Jane Chu on Leadership in Ambiguity: A Celebration of Immigrant Stories

How does one lead in an atmosphere of uncertainty? As leaders, where do we go when no one has ever gone there before? When information is incomplete or ambiguous? When objectives may differ across perspectives and cultures? For Dr. Jane Chu, there are leadership lessons in the experiences of individuals who have immigrated to the United States. The former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2014-2018, Chu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a practicing visual artist, and a leader whose expertise spans academic research and professional practice in the arts, philanthropy, and business administration. In this special episode of From City to the World, hosted by City College President Vincent Boudreau, hear Chu deliver the 2023 Sternberg Family Lecture in Public Scholarship. Opening remarks are by Andrew Rich, Richard J. Henley, and Susan L. Davis Dean of CCNY's Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership. Students engage Chu with questions following her talk, and President Boudreau provides closing remarks.

Host: CCNY President Vincent Boudreau
Speakers: Andrew Rich, Richard J. Henley and Susan L. Davis Dean of CCNY's Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership; Dr. Jane Chu, former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts and Leader-in-Residence at CCNY's Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership; CCNY students
Recorded: March 15, 2023

Episode Transcript

Vincent Boudreau

Welcome to From City to the World. I'm your host, Vince Boudreau, the President of The City College of New York. From City to the World is a show about how the work that we're doing at City College matters to people across the city and throughout the world. We'll discuss the practical application of our research in solving real-world issues like poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges, affordable housing, and disparities in healthcare and immigration.

On today's show, we will take you to the ninth annual Sternberg Family Lecture held at City College of New York on March 15th, 2023. Andy Rich, the dean of the Colin Powell School at City College, opens the event. I'm going to turn it over to him, from the event, to introduce the speaker and the event.

Andy Rich

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this, which is our ninth annual Sternberg Family Lecture. Today, Leadership in Ambiguity: A Celebration of Immigrant Stories with Jane Chu. It is absolutely wonderful to see so many students here today. I want to thank you all particularly for being here. I want you to know there's going to be a Q&A coming later in the conversation today. The time for questions is a time for you all, so please form your questions as we have the talk today. I also want to welcome everybody who's watching us on the livestream. We're very happy to have you with us as well.

I want to begin by extending my sincere thanks to Sy and Laurie Sternberg, who are with us up here in the front row today. Sy Sternberg gradated from CCNY in 1965, and he has never stopped giving back to his alma mater. For many years, Sy was the chairman and the CEO of the New York Life Insurance Company. During his tenure there, the company set up what still to this day is the largest endowment at the Colin Powell School, and one of the largest at the College focused on supporting students and leaders who are working on emerging African American issues.

Sy is a member of the Board of Visitors of the Colin Powell School, and he is a member of the board of the Foundation for City College. He is not only an exemplar of what this place can do for the young people of New York City, but he is also one of our biggest cheerleaders and our biggest supporters. This lectureship is fully supported and made possible by the Sternberg family.

I want to add that last year, Sy and Laurie also established a new endowed Professorship of Leadership, a part of our subject today at the Colin Powell School. They did this, in part, to honor General Powell. We're in the final stages of searching for the inaugural occupant of that position, and it is really very exciting for all of us at the College, so thank you both very, very much.

We are joined as well today by the President of the College, Vince Boudreau, who is my predecessor also as the dean of the Colin Powell School. President Boudreau is going to share closing remarks today, but I also want to acknowledge that it was under his tenure as dean of the Colin Powell School that we began this lectureship, so thank you very much for being with us today.

As I've made clear the Sternberg Lecture, it's become an important annual tradition. It's both a tradition for us at the Colin Powell School and really for the whole College. In recent years, our subjects have been climate change, international affairs, the health of our democracy, and the state of higher education. There are, I think, three things that these Sternberg Lectures have in common year after year. First, these lectures are on complex, timely, and unsettled subjects. They're on topics that engage all sectors and all people, young and old, and they require the efforts of all of those folks to improve things.

Second, these lectures are on subjects that cannot be reduced politically to a simple Republican or Democratic, conservative or progressive solution. We focus on topics that require engagement and effort across the political spectrum and beyond politics to culture, arts, communities, and dialogue. Then three, these lectures are on subjects that matter to us here on this campus, to our students first and foremost, and to faculty, staff, and to alumni. On all of these fronts, our subject today could not be more on point. Leadership in Ambiguity: A Celebration of Immigrant Stories.

This is an opportunity to think about how we move forward, how we lead in this country, leveraging one of the defining assets of the nation, the immigrant experience. Our speaker today has thought about this subject. She has studied it. She's examined it across the nation, and as you will learn, it is personal to her. Jane Chu combines academic research and professional practice in the arts, philanthropy, and business administration. In 2014, she was appointed to serve as the 11th chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, completing her term there in June 2018.

