Project Pilgrimage

I first met Felicia Ishino, Project Pilgrimage’s Executive Director, five years ago on my first Civil Rights pilgrimage through the University of Washington. As a student leader, I worked closely with Felicia, who guided the student leaders in creating a curriculum that fostered reflection and vulnerability from the pilgrimage participants. Felicia’s prowess for critical thinking, supporting young leaders, and speaking her truth was evident when I first met her. Recently, I (virtually) sat down with Felicia to talk about our Asian American identities, the historical nomination of Senator Kamala Harris, and the importance of representation.  

Different Identities

As fellow Asian Americans, Felicia and I have talked about our Asian identities since we’ve known each other. She identifies as biracial: Black and Japanese American, while I identify as Vietnamese American. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, which was a predominantly white town. Felicia grew up with her Black mother and step-father in a household that had a lot of “Black culture and an appreciation of African American culture that was prevalent in the household.” Her connection to Japanese culture “was something that I more read about in books or studied in school than I truly experienced, culturally.”

Felicia later talked about having moments of exposure to her culture with her father’s Japanese family instead of “being completely immersed in it.” Although she was encouraged by her stepfather to spend time with her father’s side of the family and learn about her culture, she didn’t start to learn about Asian American activists until she was in college. This really resonated with me. Growing up in Olympia, Washington, I was surrounded almost exclusively by white folk. Despite growing up in an Asian American household, I felt like I only had moments of exposure to my own culture, similar to Felicia. No one in my family ever talked about what it meant to be Asian or to celebrate our culture. It wasn’t until I attended the University of Washington when I finally met other Asian Americans who could understand and contextualize my experiences.

Nuances and Complexities

There are nuances and complexities within any ethnic identity, and Felicia’s biracial background is no exception. “It’s unique. I haven’t met as many biracial or multiracial people with that combination specifically of being Black and Asian American.” Having a very unique perspective and set of experiences can sometimes be isolating when there’s not a lot of representation out there. There’s also the experience of not feeling enough, or that you have to define your own identity for yourself. “Biracial people go through this [process] where I’m not this and I’m not that or I’m both,” Felicia shared. “And the notion of when and how we fit into certain communities. A lot of our history, a lot of our world feels like it’s Black and white, and so when you add in another perspective and another experience, it feels like, I’m really trying to figure out where I fit.”

Felicia and I talked a lot about representation during this conversation: how there’s not a lot of representation when it comes to Black and Asian communities coming together, how society’s external perception of her (Felicia being a Black woman) differs from how she internally perceives herself (Felicia recognizing she’s Black and Japanese), and why we need representation on all types of levels, especially politically.

With the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the first Black and Asian woman Vice President nominee, many Black and Brown Americans, including Felicia, are really hopeful by this new and much needed example of representation. “As soon as Kamala was announced, I felt that familiar kind of hopefulness… after a long stint of not feeling hopeful at all.” This nomination, for many, signified a type of representation that affirmed our experiences, communities, and visions for the future. “Kamala Harris represents real change, just by virtue of who she is. It’s incredibly important for the Asian community but also the Black community and biracial individuals, women, there’s just a lot that’s wrapped up in her as an individual. That representation really matters.”

Hopeful Representation

Being able to see a part of you reflected and in a position of leadership can inspire a confidence within you that I matter. My experiences and stories are unique and have value. I deserve to be here. I remember seeing my Asian American identity reflected in Felicia as we went on several pilgrimages together, which comforted me when my Asian American identity didn’t quite fit into certain narratives and conversations around race.

But representation is more than just what we see. It’s also about engaging with each other, sharing our stories, and deeply listening to the nuances within each other’s experience. My friendship with Felicia has expanded my awareness of biracial representation within my own community, which has been vital in how I think about those who don’t fit within a certain image or expectation. Her existence and perspective have affirmed how beautiful and possible it is to hold intersectional identities, and the importance of finding friends and a community who can wholly embrace who you are. While Kamala may be an example of hopeful representation for Felicia, I am thankful that Felicia is that type of representation for me.

Felicia and Simon on their Fall 2015 Pilgrimage
Mary Ingraham holds a photo of Robert and Jeannie Graetz

Project Pilgrimage cohorts met with Robert Graetz three separate times and he always left us in awe. Known for his support of the Montgomery bus boycott, Mr. Graetz passed away Sunday at the age of 92.

