Seattle Culture

Trailblazing Women: Shin Yu Pai

Civic poet of Seattle, Host KUOW's Ten Thousand Things

By Shin Yu Pai June 17, 2024

Portrait of a middle-aged asian woman with a contemplative expression, resting her chin on her hand.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

I made the decision to move back to Seattle in 2012, after working in arts jobs in the Austin, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas, areas. I’d worked here as a grad student in the University of Washington museology program and loved the small, community-based cultural organizations that characterize our city — like the Wing Luke Museum or the Densho Project — institutions that focus on storytelling.

I loved that these organizations were led by Asian American individuals who came from nontraditional backgrounds, including a community-based journalist who ascended to being a museum director and a former Microsoft employee who started a project collecting visual oral histories related to Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

In Texas I faced stalking, police reports, and racist death threats. In Arkansas, I was spat at by strangers. While at my workplace, I was denied the opportunity to teach at the liberal arts college where I ran a humanities foundation on a campus where I was constantly mistaken for the only other Asian person on staff, who looked nothing like me. I was put in positions that made me feel like I needed to make myself smaller, if not invisible, to survive. And since I’m more interested in living, I packed my bags to come back to the Pacific Northwest, the place where I’d felt most at home in my own skin.

Returning to Seattle didn’t go exactly as I planned. I was caught off guard during the transition back to living here when I found myself pregnant. And it took me longer to onramp back into the arts as I navigated being a new parent. So, I worked in a bunch of jobs that ranged from supporting philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to working for a travel and digital-media startup.

I reinvented myself in role after role until I landed what I believed to be my dream job as a public programs producer for one of Seattle’s leading cultural institutions. But producing an unending stream of live events during the pandemic was a formula for burnout. It didn’t feel like the way to convene or support community in a time of public health emergency. And I realized that I wanted something else for myself. So, I left working in the nonprofit arts sector after two decades of putting significant time into building a career there.

For women to succeed in Seattle, we need boards and organizations that are willing to deeply invest in nontraditional, outsider candidates and to truly support them in leadership roles when they are confronted with racism, classism, sexism, and ageism. We need bold and courageous, innovative organizations that are willing to dismantle systemic inequalities to create new structures of co-created democratic leadership that can build the culture for openness, transparency, and deep transformation. And when organizations, boards, and leaders who should have moved on long ago have become too obsolete to evolve, they should step down, or close up shop, before they create further harm.

Love is part of what we can center in our own work. Not just love of service, or love for community, but love in the sense of giving our best attention and care back to ourselves as human beings living in this current moment, so that what we do can have lasting meaning. What we make and do must also please our highest selves and be centered in our own self-care.

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