Today in the third installment of our occasional series profiling lesser-known NGOs we speak with Samantha Joo about Platform, the organization she founded. Platform is directed particularly at mentoring and empowering women in the Asian and Pacific Islander community. This is a new NGO and can use our full support and networks to get much more widely known. Spread the word!
Tell us about your NGO and your own role!
While I was teaching at Seoul Women’s University, I encountered a number of bright young women, mostly Christians, who felt lost. They wanted to serve God but didn’t know how. They did not want to pursue the limited options they had in the Korean churches – pastor’s wife, choir, women’s Bible study, etc. So I initially encouraged them to study abroad at theological schools in the USA but this option was an unobtainable luxury. And also, upon graduation, many of the students were again limited to academia or ministry, both extremely competitive and definitely not for everyone. This is when I began to think about a center for women to explore unique ways in which they can use their talents to serve God. But then I was too busy with teaching, advising, publishing, and working on another NGO in Korea. I did not have the time, resources, and energy to start a new organization. I just didn’t want more responsibilities at that point in my life.
When I quit everything and removed myself from everything familiar, I began subconsciously to re-evaluate my priorities. What is my ultimate life goal? This was and is still not an easy question to answer. However, I remembered the desire to develop a center to mentor passionate women. Yet taking a nebulous vision and making it into an actual organization is not a straightforward path. I experienced a year of major setbacks and another year of organizing headaches – scrambling for directors and volunteers, discussing potential names, formulating and reformulating the vision/mission statements, and doing the paperwork.
It was not until the third year of starting the NGO that I was able to set up concrete plans. Without pay and putting one’s own money into an organization was kind of scary. No one actually knows what will happen. Yet there was a calm center in the midst of the maelstrom. Maybe because I absolutely believed that there is a real need to invest in people, especially women, to become effective leaders for social justice. I guess it didn’t matter whether I succeeded or not, whether I humiliated myself or not. It was a worthy cause.
So what is our organization all about? Platform’s mission is to mentor women in the Asian-Pacific Islander (API) communities (for now) to become leaders for social justice. Whereas the mission statement of the nonprofit organization is directed at the API community, our first event, the Spring workshop (‘Visualize into Reality: Workshop for Emerging Leaders’ – 21–23 March 2018) is actually open to everyone.
We have seven facilitators and one consultant who have developed and will be leading the workshops. We are at present marketing the event but since the organization is new, it has been challenging to find funding and to get people to register for the workshops. But, again, I believe we will get over this obstacle just as we have been able to surmount other difficulties. And I should say that I am not by nature an optimist but a realist.
The Shiloh Project explores the intersections between, on the one hand, rape culture, and, on the other, religion. On some of our subsidiary projects we work together with third-sector organizations (including NGOs and FBOs). We also want to raise awareness and address and resist rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence directly. We’re interested to hear your answers to the following:
How do you see religion having impact on the setting where you are working – and how do you perceive that impact? Tell us about some of your encounters.
My religious background, Christianity, has direct impact on my work. My Christian values have informed my vision for social justice and the way I live my life. For me, the incarnation of Christ, being present for the marginalized, ultimately embodies the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.
Initially, I wanted to make Platform into a progressive Christian organization. I had looked at many of the programs at theological schools and seminaries. Based on my analysis of these programs, I thought Platform would be a great complement. It would provide practical steps for non-ministerial students to explore the nonprofit sector. But I wanted people from all religious and non- religious backgrounds, too, to be able to participate in the events. The diversity of the participants is important because it will enrich the workshops. Therefore, I decided to make the organization non-affiliated with any religious organization.
We have marketed our event to nonprofit organizations and universities, but I personally have targeted theological schools/seminaries, churches, and other progressive Christian organizations. Nothing concrete has yet developed out of this marketing strategy. However, I intend to form partnerships with theological schools, especially Iliff School of Theology (Denver, CO). I have purposefully avoided the more conservative/evangelical schools and organizations. From my perspective, it is better to focus on institutions that may potentially be receptive rather than waste energy on places where our mission would possibly be problematic.
How do you understand ‘rape culture’ and do you think it can be resisted or detoxified? How does the term apply to the setting where you are working?
I think any environment that does not value women equally with men has the potential to condone rape culture in which women are devalued and objectified, making them potential victims of unwanted sexual advances. The reason why I started the NGO was the failure of churches, especially those in Korea and Korean-American communities, to provide equal opportunities for non-straight men. In valuing only certain men, they allow others to be devalued and, in consequence, mistreated and/or violated. Such denigration applies also to women. I have heard male pastors denigrate women from the pulpit and seen them relegate women to menial tasks. I have also experienced firsthand belittling microaggressions. Rather than become a haven for the marginalized in society, churches have often encouraged and actually become perpetuators of rape culture. Unfortunately, I am aware of too many episodes in which churches have tried to ignore, hide, or outright silence the cries of survivors.
Given the prevalence of this rape culture, I believe we need to resist especially within the church. This may be an impossible task since patriarchy has its foothold in most churches, conservative or progressive. But if we empower more women in roles of leadership whether in politics, churches, or nonprofit organizations, we begin to set a different tone. Women cannot be devalued; women should not be objectified. In our organization, women are the directors and facilitators. They are models for other women but also for men who come to value the leadership of women.
How does your project encounter or address gender-based violence and inequality?
Interestingly, four out of our eight facilitators for our Spring workshops are at present working for domestic violence organizations. There are probably more domestic violence organizations in API communities than any other type of organization. This is not, I think, because there is more domestic violence in API communities. Rather, the specific needs of API (regarding language, culture, history, tradition, etc) are not being met by more generic domestic violence organizations. There is an urgent need to address the concerns of API domestic violence survivors. By sharing their own experience in API domestic violence organizations, facilitators will give insight into the hidden world of battered women and children, as well as into the male perpetrators who are also in some ways victims of their culture. Not all participants will be interested in serving this community, but they will definitely be exposed to stories that will likely transform the way in which they understand domestic violence. I know I have been transformed through our initial discussions about the workshops. I have tremendous respect for these facilitators who encounter domestic violence on a daily basis but still have the fortitude to return to work. They are our communities’ heroes.
How could those interested find out more about your NGO? How can people contribute and where will their money go?
People can go to our website (www.platform4women.org) or our FaceBook page to learn more about our organization. They can make a donation on the website or through our GoFundMe page. We are actually trying to create ten scholarships for low-income students to attend our Spring workshop (March 21-23, 2018).
What kinds of posts would you like to see on The Shiloh Project blog and what kinds of resources that come into our orbit would be of value to you?
I ultimately believe that stories transform people. Facts, stats, and data are important but they do not impact or change people. They make people more knowledgeable but they do not give access to the inner world of real people. Stories move people; they affect them on a visceral level. So I think personal stories from all around the world would be very valuable.
Read Samantha’s article ‘Counter-Narratives: Rizpah and the “Comfort Women” Statue’ here.