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"Who am I in community with right now?": Kei Franklin '17

Kei Franklin is an Environmental Studies major from the class of 2017. In the last five years, she has worked in an earth science research institution, an education-focused social enterprise, and a strategic design-based consultancy. She now runs a private life-coaching practice and spends her free time organising for environmental and racial justice, making art, and trying to build a house.

Aleithia: Hi Kei, I’m excited to catch up with you today! Where are you currently at?

Kei: I lived in Singapore for three years after graduation, and moved back to the USA a year and a half ago with the explicit intention to be with my family. I lived with my family (nine of us all together!) and started building a house with my brothers. I then spent a lot of time traveling around the USA before moving to the UK just a week ago. I will be here until the summer.

Aleithia: What social impact work have you been involved in since graduating, and returning to the US?

Kei: I’d start by saying that the notion of impact was very prominent in my mind when I first graduated from Yale-NUS. I was very concerned – especially as an Environmental Studies major – about how what I was going to do professionally would link directly to the climate crisis.

In Singapore, I tried my hand at working in three different sectors. First, I worked in the public sector, in a research institution doing science communication work. Then I worked in the social sector, in a social enterprise doing experiential learning focused on environmental, intercultural and social impact education. Lastly, I worked in the private sector, doing environment, design, and development-related consulting. I learnt a lot in all of these jobs, but I definitely felt that none of the work I’d done since graduation directly related to the climate crisis as much as I wanted it to.

Outside of work, I was actively involved with Brack, a collective of socially-engaged artists in Southeast Asia, as the Editor-in-Chief and one of the artist leads. I’m still involved with them, and we do a lot of participatory experimental art and social practice. During my time in Singapore, working with Brack felt like a cool way to think about and devote energy to questions of inequality, injustice, and the environment.

But ultimately, because of my immigration status as non-Singaporean – I realised with much sadness! – that I would need to leave Singapore to be more directly involved in these types of work.

When I moved back to the States, I had a huge desire to dive right away into political work of some kind, be that activism, working at an NGO, doing full-time organising or something that felt actively impactful. It was surprisingly hard to get into that work actually. I didn’t have any networks – all my networks were in Singapore – and I was applying to job after job and not even getting past the first round.

That was a really demoralising process for me, because I had a huge amount of pent up energy and desire to do racial justice or environmental work. I had been researching this work for many years, wrote my whole capstone on environmental art-activism. Yet, I felt unable to actually get into the spaces that would allow me to do this work in a hands-on way. It was really frustrating.

I decided to reframe my way of thinking about work, and decouple the notion of impact from income.

I decided to reframe my way of thinking about work, and decouple the notion of impact from income: instead of trying to find full-time paid work that would feel sufficiently urgent and impactful, and also made me a living, I thought, “What if I found something that gave me the money I need to live and resonated with my values, but didn’t take up all of my time?” Then I’d have a lot of extra time to devote to work I really want to do.

So I started doing an 18-month programme to become a personal development or "life coach", and I just completed the certification! I do feel that as a coach, my work is definitely making an impact, because it’s ultimately about helping people see more clearly who they are, what’s most important to them, what contribution they want to make to the world, and enabling them to move towards realising that vision of themselves.

Coaching feels very fulfilling to me, because – not only do I get to support people in seeing more clearly what they really want to do and be – but I also know that we need everyone to play an active role in the current dilemma that we’re facing. So helping people recognise what their role is and empowering them to move towards that feels like a cool way to contribute. Coaching has also allowed me a huge amount of flexibility and mobility to get involved in things outside of the realm of paid work.

This past year, I learned a lot about what it means to do direct action, and what it means to do organising work. In Yale-NUS, I had taken a lot of classes on social movements, and had always sought out classes about art movements, social activism, creative utopian visioning, or environmental conflict resolution. I spent a lot of my free time researching organisational strategy, or how people push things through using mass mobilisation, protest, or strategic policy.

I did a fair amount of facilitation and dialogue work (which is inherently political work) while in Singapore, but didn’t feel like I had the chance to get involved in a more explicitly political work in a hands-on way before returning to the USA.

