doing some amazing things in fields I have a passion for. You’ll never know what your future is gonna be like but I do know that I don’t ever want my life to feel boring and stagnant. I want to be constantly growing, learning, and trying new experiences as those characteristics are what excites me in life. I currently work at Forbes within their ad sales and programmatic team and also am an avid martial arts fanatic who looks for every opportunity to train and enjoy the beauty of it. In 5-years maybe I’ll have a house or 7, who knows? I also hope to see more of us shown through mainstream media in a better light as I believe it is one of the catalysts that will bring all of us forward and help inspire the upcoming generations of Asian Americans to do more. 

Lisa Phan, 19, Maryland, Digital Content Creator

Lisa Phan for Very Good Light Article In Kindergarten, kids would mock and say insulting terms, then stretch their eyes to make it look like my own. Realizing that I was different for the first time made me feel left out in a way as a 5-year-old. It wasn’t until I was around 14 when I started to make short videos on my iPad and watching more YouTube had I discovered Asians could be seen as “cool” too. From that point forward I was prouder than ever to be Asian American. I started using my platform to share my favorite home-cooked meals on Instagram, used my favorite songs in my videos, and proudly accepted myself. 

Growing up, people around me dismissed my hard work and dedication to honor societies and my YouTube channel and used my heritage as a sole reason for some of my success due to societal stereotypes. One other case of racism is one I vividly remember from the dentist’s office. I was waiting for my younger sister to finish her appointment and these women in the waiting room were just going on and on about how we had to “go back to our country” and learn the American way. I didn’t respond because I was scared. Because racism towards Asians was so normalized, I couldn’t stand up for myself. If I did, people would say that I’m being too sensitive. 

I am so proud of my vibrant Vietnamese culture and traditions and I am extremely grateful for my parents’ sacrifices as immigrants to give me life in America. Being Asian American somewhat defines the foundation of my upbringing and the morals I follow on a daily basis. Vietnamese tradition has helped me mold what I value in life and the American culture I am a part of has shaped my open mind and given me great opportunities. Asian Americans of my generation can probably attest to the fact that we hold our heritage and nationality close to our hearts and identities. Many of us grew up confused as to which society we fit in most. By blood, we are Asian, but our mindsets may match up more with the Western world.

I just want to present myself as a role model I wish I had as a little girl, or at least someone else rather than Mulan. I try my best to create in the most positive light and also share my struggles to relate to fellow Asian Americans. I want others in my community to feel supported and open to sharing their experiences. The best part of being Asian American is just having the opportunity to be part of such a diverse and inspiring community is incredible. I got to learn two languages as a baby, I enjoy a bit of the motherland at home, and then once I step outside, I’m able to take advantage of the opportunities in America. 

Rosie Ainley, 22, Illinois, Filmmaker & Activist

Rosie Ainley for for Very Good Light Article I always knew I was different, I guess. Growing up on the south side suburbs of Chicago, the only other Asians we saw were at the Chinese restaurant down the street. All of our family live on opposite sides of the country or the world. My sister and I were pretty much the only Asians at our schools. On top of my family being Asian, both of my parents are deaf and my family communicates via American Sign Language, so eyes followed us wherever we went. Everything about my identity was confronted constantly. 

Joining an AAPI organization at University was the absolute best move for my cultural identity. I was on the executive board of the AAPI organization there, so defining what being Asian American meant to me was something I was confronted with daily. Being able to find an actual community where people not only accepted my identity but shared the struggle within it transformed my life. It didn’t feel like my voice was falling on unwilling ears. They wanted to hear me. They understood me. They were willing to fight for my ability to just be. To me, I think being Asian American means being enriched by a distant culture most of us hardly know. But we suffer for it, and we fight for it. We carry pride in our hearts and the weight of our families’ suffering on our backs. The discipline is grounding but lifts us up to success our ancestors could only dream of.

In elementary school, I had my “lunch box” moment. I remember that it got so bad, I refused to open my lunch or even throw it away at school. I just starved myself and sat there with a closed bag while everyone else ate. I tried to hide it in the trash at home, but my parents found it and sat me down to talk about it. Maybe that’s a time I had a partial reckoning of my identity.

I’ve seen and gotten a couple of comments on social media, with the whole “Asians will eat anything” and “They should go back to their own country.” At this point in my life, I’ve gotten tired of trying to argue with those brick walls who are mostly trying to gaslight. So I let them roll off my back. When everything first started, though, and we began to see the first hate crimes and attacks in the news, I was scared. My mom was still leaving the house pretty frequently and by herself. So to imagine your mom – a middle-aged deaf Asian woman with a mask on while most people still refused one – out alone is anxiety-inducing.

When I was younger we went to family friends’ parties, where everyone spoke Tagalog and saw each other more than once a year, and all I knew was how to say “Lola” (grandma). My dad was adopted by a white family, too, so we never were that connected to our Korean side. I’ve tried learning some more words and phrases of both languages with the help of friends, but being back home again where there’s nowhere to practice is hard. It’s called “the in-between.” The struggle between wanting to know more but feeling like you’ll never know enough. The struggle between assimilating and rejecting American culture. It’s what’s made “Asian American” so hard to define.

My Asian-American identity has become a large influence on my work and will continue to be for the rest of my life. The desire to create and your culture. They’re not things you can put on a shelf. They demand your attention. I hope that Asian Americans find our balance. We’re here to stay and realize that our chance to form a strong community that can fight for ourselves and others is not something we should be taken lightly. There’s a lot of room for hope of the future. The representation in the media has already shown us a great deal of progressive change in the past couple of years. Asian America still has an incredibly long way to go, but the grassroots are growing, and we’re closer than ever to break through the bamboo ceiling. 

