Humans of INKspire

Erin Kang | Founder of Stories of Ours

For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?

Primarily, I work as an independent facilitator working mostly with non-profit and grassroots organizations, in areas like curriculum development, anti-oppression and organizational development through a lens of creative arts. Currently I am the Project Lead for the Reimagining Governance Initiative at the Ontario Nonprofit Network. I’ve been working in and around the non-profit sector for the past eight or nine years, but my story begins earlier than that. I moved to Toronto when I was 13, but I grew up in a small town called Niagara on the Lake. Growing up there was an interesting experience because we were a Korean family and largely, the town is pretty non-diverse. So I grew up with very specific narratives around what is being “Canadian” and what is being Korean or Asian. I really pushed away my Korean identity during my childhood and adolescence because of the environment that I grew up in, and I found myself buying into the narrative that white proximity was desirable. I struggled with coming to terms with my internalized racism in my early 20s, and I think it’s really formative to the work that I do now.

I studied at U of T for Human Geography, History and Urban Studies, which ultimately led to a deep interest in the intersections between people, place and power. Where are people? How did we end up there? What are the underlying patterns and histories? What are the policies that affect us? I was really drawn to non-profit because of this desire to work on what I broadly saw back then as “social issues”, but with no real understanding or knowledge of how I was going to be doing that. When I started a storytelling project in 2015, which is called Stories of Ours, it was intended to encourage cross-cultural dialogue. I’m really interested and invested in issues of equity and justice, and talking about one issue under one umbrella doesn’t quite work. So I was trying to encourage how conversations about race, sexuality and mental health can happen across our communities, especially given Toronto has such a high diasporic population. And that’s where a lot of my personal story really comes into the work that I do. When I started the storytelling events, I didn’t realize that it would morph into a profession of community-engaged arts, facilitation, independent education, mentorship and leadership. But these were all doors that opened through my creative work and so I see that as the core story that brought me where I am.

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Erin hosting her grassroots project, Stories of Ours, at the Centre for Social Innovation Regent Park www.storiesofours.org (Photo credit: Sean DeCory).

What are some of the biggest things you’ve taken away from your journey so far?

I think that one of the biggest things for me that I’ve learned and taken away is that it’s not about what I’m doing, or even why, but it’s the “how” that is really critical. How am I pursuing this new endeavor? How am I approaching these new relationships? How do I want to engage in the work that I’m doing? And the reason I feel that it’s so significant to shift from focusing on “How am I living?” and “How am I working?” as opposed to “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” is because it gives a lot of power back to yourself to continually define and redefine the things that are important to you and how you want to do them. I don’t think that was how I approached my work when I was in my teens and in my 20s; it was more like “What am I doing?”, “What am I going to accomplish this year?”, “What do I want to learn?”.

What was the most important thing that you learned this year?

I think many of us have been forced into letting go of a lot of things like routine, expectations, safety, security, and that has been, I think, a communal learning that we’re all going through due to COVID-19. That’s related to what I feel is the most important thing I learned this year. I started a project under Stories of Ours where I’ve been asking people to write a one page letter to their eight-year-old self, and then we talk about it and they share the letter. The reason I did this is because I was doing my own writing project. I turned 30 in March, a week after the lockdown happened, and I was in the middle of my own transformative, personal journey. The reason I started this project is because I feel that it is so important to honour our past self and to see the person that we were when we were eight. I chose the age eight because I feel like it’s the age where you’re a little bit older and you start getting an awareness of the adult world, but you’re still such a child. You don’t have the tools, the strategies and the experiences to navigate life’s challenges yet. So to look back and honour that person that is in all of us that didn’t have the tools, the strategies, or the experience to face what was coming after the age of eight, really resonated with me in this current time. The most important thing I’ve learned is how crucial it is to honour our past selves and to see our past selves in order to understand who we are now. And also for us to dream about our future self, and to dream about joy and resilience and strength.

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Hosting an Asian Brunch to discuss Asian solidarity and accountability.

How do you stay motivated in your losses and grounded in your wins?

I think it’s related to one of the things I’ve taken away, which is not seeing them as losses or wins. I see losses and wins as just an iteration in the creative process. It’s just like a winding road. But obviously that doesn’t mean I don’t feel failure or I don’t get those inner demons that come out when I perceive that I didn’t do something how I wanted. But that grander perspective of “How am I approaching this?” helps to leap over those moments when they come.

If there is one thing that you’d want to improve about yourself or the world around you, what would it be?

I think my answer spans both what I want to always improve in myself and what I want to see around me, and that’s improving how we relate to each other. I feel like that one question helps me consider things like “How do we value each other?”. I think it encompasses a lot of the challenges that we face, the misunderstandings, the clashes, the unwillingness to hear other perspectives. It’s all a question about “How do we relate?”, “How do we connect?”, “How do we be together?”.

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Erin facilitating a session at a leadership conference in Edmonton via Samara Canada (Photo credit: Jonathan Reed).

In these uncertain times, how do you stay resilient? How are you adapting to this new norm of physical distancing and working from home if that applies to you?

It’s so interesting because on the one hand, I feel pretty fluid with change and I easily welcome change more than some other folks might, which is probably because I had to endure so much change when I was younger. Working independently, I’m quite used to working from home or working remotely, but adjusting to the social distancing has been a challenge; not seeing my partner, my friends, my community partners and my community members, my mom. I’m fortunate that I live with my sister, and I think that sisterhood really helps with my resilience. And just not having very high expectations for myself. Just taking the day as it comes and really being slow is, I think, the only way I am able to hold my tender heart right now.