Today’s menu: matcha french toast with strawberry compote, bell pepper omelette, and Thai iced tea with almond milk.
In my conversation with Sophia Har back in June 2019, we talked about where she’s from, her path in international relations, the roles of faith and music in her personal life, and her take on living in D.C.
Where are you from?
I was born in Hong Kong. I lived there for seven years before my family immigrated to the U.S. and we ended up in the suburbs of Chicago. We lived there for four years. The reason we moved was my dad felt a calling to the seminary and that was where the school was. We didn’t expect to stay – we were open to staying – but we thought there was the possibility of going back if he couldn’t find a job…
But of course, he found a job after graduating seminary and that brought us to Minnesota. That was a very bitter move for me, because we had just gotten settled in Chicago and we had to uproot ourselves again. So, from then on, that’s where we put down our roots and I stayed there [until] I went back to Illinois for college. Post college I found an internship in D.C… Once I got here, I found a job and stayed. I’ve been here for 6 years.
How did you decide to study international relations?
I wanted to study international relations because when I got to college, it was time to learn about things I never learned about before. I looked at what major was one of the hardest ones and said, “I am going to pick international relations because I need to brush up on politics, history, and economics.”
Once I landed in that major, I felt very out of place. I found myself gravitating toward people who were in humanities because that’s where I used to be in high school. But I really wanted to challenge myself in college.
After completing university, Sophia embarked on an internship with the American Christian social justice organization called Sojourners, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Their monthly magazine and online publications often feature pieces on fair trade, interfaith dialogue, and work to alleviate poverty.
Tell me about your experience with Sojourners.
It was right after college… I went to a Christian school. I think I just randomly searched Sojourners because Jim Wallis, the founder, had come to my school one time and I thought he had amazing things to say. I just applied to their internship.
Then I moved to D.C. It was an interesting year, very disorienting. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical home, church, and school. Sojourners was the COMPLETE opposite of that – a deconstruction of the evangelical method. I was really wrestling with my faith for that year, and since then have been. That was a very pivotal year for me. That was the year when I learned that God isn’t male, persay – the Bible has been colonized… Those were two things that really transformed my faith. No place is perfect – there are things I took away from Sojourners that I held onto and some things I probably wouldn’t do again. I really appreciated learning there, and I made really good friends.
Given your background having a very religious upbringing, and having the Sojourners internship, what role does faith play in your life now?
I’ve been asking myself that very question. For the majority of my life, faith was very personal and very bilateral – between me and God – that’s how I defined faith. So I think it’s interesting to understand faith in a more communal and systematic way. The way I relate to God right now is not the same as I used to, and I think faith motivates me to be in solidarity with people. I really value showing up to things as an ally – to protests, to spaces where people are asking for support. I feel like I do that automatically, but I think it comes from a place of feeling a sense of responsibility to other people, and I think that comes from how I understand God to be our creator.
After leaving her job at a debt relief advocacy nonprofit in D.C., Sophia spent a year in Colombia through the young adult volunteer program with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Can you tell me about how you came to spend your year in Colombia?
I think in general I knew that I wanted to live a life that was devoted to social justice and living in community with people, especially people who are marginalized or have lived through conflict. So when I saw the Colombia site as an option, I wanted to go there. I was also curious about living in a country I didn’t have any context for.
What were some of the hardest parts of being there?
I think of it in two ways. I think just being abroad in general is difficult. I quickly found that my normal coping mechanisms would not be helpful in Colombia. I felt very exposed because I couldn’t rely on social graces from the Midwest. I was this awkward person who could barely speak the language. On top of that, I was Chinese, and for them that was a very striking thing. I was expecting some form of racism when I went there, but it really hit me and it was something I grappled with every single day. I would say that was the hardest part for me, just navigating pretty overt expressions of racism that are intermingled with ignorance that is very different than the context here.
Did you learn some things you weren’t expecting to?
One thing I learned about was how people view time and relationships. This was one that has really stuck with me that’s really hard to implement in D.C.: one thing I love about people in Colombia is that they didn’t view time as something to be manipulated or raced against; it was abundant and limitless. They really valued company and didn’t have a sense of rushing to the next thing. It was something that I loved and marveled at.
It was a faith-based program and I went to church on Sundays. One thing I realized was missing from my theology was the notion that God is a joyful God. I’d never heard that expressed before in English. In Spanish, they even have songs about how “Dios es alegre” like “God is happy” and that really struck me. I grew up with the idea that God is wrathful or an authoritative figure… also benevolent, but kind of stern. Just all different adjectives but not happy. It reminded me of the joy that is God.
Were there moments during your time that gave you the message that God is joyful?
I think just the culture of dance – I think that in itself is so joyful. Moving your body. Lots of laughter, especially in the city I was in in Barranquilla, people are really chill because of the Caribbean culture. Just the idea that life is to be enjoyed is an expression of God’s joy.
How would you compare your experiences of racism in Colombia with that in the U.S.?