Chloe Long, 22, Colorado, Grad Research Student 

Chloe Long for Very Good Light Being Asian American means I have both the opportunity and the responsibility of choosing between two conflicting cultures. I grew up in a Chinese/Vietnamese household. But my peers and my school friends are American. Being Asian American means that, for my whole life, I have been faced with two conflicting sets of expectations. I, along with many many other first-gen AAs, have had to learn for myself to choose which parts of which cultures to embody and which to set aside.

Having a foot in both worlds is great in many ways – I am exposed to different cultures and people. But there also comes the constant feeling of being the ‘other’ – never fully fitting in with a cultural group. It is frustrating. But it helps to have communities of other AAs, it makes me feel like I am really around people like me.

In undergrad, when I was Miss Vietnam for a beauty pageant I wanted to write a performative piece about unfair beauty standards that AA womxn are subject to. In doing so, I realized that my struggle with identity came from being held up to standards I could never feasibly meet from my parents and my peers. Performing that pageant piece was a turning point for me in embracing my identity. Being able to speak up about this struggle, and having people come to me after telling me how it resonated with them – that is when I really became proud of being AA and being able to speak up about these things. 

The first segment of the piece talks about pressure from parents, the second segment speaks about American peer pressure. The third segment is about how the pressure from American culture along with the pressure from the Asian culture is contradictory and it’s impossible to meet both of these. No matter what, you can’t fully satisfy both. The final segment is about how, rather than feeling like you are constantly failing to meet expectations, it is our responsibility as AAs to reshape our experience by being true to ourselves. And since this was for a beauty pageant, I tied this back to the beauty and said that true beauty really is about being yourself. As I continue with that, I have written several rap-esque pieces on my experience as an AA in order to promote my identity.

I hope that we, as Asian Americans can work to establish more of a presence in media – movies, music, arts. It’s very important for America to see AA multi-dimensionality, instead of painting us as one-dimensional background characters. I’d like to see AAs portrayed as everything– we need ABGs, we need nerds, we need artsy AAs, we need gamer AAs… we need visibility for all personality types. I want the media to move away from using “Asian” as a character description, as a role in itself. We need multifaceted representation so that we can move away from America’s long history of dehumanizing Asian culture, and instead, recognize and internalize that we are American people and we are here to stay. 

Dustin VuOng, 17, California, Influencer

Dustin VuOng for Very Good LightIf I could put it into just a few words, being Asian American to me is all about unity, connection, and uniqueness. As Asian Americans, we are all so different culturally and physically. Yet somehow there’s this sense of unity and connection within our community. There are always those things we could relate to each other with whether that be from our collective obsession over boba, to having strict parents or simply just not allowing shoes in the house. In the past, I’ve noticed a lot of Asians hated themselves for their race, but now people are starting to be proud of it and are identifying as being Asian American which makes me really happy.

I had to truly reckon with my identity starting middle school and high school aka the past few years and now. With me being on social media and rarely ever seeing people that look like me, it really affected my confidence and how I see myself. I used to wish I was white so bad, so I could look conventionally attractive according to eurocentric beauty standards that we’ve been brainwashed with. I am grateful to say I never really experienced too much racism growing up,I think I experienced more racism when I was older and now. Even now, I have definitely experienced some racism post-corona.

It has been a gradual transition in embracing myself and I’m still going through it. I think this past year or two is when I started discovering my self-worth. I realized how much I was just hating and putting myself down, so I started practicing self-love. I stopped with all that negativity that I was literally bringing upon myself. I was my own worst critic and hater. I started believing in my abilities and talent, my own beauty, and just myself as a human being. It’s still an on-going journey, but I’ve made some strides since then.

I practice my own Asian American advocacy and promote my identity through the content I share with my following. I talk about being Asian and my views sometimes through my videos and content. Recently for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I made a video called “Let’s talk about growing up Asian American” where I talked about my childhood growing up in America, my struggles, and addressed multiple controversial topics such as Asian representation in media, beauty standards, racist trends, and more

An obstacle I’ve faced is having to work way harder than any other person just because of my race and how I look. I noticed that being an Asian-American / POC that we don’t have it easy. Social media favors white people or people with eurocentric features. So not only does an Asian-American have to be “conventionally attractive”, but we also have to have talent, have a great personality, or just have that extra something “special” about us to make it in the industry. 

There are so many things I hope for that I know are going to take a lot of time and work to progress. First I hope that there is no discrimination or racism towards Asians and all other POC. I hope that there is more Asian representation in the media and that it becomes normalized. Especially within the music industry because I’ve noticed there is an extreme lack of Asian American music artists. Lastly, I hope that the beauty standards change to where Asians can look at themselves in the mirror and genuinely love what they see because everyone is truly beautiful no matter what society is telling you. 

Erin Kong, 22, Arizona, Interdisciplinary Artist

Erin Kong for Very Good LightAs a second-generation Korean in America, I have lapses in Korean language and culture due to assimilation. I was very insecure when I was younger about my Korean-ness – not to the fault of anyone, but my own self-doubt. There was so much I felt I didn’t know, and didn’t know where to start. I intentionally sought out creating relationships with other Korean people and learned how to read and write hangul. Then, I began studying Korean history. Once I did all of that, I no longer aligned myself with the identity “American.” It did not matter if America “accepted me,” because I did not want to identify with a state that committed genocide against Indigenous persons, enslaved West Africans, and decimated countries (including my own) all over the world. 

