Pioneer Profile: Lisa Ahn

Lisa Ahn (Graduate School Fellow, 2012)In last week’s Q and A, Brigitte Marshall, Chief Talent Officer for Oakland Unified School District, raved about EP talent in general and Alumna Lisa Ahn (Graduate School Fellow, 2012) in particular. In this Pioneer Profile, we hear from Lisa herself about growing up in what felt like the center of the world, the books and teachings that have impacted her life, and why she’s committed to working on behalf of young people for the long haul.  

1. Where did you grow up and what was it like?

Growing up in Queens, NYC, I felt like I lived in the center of the world. I was exposed to different cultures, foods, and lifestyles from a young age, which gave me a thirst for exploration and learning. I was 13 years old when I first took the subway by myself from Queens to the East Village and remember feeling like I was transported into an alternate universe. Flushing was filled with generations of (mostly Asian) immigrant families, businesses, and restaurants where English was rarely heard. The East Village was filled with young college students, artists, tattoo parlors, bars, and eclectic restaurants. And both were NYC! The excitement and wonder I felt that day seeded a curiosity to see and experience more of NYC (and eventually, the world!) and taught me to love diversity.   

2. What do you like most about where you live now?

I love Oakland for its incredible diversity, progressive politics, and its historical and ever-present spirit of activism.  Oakland is not perfect by any means, but I love that people are empowered and care enough to fight for what is right for their community. 

3. What is your favorite school memory?

One of my favorite memories was when my 8th grade science teacher and mentor, Mr. Pisani, gave me a copy of The Little Prince on graduation day.  He knew how terrified I was of high school and how much personal and academic pressure I felt in the transition. I don’t remember his exact words but I remember his caring eyes and his big smile that let me know I was going to be OK. He encouraged me to read the book whenever I needed a bit of guidance. I still have the book as a reminder of all the amazing teachers and mentors who took their time to invest in me when I was struggling in school and in life. 

4. Which leader (alive or not, in any field) do you most admire?

I admire a lot of leaders but over the last few years, I’ve been incredibly impacted by Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh. I tend to be fast thinker, feeler, and mover, which cause me to be swept up in a lot of re/activity and overthinking. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and presence remind me to slow down, breathe, and engage with the world from a place of profound centeredness and simplicity. His teachings on self-compassion and compassion towards others offer me clarity and wisdom when I feel frustrated and discouraged in this long and difficult journey towards social change. 

5. When was the first time you thought about working in education?

After my first year in college, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to graduate. Growing up in an immigrant family and attending NYC public schools put me at a big disadvantage by the time I started Williams College. I struggled academically, socially, and culturally to understand what was needed to be successful in a rigorous academic environment like Williams. Fortunately, I sought out mentors (professors and upperclassmen) on campus who helped me find the resources I needed to do thrive in that environment, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a mentor to other students like me who were not afforded the same preparation to be successful in college.   

A side note: This American Life podcast aired a moving episode recently called “Three Miles,” about the significant divide between public and private school experiences in this country. I relate very personally to that story. It also reminded me why I got into education, specifically to work with students of color at the high school and college levels.  

6. What has been your most memorable moment working in education?

Before I entered into K-12 education, I worked at educational nonprofits that focused on college access for first generation students and students of color.  My most memorable and unexpected moment was when one of my students called me several years after our counseling relationship had ended to say thank you. He said I was one of the main reasons why he did not drop out of college. I remember this moment often when I get overwhelmed by the macro-view of the system because it reminds me that I am in this work for the young people who have so much to offer to the world.

7. What do love about your job?

I love that I get to do work that uses my skills and challenges me to grow. But more importantly, I love the people I work with! I am inspired daily by their commitment to equity, education, and to Oakland’s children and families. I love the depth and sensitivity that people bring to conversations about the students we serve: how we’re striving to nurture the whole child through academics, social-emotional learning, and health and wellbeing. This perspective gives me hope for the transformative and healing power that schools can be in urban communities. 

8. If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix or change?

There are so many things I’d like to change.  The first thing that comes to mind is inequality in the US. I remember reading The Spirit Level, where two epidemiologists present 30 years of research that shows how high inequality correlates to greater social problems (e.g. higher rates of drug use, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality, homicides, and more). When I think about the myriad problems facing public education, persistent poverty is one of the most destructive in my mind. If we could make our society more equal and more stable, we would realize positive consequences to the health and wellbeing of a lot of marginalized people, communities, and our society as a whole. 

9. What are you still learning to do?

I am still learning how to be a systems thinker.  I’ve never worked in an organization as large and complex as an urban school district. Each year I feel myself being stretched to understand the connections across the entire system and how to move effectively to bring people and processes closer to alignment. It’s humbling to try to hold all the different needs and priorities of a complex system. 

10. What or who inspires you?

Lately as I’ve been reaching milestones that no one in my family has reached before (i.e. going to graduate school, becoming a homeowner), I have thought a lot about my parents and the risks they took for all of this to be possible for me.  I’m inspired by the initial choice they made to leave their home country to come to the U.S. in hope of greater opportunities for our family. I’m even more inspired by their enduring sense of hope and gratitude even though they struggled in the U.S. for over three decades and recently returned to Korea to care for my ailing grandparents. I am thankful for them and try to live from a place where my choices are motivated by love and hope. 

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