Reclaiming Our Humanity at Work

Unpacking the 2022 NAAAP ERG Summit

The goal of this piece is to help unpack what happened at the NAAAP National ERG Summit. ERG stands for Employee Resource Group.

This past week, 500 Asian American professionals gathered at the Capital Hilton in Washington DC. This is the same hotel Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis met before the “March on Washington”, where Dr. King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The day kicked off with Jerry Won, who imparted upon us the importance of using our collective voice to ask for more. We then peeled back the layers, with sessions like “What’s Wrong with ERG’s”, “ERG’s and Belonging”, “Inter-ERG Collaboration” and “How to Gauge ERG Success”. We wrapped with a workshop to design an ERG for the Future of Work, where hundreds of impassioned attendees collaborated on a new employee experience.

The most impactful experience for me came while hosting the fireside chat with James Rhee, who encouraged us to reject the fiction in which we currently live, and envision a new world in which MIT and Howard are friends and access to education is like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Truthfully that last one was a bit before my time and kind of went over my head. But sitting on stage underneath the Presidential Seal, staring at a sea of teary-eyed professionals who’d finally found something of substance to rally behind, I felt like I was finally part of an AAPI community.

Here’s what I learned:

1. The core problem isn’t employee engagement. It’s the lack of humanity that professionalism has brought into our lives.

Every time we step into the office, we’re forced to codeswitch and become something we’re not. For 3 days in DC, we were able to forget the dread of having to return to the “New Normal”, a term often applied to a post-covid world that disregards the change we’ve gone through as people. Although the name might not imply it, the ERG summit let many of us shed our professional skins, lead with vulnerability, and connect on a human level. Turns out that the change we were looking for was within us, and coming back to the world as our full selves is what the world needs of us.

2. The “Resource” in ERG should imply abundance, not scarcity

We’re so used to complaining about our minuscule Asian ERG budgets that we’ve forgotten how impactful we are on the organization’s bottom line. Rather than fighting other minorities for limited DEI resources, we should be thinking about how our talents can yield true value creation. Mobilized at scale, we have an army of potential recruiters, operators, creatives and change agents, each of whom is a node in their respective community.

3. Pushing the culture forward requires authenticity, vulnerability, and creativity.

Going through the testimonials, I heard attendees saying that they felt like they belonged, like they were empowered, like they were engaged, and like they were supported. Some admitted they cried, or that complete strangers became dear friends like lightning in a bottle. People shared deeply personal stories and expressed themselves in a way that broke the norms of traditional Asian culture. This was all possible because we created a safe environment where people could freely express themselves.

We all left the weekend with a very complex set of emotions, many of which I’m still unpacking even as I write this. Never could I have imagined when I was volun-told to run this ERG Summit that I would see so much vulnerability from AAPI leaders. If our north star metric was to help Asians find their human side, then I think we found product market fit.

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