I am still discovering my self-worth every day. A big part of that journey was recovering from sexual and domestic violence, and the support I received from loved ones. During my healing process, my friends were feeding me, affirming me, and loving me. Once I had the vocabulary to pinpoint reasons why things were happening, I felt empowered enough to try to love myself. I experienced many interpersonal acts of racism in life: slurs, infantilization, hypersexualization, fetishization, etc. etc. However, when examining racism and how it has operated, and continues to operate, in my life, I try to think of how it conducts itself systemically. 

As a survivor of sexual violence, I think about how my body is gendered and racialized so that violence against those who look like me is normalized and enabled by the state through histories of war and violence against Asian countries (and therefore, Asian people). These wars are enabled by propaganda that dehumanizes Yellow bodies, which then, in turn, informs how I am treated in the imperial core. From a very young age, although I did not have the proper vocabulary, I was aware that these interpersonal acts of racism were flags that pointed to larger systemic issues and acts of violence against Yellow people like myself, and colonized people around the world.

There are multiple parts to my identity–gender identity, sexuality, cultural identity, etc. I’m always unpacking all the different moving parts and trying to figure out exactly how much I’ve internalized, and how to work through them. It is something that is continuously occurring. Some days I love myself more than others, but I am always putting in an intentional effort to accept myself. What really helped was finding a Korean online community, particularly made up of other LGBTQ+ diasporic folks, and feeling so less alone.

I also grew up predominantly on occupied Akimel O’odham and Hohokam land. What does it mean to be both a victim of imperialism and someone currently occupying stolen land? I think this is a question all diasporic Asians should ask themselves, and then move accordingly. For example, donating to mutual aid that assists Navajo people, who are being disproportionately affected in Arizona by COVID-19.

A question one of my friends posed to me was, “Who are you accountable to? Who are we accountable to? The people I am accountable to include Black, Indigenous, Brown, Yellow folks. I am accountable to other members of the LBGTQI+ community. I am accountable to those I love, and those I don’t know but must have a love for. I try to learn and listen as much as I can, so I can bring others’ voices in the room even if they are not physically present.

My chosen family has been incredibly supportive. Specifically, I think of all the Black, Brown, and Yellow women and nonbinary people who have loved me since Day One and hold me accountable, allowing me space to grow and change and learn and heal. 

Van Sinsuan, 20, California, Student & Activist

Van Sinsuan for Very Good LightIt’s difficult for me to identify as solely an Asian American because I feel like the term is too broad to encapsulate the varying experiences that different Asian ethnic groups face. However, if I were to define what being Asian American means to me, I’d say that it means being the bridge between generations and culture, which to me is the best part.

The first time I became aware that my racial identity would be a defining factor in how I was treated as a person would be when I moved to America for the first time. I grew up in a predominantly white and Latinx neighborhood and was one out of the four Asians in my school. 

Even at an early age, I experienced discrimination from my peers and was stereotyped to align with the model minority myth.

Coronavirus has only highlighted and accentuated previous experiences of racism and discrimination that I have experienced. I have experienced a much more significant amount of microaggressions and racial stereotyping than I have ever experienced before. 

I constantly feel a disconnect within Asian American culture because I was raised in the Philippines for longer, but my status as an American citizen has set me apart from the people in my community in the Philippines as well. I still struggle with identifying my self-worth, but I acknowledge that I have grown tremendously from my past. The most empowered I felt was when I started transitioning and taking hormone therapy. This year has been the most comfortable I felt with my own body and skin. After experiencing a disconnect with my culture as a Filipino American during my teenage years, I also learned to fully embrace my identity and my culture when I went to college. College gave me an opportunity to experience safe spaces for other Filipino Americans as well as expand on my knowledge for my own history and identity.

I am part of many Filipino American organizations on campus that help Filipino students navigate their way into understanding more about their identity and culture. I am also part of Anakbayan, which is a Filipino youth-powered activist organization that fights for human rights and the national democratic movement. In my personal life, the love that my family and closest friends have given me is what has pushed me to be the person that I could be today. In five years, I hope to find myself finished with film schools and starting my own work as a filmmaker.

As Gen Z, I have seen that we have more resources and knowledge of decolonizing our minds and that we are more accepting of change than our previous generations. I want Asian America to be able to self criticize and reflect on racism, especially anti-blackness, within our own community and find ways to decolonize internalized racism. We still have more work to do, but I am proud of the progress we’ve made in reconnecting with our roots and our culture.

Pranjal Jain, 18, New York, Activist & Founder of Global Girlhood

Pranjal JainI came to America when I was 6-months old and was undocumented for the first seven years of my life. I didn’t have a passport, yet I still had a lot of Indian culture in my life. When I did go back to India I was able to see amazing cultural aspects, whether it be our food or how our culture goes back so many years and it’s remained unchanged and authentic to what it was in the beginning. I think that because of that background in this hyphenated identity being Asian American has really changed for me and it continually changes especially as I grow in age. 

Global Girlhood is an organization that is revolutionizing representation by leveraging social media to share everyday women’s stories of empowerment from all over the world. I think it’s so rooted in my own story as a former undocumented immigrant because growing up, I would never see women that were doing the work that I wanted to do in my life or even represented in media. That is why I do what I do at Global Girlhood and I’m also the Associate Director of Gen Z Girl Gang, an organization that is redefining sisterhood for our generation. We’re invested in creating communities of women that are up to date with each other, invest in each other’s success, and understand the power that we collectively hold when we are collaborating and not competing. 

