Observations: Jezz Chung on What It Means to Build Equity Through Creative Expression
Chasing her curiosity, as she puts it, is how New York-based Jezz Chung was able to find her purpose. Born and raised in the South, between Texas and Georgia, Jezz did not grow up around many people who looked like her, which led to major identity crises in her formative years. “A lot of my younger years were shaped by Black culture and the Black friends that I had but that gave me identity issues because people would say, ‘Jezz, I don’t really see you as an Asian girl,’ she recalls. “Or they’d say, ‘You’re like a Black girl in an Asian girl’s body,’ and I didn’t know how to receive that. I had no access to understanding Asian American identity.”
Experiencing racism as a Korean American woman, along with growing up in a conservative, devout Christian environment meant that Jezz was rarely exposed to “secular culture”. Therefore, in the absence of cultural influences such as movies, music and television, “books and writing became my refuge and that was the seed of me becoming a writer, escaping from all of that and trying to form my own world through books and journaling,” Jezz says.
After studying psychology and public relations at UT Austin, her writing abilities came in handy at her roles as a copywriter and account executive at the advertising agencies where she worked at crafting campaigns for brands such as Apple and YouTube. Jezz was able to forge her own way in the advertising world by making many pivots, between departments and disciplines, and, eventually, creating a new role for herself as the first diversity and equity lead, born from a desire to make an impact. However, her dream job came with the limitations that working within the confines of an established organization brings.
Taking the opportunity provided by the pandemic to evaluate her career, Jezz embarked on a soul-searching mission to map out her life and her dreams. The result is her current role as a creative writer, performer, and facilitator of equity and social justice. She has led workshops at Facebook and spoken at Columbia University, and her work has appeared in publications such as HuffPost and i-D magazine.
For our latest ‘Observations’, The Folklore spoke to writer Jezz Chung about what equity means to her, navigating identity and the power of self-awareness in personal transformations.
How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I am a writer, a facilitator and a performer. I come from the world of advertising – I was in the advertising industry for seven or eight years, and that got me really into the zone of “what does it mean to create messaging around something?” I did this exercise over the course of a few months where I wrote out my mission statement, and I landed on “building equity through conscious creative expression” and that’s at the core of everything I do.
I work in the intersections of equity, creativity and wellbeing. Wellbeing includes spirituality, which is a broad term that includes tapping into a higher consciousness. I think all that helps to create a better, more inclusive, more equitable world.
You used to work in the advertising and media industry. How did you make the shift to what you do now?
I made a lot of pivots even in the advertising industry, through different departments. I was always just chasing my curiosity. I had pitched and created my own role at an agency, I was their first ever diversity and equity ulead, I was working in that intersection of creativity, equity and I thought I had my dream job, something that I don’t subscribe to anymore. I thought, “Oh, I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing”, but it was in the confines of a company. It was the pandemic that ripped everything open and just unpacked my life.
I looked around and I thought, I’m not living in the fullest of my potential or my purpose and I need to do something about it because my body is speaking to me, it’s telling me, “This is not for you”. I worked with a life alignment coach and we went through a six-month process of mapping out my life, my biggest dreams and where I want to go, and he helped me see that I’m really called to be a performer.
I love speaking in front of crowds, I love connecting, I love telling stories with my body, I love the aspect of expressing myself and the range of all my emotions. I know that I’m an artist but I was afraid to take that leap to being a full-time artist, and building a career on my terms. Working with the life alignment coach gave me the courage to take that leap. I did that September of last year and I’ve been on my own since then. I now make a living through facilitating workshops at companies, agencies, organizations, doing speaking engagements.
So, it was intentional then, it wasn’t something you fell into?
I mapped it out to the T. I’ve always been intentional and logical. Part of that comes from me being a Capricorn, part of that also comes from being raised by immigrant parents. There was no plan B or backup plan, I’ve always had this pressure on myself to make sure that I’m making the most out of my opportunities. There’s no fallback.
