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Shilbee Kim: what passion can do for you and for social change

Shilbee Kim: what passion can do for you and for social change

This week, Retreat Founder Janice Liu chatted with Shilbee Kim, a passion and social enterprise coach. In Korean, Shilbee means “drizzle rain”: soothing energy and putting out fires are part of who she is, and that shows in everything she does. Together, she and Janice talked about why passion is important, the notion of purpose in the time of COVID-19, and finally, both Anti-Black and Anti-Asian racism, and what their relationship can teach us about racism in general. For more of Shilbee’s work, check out her Instagram and website.

Janice Liu (JL): Could you start by telling us about your background and your journey to becoming a passion coach?

Shilbee Kim (SK): I come from a family who are all passionate about life. My people – Koreans – also have passion in their blood. Yul-jung is the Korean word for passion and it translates as heat. You can feel this heat in our spicy food, in our passionate debates on better economic systems for South and North Korea, and as a thread in our long history of dance, music and art. Passion lives in my body. In my history. Among my ancestors. So it’s not surprising that for most of my life, I have been exploring the question, “What am I passionate about and how do I use my passion for social change?” 

This question has led me to working with social enterprises for close to 10 years – businesses that put people and planet first – and I worked alongside hundreds of leaders who use their passions for positive change. During this time, I have studied and curated tools and frameworks that help people clarify their passions for social change. This is how I became a passion coach. In particular, I coach intrapreneurs (people who work in corporations, government, non-profits) and social entrepreneurs (businesses that prioritize people and planet) who want to clarify their passions so that they can have values-driven impact in their workplace, businesses, and societies at large. 

JL: Why is passion important? How can you connect it to mental health and wellness?

SK: For me, passion is an energy that is so powerful that it compels you to move or act. I feel passion when I’m dancing, when I experience injustice, and when I’m working on a cause I care about. But in contemporary North America, passion has often been co-opted by capitalism in which our understanding of passion is largely tied to jobs. Don’t get me wrong – passion can definitely have a relationship with work; I support people in figuring out how to use their passions to effect change in their companies or transition from their jobs to start social enterprises. But we’re missing the larger point if we focus only on passion as a means for work success. Passion is an energy that can also heal, motivate, and fuel us. When you can feel, express, and envision a life that comes from a place of your truest desires, you feel happier, more motivated, and more you. This directly connects to your wellbeing and health. 

Passion can be harnessed for positive societal change. Passion can be experienced when we’re sipping our tea in the morning, with different relationships in our lives, and in how we move through the world. So I help co-create a safer space through powerful questions, using body cues as guideposts, and using the Ikigai framework so people can slow down to ask themselves, “What do I truly desire?” In a world where social conditioning has told us who we should be, what we should want, and vilified for expressing our wants (especially as womxn), it’s a political act to peel off the onion layers to the core of what you truly desire. 

JL: With what COVID-19 is teaching us, some folks are reconsidering their purpose: what would your advice be for them? 

SK: The world has changed. It’s not going back. Ask yourself, “What does the world need now? What do you need?” and get clear on your strengths. The world needs a lot of things right now and we’ll need everyone’s unique gifts to co-create the world we want and there will be opportunities where your unique gifts intersect with a social problem. When you can address a social problem, you are creating value to our society whether in your workplace, while searching for a new job, in your communities, or with your business venture, and this societal value that you create will become even more important now as we face growing social issues. 

JL: What are some tools that can help people clarify their passion and purpose? 

SK: I use an ancient Japanese framework called Ikigai, your reason for being, to clarify people’s passions and align them with their purpose. There are four areas you discover using this process: 1) What do you love?; 2) What are you great at?; 3) What does the world need?; 4) What can you be paid for? At the convergence of these four areas lies your current reason for being.  

JL: You are Korean-Canadian, can you tell us about anti-Black racism in Asian communities? Would you be open to sharing any of your own “awakenings” when it comes to this?

SK: There is deep anti-Black racism in Asian communities and in particular within the community I am part of, the Korean Canadian community. It’s important that the dialogue around fighting anti-Black racism isn’t just addressed to white folks where Asians get off the hook; in fact, we have a lot of work – if not more work – to do within our communities. 

The first foray into this understanding was when I watched a documentary Shadeism by Nayani Thiyagarajah, a documentary filmmaker which looks at a form of discrimination, not by one race against another, but by people of colour against each other. Back in the 1980s, social scientists identified the tendency as colourism, describing a lower social status due to skin tone. And now, shadeism. The term may be more recent, but the practice continues to afflict the cultures of many people of colour including in South Korea. Just look at the multi-billion dollar whitening cream industry in Asia. 

This was the first time I realized how I’ve internalized white supremacy and anti-Black racism. The thing is it’s not just about who is considered more beautiful but who is deemed more valuable, more worthy, and of a higher status, all based on your skin colour. This results in a deeply entrenched form of racism that demonizes dark skin and celebrates white skin. 

