There are people you see in the world who say something or do something which changes your life forever.
When I saw Tina Philibotte, chief equity officer at Manchester School District, present the forthcoming speech, I was in a space dominated by white bodies. I felt as I usually do in New Hampshire: tense, clammy, suspicious. With that being said, there are always beautiful moments in the unique and vibrant intersections of our marginalized communities which invariably change our lives.
Tina presented the words following this introduction in an unwavering oration; each word intentional and piercing. I felt seen. Since I have moved to this region I have often been categorized as Arabic, as Latinx, as a lesbian, as straight. All people have a biological need to make order of the world. What Tina’s work pushes us to identify is the nuance in our student body. Her work makes us ask ourselves what we are not seeing in each student’s life, the sometimes-invisible facets of identity which affect their trajectory to acquire an education and a subsequent career.
When Tina spoke, I realized people may want to know that I, too, am a result of exile. People could be inclined to know that I am an Iranian American. People may want to hear that there are great pains affecting communities in exile.
Until I heard Tina speak, I didn’t know my history had value. Her speech (probably coupled with Shirin Neshat’s words regarding times of turmoil and the exiled needing a deeper connection to our roots) lit in me a flame to be proud of my history and, more importantly, to own it and to share the gift of my history with others.
Tina Philibotte’s courage and strength to lead formidable change in the school district is an exemplary illustration of positive shift in our communities. Through Philibotte’s work and efforts, both on the ground and at the district level, our communities are hearing her through her work; believe in me and believe in yourself.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter ran his presidential campaign on pulling troops from South Korea. Though the full transition never came to fruition, the in-between wreaked havoc on an already unstable peninsula. In 1979, the South Korean president would be assassinated by the equivalent to the U.S. CIA director. I was born in the middle of that unrest in Seoul, South Korea, in 1977.
Kennel-like boxes were placed on street corners in Seoul where one could anonymously abandon a baby. A Korean police officer checked the boxes on a frequent patrol. If an officer retrieved an infant, it would be transported to a nearby orphanage often run by nuns working in Christian missions. I was one of over 200,000 Korean adoptees exported off the peninsula over the last six decades throughout Europe and the Americas.
I was adopted by Roman Catholic, God-fearing, French-Canadian, Manchester West Side parents — my mother renamed me Christina, a gift from God, but then met me and immediately took the Christ out of my name and started calling me Tina!
At the time NH was 97% white, and most rooms I walked into, including those in my own home, I was the only person who looked like me. As a student at West High School in a building of 1,600 students and another 100-plus teachers and faculty, I was one of maybe 10 people of color in the whole building. I wasn’t fully Korean. I definitely wasn’t white. I was a human under constant construction: Korean parts, American labor.
Like with so many immigrant/refugees, my presence on this continent was a result of war. I came to the U.S. and landed with my white, French-Canadian parents. Despite all the challenges, there was an abiding love, joy, loyalty and values instilled in me. There were so many moments in the first six months of my life that could have diverted my soul and my body toward a different path, yet I ended up here.
Over a year ago, I was hired as the Manchester School District’s first chief equity officer. Mine is also the first position of its kind in the state of NH. This position was dreamed up from the good intentions of so many who knew what they wanted but didn’t know how to nurture that dream and so just took a grand leap of faith. This wave of inaugural DEI director positions may not be set up for success and might appear like a box to check, but I have occupied this space before. I have been in a box to check before, and we all have to start somewhere.
In 2022, nearly half of our students in Manchester schools come from racially diverse backgrounds. My story might seem like an unknown tale relevant to very few, but the issues of isolation and otherness still ring true for so many of our students of color, our immigrant and refugee community, and for our lower-income-earning students.
I’m not weaving a tale when I say that if I can somehow find my way to this moment, we can somehow find our way to the vision where every single child feels seen, heard, valued; where every single child feels represented in the books they read and the subjects they learn; where every child has a trusted adult who looks like them and can connect with; where each child experiences outcomes that are not predicted by demographics; and where every child has a love for learning, a curiosity for life and a commitment to community.
My story is a true story. I am back to Manchester where I get to work among so many advocates deeply committed to renewing the very system that was unable to acknowledge my own Korean-ness and my unique star in this universe. When I had my own child nearly 20 years ago, I became a teacher to be the adult I needed as a child for my daughter and for students in NH. I believe teaching is the greatest act of revolution and abolition I can do.
My work isn’t easy, and I also get to call in, work besides, and lift up students, teachers, families and community members. We can renew our community by leaning into the nuance and complexity with authenticity, integrity, love, liberation and joy. Mine isn’t a pristine origin story.
Ours isn’t a story without strife. And our collective stories, despite their challenges, are also stories of love, joy and sheer enduring will. We might not have control over where we came from, but we do have agency over where we go and over how we get there. If our past reveals anything about our future, it tells us that we can move beyond these boxes as a community.
—Tina Kim Philibotte, MLK Coalition Event
USEFUL ADDITIONAL READING:
Schott, Liz. “State General Assistance Programs Very Limited in Half the States and Nonexistent in Others, Despite Need.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, https://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/state-general-assistance-programs-very-limited-in-half-the-states.
“Economic & Social Indicators for New Hampshire, 2016-2020.” NH Employment Security, Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau, https://www.nhes.nh.gov/elmi/products/vs/documents/vs-2022-ch1-population.pdf.
Tate Britain, director. Shirin Neshat – ‘Dreams Are Where Our Fears Live’ | Tate. YouTube, YouTube, 2 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M43QgkbOEv8. Accessed 3 Feb. 2023.
This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.
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