During her four-year tenure at the NEA, Jane traveled to all 50 states and four countries. She spent time in 200 communities and made more than 400 site visits to meet with artists and art leaders, government and civic leaders, philanthropists, and the public. The NEA awarded $430 million during her four years to support the arts in 16,000 communities, covering every state, every U.S. jurisdiction, and every congressional district in the United States. In 2016, during her tenure as chair, the NEA was ranked number one in best places to work in the federal government for small agencies, which is no small feat.

Prior to her tenure at the NEA, Jane served as the Founding President and the CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, overseeing a $413 million campaign to construct and open the Performing Arts Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Jane straddles multiple cultures, having been born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and raised in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She holds a PhD in philanthropic studies from Indiana University and has six honorary doctorate degrees.

I am very pleased to share that Jane will now be a leader-in-residence at the Colin Powell School here at City College beginning this fall. She'll be teaching and mentoring our students. In fact, she's already doing that in many respects. I have to say, I've gotten the chance to know Jane over the past nine months. We're thrilled she's going to be joining us and very grateful that you're with us today, so let me turn it over to Jane Chu.

Jane Chu

Thank you so much. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. I'm also honored to join you as we first acknowledge the land on which we're meeting to respect the Native American peoples who came before us and here specifically. That includes the Munsee Lenape, the Wappinger, and the Wiechquaesgeck peoples.

I am really impressed with the way that CCNY and the Colin Powell School are committed to providing such high-quality education that's relevant to society. The Sternberg Family Lecture is one example that's connecting the University to the community, to the nation, and internationally, so thank you Sy and Laurie Sternberg for your foresight in establishing this lecture series.

Since my term at the National Endowment for the Arts, I have moved from the administrative side more to the practicing artist side to work on my own projects. One of them is about telling the stories of people who have immigrated to the United States. These are stories that are told through their own keepsake memorabilia, so with each person, I tell the story and then they also select an object or two that represents meaningful experiences about their lives or about their heritage. Then I draw the objects as illustrations to accompany the story. Sometimes, I will draw an object by itself, a standalone object. Then other times, I'll draw an object in color as if it's sitting on top of another drawing. It's my way of showing, artistically, how keepsake objects can play a role in reminding us about people's stories.

Hearing stories of individuals who have immigrated to the United States has helped me to reflect on the characteristics, the attributes of the type of leadership that rises to the top during times of ambiguity. How do you lead in the middle of uncertainty? So many of us can easily conjure up the best leadership actions if the same issues keep popping up over and over, time after time. Many of us can make really good leadership decisions if somebody will give us unlimited amounts of time to figure it out and if they give us all the information we need, but how do leaders make really good decisions when they don't have all the information?

What are we going to do if it has never been done before? Which direction should we go if we find ourselves in the middle of opposing perspectives? What do you do when you've been working your leadership plan, and all of a sudden, something pops up that is completely unexpected and it could shut down your whole plan? For these questions, I turn to immigrant stories. One example comes from my mother, Rosemary Chu. Here you can see her around age 43, living in Arkansas when she received a letter from her dad, her Baba in China.

There had been no communication between her and her family for 24 years, and she missed them so much. The letter reads, "My beautiful daughter, I haven't seen you or written to you for years, and I miss you very much. I just received your letter, which tells about your life in the United States. We're all good back home and the country is peaceful now. I'm 83 years old and I cannot work anymore, so I read books and newspapers at home instead. I'm safe, and I'm healthy, and I'm living a good life. Your father, Yang Guan En. January 2nd, 1974."

24 years earlier, Baba had quietly slipped her out of China by herself. This was during the change of government in 1949-1950, changing from the national government to communism. Especially at the beginning, there were completely different rules and regulations from what Chinese citizens had known before, so Baba decided that his daughter, my mother, could be free if she left the country alone, and so together, the family made a pact that when she left, they would cut off all communication with each other. They had seen other situations where Chinese citizens had been imprisoned if they tried to leave, and so no letters, no phone calls, and of course, there was no Skype or Zoom in 1949.

Mother was born in China in 1929, and she was given the name Shufang. Her father, Baba, was a church pastor in Qingdao, and they lived in the pastor's house next to the church. On Sundays, they attended the worship service and on Wednesdays, American missionaries gave church members English classes, which my mother attended as a girl. It was here in the English class that the missionaries gave her the American name of Rosemary. On one hand, Baba was a pillar in the community, but on the other hand, Baba did not always follow the traditional Chinese customs if he believed they were harmful.

For example, Chinese women back then often wore lotus shoes if they had bound feet. When they were young girls, their feet were tightly wrapped with long bandages to stop their feet from growing. This is an extremely painful custom because it involves breaking bones in the feet, so by the time the girls were teenagers, their feet were half the size of normal feet. I brought a pair of lotus shoes to show you, so let me pull that out.

These are real lotus shoes. I don't think they belonged to my family, but you can see how big they are. Can you imagine? People actually wore these. These are lotus shoes. Sometimes, people believed that tiny feet were beautiful, and other times, people believed that women were inferior to men, so binding their feet would keep them from running away. Unlike the traditional Chinese custom, Baba wanted his daughter to be strong and independent, so he did not allow her feet to be bound.