“I have always contended that the absence of fear is not the point,” Mr. Graetz wrote in “A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation: Based on His Experiences Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” a memoir published in 2006. “What you do when you are afraid is what makes the difference. We often had good reason to be afraid.”

Mr. Graetz seemed to toggle seamlessly between foot soldier and field general in civil rights and social justice causes for roughly seven decades. He was the only white board member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group that formed in the days following Rosa Parks’ arrests, to oversee the boycott.

Mr. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, elected to aid the boycott, in part to remain effective in their new church. The pastor used his Sunday sermon to urge parishioners to avoid Montgomery’s buses on Monday and offered rides to work. As a result of his involvement, Graetz’s home was bombed several times and he was harassed by white residents.

When we consider the loss of giants like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis this year as well as Pilgrimage friends Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Theresa Burroughs, the loss of Mr. Graetz is a reminder that our time with this generation is slipping away. We must act on that good fear. It is up to us to heed the lessons they taught us while we were on the bus and carry on their legacy, together.

Robert and Jeannie Graetz in 2017


Our most recent session in our new Platform series was centered around Dismantling the Colonial Legacy: Symbols of white supremacy.

Thank you to everyone who joined the conversation on August 3rd, 2020 with Quess? Moore of Take em Down NOLA and Seattle youth activist, Eleanor Chang-Stucki.

Quess? and Eleanor led us through such a timely and much needed discussion on white supremacist symbols both in the American South and in Washington state.

For those of you who were unable to make the Zoom, we are providing this recording and hope that you will learn as much as we did.

(Sasha Duttchoudhury, seen here with the hat, was a participant on the Spring 2020 Pilgrimage and they graciously agreed to write about their experience and what it has been like to process the past few months.)

“Hope is a discipline.”

Mariame Kaba

I have thought about James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner every day since Mr. Leroy Clemons shared their story with us in Philadelphia, Mississippi. How could I not? The graphic nature in which Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed during Freedom Summer, the killer’s capacity for hatred and cruelty, and the injustice of their lives cut short are heart-wrenching at minimum. Their brutal murder is far beyond the scope of my racial equity context, where less threatening issues like microaggressions are the focus. As I stood in a forest, just down the road from the killer’s family home, the very spot where the men were killed, microaggressions feel inconsequential. 

I have thought about the radiant smile of Mr. Clemons and I can’t imagine what it must take for him to retell the horrific story while the monsters lived in his very town. Mr. Clemons is disciplined hope embodied, creating the circumstances necessary for hope to be real every day. He not only takes people across Neshoba County to retrace Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s steps and tell their story, but Mr. Clemons was also a key part in convicting their killer. To hold pain and act is the most hopeful thing we can do.

To hold pain and act is the most hopeful thing we can do.

I’m not sure my heart has the capacity to hold what Mr. Clemons holds, let alone still smile and fight on without completely collapsing in a puddle of despair. The emotions my body has known around race hold a different kind of nuance than what a college-level liberal arts education has offered. While I’ve taken it upon myself to make healing, holding, pausing, and processing a core part of my anti-racist work, I still grieve Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Everyday. And tragically, they are in increasing company. I will never know all of the names of the lives lost to racism, white supremacy, and hatred, nor could I ever know all of their stories, but I feel compelled to learn, to increase my heart space, honor the dead and fight like hell for the living. 

Despite Ms. Nina Simone’s great success around the world, not everyone knows the song Mississippi (Goddam!) Not everyone knows about Alabama (Goddam!). But now, under unprecedented lockdown, everyone knows about Minneapolis (Goddam!) and the unjust killing of Mr. George Flyod. Protests have been held across the country and across the globe in South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and across Europe. The global solidarity and action from communities outside of the US to address anti-Blackness in their own global contexts is so moving. This truly is a global pain. 

I have often thought about how the rising activists of our current moment are holding not just the names of Mr. George Floyd, Ms. Breonna Taylor, Mr. Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, but also the ache of lives lost, stories untold, potential unlived, and the survivors who carry on the memories of these people. The enormity of this grief should not be held by our Black siblings alone, this is grief we must share—that is healing.

Sasha Duttchoudhury