As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For the longest time I wanted to be an explorer; I loved the idea of trekking jagged mountain ranges and windswept plains—making my way through forbidding landscapes to discover new animal and plant species.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
My poetry classes!
You currently serve as the Director of Speechwriting for the Office of Mayor Michelle Wu in Boston, Massachusetts. What does your job entail? Is there anything unique to serving in local government that you particularly enjoy?
Mayor Michelle Wu is the first woman and first person of color elected Mayor in Boston’s 200 years as a city (Boston was first founded as a town in 1630). As her Director of Speechwriting, I manage one speechwriter, and together we’re responsible for preserving and honing the mayor’s voice across a variety of mediums.
The most obvious medium is formal speeches—the Municipal Research Bureau Address, the Chamber of Commerce Address, the State of the City Address. But the bulk of the remarks we draft are shorter than 10 minutes: direct-to-camera tapings, welcome remarks for community events, remarks for ribbon cuttings and press conferences.
We also draft op-eds and letters that bear the official City of Boston seal and the mayor’s signature—most commonly these are intro letters for City Department reports, or they’re letters to be included in an event program, welcoming attendees to the city.
As for what’s unique about working in local government—I’m convinced that there’s no better way to get to know a community than to serve it. I’ve lived in New York, Shanghai, Raleigh, Seattle, and D.C., all really wonderful cities in their own ways, but I never felt connected to those cities in the way that I feel connected to Boston.
Speechwriting is immersive work; in any given week, I’ll write a dozen or so remarks—on legacy businesses in Fields Corner, coastal resilience projects in South Boston, new transit corridors in Roxbury, affordable housing investments in Jamaica Plain, investments in early childhood education and care in Chinatown. I’m constantly learning about what gets people here excited, what keeps them up at night—about Boston’s history and culture, even as I’m putting words to its present and helping the Mayor articulate her vision for its future.
Throughout your undergraduate and professional careers, you have a history of activism. What have been some of the most rewarding moments you have experienced as an activist?
Activism is tough work. It’s not easy to pour your soul into work that is often deeply personal, and then take that fight to systems and institutions that have decades, if not centuries, of wealth, resources, and inertia on their side. Losing battles is the norm, but you just hope that every loss moves the needle a bit. A really valuable lesson I learned is that sometimes an activist’s role is to advocate something beyond the desired outcome, so as to make the desired outcome more palatable to the opposition.
I think the most rewarding moments are the moments of connection, where you feel seen in your work, and remember that you’re not alone. The victories feel good, of course, but they’re rarely clean-cut. I organized athletes at UNC—and students across the state—to repeal North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2, for example. The bill was eventually repealed, but replaced with legislation that was functionally just as harmful.
But when an athlete on the track and field team reached out to me to say that she wanted to co-author an op-ed with me; when my teammates on the fencing team didn’t just sign my petition, but circulated it among their networks; when a trans athlete at Duke reached across the rivalry to connect me with a non-profit in New York to amplify our movement—those moments of connection and solidarity moved me. They touch and inspire you, and give you the fuel to keep fighting.
Your work as a poet has earned you numerous prizes and awards. Where do you find inspiration for your poetry? How do you see writing poetry and writing political speeches as similar (or different)?
Sometimes inspiration feels as though it’s everywhere: When just living—waking up and being able to see the sky, open a window, smell the air, and hold a warm mug in your hands is enough to make you want to fill pages. Other times it’s too much. There’s just no way to capture all the grief and ecstasy in the world, and it feels silly and overwhelming to even try. I guess I find inspiration somewhere in between—not submerged, but not removed either. I find it in nature; in relationship with people I love; in moments of sorrow and loneliness; in pain—that I’ve experienced and that I’ve caused; in the sensory and the mundane—the act of washing rice, moonlight on a patch of snow.
I was drawn to speechwriting because of its proximity to poetry. Words intended to be spoken aloud necessitate a special attention to rhythm, cadence, sonics, and structure in a way that feels both familiar and exciting. I also think that the more formal speeches—as distinct from press conferences, welcome remarks, and toasts—call for a degree of storytelling, an intensity of empathy, that also feels poetic in its pursuit of connection. That said, there are real differences between the two. Every speech has a specific audience and message—there’s a strategic element that I think is mercifully absent in poetry.
What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career, and how has it prepared you for working in local government? Why do you think a well-rounded arts and sciences education is important in today’s society?
My course of study was pretty eclectic in college—a foreign language, national security studies, and creative writing. On top of that, I took—and learned a lot from—electives like “sex and gender in society,” and “race and the death penalty.”
My professional life has mirrored some of that breadth—I’ve worked in medical intelligence; with Asian-American non-profits; at a start-up advising athletic institutions; on contract for a Political Action Committee; at private sector communications firms, and now in local government. At every single one of those jobs, my ability to read widely and quickly to gain a working fluency on a variety of topics has always been an asset. And I attribute that skill to having had the freedom and opportunity to explore a wide range of subjects in school.
In all my jobs, I’ve always needed to be able to communicate clearly and effectively—not just in my writing, but with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders. That, too, is a thing I attribute to my education, as a result of reading and writing so much, but also because of the debate- and discussion-based classes where we talked about so many of the issues that inform how we think about the world and show up in interactions with one another.
The ability to not only reason, but interact—with information, language, statistics; with facts and fiction; and, most importantly, with other people has become so essential as all those things have proliferated. Technology grants us access to more of everything
than we know what to do with.
We have so much information, misinformation, entertainment, distraction, inspiration, hatred, art, work—infinite content at our fingertips, that the kind of knowledge that’s concerned with what you know—what information you have—has become much less important than how you navigate and apply that information. At its best, I think that’s what a well-balanced arts and sciences education does—it doesn’t just hand you facts, it equips you to identify and discern and interact with information in a variety of contexts.
You recently participated in a mentoring conversation with one of our Key Into Public Service scholars. What role has mentorship played in your career?
It’s a little cliche, but it’s tough to overstate the impact that a handful of kind people have had on my professional trajectory.
My poetry professors Gaby Calvocoressi and Alan Shapiro, who cemented my love of language; Cyndy Yu-Robinson, the former Executive Director of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, who gave me my first opportunity to write freelance fresh out of college; Founder and Executive Director of Athlete Ally, Hudson Taylor, who was one of the first to give my voice a platform; Ashland Johnson, Founder of The Inclusion Playbook, who gave me my first speechwriting gig, and trusted me with her message as her first speechwriter; Shaan Heng-Devan my former colleague, who reached back out to encourage me to reapply to the West Wing Writers internship after I flubbed my final-round interview the first time around; Vinca LaFleur, Managing Partner, and Annie Farber, Principal, at West Wing Writers, who recognized, invested in, and developed my potential as a writer by both challenging and believing in me, and giving me the space to grow.
Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?
I’ve recently been playing around with the Kilter Board at my climbing gym—an adjustable, light-up hydraulic wall that allows you to change its angle and create your own bouldering routes by choosing which holds to illuminate. I think at some point it would be really fun to learn how to actually set climbing routes and bouldering problems in a climbing gym.
What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I’m currently reading Pachinko
by Min Jin Lee. Before that, I read Self-Portrait with Ghost
by Meng Jin. I love short stories (Chekhov, Tove Jansson, and Joy Williams have written some of my favorites), and was enthralled by Jin’s collection; she has this incredible ability to chronicle the slow chaos of an unraveling life with the precision of a clinician and the artistry of a poet—some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in a while.