Shufang's parents began hearing about the changes that were taking place in the Chinese government. Sometimes, citizens were put in prison if they did not agree with the new government attitudes. Many of the churches were closed, and the missionaries were sent out of the country. There was a pastor in another nearby church in the same community who had already been imprisoned, but nobody knew why. When the government soldiers showed up in Baba's office to question him, Shufang and her mother hid under the bed in their parish home, and the soldiers interrogated Baba about the type of church activities that were taking place. Baba had enough presence to stay calm and friendly, instead of showing the soldiers how frightened he was inside.

After the interrogation, the soldiers actually told Baba that the church could stay open for Sunday worship services, but they would have to cancel the weekly English class. It didn't really matter anyway because by then, the community was so frightened that they just stopped attending the church. The church closed, and it was locked up, and it became a military warehouse. Well, there were all kinds of new rules established in the country. Some families were forced to live in separate communities, away from each other. Farmers had to pay 85% of their crop sales in taxes. Citizens were not allowed to travel without permission papers from the government. Shufang graduated from high school, but graduation ceremonies were canceled.

In the meantime, Baba had devised a plan to send Shufang to his brother's family, Shufang's third uncle. Two years earlier, third uncle and his family had hidden inside a junk riverboat and sailed to Hong Kong without anybody knowing. There were no more junk riverboats available, so very discreetly, Baba bought a one-way train ticket for Shufang, because there was a train going from their hometown of Qingdao to Hong Kong. It was a little over 1,000 miles, and it would take eight days to get there. Not only did they make a pact that they would not communicate with each other as a family, but Baba also did not tell third uncle that she was coming to Hong Kong.

They all knew that if the government found out, and Shufang did not have any travel permission papers, that would trace back to their family originally and Baba would be put in jail. Shufang tried to look as inconspicuous as possible in order to blend in with the other passengers on the train, so she didn't carry any luggage. She put on eight pairs of underwear, one over the other, and she pinned a pouch of money on her underwear. She and her parents casually strolled to the train station as if they were just having a lovely walk through the community. She boarded the train, and they didn't realize it at the time, but that would be the last time she would ever see them.

There were hundreds of passengers on the train, and they were crammed next to each other. Over the eight-day train ride, the process was that at every stop along the way, guards would get on the train and they would inspect the travel permission of everybody onboard. Shufang watched other people being taken off the train. The woman seated next to her whispered that they were being arrested and jailed because they did not have travel permission.

Shufang sat in petrified silence, but her mind was racing in fear, trying to figure out what she was going to say when they would ask her for her papers. "Should I tell them that I don't have any? Should I tell them I lost them?" She counted the number of towns where the train stopped to check for permission papers. Two, three, four, on and one, 25, 48, 100, 135. The train stopped at 141 towns along the journey, but somehow, the guards skipped her every time.

Eight days later, the train arrived at the Hong Kong border, and Shufang got off the train and stepped into this very long line of people waiting to get in. The line was so tightly packed that it lifted her off the ground every time they shoved forward. Everybody had to pass through two border guards. Guard number one would check for travel permission papers to leave Mainland China. Guard number two would check for permission records to enter Hong Kong because at that time, Hong Kong was owned by the British, so they'd check for British passports. Of course, Shufang had no travel permission papers, and she did not have a British passport.

After three hours of inching forward in line, she reached guard number one and she said, "I'm going to visit my uncle, but I didn't know I needed to have my travel permission papers with me. I'm very sorry. Please, will you let me pass through anyway?" And so, success. Guard number one waved her through without any questions. Then before she could say anything else, guard number two also waved her through, so at last, Shufang is in Hong Kong.

Next, she needed to find third uncle and aunt and their family, who lived in the Sha Tin Village, but they didn't know she was coming. At that time, Hong Kong would not allow Chinese money, but Baba had given Shufang some American dollars for her money pouch. She spent all the rest of her dollars in the pouch to buy an inner city train ticket, but the inner city train whizzed by the Sha Tin Village station.

Shufang was so startled that she quickly wrote a note to the passenger beside her, "Why didn't the train stop at Sha Tin Village?" "We're on an express train, not a regular city train," he wrote. "This train does not stop until it reaches the Kowloon Peninsula." The Kowloon Peninsula, that's 16 miles away from Hong Kong, so now Shufang is starting to feel queasy. She boarded the wrong train. She spent the rest of her money, and now she's going to the wrong place.

Two hours later, when the inner city train stopped, Shufang got off and started walking around a Kowloon neighborhood. She remembered that when the missionaries were run out of her father's church, one of them actually went to Kowloon. Well, maybe she could find the missionary. Maybe he could help her find third uncle. She saw this car parked beside a nearby house, and she thought, "Well, that looks just like the car that the missionary had in Qingdao before they were run out."