Your stated mission is to “build equity through conscious creative expression”. What does that mean in practical terms, or on an everyday basis?
Equity, to me, means making sure that I am of service to people who have been historically harmed. I always think about, ‘Who are the people who are often overlooked?’ That comes from my identities as queer, neurodivergent, first-gen Korean American woman of color.
I’m always asking: how can I make sure that I’m contributing to cultural movements by playing my part? For me, consciousness means practicing both self-awareness and collective awareness, taking a pulse check of what’s needed right now. It means checking in on my capacity, what does my energy feel like in the morning? I practice energy work and embodied movements – qigong, meditation, chanting, I use my voice a lot, turning my affirmations into songs.
I built my career in the art of communicating, so that’s important to me. Am I communicating how I feel, my needs, am I communicating what needs to be said? Am I in a room where something is being overlooked? Are people being really insensitive to something, and do I step up and speak to that? A lot of that comes with awareness and constant communication.
What do you think about the rise in diversity and inclusion initiatives over the past year? When you’ve been in some of those spaces at certain organizations, do you think it’s genuine or are they paying lip service to the movement?
Racial equity and diversity equity inclusion practitioners talk about intention versus impact. I think most people have good intentions and they want to “make the world a better place”. But I honestly think that a lot of people don’t have the range to understand what “better” means. So, they think we’ll do this, plug and play, like it’s a checklist, and then the impact of that is that it doesn’t really help the people it’s meant to help. That’s when it feels performative.
Most people want to be seen as a good person, so they do these things thinking that it makes them good, without realizing that the point isn’t to look like a good person, the point is that it’s actually going to be messy. We’re talking about hundreds of years that we’re trying to address and shift. Change actually has to happen within us, too, because we have been raised and conditioned and socialized in these environments. So, if we’re not being conscious about what isms and inequities we’re perpetuating, or what systems of harm we’re continuing, then we’re unconsciously feeding into them and continuing the cycle.
What’s the right way to go about creating an organically diverse and inclusive community or environment?
I’ve thought a lot about the differences between diversity, inclusion, equity and justice. I think diversity is a door, the door that people come in through. Inclusion is how safe you feel inside that house; equity is how much access you have to influence the entire property. I don’t even like to use “diversity” and “inclusion” because people think that is enough, but what we really need are equity and justice. We need the rules to change, we need policy change, we need to make sure that the people who have been historically harmed have a voice in having influence and impact over these decisions.
It’s been a year since George Floyd was killed, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and the racism against Asians because of coronavirus, among other things. How have you navigated this on a personal level?
There’s something called the “racial identity development model”, a framework devised by scholars to map out how we’re constantly developing our racial identities. I think the past year has really made me investigate my internalized oppression even more. What have I believed about myself as an Asian, or other people of color, that I have been taught by white supremacist structures? That’s a really tough process because it involves a lot of confrontation, a lot of uprooting.
With the #StopAsianHate movement, I’m realizing that I thought I addressed these things in me, the self-hatred and internalized oppression but there are many more layers to address. It’s hard for me to face when I see the news, but I have to remind myself that I dedicated my life to this. Fulfilling my purpose includes helping build equity and build more just systems. I have a long road ahead and I have to sustain myself, and invest in my own liberation, to liberate myself so I can help liberate others.
So, who influences you, or who are your inspirations in this space?
I have a vision board of my guiding stars on my desk. Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, Solange, Rina Sawayama, Raveena. The common thread is people with a lot of divine femme energy. They really understand themselves and the power of their voice.
You’re writing your first book. What is it going to be about?
It’s a survival guide for people of color to navigate the isms and inequities of creative careers, and what I wish I knew earlier while building a creative career.
Lastly, your dream future plan is to voice an animated character one day: what’s your favorite animated film and why?
I really like Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s so cute! Maybe because I was reading adrienne maree brown’s book We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice while I was watching it but it has themes of transformative justice in there. I’m like, is this an abolitionist Disney movie? It’s about forgiveness and redemption and trusting the good in each other. I really love it.