by Jen Chau, originally published at The Time is Always Right
A friend recently asked me about the beginning of Swirl.
I told her how I started it. And why. She interrupted to clarify – she wanted to know how I felt. What specifically I was experiencing when I came up with the idea, when I took the first steps to incorporate, when it all came to fruition. I had to think about this – after all, it was nearly eleven years ago.
And there wasn’t one feeling, but a pretty good mix of many emotions from the time the idea started to form in my mind, through the very first year of Swirl’s existence.
Hopeful – as I sat down at one of the big wooden tables in the Center for Work and Service on Wellesley College’s campus in April of 1999. The whole world ahead of me as I looked for my first job after college. I knew I wanted to work at an organization that served multiracial people and families.
Confused and disheartened – about ten minutes into my research at the Center for Work and Service as I realized there were no mixed race organizations in New York City to which I could apply and beg for a job.
Curious – as I told one of my closest friends, Nadiyah, that there weren’t any mixed orgs for me to work at, and mulling over her nonchalant, perfect response: “Just start one yourself.”
Scared but determined – when I started to take little step by little step to research and then set up Swirl as an official organization. I was nervous. I knew how to set up organizations at Wellesley, but here in the real world? It felt big and foreign. But I knew that what I was doing was needed. And wanted. I also knew that I couldn’t use the same tactics I used at Wellesley (wink, for those who know what I’m talkin’ about!), so I was determined to figure out this new terrain.
Energized – looking around the table at the first Swirl meeting and seeing a few people grow to about twenty by the time we were ready to begin that afternoon. Twenty people agreeing to be a part of helping to start up New York City’s only multiracial organization in support of mixed individuals, interracial couples, and mixed families. I was so energized that I started to work on Swirl during the evenings and weekends when I wasn’t at my full-time job, helping to prepare homeless men and women for full-time jobs at a welfare-to-work program.
Validated and seen – Admittedly, Swirl also helped me to feel seen in a way that I never had, growing up multiracial myself. For once, I had a community to which I could turn. People who understood me. Others to whom I could relate and with whom I would feel safe. Wrapped up in my hope to build community for others, was my own need to feel a sense of belonging. I knew first-hand how important this was, and what it meant not to have this kind of connection. Community seemed to be something others sometimes took for granted if they had one in which they were fully accepted. Maybe even two. Growing up in the generation in which I grew up, it was common to “have the best of both worlds” (as others called it) yet not feel a part of either. Swirl was for just these people – those who were not fully accepted because they were not enough of any, and too much for the simple check boxes we came to depend upon as a society.
That tingly feeling you get when you are really happy and filled with hope/excitement – You know what I mean? I would get this feeling a lot over the first year and years to come. It’s a feeling that I would get when I saw strangers really connecting before my eyes; when I would get feedback that Swirl mattered; when people thanked me for creating a community for which they searched for the greater part of their lives. The tingliest thing that happened to me was during the holiday party that first year of Swirl. An older multiracial male – in his 50s at the time – came up to me and said, “I feel like I’m finally home.” Tears welled in his eyes as I smiled back at him.
I still get this tingly feeling, especially now, as I return (more fully) to my work with Swirl. The feeling comes on when I imagine a better way of living together – all of us – not in harmony for the sake of harmony, but a harmony that we really understand because we have actually built it and worked very hard for it. Over time, and through authentic relationships. Knowing that it is far away from where we are now, but seeing sparks all the time. On the subway. In classrooms. In the cafe where I am writing this. The possibility that people can come together (across cultures and socially-constructed races) and see one another for who they truly are, rather than what merely appears on the outside. Sometimes I get so excited about what is possible that I can’t sleep. Ideas run through my head and keep me up until I finally give in and let the thoughts flow down my arm, through my pen, and onto paper. Excitement that with effort and energy, we can make positive change and create a new culture of addressing difference in this country.
I appreciate my friend having encouraged me to think about how I felt in the beginning. It’s good to remember why I started doing this work in the first place.
So today, I connect back to the beginning. The same feelings as I had back in 1999 (now accompanied by a bit more maturity and know-how, I’d like to think!). I am hopeful. Determined. Energized. More excited than ever. Eager to move forward with what I envision, which is probably similar to what many of us envision and hope for. Connected, healthy, and strong communities adept at dealing with conflict and difference. Together.
(picture was taken at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in 2006 at a SwirlNYC event)