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

(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 Floyd. 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

WORDS by Davon White

(L to R) Bob Zellner, Bernard Lafayette, Kate Lafayette, Davon White

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled with how America has shown up in response to racial injustice and police brutality.

I’ve tried to process and reflect internally, but in doing so, I have noticed myself bottling up more than I can handle. It is my hope that my recent realizations as a 23 year-old Black professional will shine some light for many of us.

After watching the video which nationally showcased the death of Ermias Asghedom as prime-time news, I knew I could no longer stomach watching death senselessly occur – especially the deaths of my fellow brothers, sisters, and heroes.

I’ll speak for myself when I say that as a Black man, I possess a sort of generational trauma that “takes me back” every time I HEAR of such videos. I don’t need to watch footage of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant… and the many others to be overwhelmed with a sense of mourning.

Despite the diaspora, we are still very much connected to one another. I have no choice but to put myself in their shoes.

Their spilled blood felt like my very own. Leaving me feeling physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually drained.

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We would like to say thank you to all our Pilgrimage alumni and contributors that help make what we do possible. Thanks to all the people and organizations that educate, inspire, and empower us. 

This video is a tribute to everyone who makes a Pilgrimage possible. Keep on marching.