This year, I got really involved in several indigenous-led resistance campaigns. One of them was the movement to stop the construction of the Line 3 Pipeline. The Line 3 Pipeline – funded by the Canadian oil giant Enbridge, carries tar sands from Canada to the USA – was being constructed in the middle of the USA, in Minnesota. There was a long campaign to stop it, both before and during construction, which officially started at the end of 2020. We were able to stall construction significantly, and make it way more expensive than Enbridge had planned. But as of Fall 2021, the pipeline is sadly operational. Over 800 people were arrested during the campaign for nonviolent direct action, and are now in the process of fighting legal battles to drop the charges.

I went and lived on the frontlines for about three months last year, and then went back several times after. Since then, I have been involved in another indigenous-led resistance campaign against forced evictions of Indigenous elders, as their homes are bulldozed to make way for infrastructure to support the construction of a Lithium mine.

I’m grateful to have a better sense of what the work entails, how I can fit into it, what skillsets are needed, what skillsets I have, and what skillsets I need to develop to be more valuable to movements.

Before these experiences, the social movement methods I’d learned about were mostly just theories and case studies. I had little to no understanding of what it means to apply these strategies in practice, in context. While I’m still just a kindergartener in my education as an organiser, I’m grateful to have a better sense of what the work entails, how I can fit into it, what skillsets are needed, what skillsets I have, and what skillsets I need to develop to be more valuable to movements.

I still have a lot of questions about the theory of change that undergirds direct action, but I feel very grateful to have tried my hand at it, so that I can more clearly discern whether it’s something I want to continue doing.

Aleithia: How do you decide what, for you, is important work? What have been your considerations around that?

Kei: That’s a great question. It’s shifted a bunch. Initially, I thought about how wide my impact would be: How many people will I influence? How many systems or structures can I change?

“How authentically and thoroughly can I embody the values I care about in both what I’m doing and how I’m doing it?”

That’s still important to me. But my perspective has changed a lot, from, “How many can I influence?” to “How authentically and thoroughly can I embody the values I care about both in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it?”

In the past, I worked as a consultant for one very high profile international development organisation, and thought, “This is an important, powerful institution, and a great way to make an impact.” However, through that project – brief as it was – I saw huge amounts of resources being passed around between parties, and not a lot of material change on the ground. That was very frustrating to me. I’ve heard similar stories from other friends, who also work in close proximity to power, who don’t feel that their work is directly contributing to anything materially changing in their communities or in the world.

Now having shifted to “How can I do something that feels very directly related to what I care about, in a tangible way?”, the impact is inevitably smaller, but feels more consistent and coherent with who I know I am and want to be. In the process of doing the work, I am also then being, living and relating in a way that aligns with my values and what I care about.

“Who am I in community with right now?”

A follow-up question is, “Who am I in community with right now?” If I’m doing work that brings me into community with people who have similar stakes as I do in the world changing, I probably won’t be making many truly radical choices, because my community and myself don’t actually personally depend on those radical choices being made. The status quo benefits or at least works for us, more or less.

Whereas if I’m in community with those directly affected by racial and climate injustice right now, then I have a much more important, immediate and embodied incentive to say “Things have to change right now, because the people I care about, people in my community, are being affected.”

Aleithia: Being in Singapore, and in touch with so many people who have no stakes, some of them see this as work that can be “put off” until it is necessary.

Kei: I love the phrasing “work that can be put off.” Having been in high-level organising spaces, like cross-sectoral developmental conferences, there is a part of me that can’t help but think, “How many resources went into bringing 200 leaders from across the world together to talk about resilience?” “What tangible changes are going to come out of this?” Of course it’s hard to track impact and influence, but it sometimes feels like to the leaders at these conventions, the problems are not really affecting them or their families, so it all still feels a bit abstracted and alienated.

Which is why I was so drawn to direct action ... it's very tangible.