She walked up to the front gate of the house and rang the bell. This woman looked out the peephole door. "Hello. I'm looking for the missionary who was in my father's church in Qingdao," she said. The woman feared that Shufang was part of the new communist government because she did not recognize Shufang's face, so she slammed the peephole door shut.

Now, Shufang is walking away homesick, and really hungry, and she's longing for a bowl of her mother's noodles. Then all of a sudden, the front door flung open and there was the missionary. "Where are your parents? How did you get out by yourself?" The missionary was so stunned that she made it out. He gave her a big hug. "You have surprised me," he said, "Now, I will surprise you." "Oh, good," she's thinking, "Maybe I can get a bowl of noodles now."

When they walked into the missionary's house, there in the living room sat third uncle. His family had lived in the Sha Tin Village in Hong Kong for two years, but never had visited the missionary in Kowloon until that day. Shufang went to live with third uncle and aunt and their family. When she was accepted to college in Ohio, third uncle and aunt moved their family to California, so she had family in the United States.

By 1973, China and the United States began to improve their relationship, so she took a chance and sent a letter back to Baba saying that she was doing fine in the United States. She was 43 years old by then. She had married and she had a daughter. When she became a naturalized citizen of the United States, she changed her name from Shufang to Rosemary, the name the American missionary had given her in her church English classes when she was a girl in China.

Rosemary never saw her parents again. Her father died soon after he wrote his letter, and her mother had already died, but her keepsake letter from Baba has been a reminder of the brave actions that he took to give his daughter her freedom. Immigrant stories have taught me about key leadership traits in times of ambiguity, so which direction should you go if you find yourself standing between disparate perspectives?

Well, I look at Anthony Freud, the CEO and the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who figured out how to bring together opera and mariachi. Well, Anthony Freud was born in London, England. He has a law degree. He used to run Welsh National Opera. Queen Elizabeth II honored him with the Order of the British Empire for his service to music, so what does Anthony Freud know about mariachi? When Anthony moved to the United States, first to become the general director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera in Houston, Texas, he attended his first mariachi performance in Houston, featuring the group, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, 13 spectacular musicians, virtuosos, who performed in a packed theater in Houston in front of an audience which cheered them on as if they were heroes.

Anthony was so moved by the passion and the emotion of the music, and most of the music was sung, so in a way, it was totally operatic. It was intense and accessible all. In the United States, mariachi is often recognized as a symbol of the unique Mexican identity. Anthony's mind was racing with questions and ideas from that performance. This is such wonderful music. Why was there no connection between mariachi and opera? There had never been a mariachi opera before, so Anthony decided to commission one, a mariachi opera that would put mariachi and opera on equal terms and break down the boundaries that placed opera in one corner and mariachi in another.

Anthony commissioned theater director, librettist, and novelist, Leonard Foglia, to create the opera story, and Jose Pepe Martinez, the director of this group, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, to write the music. The mariachi opera was named Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, To Cross the Face of the Moon. The story in this opera is about a Mexican migrant worker in the United States, originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, who has to deal with his family who is divided by generations and culture, geographically, because of economic challenges.

At the heart of this scattered family lie the questions, where is your home? Is your home where you're born? Is it where you die? Is your home where you live and where your loved ones are? These are questions that many immigrants ask, and they hit home with Anthony too. Both of Anthony's parents were born in Hungary in the early 1900s, and they suffered through increasingly viscous anti-Semitic laws. His mother was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, and ultimately freed by the American Army. Years later, when his mother and father met in London, where Anthony was born, they explored the same questions of where is home for you? For Anthony's parents, their home was now London and not Hungary in their post-war lives together.

The mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, it premiered in Houston in 2010, and it continues to be performed all over the world. Anthony's personal keepsake is a commissioned set of mariachi calaveras figurines created by an artist from Michoacán. There have been other mariachi operas since, but Cruzar la Cara de la Luna was the first. It was the first to break down the barrier and say opera does not have to be the only way we have known it for the past 400 years. We get to celebrate the music traditions and the stories of other countries too.

Then finally, there's Dr. Palina Louangketh, who immigrated from Laos and is now living in Boise, Idaho. Palina was three years old when her mother bravely slipped her and her five-year-old brother out of Laos in 1979 to escape the massacres by communist soldiers during the Laotian Civil War. Palina's mother quietly and discreetly hired three underground escape guides to sneak them out of Laos. The escape guides were also risking their own lives to help them flee, so mom paid the guides in advance.

In addition to the money, Palina's grandmother also sewed pieces of gold jewelry in their clothes in secret hiding places, and the jewelry was really valuable. In a way, the jewelry was probably more valuable at that time because paper money from the old government would soon be replaced by the new communist Lao government, but precious metals like the gold jewelry could be sold.

The plan was to silently walk through the jungle and then cross the Mekong River into Thailand. For two and a half weeks, they walked day and night with rest stops here and there. When they saw communist soldiers, they hid behind the bushes silently. When they would come across farmland, they pretended to work in the fields for a few hours until the soldiers would leave, and then they could keep moving along their path once again. They slept in massacre sites, because they knew that the communist soldiers would not want to go in there. They slept in trees to avoid being seen.

