When my ethnicity collided with my purpose
I am still buzzing from the experience and I want to get it down while it’s still fresh.
I’ve been running Climate Collage workshops for a few months now, as part of my wider work to bring words, workshops and mentoring around the climate and inequality crisis to as many people as possible.
For those of you that have yet to hear of the Climate Collage, it turns the dense and complex climate science into a more accessible interactive format. With 42 cards we map out the causes, mechanisms and consequences of climate change. It’s an intense 3 hour workshop but I still absolutely love running them, learning something new each time.
Once a month, I host a workshop on behalf of Climate Collage, and I’m never quite sure who will turn up. This month’s session was to hold a very special place for me.
Out of the six participants, two sets of two knew each other, and as we started our intros my smile was getting broader and broader.
Not only was everyone in that group working on climate solutions in some shape or form (something that always gives me hope) but the two sets of colleagues were from Hong Kong and Ireland.
The Irish pair were linked with University College Cork, working on community energy solutions, based in Kinsale. They are “developing an online platform to empower rural communities to identify the optimum renewable energy solution for their community.”
The Hong Kong pair were from Encompass HK, using the Sustainable Development Goals to tackle inequality issues in Hong Kong and Asia as well as issues around inclusion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Why was that a big deal for me?
Both my ethnicities were represented by these two groups!!! My brain was exploding as I was taking it all in.
You might have guessed that I have some Asian in me by my surname but you might not know that on my mother’s side I am Irish, heralding from Co. Cork no less. I have family in both these places.
It was a strange collision. Particularly through my anti-racism journey I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my ethnicity.
I am Irish and Chinese (Cantonese) by ethnicity, I am third generation Irish, my grandad moved to London from Cork in the 1950s. I am second generation Cantonese, my father immigrating to England as a young man.
My ethnicity is distinct from my race I am now learning. Race is assigned, for example a Ghanaian, Jamaican and an African American in New York would all assigned the race label black.
I’ve learnt that my use of the word ‘mixed race’ isn’t really accurate because really I have passed as racially white my whole life. And so I identify as white, having received the privileges that go along with that.
I am by culture British and English if we want to be really precise. Brought up by my mother who was teased in her school days for having an Irish surname. A mostly absent father meant, apart from appreciation of tea, ginger and how to cook rice properly, I do not know my Asian cultural heritage.
Annual trips to Ireland however meant I built up a strong Irish identity, embracing the extended family, growing close to second cousins (or is it once removed?) over Buckfast in Killarney, Co.Kerry where my grandad’s sister had moved to.
I do get the ‘where are you from from?’ question every now and then. And a lot when I was traveling. I would answer in a short quip; “I’m Chinese and Irish; I can tan and drink.”
When I was 21 moving through Asia I could pass as Thai, Filipino, Mongolian and Chinese in each of the respective countries. The white part of me was put on a pedestal as I was offered TV ad opportunities (which I did not pursue) and to host a fashion show in Manilla because they wanted a European feel to it. (I did follow up on that offer. In a word: surreal)
Anyway, I digress here. All this is to say, that who I am and the disconnect around where I am from has been rolling around my mind these last few months. Along with the learning that the problems of climate change are so interlinked with the problems of inequality. Cue a pandemic and it forced a rethink about my purpose: to be as useful as I can in the time we have got left.
The result of these musings (as I go into more detail here) is to be more entrepreneurial and push myself as a workshop facilitator on climate science and climate silence.
And in pursuit of that purpose who should I bump into but my two ethnicities who are also working on aligned purposes.
We all as a group worked through the dynamic and complexity of climate change, sharing their local perspectives on the changes they were already seeing in a 1 degree C warmer world.
Benita Chick, Founder of Encompass HK said, “It feels like I’ve done a 4 year university degree in 3 hours!”
Liz, based in Kinsale said, “I liked we were such a global group and especially the connection with your roots. The world is truly a small place!”
I hope to follow up with both these initiatives in Hong Kong and Ireland. Firstly out of personal curiosity, to learn more about on the ground projects these regions are working on and learn more about their impact. In another life, I might have been working for EncompassHK or explored grassroots climate solutions via academia at UCC. But also professionally, these projects and their representatives I met clearly understood the need to think in systems, explore creative learning ideas and to encourage conversations on these complex topics.
It really was quite a wonderful experience.
What an embodiment of my business name: With Many Roots
Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts