Nuggets From Lee Mun Wah's Call
Posted by LuAnn Cooley on Jun 1, 2019
Lee Mun Wah is an internationally renowned Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, poet, educator, community therapist and master diversity trainer. He has created several renowned films, including The Color of Fear and Walking Each Other Home, about racism; Last Chance for Eden, on sexism and racism; and If These Halls Could Talk, a dialogue among college students about race, racism and diversity in higher education. In 1995, Oprah Winfrey did a one-hour special on Lee Mun Wah’s life and work. The base of Lee Mun Wah’s body of work is his lived experience. He faced his father's own racism when his mother was shot five times and killed by a young black man. A promising young black man in one of his films brutally lost his life. Lee Mun Wah powerfully weaves, embodies, and masterfully tells his own and others' stories to help us uncover our own fears.
We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, here are a few points I heard and found meaning in from the conversation ...
- The two most important events in our lives are the day we were born and the day we figure out why.
- Lee is currently writing his life story, River of Jade, which will delve into his amazing path and miraculous transition from being raised by an abusive father to facilitating workshops that model some of the ways of being the best that we can be.
- He grew up in North Berkley with two brothers and two sisters at a unique time for that place. They were very poor, but his memories are of making use of the things around, going into the garden, and making playthings, giving home-made gifts, and a childhood filled with fantasy and exploration. His was also a childhood of abuse. His father’s frequent beatings left him feeling he wasn’t smart enough and with a phenomenal amount of shame. He credits teachers and school administrators for showing him compassion and kindness, so he was able to stand up to his father and more importantly, understand that there wasn’t something wrong with him, but with his father. Now when he is conducting workshops, he understands abuse victims. In order to protect his father, he had decided his father was right. Lee said he is humbled and grateful that there were caring adults in his life. He began to do better in school and realized he could go to college. He admits that it could have gone the other way.
- He struggled with whether to go to Law School despite wanting to be a teacher. He made his choice based on what his father wanted. He considered working for the government, but the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy devastated him. As he grappled with his next steps and whether Clinical Psychology was a possibility, despite not being good at statistics, he landed on Education. By his own admission, it was because the application form was one page rather than four.
- He taught Special Education at Hunter’s Point and saw in those children the look of those who have given up. He explained to them that it was not that they could not learn, but that we haven’t found the way to teach them. In this way, he wanted to take away the burden from them. He taught them to write and they ultimately began writing volumes. At an assembly where he had invited parents and administrators to hear his students’ work, each student approached the microphone and said: I am and his/her name. I am a poet or I am a writer or I am a dreamer. Everyone applauded. Lee told them they didn’t have to go to college, but they could still follow their dreams because everyone who goes to college has to actualize their dreams anyway. Through his efforts and encouragement, they became excited about themselves.
- He was also able to create a caring community with the classroom. Fellow students would tell him when another was having a rough time so he could talk to them. They celebrated birthdays so every child’s birth was acknowledged. More of his extraordinary time as a teacher is included in his autobiography, but the focus of his work was to see each child and to allow them to share their lives with others, be acknowledged for their differences, and celebrated for who they are. He would like our current President to hear these stories, to see the world in which we all live, the families and journeys that we all had to take to get here. He would invite the President to sit with immigrant families, to go hungry for a day, to sit in the cages with the children in detention for one full day, to leave his grandchild there without knowing when anyone would be there to get him. Lee invites us to these challenges, too. He said, “You don’t have to do something big, but do something with the people around you.”
- His life is split between before and after his mother’s death. On a beautiful warm day in 1985, his principal told him he had to get home as quickly as possible because something had happened to his mother. When he got home, his friends told him his mother had been kidnapped. As he drove over the Bay Bridge to his sister’s house, he tried to understand how this could happen and when he arrived and saw his niece crying, he knew his mother was dead. An African American man had broken into his mother’s home, shot her five times in the head, then went down the hill and shot three other women. Lee was devastated. For three years he was traumatized. Despite continuing to work, he was crying and curling up on his table during breaks. His doctor told him he was developing a pre-ulcer condition, so he went into therapy and despite his love of teaching, quit his job. He contemplated suicide a number of times. The pure act of violence cause him to have nightmares for years. The guilt that he wasn’t there and the belief he could have saved her fostered dreams of him trying and failing. He was supposed to have been with his mother that day having breakfast, but he was called to a meeting. He blamed himself for her death and it was driving him crazy. He believed he should have been the one to have been killed, but he couldn’t talk to anyone. No one, not even in his family, wanted to talk about his Mother’s death. He couldn’t find any relief for the pain and life was moving on as if nothing had happened. He felt invisible.