It’s all in the same spectrum. I’ve experienced more overt expressions of racism such as when people call that with the eyes – “chinita” – very explicit about your difference, which was triggering to me. But at the same time, I was like, “At least it’s out there so we can deal with it,” whereas here it’s a lot of microaggressions that are harder to deal with. I was struck by this notion that the perpetual foreigner and model minority myth was alive and well there. People would look at me and say, “Koreans – I’m not Korean – are so smart” or “there’s something about them that’s so smart” and it’s meant to be a compliment, but I’m cringing [laughs].
Did you work on any projects during your year in Colombia?
I did get to accompany a community of campesinos – peasant farmers that were experiencing displacement and we journeyed with them through their eviction and relocation to their new place. It was my first time witnessing a land grab, and I didn’t have language for that before. So when I came to ActionAid and I learned that we worked on land grabs, I was amazed that I had just seen this – it was wild.
After returning from Colombia, Sophia began working with ActionAid USA and is now their Communications Manager.
The video you directed and storyboarded for ActionAID was amazing. Can you tell me about the experience making the video?
Our previous media director left the organization and this was his job. So when he left, they were like, “Well Sophia, do you want to go to Gambia?” …It was probably the most stressful few months of my life. I really relied on our local staff in the Gambia. They coordinated all the logistics, and I was in touch with people on the ground who do work in agriculture and have connections to farmers and farmers’ organizations. It was definitely because of people in the Gambia who took time out of their busy lives to help me plan this.
In terms of storyboarding, I talked to a filmmaker that my boss [recommended], and I just thought about a story I wanted to tell. Having already been at this organization for two years, I already knew the type of story we could tell about people that was powerful. I made a list of questions and shots that I wanted to include in that video, and went into it hoping we could do it. I definitely learned a lot on that trip… once I was there, it was really enjoyable.
Could you tell me more about your role as Communications Manager at ActionAid USA?
I am responsible for overseeing all of our communications, essentially. Because of the reduced capacity on our team, we have forgone a few things. I manage our communications intern, who does digital communications. I do a lot of systems – our databases, MailChimp, troubleshooting, and communicating with vendors. Ideally I also spend time crafting communications strategy in conjunction with our fundraising team and policy team. There’s a lot of liaising between the two teams. On a given day, it can feel very chaotic, but I think now that I’m a year into this position, I’m starting to find a rhythm. In terms of projects that are coming up, I’m finishing up another video for the Gambia… This sounds really dorky, but I’m really excited to streamline our welcome series for people who sign up for our emails to have an onboarding series [laughs]!
Are there any misconceptions that people tend to have about what ActionAid USA does?
I think a lot of people think that ActionAid is just a charity… a lot of people associate it with humanitarian response. It is an important part of our work, but an even cooler part of our work is that we are trying to shift power and move systems and doing that through local communities, local women leadership. I think changing systems and movement building is not always recognized.
Thinking over the progression of your career and your international experiences, what are some of your most rewarding accomplishments or moments?
I think the Gambia trip – I feel really proud because it was from start to finish that I managed.
In one of my previous jobs, I was the Communications Director… and we had a bunch of interns – by the end of that job, I was proud that I made job descriptions for a lot of the positions that weren’t there before. I made a communications manual for the interns and standardized a lot of things. It was a small thing, but I felt really proud of that.
Sophia also plays the violin for a local ensemble and sings with her church in D.C.
What role does music play in your life?
Music is essential to my life, also because faith has been a big part of my life, and those two go together. Music is one way I connect with God… at the same time, there’s been a strained relationship because I had been taking piano and violin lessons all the way up until high school graduation, and after that I completely dropped off. Because that was such a big part of my life before, I think I’m just now okay with the fact that it’s not.
I’m trying to figure out, do I want to have more of that in my life or be okay with the fact that it’s not a feasibility in my life? I really think music brings people together, because every time I’ve been in a context where I couldn’t speak the language, whether it was in Colombia or even when I visit my family in Hong Kong and sometimes it’s hard to communicate because my Cantonese is lacking, music is the thing where people come around and we connect, and it’s so magical!
What are some of your favorite things to do in DC?
I like biking, whether it’s for commuting or for fun. I do appreciate that there are a lot of actions that happen, like direct actions or civil disobedience opportunities… I’m also plugged into Occupation Free DC, it’s a campaign to end the deadly exchange of police training strategies between D.C. police and the Israeli Defense Forces. That’s what I do in my free time!
What are your least favorite things about DC?
I really dislike the busy-ness. It’s a vicious cycle. I try to get out of it, but I find myself saying, “Oh my gosh there’s so many things I have to do!” It’s hard to find time to chill. I think construction is really bad, drivers are bad, and it’s muggy… and rats. A lot of rats. But D.C. people and long time residents are really awesome!
Do you have any advice to people who are moving to DC and trying to make it?
One thing a friend of mine from Sojourners said that really stuck with me was “I never want to leave D.C. until I feel like I’ll be missed.” I think what he meant is that D.C. is so transient… People tend to float through life here. When I heard him say that, it really challenged me to invest in a community and put down roots, even if I didn’t know how long I would stay, because I think this is what grounds people in D.C. amidst all this busy-ness. I think it’s important to prioritize relationships even when you just want to get ahead in your job… because at the end of the day, it’s the relationships that will fulfill me and give me life.
Sophia continues to be socially and politically active in D.C. while working as the Communications Manager at ActionAid USA. Articles written by Sophia can be found here.