When they reached the Mekong River, they climbed into this hollowed out log, and in the middle of the night, they hand-rowed across the crocodile-infested river. About halfway across the river, the escape guides stopped the boat and they demanded more money because they considered Palina to be a burden, partially because she was three years old, partially because she had asthma and she coughed a lot so that created noise, and partially because when they slept in trees, they had to carry her up to the tree. They really felt like this was extra added burden to helping them escape from Laos.

Well, Palina's mother had already paid the guides in advance, but she grabbed her five-year-old son pant leg, and she bit into the threads on the hem, and she pulled out a solid gold ring and handed the ring to the guides. This was sufficient payment to keep on the trip to the other side of the Mekong River. Well, Palina says, "I cannot imagine what would have happened to us if mom had told the guides, 'No more money.' If she hadn't given them the gold ring at that moment, they would have surely tipped the boat over and we would have drowned."

They made it out of Laos and ultimately, they settled in the United States, where they are naturalized citizens of Idaho. Palina's family wore the same clothes throughout their entire two and a half week escape from Laos, but her mother packed one special item for her, a Laos sinh noy, a little sarong as a keepsake. Palina told me, "When mom decided that we should flee, she knew that our heritage might become a think of the past. She wanted to preserve our cultural identity so that I would know where I came from."

These individuals have lived through times of ambiguity. They had the ability to create what was needed for that moment and the tenacity to carry it through. How do you make good decisions when you don't have all the information? Sometimes, we might not get everything right. Sometimes, like Rosemary Chu, we may find out that we've gotten on the wrong train, but she did not give up and that's the key. Instead, she thought of another option, which was to find the missionary in Kowloon.

Well, which direction should you go if you find yourself in the middle of opposing perspectives? Anthony Freud figured out how to create a new art form that celebrates both opera and mariachi at the same time, instead of tuning and turning to one at the exclusion of the other. What do you do when you're working your leadership plan, and all of a sudden, something pops up that's completely unexpected that could shut down your whole plan?

Palina Louangketh's mother demonstrated how to think on her feet when she handed the escape guides the gold ring. Nobody stayed stuck in their old habits. We used to look for the types of leaders who were experts in one specific subject, and they knew that subject very well. There is nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with being the master of a specific subject. We're in a university setting. This is a wonderful opportunity to dive deeper into subjects in which we're interested, and I hope that we will always continue to learn more.

Today, we need leaders who can sort through and bring together disparate pieces who can empower identities and not just tolerate, but celebrate the distinctiveness of multiple cultures, multiple styles because you can't really lead unless you have followers. Often, the people that you are bringing together come from different perspectives, and they may not share the same objectives as you.

When others are stuck and they have no idea what to do next because it has never been done before, we need leaders who are comfortable enough in those messy, ambiguous settings without shrinking back, who know how to build something out of nothing so that we can stay focused on the vision and keep our dreams. Thank you so much for letting me talk with you, and thanks for letting me join you today. I think we can take some questions, if you'd like to ask.

Audience Member

How were your parents received when they came to the United States? What was that experience like?

Jane Chu

Well, as you know about mother's story, and then my father actually came to the United States from China in 1948. He came to get his degree. He had been Buddhist, and I think he converted to Christianity. He wanted to be a missionary, and he came to seminary in the United States. As soon as he got to the United States, then everything changed in China, and he knew he could not go back, so he made his life again and became an economics professor. My parents were both born in China. I think they were born close to each other, but they met in Chicago.

I'm confident that they did experience some hesitancy, if not prejudice and marginalization. They didn't know the systems and many times, when you come to a new country and a new culture, you don't know what the systems are and the networks. In both my parents' cases, they had no capital investment. They just started with nothing. In the case of my mother, she didn't even have any other clothes other than the clothes she brought as she was fleeing, so I'm sure they experienced that.

Then I was born in Oklahoma, and grew up in Arkansas, so my life has been, mung bean, corn dog, bok choy, fried chicken, which it's been fine, but it's been that mash-up of things together, and nothing following in a linear fashion. There have been many times where I've felt like, and I'm sure my parents did too, they didn't belong.

The story with my father, which I didn't show today is that he was a college professor. He became ill and he died when I was nine. It was the time when my parents really felt that the way for me to succeed was to assimilate, and so I didn't speak Chinese. I spoke English, especially in Arkansas, because there was nobody else to speak Chinese with anyway. It was all about fit in, fit in. Now, I think we all have a few regrets there, but that was the way it was then.

When my father died, I was nine, and I was taking my piano lessons, and drawing lessons, and things like that. That's when I realized that I did not have enough words in linear, everyday conversation to express the grief of my father. Maybe most nine-year-olds don't anyway, but it was the arts and it was that way of mashing up things together that wasn't a linear, everyday conversation that helped me realize that I could express myself in another vocabulary that incorporated my heart.

This is why I have been an arts lover, because there's another vocabulary out there and in today's society, we get to celebrate that. It doesn't have to be one linear word that leads to the next. It can be both/and, because in the arts, it's not either this or that. In the arts, it's both this and that, and so this is the kind of network we can create. I'm sure that my parents did not experience that as much, but now we get to celebrate it.

Audience Member

Wow, thank you. My name is Nikolai Rampersaud. I'm a student at the Colin Powell School, and I want to ask you this question. I've noticed there have have been a decline in the humanities and a more push for STEM, so how do we combat this problem with increasing baccalaureate numbers in humanities?

Jane Chu

Well, sometimes we call it STEM to STEAM, so it's science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, so there's ways to combine. I know when I was at National Endowment for the Arts, we often had conversations with the Bureau of Economics and Labor, and how do we have research together, and how do we put that together?

Here's some examples leading to research that might be helpful. When I was traveling, one of the places I went was Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. They decided that they would hire artists, and I mean by that visual artists, musicians, and they would have them in the hallways. They would also meet with patients who were about to go into surgery, if the patient wanted it. Many did, so they would create art together before the surgery. Anecdotally, these surgeons would come back and they'd say, "The people who are healing faster are the ones who went to this art project and so gee, I wonder if that's just coincidental," so they've now started launching into this big project about, is there some kind of an association with those two together?

It's things like that when you start realizing the value of your heart, and how you can create, and how creation, sometimes it involves implementation, but it also involves pulling things together that you don't think match for a while, till you can figure out what goes together. That's the recipe that I think I'd like to encourage. It's so much more helpful when you may have STEM and then you insert humanities or you insert the arts.

Audience Member

Hi. The question I'd like to ask is, in alignment with what you just said, are you familiar with any studies that show what creativity does in terms of intellect? Because society has this thought that left brain and right brain, they can't marry. I have a cousin who is extremely creative and she's a biologist.

I think what happens is that we forget that the regurgitation of information is not education. Then, what we need to do is move on creative fronts. To your knowledge, is there any expanded research done that shows what creativity does to the brain that expands it, especially intellectually? Thank you.

Jane Chu

I'm sure there is, and I'm sure we can refer to the Colin Powell School, who can find some of that. Another area is the National Endowment for the Arts because they do that kind of research too, or they know where the research is going on. That's the fun part of that job is they know where the trends and patterns are, even in the research areas. When we were ... Again, this is an example, since I was at the National Endowment for the Arts.

We funded a program for veterans who had undergone combat-induced traumatic brain injury. It was through the arts, and so they would come to the National Intrepid Center, which is a place in Baltimore, or in the Maryland area for such treatment. The veterans had all of these choices of different projects that they could engage in. Sometimes, they would engage in the arts, but a lot of times, it was like, "You want me to make an arts project?"

Then they would find out, and their families would find out that not only did they feel like they could manage their pain better, they just had a better sense of how to manage themselves, how their relationships started improving. People started saying, "Wait a minute. There's something there to have used the arts in that way to become more whole and things," and so now there is a lot of research. Drexel is also doing some research related to brain creativity as related to injury, but I'm sure we can find more at the Colin Powell School. Everybody's thinking the same way. This is great. Yes.

Audience Member

Good afternoon, ma'am. My name is Lukman, and I am a student at the Colin Powell School. Leadership in ambiguity. One of the ways that I learn leadership is by observing people in leadership position. I do that directly or indirectly. The ways that I do it indirectly is by reading books, for example, Colin Powell's It Worked for Me. My question for you is, in terms of leadership, what do you read?

Jane Chu

I read anything I'm interested in, and it really helps me understand either how to develop my skills, or it helps me get more context, because I make better decisions when I have context. One of the things I learned about myself is that I learn best when I go through an experience, so experiential opportunities. It takes longer, but it stays with me longer. I think reading is very important, and I try to do it as much as I can, but there's nothing, for me, that makes me learn more than to be in the experience, figuring it out as I go.

Audience Member

I'm a student at Colin Powell School.

Jane Chu


Audience Member

My age is older around the regular students. I have experienced with your life and your stories. I would like to ask you, what do you think and how did you wrestle with your transparency, your creativity in your art when you faced censorship? That's one question. Then how did you weather, in your younger life as an immigrant or the second generation of your parents, immigrant, how did you weather the oppression from the domestic policy as an Asian?

Jane Chu

Thank you. Censorship is the first question, right?

Audience Member


Jane Chu

I, not a fan of it. There have been times where I have self-censored and I don't mind that. When I choose to give information or express information, and when I choose to pull it back, it's my choice, so I'm fine with that kind of censorship. I'm usually not a fan of censorship in general. That was the first part of the question. Mostly yes, that was especially present with my parents. By the time I became an adult, I gave myself permission inside to be able to not give my power to people who don't know how to manage it. In those particular case, where there's some kind of a marginalization, which is really not acceptable for anybody, there should be no marginalization of people. It's first, for me, it starts with me. Do I give myself permission to not give my power to somebody who doesn't know how to handle it?

In terms of specific policies, here is an interesting story. When I got to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Chinese government found out about my heritage and invited me to see the arts in China for 10 days. They showed me various wonderful treasures and different performances, and they even gave me an opportunity to go to my mother's hometown where she was born and I got to see that. By that time, my mother had become ill here in the United States. She was ill with dementia, and I knew I could never go travel with her. Ironically, the government she left is the one that gave her daughter the opportunity to see China.

Are there all kinds of policies and are there marginalization from even in our country? Of course, there are, but there are also slivers of these moments where we have international diplomatic relationships, or where we have a room full of people who really want to do a good job and not participate in marginalization, so we need to find ways to ... our actions to show that not everybody is about repression and marginalization. That's on an everyday basis to give yourself permission to not give your power away to people who don't know how to-

Audience Member


Jane Chu


Audience Member

My name is Nija and I'm current, a senior in the Colin Powell School. Thank you so much for your insightful presentation. I have two questions. I'm interested in law, and so one question I had is, how do you think immigration policies could be changed to create more ease for immigrants who want to come to United States and be able to assimilate?

Another question is, as students under the Colin Powell School have different career interests and goals, how do you think students could be able to celebrate immigrant stories and be able to uplift unique identities, if not in their professional lives, in their personal lives?

Jane Chu

Thank you. The first question about immigration policies is a very complex one. I don't know all the ins and outs of it, but my stories, the reason I want to keep telling these stories is because I don't want us to forget about that we have something in common, which is our humanity. Sometimes, it's easy to create policies where we don't know somebody, and they're over there in that corner, and we don't have anything to do with them. But when we remember that they're people, they have their own stories, and we all have keepsake objects, whether we've immigrated or not, and those objects can sometimes open the door to the richness of our stories and you find out that we have more in common than we thought, that would be what I'd want to be first and foremost at the center of when immigration policies are created. Then your other question is about ...

Audience Member

Students have different interests.

Jane Chu


Audience Member

I was wondering, how do you, would advise students, how can we use our platform and voice to be able to celebrate immigrant stories and uplift unique identities, if not in our professional lives, within our personal lives?

Jane Chu

It seems like stories are a big deal. It seems like if we find ways to tell stories, whether it's through a PowerPoint, or it's through telling stories with each other, or making sure that we ask each other about out stories through some types of approach, that is a way of finding out more about each other.

As we find out more about each other, hopefully, that would lead to, well, why don't we create more systems and networks that are more connective and do give people permission? Where are those resources that can keep empowering us to do more? That's in a big, general comment about it, but that's seems like a good first step. Yes.

Audience Member

Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for you spending your time here with us today. Throughout these stories, you have shown creativity through your art, as well as the experiences in which enforce more of a creative critical thinking of somewhat. I just want to know what your opinion is of the relationship between experience and leadership, as well as how creativity can be that bridge between them.

Jane Chu

Well, for me, experience is a really big deal. For me, when I go through experience, whether I like it or I don't like it, I'll remember it. It must be a great learning style for me. I don't know if it's a learning style for everybody to have to go through every experience, but it tends to be very important. Then when I gave myself permission to be creative and say, "It's okay if you want to do a PowerPoint that shows these drawings," not everybody expresses themselves in the same way and that's cool, but this is the way I found my way.

There's something in there that if you can give yourself permission to say, "Wait a minute. I might be strong in this area, but nobody recognizes it. Maybe I'll just pull it all together in a way that I'm able to express myself," so find for yourself best ways that you can express yourself and find ways that you can communicate with each other. It doesn't just have to be a linear conversation. It can be, but there's so much out there that's so rich and so robust. This is the opportunity to get it out there, so find for yourself what works for you and celebrate it.

Andy Rich

Thank you.

Jane Chu

Thank you so much.

Vincent Boudreau

I now share an experience with some of you that I didn't think I would share. About two weeks ago, I spent the week as a student in an online class from the Kennedy School on Leadership in Crisis. That was the theme. I bet you can't imagine why it would occur to me to enroll in a class on Leadership in Crisis, but I did. What emerged ... There were a lot of different subthemes. We met for seven days. The one theme that emerged over the course of that course was when you're facing a crisis, one of the first things you have to ask yourself, is it a novel crisis or is it a routine crisis? Like we do fire drills. We know even though a fire may be a surprising thing to happen in a building, we have a drill for a fire drill.

The argument in the course was, if you figure out which of these two kinds of situations you face, a lot of consequences will follow. If you are in what Dr. Chu calls an ambiguous situation, what in our course they called a novel crisis, where you don't know how things are going to play out, the argument was you have to set hierarchical leadership aside. You have to devolve decision-making down to your collaborators. You have to bring in a diversity of opinions because you really don't know how to respond to things like, for instance, here's the word, the novel coronavirus.

The whole course got us thinking about what it meant to make decisions if instead of a wrong turn or not getting off the train at the right spot, it's not a failure, it's a try. How do you recover from a try? How do you bring people in to help you shape the knowledge you learn from that experience so that you're better in the future? This talk resonated with me, this idea that a value that we don't even recognize as a value, or a situation that we don't always recognize as a situation that requires different thinking is this situation of ambiguity, the novel crisis.

I came to the City College Political Science Department in 1991, and I was hired to teach comparative politics, but we didn't have an Asian politics specialist, so I came in as the Asian politics specialist. What that meant was that in 1992 or 1993 when I was teaching my first courses in Asian politics, my class was filled with guess who? Students who had in 1989, been in Tiananmen Square in China. They were desperate to learn about democracy. That was all they wanted to talk about in the class.

Then in 1993 and 1994, my classes in comparative democracy and comparative politics were filled with guess who? Students who had, in many cases, been on the front lines of the democracy movements in what we used to call East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, and all of the states of the former Soviet Union. Over the years, what I've noticed is whenever there's a crisis anywhere in the world, three years later, students from that area of the world carrying those stories, stories of movement from calamity somehow to the United States, and from the United States, somehow into a City College classroom, filled the classroom, filled the classroom.

I've thought about that. I've thought about not just our students as largely first or second-generation new Americans, immigrants, but also first or second generations among whom a significant, at least minority, are people whose transition from their home country was not a kind of orderly transition, but a movement under some kind of duress, some kind of pressure, war, drought, whatever it is, famine. Even the search for, a desperate search for better economic opportunity.

Over these decades that I've been at City College, that's one kind of conversation I've had with those kinds of students. The other kind of conversation I've had, especially now in my role in President, is with graduates of City College who maybe graduated in the late 1940s or the 1950s. Again, many, many immigrants, almost universally the sons and daughters of poverty. I can't tell you how many times somebody said to me, "I didn't even know what college was. Somebody told me to go up this hill and turn in my card, and then I was at City College." Can you imagine? Could you imagine literally not knowing what college was on the day that you came here and the kind of ambiguity that would create for your decision-making processes?

Some of you have been to the various Conversations in Leadership that the Colin Powell School runs every year. The thread that unites what people have been saying to our students now for almost two decades is, "I had no idea that I would be here in this job doing this thing, and if it wasn't for the fact that I pulled a slip of paper off a bulletin board." We have engineers that became CEOs of companies, and we have people that studied drama who went on to be economists, and economists who went on to be musicians.

The story that we hear again and again is the twist and turns in the lives of people that have graduated from City College. I think those two things are linked. The people who didn't know what college was. The people who came to the United States in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or some of the wars that have gone on in the Middle East, or whatever else has brought our student body to campus are also the people who coming back 10, 20, 30 years after they graduate, tell these stories of, "But for this chance decision, or but for me coping with ambiguity, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be in this job."

As you know, I hope we tell you this often enough, the graduates of this institution are remarkably, remarkably successful. Successful compared against the best schools in the country, so hold those two things together. The reason I want you to hold those two things together, and I think what I took from Dr. Chu's talk, and why I think it's a particularly relevant, important conversation for us to have is speaking mainly to students now, but I think there's probably something for faculty and staff here as well in this moment, in this institution.

I know as you struggle, you think it's a deficit, and it certainly is. We can certainly look 20 blocks downtown at students who have been tutored their whole lives and supported. Don't have to think about jobs, or families, or maybe negotiating the relationship between parents who may not speak English and a New York or an American bureaucracy, all the things that our students do commonly. I know you think it's a deficit. I know that it makes it harder to get to graduation, but what we heard in this talk and what I hear every day from alumni is that's why we're here. That's why this institution is here. That's why you're here at this institution, and that's why we're successful.

Your ability, as you develop it, particularly with consciousness about what it means to be in an ambiguous situation, because our lives at this institution are, let's face it, ambiguous, novel, surprising, difficult to navigate. They often come with no roadmap. That's our superpower. I know it's hard to see it as such when you're in the middle of that navigation, but I think this talk today was one of the most important things you will hear in your time at City College. Because when you start to recognize your ability to navigate these kinds of ambiguities, when you think about how you make decisions as a leader in ways that are collaborative, because they should be in a situation of ambiguity, when you think about the people around you as resources, then you're really part of the City College tradition.

I want to join Andy Rich in, first of all, thanking the Sternbergs' nine years of excellent lectures. This one was a real jewel, and we're so grateful to your support in this lecture and in all the other ways you support the College. And to Dr. Chu, thank you for what I thought was just a luminous, magnificent talk.

Thank you for listening to From City to the World, the ninth annual Sternberg Family Lecture with Jane Chu, former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was produced by the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, that is the lecture was. Want to give a special thanks to José Alvarado for providing the audio. Angela Harden is the show's editor. Production assistant is Tiffanie Burt. Thank you.

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