ST. CLOUD – After moving to central Minnesota in 2014 to pursue a degree at St. Cloud State University, Jonathan Wong did what many young professionals do not: He stayed. Instead of moving to a more diverse city as many graduates seem to do, Wong put down roots in St. Cloud and is using his skills to address social equity issues. Wong, 28, was born in Malaysia and lived there until he moved to St. Cloud. Four years ago, he participated in the Jugaad Leadership Program, which trains the next generation of leaders — specifically minority leaders — and now he works tirelessly to advance equity and address systemic racism by promoting emerging leaders of color, including himself.
Q: Where does the name Jugaad come from and what was the impetus for its creation?
A: The program, named after the Hindi word meaning innovation, was created in 2015 to help organizations looking for more diverse boards and employees to better reflect the communities they serve. After graduating from the program, I became a board member and, most recently, chair of the nonprofit's board. The program helps connect participants with members of local boards, internships and businesses. It also recently expanded to create a mentoring program that pairs established local leaders with graduates of the program.
Q: How do you promote equity in your work?
A: I work in communications for the Minnesota Department of Humans Rights and the Center for New Democratic Processes, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to improve civic participation, deliberation and engagement. My mission is to advance equity and address systemic racism by amplifying stories of the work done to promote human rights. I am a member of multiple initiatives that promote diversity in leadership and community building, including Minnesota Young American Leaders Program and Creative Community Leadership Institute. I am also a member of this year's Policy Fellows program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Q: I've heard people say young professionals leave the St. Cloud area due to discrimination, lack of access to careers, or just because of the lack of diversity. Why did you stay in central Minnesota?
A: I stay because I see the room for me to grow and the places that I can serve. I have been fortunate to have mentors, friends and colleagues that support me in the work that I do and helped me navigate some systems. There are so many reasons that young people leave the town. If I had to say one broad reason, I would say infrastructure — everything from the social infrastructure of networking and things to do, to economic development in the sense of new projects lacking input and engagement to generate excitement for young professionals. In addition, being the only young person of color in many settings is scary, too.
Q: The Jugaad Leadership Program aims to help with some of that, right?
A: I see Jugaad Leadership Program as a place to empower and sustain emerging leaders of color. We equip our cohort with information and knowledge so they can navigate systems that were not designed for them. In the meantime, we engage with decisionmakers to open doors and provide access that hasn't traditionally been available for people of color.
Q: Across the country, Asian Americans have faced increasing hostility and discrimination since former President Donald Trump dubbed the coronavirus the "China virus." Incidents of violence include March shootings near Atlanta, where a white gunman killed eight people — six of them women of Asian descent — and the assault of a 65-year-old woman in New York. Has that horrific violence impacted you?
A: Yes, it felt very personal and I immediately thought of my friend and his family, especially his mom. His mom works in a massage place in the St. Cloud area and she is around the age of those Asian women who were killed. I did reach out right away and ask them to be extra careful while the information was still unfolding. As a next step, I am working on a project to tell the stories and highlight the contributions of members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Most importantly, I want people to see, hear and understand that the AAPI community is made up of their neighbors, friends and family.
Q: In the St. Cloud area, leaders have been having more conversations on race and equity but often it feels aimed at Somali refugees or Black residents. Do you think discrimination or violence targeting Asian Americans is a problem in central Minnesota?
A: I believe that the liberation of the marginalized communities are tied together. I am happy and excited that conversations are happening in central Minnesota at all. In the past couple of years, the conversations have slowly shifted to focus more on social equity, which I am even more excited about. Too often marginalized communities — especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color — are only celebrated or mentioned because of the richness of our culture, but are never truly valued as equal peers. The mind-set of colonialism must change. We focus too much on finding similarities to make ourselves comfortable while we should invest in appreciating differences that enrich our community and personal growth. I continue to be hopeful that change will come and is ongoing.
Q: What have you observed specifically about the AAPI communities where you live?
A: As for the AAPI community in central Minnesota, I know of great organizations that continue to tell the stories of the communities but they don't always satisfy the appetite of the dominant culture so we don't hear a lot on mainstream platforms. And sadly, I feel when it is not about Asian food, it is not being talked about in daily life. I continue to be hopeful that the invisibility will be addressed and am really thankful for those AAPI leaders who came before me that laid the groundwork.
Q: In your role with the Human Rights Department, where do you see the most discrimination?
A: People most commonly contact the department because of discrimination based on disability, race and sex — mostly in employment. I've also heard stories and experiences about microaggressions and discrimination in all sorts of areas, including simple social interactions.
Q: What are your long-term goals?
A: I am planning to continue learning, to better equip myself with knowledge and use my abilities to serve the common good. And one day I hope to be able to have conversations with anyone in the St. Cloud area about racism or the harm of injustice without the need of explaining why and how real it is.
Q: How can residents — our neighbors — do better when it comes to advocating for equity, especially when it comes to race?
A: There are many ways to support racial equity in the greater St. Cloud area. If your organization or business is not already working on this, you are really late. I think one of the prime examples is how it is increasingly difficult for companies to find diverse talent who want to work in the area. At an individual level, people should continue to make the effort to educate themselves and do not take for granted that a person of color often has to educate others about discrimination and equity. And lastly, invest your time, energy, money and resources into places that can promote social equity and racial equity. Join a conversation, think about it and take action.