- One day he asked his sister if the pain would ever go away and she said, “No, but it will become a part of your life.” Lee said that was a relief. The grief and the shame and the blame were so familiar and part of his life that he didn’t know how to live without the pain nor did he want to forget his mother. Like an alcoholic, he took very small steps of wanting to live one more day, then two days, then three until he finally began to forgive himself. He didn’t know where he would go with all the grief and broken heart and without teaching, which he loved.
- Therapy was a way. He became a therapist and started doing grief counseling, then men who were violent groups, then on from there. He was able to transform his pain into the work he currently performs because in his classroom, he knew Black children and knew they could be transformed. He had met loving and caring families who were not much different from his own.
- It was through personal insight that he decided to facilitate an Asian men’s group and realized that they had a shared experience for handling emotions. The American Psychiatric Association wanted him to film it and he did. The film made a profound impact, won awards and led Lee to make other films of men of color that were unscripted. Although he intended to ask 15 questions, he only asked one: what is your name and your ethnicity? This led to conversations, expressions of anger, and revelations. Because he had witnessed the student protests in San Francisco State College during the 60’s, he understood that expressions of anger could create a sense of community. When he witnessed men of color expressing anger, he knew what they were dealing with and the potential for creating community. He also saw that when a White man asked a question or made a comment that a Black man responded to in anger, a White audience didn’t remember the question or comment. This led him to understand that communities have a history of a million small deaths that we pass on to our children.
- He shows his films and facilitates a dialogue around them for businesses and government agencies. He doesn’t tell people what to think, but asks questions and provides the space for them to be heard and to be seen. For example: what do you leave at the door when you come to work, what angers you about this, what does it do to you, have you ever been told you were not American because of the way you speak or you look? He doesn’t lecture about racism or White privilege, but asks questions and lets the audience members tell their stories.
- He said he would have advised Hillary Clinton when faced with Black Lives Matter questions to respond in a different way: Your being loud scares me. I’ve never been in a neighborhood like yours. I was taught that when Black men are loud, they become violent. I want to know why you weren’t heard in your classrooms and your communities. I want to sit down with you, get quiet and hear you. I want to take what you have to say into my heart. Your simple presence is more than enough for me to be curious and to embrace you.
- At a recent workshop, he made sure everyone was able to get in, sit and be included. He just received a letter from one Jamaican man who had been standing outside the door, thanking him for inviting him in, for noticing him, for seeing him. This man said he realized that this was what he had been trying to do in his work and was grateful Lee had modeled that for him. He also received a comment from a woman at the same workshop who was angry that he had packed the room, but then said she realized that he made sure that we made room, that no one is left out and thanked him for modeling inclusiveness. Lee said we're looking today for someone to model for us what we are supposed to be like, what our country is supposed to be like. When people did it for money or power, there was Gandhi who cared for the animals and people around him. We want to trust that simplicity.
- Lee said he wants us to embrace our differences, to be curious, to integrate our differences in every way we move in the world. When he had White people tell him how similar they are to him, he initially thought, “How nice,” but then he realized they liked him because he was the same. He started to believe that we have more similarities than differences and the differences are what divides us. He then realized that's not true. The inner is part of the outer. Racism, sexism, homophobia are here to teach us compassion. Religions go to war about differences. We haven't fully learned how to live the principles that we care for. We are still paying the price today for our separateness.
An act of violence against his mom forced him to go into this world for which he was unprepared and would not have chosen. He would have stayed in the classroom, but every student was talking about racism, homelessness, hunger. He could have easily shied away from that. He could have done the same with therapy and his films, but he knew he had to bring people together. In his films and in his workshops, he stays with each person and asks them to share with the audience what it feels like. He asks the uncomfortable questions. He said it took courage to stay with that for all the 33 years of doing it. That's the commitment he made. He believes that if we all do that in our own little worlds, if enough of us do it, then like the people he's touched who are the drop, the ripple, we'll see the changes in the world around us.
- His largest audience was 1400 people, but he went along each row and looked at each person. He wants each one to know that he sees them. Lee said a piece of God is in each of us, but sometimes it's difficult to see that God because of all that has happened to us and our fear. That goodness is still waiting to come out. He had to come to believe that after his mother was killed. He finds himself still scared today. It was not easy for him to open the door and walk out, to allow people to come in, but the dream of loving again and being loved is one that has never left him. He wanted that again.
- He explained that when he puts people into dyads in his workshops, he is wanting them to reclaim when they had a dream. Hopelessness means less hope. The work is to remember when you did have hope. Each day ask, “Is this the day I'm going to have hope again?” We have to still see the goodness in others and that will come through.
- He believes there's something miraculously powerful and disarming about the truth. Changes take place because the heart can't look away. It takes a lot of energy to go deaf, to not hear. When you hear the people you love, that you didn't know about, those stories will forever be with you. When you put a face to oppression, it changes you. His faith is that we will embrace the truth and be changed by it.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!