The poet Ocean Vuong once said that a safe space is where you can be the agent of your own joy, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since: how to define a safe space not only by what it protects from or what it needs to shut out, but by what it nurtures, what it restores. As a (soon-to-be-former) co-chair of Kula (the Asian student identity group), the idea of safety became the framework of everything my fellow co-chairs and members were trying to foster. But I only realized this year that instead of energizing me, my work was starting to drain me, to feel like a burden rather than a possibility. It was time for me to re-examine my abilities, to explore why I no longer felt capable of serving my communities. I began to unearth the root of my burn-out: I didn’t know what it meant to take joy in my work, to understand the relationship between duty and want.
I came to Sarah Lawrence from a public high school where Asian students – particularly South Asian and East Asian – were the vast majority. Though most of our teachers and staff were white, our hallways were multilingual. The cafeteria ladies were Chinese aunties who analyzed my outfits and gave me unsolicited “feminine advice” every day at lunch, as if I were a niece or a daughter. The crossing guard only spoke Mandarin. My desire to be a co-chair stemmed from a need to be back home – but I lost track of the fact that you don’t “find” a community, you build it. As I reflect back on the past two years and think about Kula’s longevity, I try to compile and remember what I wish I’d known at the start: inclusion should never compromise safety, “recruitment” is really about gaining trust, accessibility extends to mental health, and care needs to extend beyond the space. It can be bizarre to be so vulnerable inside a space, only to have no emotional support or follow-up once you’ve left it.
And most importantly, I want to rekindle being a member, rather than a source of authority, within my community. When I first came to this campus, I never asked myself whether I genuinely enjoyed organizing work; rather, the logic was that as an Asian person, it was my job to do this work. And though necessity and survival is always a potent force, I’m reminded of Ocean Vuong’s words; it’s more than about minimizing unhappiness, it’s about creating its opposite. Somewhere along the way, I lost the idea of joy, the idea that I have a stake in my own happiness, even among so many repressive and oppressive forces I can’t control.
In the end, I think I managed to create a small agent of that joy: in my first year, I started The Hyphenate, Kula’s zine by/for Asian artists and writers. It’s a small legacy, but it’s something that genuinely reflects what I’m most passionate about, what work I came to this school to do. In the past few weeks, my co-chairs and I have talked a lot about the concept of reward, the idea of what we’ve gained or accumulated. But I think I’d much rather talk about what we’ve given and will continue to give. What lineages we’ve forged together, and what spaces we’ve made safe: all the times we gathered just to talk, to introduce ourselves to someone who feels already known, to say each other’s names in a language we call joy.