I practice my Asian American advocacy by first, starting at home. WhenI was younger I’d get a lot of “You need to look how to cook or else you won’t get married,” and they would tie my worth with how “marriageable” I was. Over the years I worked to distimitaize this by saying things like, “Oh, I don’t need to learn how to cook because I’m going to be working and I’m going to be so successful that I’m going to hire someone to cook for me,” in joking coequal ideas that they would understand too. But I have seen myself truly breakdown these misogynistic ideas that my parents and their parents held and I’ve seen myself make space for myself. It’s hard and it takes a lot of time but I think that if you can do it to your family, not only do you change your own life and the lives of the people in your community, I think you gain a lot of courage. Standing up to your family truly seeing that change manifest gives you that power and experience needed to do that in the real world.

I walk into rooms with so much more depth and understanding of how the world works on the other half because I am Asian American. I understand what growing countries may look like. I also understand the importance of ideas and traditions and why tradition untouched is so revered and has so much sanctity to it and balancing ideas. Being fluent in Hindi and being able to read and write it also exposed me to a whole different set of ideas that had given me the opportunity to consume things with an Eastern lens because so much of Western media, and books are influenced by colonized ideas 

My favorite and most rewarding thing about being a leader in space is getting the chance to cultivate other leaders’. Global Girlhood is like my love letter to the world, truly combining all the best things in my life at this point in efforts to pass it on to other young girls and women. So many times when you scroll through social media there are ideas about what set empowerment looks like, what power looks like, what success looks like, etc. and Global Girlhood tries to break down those barriers so that someone all the way in Japan would be connected with someone in California. The more we can do that I believe, the more we create a justice society, because I think stories have the power to expand our capacity for understanding and revolutionize the way we tackle problems and ideas.

I have been limiting my consumption of media to only WOC authors or things that are written about POC. I really see myself reflected in those pieces and just in general with other Asian identities. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ for example, having such a beautifully made movie and something that is so consumed by mainstream culture I think automatically adds to us. A really good way to see more of these identities is to limit our consumption because people are only going to make what other people are watching. The more things that you watch that are written in diversity the more initiative producers have to make things like that.

7 college students on how they’re dealing with coronavirus

With the recent COVID-19 crisis, many schools are implementing a lot of new changes from working remotely to postponing commencement in May. Many are scared. Others are worried. The unknown is super nerve-wracking. 

As a lot of unknown and disruption in our daily lives occur, we spoke with seven Gen-Z college students across the country, scared and worried about what their schools are doing and how they’re dealing with all of the lockdowns, self-isolation, and keeping it together through these trying times.

Below, in their own words…

SEE ALSO: A holistic career coach on managing coronavirus-induced stress and anxiety 

Leeks, 24, Senior at University of New Haven, @leekycrowder

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“COVID-19 has impacted my day to day life most by the fact that internship programs are getting canceled.

I can’t go out in public and do all the things I’ve been scheduled to do in terms of networking, social events, meeting up with friends. I have to use whatever money I’m getting this month from the government to get groceries because of social distancing and quarantine. I have been able to finesse and delay bills because of it.

I began commuting to school and moved back to my hometown of Long Island, New York in 2019 so I do not have to deal with the dorms.  I currently have 10 credits left to complete. From what I was told via emails, campus news articles and friends, everyone has to evacuate the dorms. The only folks who are allowed to stay in the on-campus dorms are international students, people who live 300+ miles away and students who have special circumstances.

Some professors have been empathic because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus. I have two professors (and granted this is online classes we signed up for before the coronavirus came into the picture) who pushed back due dates and even allowed students to submit late assignments. 

Because of the outbreak, I am frequently washing my hands, keeping my room clean, and keeping myself busy through tv shows, movies, music, and lastly praying.

To be honest, I haven’t really figured out how to mentally stay calm during this time. But I have done things like, recently got a subscription to the headspace app, attend tarot card readings, and lastly would say music is my savior at the moment.”

Serenity: 21, Second Semester Senior at New York University, @sophieisserene

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“I had a trip planned to Paris for Spring Break, but because of the outbreak, I ultimately decided to cancel my plans in order to do my part in containing the coronavirus.

NYU has notified students living on campus that they must be out of the dorms no later than March 22 and they cant come back for the remainder of the semester.  Students are only allowed to stay on campus for ‘exceptional reasons that require you to stay in New York and the bar will be high.’ Room and board will be prorated but they basically said, ‘Everyone go home.’

I wouldn’t say NYU has done anything to ease panic because they basically were like, ‘Classes are online, leave the dorm, very sorry and I know this is unexpected but thanks for being flexible, bye!’ I can say though that even though I don’t work on campus they sent out an email about working on paying the students that were on federal work studies so that they will still get paid through the rest of the semester. 

My job is closed (NYC Public School) and of course, classes are all online and I might not get to have a graduation ceremony. Because of how aggressive coronavirus is spreading, I’ve been way more conscious of my body, where my hands are going, what I’m touching, how often I’m washing my hands and for how long. 

I am now practicing social-distancing by just staying in my apartment. I did my grocery shopping already so now I’m looking at just staying home. 

‘Everyone go home.’

All in all, to stay calm I only read credible sources and tell myself to remember the facts, and that it’s not just some completely unknown monster to completely lose your mind over but it is something serious and what the logistics of it are — what precautions to take, what are the symptoms, etc.

I mentally coach myself about thinking to the future when this all dies down and how Paris will still be there and Universities are gonna come up with some way to make commencement up to us.

Right now, we have to just take it easy, watching Netflix, eating snacks that I normally wouldn’t, and taking this as a time to just stay home and practice self-care. To have some sort of normalcy in all this, I would suggest doing some Spring cleaning, give yourself a manicure/pedicure and put on face masks.”

