You could say that I was born to do social change advocacy. While I was in the womb, my parents were deeply involved in peace activism, working for the reunification of Korea. When my mom went into labor, my dad got dizzy and fainted, and saw my name flash into his mind before he fell. My name, Doorae (두러), is a Korean word that refers to a cooperative farming community and an overall culture of working together, sharing labor and providing support to anyone in need.
As a child, I spent many weekends at demonstrations while my parents advocated for immigrant rights and social justice. I remember that, as a young girl, people would take photos of me as I held signs I couldn’t read, trumpeting causes I could barely understand. But it wasn’t until I got into high school that I truly began to think of myself as an activist.
As a sophomore in high school, I went to Los Angeles with my sister expecting a vacation full of sun and beach. Instead, I found that my dad had set up for us full-time internships at a Korean-American nonprofit organization – something he had forgotten to mention. Although I was hesitant, I took the opportunity with an open mind, and I came out of the experience an entirely new person.
When a family came to us in tears after receiving a deportation notice, our public campaign influenced federal decision makers to keep them together here in the US. I suddenly realized that it was within my power to make a positive difference in society. As a little kid, I always had fantasies of going to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and learning magic. That summer, I discovered that social change is the closest thing to magic that we “muggles” can experience. There is a kind of alchemy involved when people go from passing concern to lasting commitment, when they transition from occasionally taking action to living a passionate life dedicated to the community and environment around them. Transforming a passive consumer into an active citizen is like turning lead into gold.
For years, my father told me that work and play shouldn’t be separate, but that they should instead be one and the same; in Korean, we call it 일과 놀이, “eel gwa nolee.” I’m blessed that my first job taught me that same lesson. To laugh and chant at rallies, to dance to Korean drumming, and to come home ready for the next adventure – all are memories I cherish.
When it was time to go to college, I decided on the University of Hawai‘i, a place sold to the world as a perfect paradise. I went there for mostly selfish reasons, including the pleasant weather and warm waters. I quickly fell in love with the majestic mountains that humble you in an instant and the blue ocean that reminds you of the power of wild nature. And there on the island of O‘ahu, I learned that when you fall in love with a place, there arises a responsibility to care for that place.
I began seeking ways to heal the environmental and social wounds of the paradise I now call home. Following a successful student campaign that catalyzed a campus-wide ban on Styrofoam foodservice containers, I became immersed in an effort to institutionalize sustainability across higher education institutions in Hawai‘i. The line between work and play began to blur once again. Today, I am UH’s first Student Sustainability Coordinator, a job I created to ensure I could keep playing all the way until graduation.
Gandhi was once asked, “You have been working 15 hours a day for 50 years. Don’t you think you should take a vacation?” He smiled and replied, “I am always on vacation.”
Too often, we give in to the myth that a job is just a job and that it must remain separate from the rest of our lives. As we grow out of childhood, we let our jobs limit us to playing on holidays and paid vacations. Our classrooms and workplaces have denied us our passions, our creativity, and the human spirit of altruism, love and compassion for humans and nonhumans.
As individuals and communities, we must reclaim our right to be joyful in all we do. We must not wait for our Hogwarts acceptance letter to begin making magic. If you haven’t already, find your playground and make magic happen. You may just find yourself living in paradise.
Doorae Shin was one of the winners of the 2014 Brower Youth Awards, recognized for her successful campaign to ban the use of Styrofoam on the University of Hawai‘i campus in O‘ahu.
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