Photo: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash

Dancing with the Stars

Kevin John Fong

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Sometimes we must travel great distances to unlock truths that are most evident. For me, I needed to journey half a world away to understand that the shining stars in my universe have always been within my reach.

Last week, I went to South Africa at the invitation of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to attend their Global Leadership Forum. There, 200 people from 40 countries gathered to “mobilize a global ‘network of networks’ to disrupt the systems that perpetuate racial and ethnic inequities in communities around the world.” Superstars from the movement were present — luminaries I had long admired who have shaped my philosophy and practice. I had seen them on conference stages, on CNN. I had read their books, followed their TED talks, social media and podcasts. One of them is the subject of a feature length film. I acknowledge their brilliance as my teachers and mentors by sharing their names in every circle, training and keynote I lead. While knew a couple of them well, I had never dared to approach many of them, thinking I had no place in their universe.

At the Summit, our hosts had asked me to lead my Warming Hands activity before the opening panel discussion. There I sat in the green room among superstars — Linda Sarsour, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, john a. powell, Kent Wong, and Justice Edwin Cameron. As I practiced my oli aloha (welcoming chant), Linda (who, to me, is the Beyoncė of community organizing) approached me, offering a word of appreciation and asked me (Linda Sarsour asked me!!!) for a selfie. Justice Cameron gave me a fist bump and Rabbi Pesner extended a warm handshake. Kent and john, friends and dear mentors, gave me big hugs. “So this is what it’s like to be amongst the stars,” I thought.

A few minutes later, I stepped out onto a pure white stage decorated with arrangements of protea and ferns, and flanked by two large screens that projected my image across the ballroom. In 9 minutes and 44 seconds, I introduced myself to this esteemed audience and did what I was born to do — bring ceremony to every place I inhabit. The folks in the ballroom were taken in, and with their warm reception, I felt my own star growing brighter.

The next day, I mustered the courage to connect with other superstars in the movement — Angela Glover-Blackwell, Wiliam Kamkwamba (the boy who harnessed the wind), Ben Glahn and Justice Albee Sachs (one of the authors of the South African constitution) — all of whom most gracious and welcoming. Valarie Kaur — an amazing star in my galaxy approached me with a warm hug and a litany of kind words. But the luminary that was most elusive for me was Manuel Pastor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California.

A brilliant writer, thinker, speaker and teacher, I had admired Manuel from afar for 20 years. He has a quiet presence and a dry wit that is countered with huge concepts on how to make the world a better place for all. I can’t pinpoint my reticence to approach Manuel over the years; we are about the same size, and he doesn’t put on airs. Until a few days ago, I had not said but a single word to him.

On the third day, Manuel joined the table where my friends from Hawai’i and I sat. We exchanged pleasantries and he jokingly mentioned that he felt a bit out of place at our table. I took the opportunity to approach him and place the kukui nut lei I was wearing around his neck, saying, “Now you’re one of us.”

He thanked me, and I continued, “I need to thank you, Manuel, because I have every single book of yours, and not a week goes by without my picking one up to inform how I will conduct my work. You have had a profound impact on me, and I thank you for being my teacher.” In that moment, both of our stars shone brighter.

That afternoon, a group of young people invited me to join their table and they pulled me in close, showering me with gratitude and appreciation. I realized that to them, I was their luminary.

As we spoke, I learned that one of these young people, Mariam Dawood, had been elected as Councilor of her London Borough (Newham) when she was 21 years old. Even recently, she had been named Young Councilor of the Year in the UK and Ireland. In addition, she founded The Politics School, dedicated to teaching children and young people about politics and change-making. I also met Christian Pillalaza who develops social impact projects on education, human rights, culture and identity in rural areas and communities of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in his native Ecuador. And on it went! My admiration and awe for all of these incredible stars grew the more I listened.

Kevin with (l-r) Mariam Dawood, john a. powell, Christian Pillalaza, Valarie Kaur, and WIlliam Kamkwamba Photos: Kevin John Fong, Serena Brar, and Arelis Diaz

That night, all of my luminaries, from ages 25 to 75, hit the dance floor and, as South Africans say, “had a jol”. We salsa-ed, electric-slided, soul trained, conga-ed, and just plain boogied on down for hours.

In his remarks the following morning, Manuel acknowledged that the secret to sustaining our movement arose not from our esteemed advisors, policy agendas, or lofty reports, but in our capacity to manifest joy in the midst of struggle. “We need to get out of our heads and make time to simply enjoy each other”, he said. At lunch, Linda, Manuel, and I formed a “luminary sandwich,” where we talked not about work, but about our kids, our moms, and our favorite food.

A luminary sandwich with Linda Sarsour, and Manuel Pastor. Photo: Sylvia Perez

This week, luminaries that I had once held at such a reverent distance invited me to dance, dine, and dare to simply be with them. As I bopped and rocked in a dance circle with Linda, Manuel, john, Mariam, Valarie, Ben, Christian and many other superstars, we sang “every little thing, gonna be alright.” They taught me by example that what I need to do is let my light shine. Then others, in turn, can shine bright as well.

I realized that, in our movement, the luminous arc of our universe is bright, glorious, and expansive enough for all of us to let our lights shine and dance with the brightest stars.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Who are the stars in your galaxy and for whom are you a star?
  2. We all know that life is a struggle. What do you do to bring joy in the struggle?
  3. What do you need — from yourself and from others — to let your light shine?

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Kevin John Fong

A cultural translator and racial healing practitioner, Kevin works to weave people and possibilities to cultivate communities of belonging — www.kahakulei.com