Tim: 20, Sophomore at Fashion Institute of Technology, @timohtreee

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“The coronavirus is affecting me most in the way that I intended on starting a new job soon.

Since the virus is shutting down businesses, my start date was pushed back. Before all of this happened, I put my two weeks in at my other job already, so starting next week I will be unemployed for two weeks.

I live at home, but FIT is requesting that people leave their dorms by March 31st and if not, they are willing to accommodate them. 

To do my part in containing the virus, I am staying indoors. If I do go out, it is to go to my girlfriend’s house and I always use hand sanitizer and wash my hands the minute I am able to. To ease the panic, my school has suspended all in-person classes including labs. My school also constantly sends emails informing us of the steps they are taking as the virus is rapidly spreading. In order to stay calm in such an overwhelming time, I am catching up on my school work, sleeping more and improving my Spanish.”

Bre 19, Freshman at Oregon State University-Cascades, @bree.sandal.chin

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“I currently live on campus. Oregon State said that students are allowed to stay in the dorms, and are encouraged to remain on campus and practice social distancing in order to keep everyone as healthy as possible.

Like many schools, all instruction will be online but the thing is I have a printmaking class next term that is a hands-on, studio class. That also takes away from the experience and learning process that we would be blessed with if we still had in-person instruction.

Moving classes and finals online affected everyone in a different way. For me, I had two papers and a project that needed to be turned in online anyway but, I did have a project for 3-D art that we needed to bring in and present with everyone. That, unfortunately, took away the learning experience of being in class, observing each other’s projects that we worked hard on, and having a nice time with each other sipping on tea.

They have shut down our gym indefinitely and doing body workouts is something I do not prefer in my opinion. But right now, I have to make do with what I have. I am cooped up in my room a lot more since they did ask us to social distance and I’d rather keep myself and my friends safe.

Honestly, I like my room since I made it a more comfortable and cozy space, but being in it the majority of the day feels like I don’t get much done and I’m not getting out there and exploring, even though I can’t right now. It makes the days feel much longer.

I am practicing social distancing by thoroughly wiping down and cleaning everything I have come in contact with, staying updated with the outbreak through reliable sources, and keeping contact with family members to make sure they’re ok.

My school has done great in responding to the outbreak and easing everyone’s panic:

They are allowing students to stay on campus because some may not be able to travel due to funds. They are keeping the dining halls open and helping those with meal insecurities. They also have opened the computer labs and laptop spaces will be available around campus (at a safe distance) just in case some students can’t work remotely. Lastly, they are keeping everyone updated with any changes they decide to make or the district/state implemented them.

Since I’m in my room more often, I clean my room to destress. With that being said, I only leave my room to do things that need to be done and not making unnecessary trips anywhere.

I practice a little more self-care, which to me looks like, playing video games (add me on PSN: @hater_nation5827) LOL, watching anime and drawing/painting while listening to music.”

Ty’Ren, 18, Sophomore at Pace University, @tyrentillett

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“The biggest effect that coronavirus has had on my life is that I can’t go home to California unless I want to be quarantined for two weeks upon my return to NYC.

I have decided to ultimately stay in the city as Pace has allowed us to stay in the dorms, though many have left on their own accord.

With that being said, I’m personally being a lot more cautious with what I touch out in public and trying to stay in as much as I possibly can. Pace sent out emails with updates on the virus and how it will be affecting us: we were just notified classes will be remote for the rest of the semester and commencement will be postponed.

To keep calm, I’m just kind of acknowledging the existence of the virus and hoping for the best for myself and those around me.”

Hana, 20, Sophomore at University at Albany SUNY, @kastratihana 

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“The largest way corona has impacted me is that online classes aren’t that compatible with my major and the classes I have to take. I’m currently live in the dorms but am packing to go home. 

The university decided on the 18th that they would be closing the dorms and gave us until the 5th of April to move our stuff out. Those with extenuating circumstances such as international students, abusive households, no wifi/food are allowed to stay. We will be getting partial refunds when we move out based on the amount of time we’ve been here. 

I can’t go to work because my job is closed due to one of my coworkers possibly having come into contact with the virus. I’m lucky that my parents have a car and that my school is only three hours away so they can come get me this weekend. I’m also lucky that I have friends that live off-campus that can hold some of my stuff for me until I come back in the fall. I’ve been staying home and going out as little as possible. The coronavirus isn’t going to affect me much because I’m young and healthy but I don’t want to risk exposing someone else. However, when my job opens back up, I will be taking the bus to and from work.

I’m honestly not worried much because I know I’ll be okay and my family is okay, I’m just trying not to get exposed to the virus and not expose anyone else.”

Haunani, 22, Second Semester Senior at University of Hawaii at Mānoa, @haunanipreston 

showcasing student who contributed to coronavirus article

“The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted me in the ways that I am a senior and they canceled our graduation ceremony set in May 2020.

I live at home but as of right now people are still living on campus but are not allowed to attend class or eat at the cafe. The school is offering dine-out options for those who currently live on campus. UH Manoa has its counseling services currently open for a limited amount of time Monday through Friday to offer students therapy during this time. 

The coronavirus is really impacting the job that I love. I am currently in the Elementary Education Program to teach grades k-6, and I am unable to teach my students at all. This makes me feel horrible knowing that my students do not have access to technology at home, leaves me without the opportunity to teach them as all public schools in Hawaii are shut down until April 7th. I suppose that this date will be pushed back too, because it would directly impact the safety and wellbeing of teachers and students. 

Knowing that I can’t teach my students, that I am not able to spend time with them and even do what I’m supposed to do to pass all of my courses (which is to teach them daily) gives me a lot of stress.

My niece and nephew also aren’t able to go back to school, and their parents do not trust them going back to school, so currently I am helping to find homeschooling curriculums for them to easily transition into.

Since I am home, I set a solid schedule for myself, similar to what I would be doing in general. Usually, I wake up and get a good workout in, then I make coffee and breakfast for my husband and I. Afterward, I am continuing to do all of my assignments. It’s important for me to find a routine that works because being stuck at home can feel horrible to some people.  For some normalcy through the chaos, I have been doing bible studies as often as I can to keep me busy, using this time to really get my coursework done, and spend time with my family as much as I can.

We know, these are difficult and sad times right now. We all have a responsibility to ourselves, and society to self-distance in order to go back to our normal lives as soon as possible. While a lot of things are not in our control, we are able to promote peace of mind and sense of community as we fight COVID-19. Drink some tea, meditate, and binge watch that series you’ve always wanted to.”

With so much at stake and so many unknowns, we’re wish you all well. Take care, Lighters.

5 father-son pairs on the power of vulnerability

Gillette hands

(This Thanksgiving Day, we showcase the beauty in powerful father-son relationships. Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Fathers and sons around the world share a unique bond. To explore this sentiment, Very Good Light has partnered with Gillette, a brand that’s over 115-years old. Through the years, Gillette has celebrated fathers and sons and the power of their relationship, generation after generation. The brand’s latest campaign, “Your Best Never Comes Easy,” continues the message in 2018 and beyond, depicting how a father’s love and encouragement can pull a son through any obstacle. According to recent research commissioned by Gillette, supportive fathers play an especially outsized role in helping their sons achieve success despite adversity. Below, we came together to highlight five father and son pairs from across the country. This Thanksgiving, each share their unique and empowering stories of overcoming one big obstacle in life thanks to the support they found in their shared bond.

(James Mays, here with his son, Jaynen in Las Vegas. James says he only became a man after he became a father. Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

As James Mays will tell you, he only became a real man when he became a father.

His own father was out of the picture. And he had to navigate manhood while growing up in Los Angeles with his mother, two sisters and female cousins.

“I went through that manly man thing,” he says to us from Las Vegas, on a recent weekend. “I was in the house with just ladies and I needed to prove that I could be a man without a man around.” They weren’t supposed to cry. They were tough. They had it all together.

SEE ALSO: 5 guys get real about modern masculinity

And so, when he had his own son, Jaynen, he was compelled to raise him in a way he’d imagined his own father would have. “I felt I had to prove to myself what a father was from what I learned from other people’s fathers,” he tells us. That meant being a “hard figure,” always having everything figured out, being strong and not asking for help with physical things like moving furniture.

“Men aren’t supposed to care about that. It’s a handshake, not a hug. It’s being distant. But Jaynen taught me affection and how being a man was about providing love.”

“I was channeling that old school 50’s dad – I go to work, come home, eat dinner and get the remote,” he tells Very Good Light. “I’ll tell you what to do. I know the answers. I’m the strong one.”
Being emotional or sensitive – or soft – were unacceptable.

It wasn’t until his young son began showing his physical affection that James was able to redefine what being a man was all about. “My son would give me hugs and say, ‘Dad, I love you,'” he recalls. That very act started to thaw James’ wall.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbHXIN6EzWo

Soon enough, James found that the intimate moments – the cuddles during movies, the hugs goodnight – became commonplace. “Men aren’t supposed to care about that. It’s a handshake, not a hug. It’s being distant. But Jaynen taught me affection and how being a man was about providing love.”

“Men who are comfortable with displaying care, nurturance, and healthy emotions also model healthy masculinity for their sons.”

James admits this is far from what he believed was considered the norm. “I grew up watching guys like (All In The Family’s) Archie Bunker. Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor. Martin. All men who were macho, masculine, fronted for their boys. Being sensitive became a joke.” Today, James says that the new definition of strong fatherhood is being vulnerable. “It’s about opening up and admitting that you, as a man, don’t always have the answers. But that’s okay.”

James joins a growing movement of fathers who have rejected previous notions of hyper-masculinity, and instead are providing their sons with emotional support. This new generation of men are redefining what fatherhood means – and therefore changing the face of masculinity altogether. Because when it comes to father-son relationships, historically, it’s been fraught.

Jaynen and James Mays

(Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

For hundreds of years, the very concept of fatherhood was being the sole breadwinner, which often meant that there was little to no time to build relationships with children, says Dr. Wizdom Powell, associate professor at the department of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

“In the past, ‘good’ fathering was largely associated with breadwinning and economic provision,” she says. “Men were not incentivized to share in the broader socio-emotional development of the children or household responsibilities.”

The relationship, then, became determined not by love or nurturing but rather, defined monetarily. Masculinity, for these fathers, meant clocking in and out of work and being sole provider. An article in Psychology Today goes so far as to describe that “all fathers’ functions were economic,” and that role was taken very seriously – often to an extreme. Fathers, especially in low income to middle class settings, felt their sole purpose was to economically support their families. This, in turn, led to families without present father figures, or ones who felt distant and emotionally detached even when they were physically there. The repercussions were vicious – and lasting. The cycle of emotionless fathers bred emotionless sons who became adults who would do the same to their children.

“Men are socialized to display toughness and this socialization carries over to their fathering roles and expectations,” says Dr. Powell, to Very Good Light. “Men who are comfortable with displaying care, nurturance, and healthy emotions also model healthy masculinity for their sons.” In other words, she says, caring men become caring fathers.