A science reporter for The Washington Post, Vedantam’s research touched on skin color and how even the most liberal-minded progressive thinkers, still display a bias towards light skin. He told the New York Times in 2010: “Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected.”

Sociologist Margaret Hunter writes in her book, Race, Gender and the Politics of Skin Tone that Mexican Americans with light skin “earn more money, complete more years of education, live in more integrated neighborhoods and have better mental health than do darker skinned …Mexican Americans.”

Your wealth, health, and opportunity are shaped by the colour of your skin and this is when I realized how deep anti-Black racism works in our societies including Asian Canadian communities. 

JL: Can you tell us about anti-Asian racism, and how it can be found in Asian communities that are essentially ‘white-washed’, or model minorities?

SK: Asia is the world’s largest continent with more than half of the world’s population. As someone who was raised in Asia, I’m both proud of my Asianness and perplexed by how Asian-ness has been socially constructed and flattened out the largest continent in the world. Yet the social and cultural fabrications around “Asianness” have real economic and political impacts on Asian-identifying communities (Sandra Oh On How Internalized Racism Impacts Her Career; Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management). This myth also reduces the various experiences and different privileges and disadvantages experienced by richly diverse communities from East, Southeast, South, Central, Western and North Asia. In his book Orientalism written in 1978, Edward Said criticizes the historically patronizing representations of “The East” by the West which includes places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. This form of orientalism has lived on in Western media and messages, which we’ve largely internalized as stereotypes and biases: Asian women as objectifiable fetishes whereas Asian men emasculated. Asians as worker bees but not fit for leadership. Asians as terrorists. What’s wonderful is that we’re seeing more public examples of Asians reclaiming and feeling a sense of pride in what Asianness means to them by expressing their Asianness on their own terms and embodying diverse and intersecting identities along the gender spectrum, queerness, colour of their skin, body sizes, faiths, class, disabilities, political beliefs, and more. Through more of these stories, I hope we continue to reclaim and complicate what Asianness means in our collective psyche and structural manifestations. 

Asians have historically not spoken up in fear of being ‘other-ed’.

However, the rise of anti-Asian racism unfairly linked to COVID-19 reminds us that  “Asian-ness” can easily turn on a dime and be used to justify discriminatory behaviour. I am quite concerned with the rise of anti-Asian racism and how Asians have historically not spoken up in fear of being “other-ed”, getting kicked out of the country, or from a place of denial to survive. As Asians, we need to speak up when we see racism and destroy this stereotype and myth that we are subservient. We need to challenge racially-based social constructs are not used to justify oppressive laws, systems, and cultures, not just for Asians but for all communities and not be complicit in a white supremacist system that especially negatively impacts Black communities. 

One example of this is the model minority myth, a problematic concept that negatively impacts Black communities. The model minority is this concept that Asians are hardworking, submissive and successful. While this is true for some, there are many Asian communities who continue to struggle socioeconomically and we often don’t acknowledge that. As previously mentioned, Asia is the largest continent in the world so this myth also completely erases so many Asian communities who are distinct and different from one another. Additionally, while some Asians have been able to break through in certain industries (like tech), let’s not forget that there is still an overwhelming underrepresentation in other industries and sectors and even in areas where we are seeing more Asian representation, there’s a bamboo ceiling at senior leadership levels. 

Finally, Canada has a history of racism towards Asians such as the Chinese head tax, white supremacist riots in Chinatowns in B.C., Japanese internment camps and more. But during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s in the U.S., the narrative of the problematic Asians switched to model minority to pit Asians and Black folks. And yet this model minority illusion is used by some Asians without historical knowledge and its problematic use politically and socially to say, “Well, Asians were able to succeed, why can’t Black folks?”  This question ignores all of the nuances that I just shared which debunk the myth. This myth needs to be challenged so that we do not consciously or unconsciously use it to reinforce anti-Black racism. 

One note of caution: While the rise of anti-Asian racism is a huge issue and it needs to stop, we have to ensure we do not conflate this with anti-Black racism and mistakenly say they are the same struggle. Anti-Black racism has deep historical roots in North America that involves egregious slave trade and a continued systematic dehumanizing process with laws, policies and culture that oppress Black communities in a way that is distinct and different from our experiences facing racism as Asians in Canada and in fact, Asians benefit from anti-Black racism. We need to become more aware about this and do our work in changing laws in our governments, policies in our workplace, and our mindsets in our families and with us that oppress Black communities. 

JL: What do you practice daily to help you process through feelings and emotions and these heavy, unsettled situations in our world right now?

SK: I have morning rituals that include meditation, journalling, Qi Gong, jogging, and reading. Much of my wellness paradigm also comes from practicing interconnectedness whether that’s community-building, going for walks in nature and connecting with trees, and reflecting on what is the opposite of loneliness. I’m also a minimalist; keeping my space and possessions minimal helps me practice non-attachment. This practice helps me process the heaviness and move through the ups and downs that I experience on any given day.