“I used to think men weren’t supposed to [be vulnerable],” James tells us. “Men don’t care about those things. They don’t care about emotions or feelings. Today, he’s learned that being a strong man is not about physical strength or a lack of emotions, rather, the opposite.” Jaynen’s generation is more in touch with who they are,” he tells Very Good Light. “They have a lot less hate and more understanding. They’re able to communicate with each other more openly. When we don’t deal with affection or feelings it cause a huge void. Jaynen allowed me to learn that.”

Jaynen and James Mays

(Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

Though science proves how crucial relationships are from a developmental standpoint, they fail to explain the phenomenon of the deep bond between a father and son. For that, we turn to the abstract, the metaphysical – the spiritual. Below, we explore how other fathers and sons, like James and Jaynen, are redefining masculinity through the act of vulnerability.

Each pair recounts one specific story of how they got the other through a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Each story is unique and proves just how fathers and sons – and their intimate relationships – are powerfully changing for the better.

Al-Tereek, 44 and Jai, 16, New Jersey

Al-Tereek and Jai Battle

(Jai, on the left, and Al-Tereek, on the right, photographed in downtown Manhattan. Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

Jai Battle is a 16-year old with a diverse array of interests.

He’s varsity on his track team, a member of model U.N., is in the string orchestra. He’s also become an inadvertent activist. That’s because in Jai’s hometown of Montgomery, NJ, he is one of only a handful of people who look like he does. Just 2% of the town’s population is African American.

Being categorically the “other” has become the norm for Jai. Sometimes, it’s being asked where he really came from. At other times it’s being called the N-word. That occurred at an early age, an experience that Jai recalls as being both shocking and confusing.

“This is what it’s like to be black in America.”

“‘Scrub the black off,'” someone told him. As Jai recalls: “He said to do so with soap so I could be cleaner, as if being black was dirty.” When he came home, upset, it was his father Al-Tereek, who sat him down to unpack what just happened. It wasn’t an easy conversation, Al-Tereek remembers. But it’s one that he’d been waiting for. He’d gone through experiences like Jai’s himself, and to have to finally talk about race, blackness and American culture was something he was prepared for.

“This is what it’s like to be black in America,” he said.

Al-Tereek and Jai Battle

(“Fighting just fits into the negative stereotype of black people who are all aggressive and angry,” says Al-Tereek to his son, Jai. Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

The conversation was far from easy. “The reality is that we’ve been in America for a long time, we’ve been black for a long time,” Al-Tereek tells Very Good Light. “One thing that I’ve tried to learn in my lifetime it that when these things occur, it’s mostly based in ignorance. Especially if it’s from a child,” he says.

What proceeded was a calm explanation on what Jai could do. It wasn’t to fight back, he explained. It was to educate and be a good example of what a loving individual could be. Besides, Jai had no other choice, he said. To fight back was a losing battle. “Fighting just fits into the negative stereotype of black people who are all aggressive and angry. That other kid might just be ignorant and go home without any baggage. But Jai becomes that angry black kid who now has to be monitored.”

Instead, Jai learned that it was through equipping himself with black American history, acknowledgment of his own identity and his family that allowed him to overcome.

(Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

“We are spiritual people and we understand that these things exist,” Al-Tereek tells Very Good Light. “But what we can do is just keep becoming the best of examples, to make sure we get to the places we need to be. More so, know your history and your counterparts. That will help you keep moving.”

Today, Jai says that being able to rely on his father empowers him. “My dad taught me that being different is an asset, and that I’m a powerful [vessel] for change.”

Robert and Dave Christopherson, Utah

Dave and Robert Christopherson

(Dave, on the left, and Robert on the right, grew up bonding over airplanes. Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

Before Dave Christopherson could walk, he flew.

His father, Robert, was a pilot and would take his children out on frequent trips in the friendly skies. Dave’s fondest childhood memories include going in and out of airports, flying impromptu to places like New Mexico, while spending quality family time above the clouds.

The two were inseparable ever since Dave met his father at an orphanage in El Salvador. “I always joke that he bought me,” Dave says with a laugh. “In all seriousness, we really got along during my younger years, we really understood how lucky we were to have each other.”

But things changed as Dave grew into his own as a teenager. In the midst of finding his own identity, the two began drifting apart. They would argue and have frequent disagreements. “We butted heads,” Dave recalls. “He was really stubborn and so was I.”

“My house, my rules,” Robert would say in the heat of the moment. And so, after turning 18, Dave decided he’d leave his home altogether in hopes of finding himself. One thing he wouldn’t do was fly planes like his dad, he thought. Ironically, he’d find himself joining the Air Force months later.

“I had no desire to go into flying, but my dad influenced me for sure,” he tells Very Good Light.  “Once I joined the military, he saw I was doing something with my life and that’s when our relationship started to get better.”

Dave and Robert Christopherson

(Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

It was during flight training that Dave truly realized how much he needed the strength his father-son relationship could bring him. As Dave explains it, getting through flight school and pilot training is a grueling process.
“Picture yourself in front of the computer with your headset, joystick, two pedals and you have to keep this line centered in middle of the screen,” he explains. “Then there’s a headset that tells you words and asks things like what was the third letter of what was said.”

The days were long and the materials covered were completely abstruse. Most days would start at 5 a.m. and go for more than 12 hours. “I’d show up and I would have been studying for a test for a couple of hours, then I’d need to fly and do certain maneuvers,” he says.”It’s really stressful because if you get three strikes you’re out.”

 “My dad means the world to me…”

The stress became almost too much and anxiety set in. Dave found himself on shaky ground. He was struggling to pass his exams and was on the brink of being kicked out of the program. That’s when he picked up the phone to call the only person who could help: his dad.

Gillette father son

(Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

“You’re really smart.”

“You got this.”

“I believe in you,” his dad assured him.

“He’d remind me of who I was and where I came from,” Dave recalls.

But more so, it was his unconditional love that pushed Dave through. “What really helped was when he told me that he loved me, and that whatever happens he’d still love me and still think I was awesome.”

Those words of wisdom and love got Dave through. Today, Dave’s a full-time pilot. But more than any lesson he learned, his father taught him how to be a man. “My dad means the world to me,” Dave says. “Though I didn’t see it growing up, he has good quality morals. And has great values and he means the world to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.”

Joshua, 59 and Jacob Yi, 23, Georgia

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Jacob gives his dad, Joshua, a piggyback ride, photographed in downtown Duluth. Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

Ever since he was young, Jacob has been a guy to always work for what he wanted.

He graduated with honors. Attended his dream school. Was always at the top of his class. And so, when he graduated last year with a degree in chemistry, he thought that he’d easily step into his next role: medical student.

But things didn’t work out as he’d hoped. While all of his best friends moved away and were accepted into graduate school, it was Jacob who found himself in a position he’d never been in before: uncertainty.

“I don’t want to compare myself to others, but seeing my best friends move on and progress in their lives while I was still waiting for my future to begin was difficult,” he tells Very Good Light. “I felt left out and pressured to start something quickly.”

It’s during this time that Jacob had painful bouts of self-doubt. He didn’t have a Plan B. For a student who’d excelled, met and exceeded test scores, his situation was not only frustrating but cut deep.

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

“I felt like a failure.”

It was here that he leaned on his father, Joshua, for guidance. In a world that seemed to be spinning out of control, it was his father who became the constant he needed to stay grounded.

“Our Korean culture isn’t vocal about self-worth.”

“I’m never the vocal type and I don’t bring my concerns straight to my dad,” Jacob says. “So it was really amazing that my dad actually confronted me one day about how I was really doing, which allowed me to open up.”

His father, who received his own Ph.D. years before, empathized with his son. He, too, went through years of education, heartache and adversity.

“Don’t compare yourself to others,” Joshua recalls telling his son. “Your experiences are valid, too. You’re growing, learning and always progressing. Don’t discount this period in your life.”

This affirmation, Jacob says, is what allowed him to pull through.

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

“Our Korean culture isn’t vocal about self-worth,” Jacob admits. “We focus on being humble to an extreme. But in that moment my dad told me outright that I, too, am worthy of a great life – no matter what that looks like.”

“More than anything, I told him that I believed in him,” Joshua chimes in. “More so, I didn’t allow him to forget his dreams of being a doctor. If you really want to do this, go to the end and try your best, I said. Don’t have any regrets.”

It was this moment in Jacob’s 23-years of life that he realized that his father really cared about him. “I never thought my dad could understand me like a friend,” he says to Very Good Light. “It’s ingrained in our Korean culture that a dad is here [higher] and you, as a son, are here [below]. But he’s someone I can truly be vulnerable with, without judgment. He’s always on my side. I can be safe with him. And his love allows me to love myself.”

Matthew and Chandler Sparks, Colorado

Matthew and chandler sparks

(Matthew, left and Chandler, right, grew up racing and hiking in the mountains of Colorado. Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Asthma could have slowed Chandler Sparks down, but his father, Matthew, wouldn’t allow it.

“Resiliency is a learned skill and I have always wanted to teach my children to become resilient people,” explains Matthew to Very Good Light. “This skill can be applied in all aspects of a person’s life, especially in difficult times or situations.”

As a child, Chandler experienced asthmatic symptoms and often times had difficulty breathing. It didn’t help that he and his entire family lived in Colorado, one of the highest elevations in the country. To help him overcome, Matthew signed himself and his son up for annual races to strengthen his breathing muscles.

“I’d gained this newfound confidence in myself.”

“Of course, we listened to what our doctor said about his lungs,” Matthew says. “But my personal goal was to build up his lungs and his overall physical health. We wanted him to start walking then running. The lungs are a muscle and the more you use it the stronger it becomes.”

At first, the races were intimidating. Chandler was understandably timid, would stay close to his dad in fear that an asthma attack would hit him, clutching to his inhaler. By the 6th grade, he started gaining a little confidence by wanting to go faster. In the 7th, he started running in front of his dad. By the time 8th grade came, he was off running on his own. Soon enough, he no longer needed his inhaler.

It was a big moment for both of them.

Matthew and chandler sparks

(Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Years later, it was Matthew who leaned on his son Chandler for help. He was training for the grueling Ragnar race, one that goes for 200-miles. With so much intense training, Matthew injured his knee. He didn’t know if he’d get to the race. But Chandler wouldn’t let him quit.

“I challenged him to do some outdoor elevation training,” Chandler recalls. Matthew admits he was very nervous but accepted the invite nonetheless. At first, they took it slow by hiking Quandary Peak, the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains. After, they completed the Decalabron Loop, a challenge that hits four 14,000-feet mountains in a single hike. Throughout it all, Chandler was there, cheering his dad along.

Gillette father and son

(Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

“I needed a push and he was checking up on me in a caring manner,” Matthew says. Chandler was leading the way, tending to his dad at every turn. It was in that moment that Matthew took everything in and saw the bigger picture. Everything came full circle. “Watching him take the lead and guide me instead of me guiding him was such a joy.”
Weeks later, Matthew joined the Ragnar race and finished. “Surprisingly, my knee did feel better,” he says in retrospect. “I’d gained this newfound confidence in myself and it was because of Chandler, who taught me what it means to be resilient.”