Which is why I was so drawn to direct action: people are putting their bodies in front of machinery to stop the construction of a pipeline. It’s very tangible. Is it going to make a massive impact on a global scale? No. It’s probably going to stop construction for twelve hours max, and then it will continue the next day. But it will potentially generate a huge amount of press, cost the company a lot of money, and dissuade governments from approving future pipeline projects because they know there will be a civil uprising.

The clear tangibility of this work really appealed to me, especially after being in Singapore for so long.

Aleithia: We’ve touched on how being in the USA has enabled you to work in solidarity with climate justice movements, and it led me to think about your relationship to each place – to Singapore and the people living in Singapore, and to the USA and people that you can work with there – and how that’s impacted your approach to social impact work in these countries.

Kei: There were a lot of structural barriers or circumstances that made it extremely challenging to be in any kind of meaningful or authentic community with people who were materially affected by racial or climate injustice in Singapore.

When I say structures, I mean: I came on a student visa; I left on an employment visa; I had to be on some kind of formalised visa to be in Singapore; As a white American person, I am considered foreign talent, and that puts me in a certain category in terms of the ways I’m supposed to move through society and the people I’m supposed to interact with.

I and the people I was spending time with were in a similar position in terms of our stakes in how racial or climate injustice impact us.

I’ve reflected on ways in which I was very blind to segregation in Singapore, especially along lines of class. It felt like some of the barriers to having intentional inter-class relationships were insurmountable, which meant that I and the people I was spending time with were in a similar position in terms of our stakes in how racial or climate injustice impact us.

When I returned to the USA, I realised more clearly than ever that even growing up, I was surrounded by people who had similarly low stakes in these crises. Going back to my hometown in New Mexico was very challenging. As a white person who has benefited from disproportionately resourced educational opportunities and a lot of international experience, going back to the USA at this moment was very daunting; the country is increasingly polarised, and refreshingly rich in resistance, since the murder of George Floyd and uprisings that followed in May 2020.

The Black Lives Matter and indigenous sovereignty movements are very active right now; they always have been, but at this moment, they are more in the public eye than before. This was a huge motivation for me to return to the USA, as I wanted to actively be involved in these movements, but it also felt quite intimidating. As a white person who has learned to navigate the many racial and cultural power dynamics of a place like Singapore, and who has been away from my "home country" for the last ten years, I felt like I was starting from scratch. I really don’t know this country, or even basic things like do you tip the cab driver? Or what kind of humour to use… I haven’t been here for such a long time.

I realised that – much more so than in Singapore – back in the USA, I was going to have to put in a huge amount of effort to get to know people who were not white, upper middle-class, and disproportionately educated (the demographic that comprises most of my family’s communities). Even though New Mexico is very racially and economically diverse, it’s also very segregated, and my family exists in a pretty privileged bubble.

So that was a huge barrier, and I had to be very aware of my identity in a way that I actually hadn’t had to as much in Singapore. For very good reasons, there is a lot of suspicion and skepticism of white people trying to get into these movements in the USA. I definitely had to navigate whiteness in Singapore, but felt like even just being able to speak Singlish convincingly made me welcome in lots of spaces. Navigating whiteness in a country like the USA, which was literally built on the logics of racial capitalism and white supremacy culture felt way more tricky and scary.

Aleithia: You’ve mentioned going to be part of these indigenous-led resistance movements, and feeling out of place because of different aspects of your identity. How did you go about seeking out organisations and communities to be part of, without doing so in a contrived manner?

Kei: I first went through formal channels of applying to organisations, which didn’t work. I can’t say why, but I would venture a guess that the experiences on my resume felt kinda illegible to people (“Singapore? Eswatini? What? So random!”). So I decided to give up on formal channels and just respond to calls for people.

The Line 3 movement had put out a call for allies to join them on the frontlines. Back, then I had zero experience and had only read a bunch of stuff about the Pipeline. But I knew somebody who knew somebody, connected to them, and just showed up.

Somebody like me doing that [social reproductive] labour means other folks don’t have to, and can spend time strategising, or processing and healing.

My approach was probably quite crucial in being able to stay there: basically, I tried to do as much social reproductive labour as possible – as much washing dishes, cooking, cleaning as I could – because that is the labour that is actually needed to be done to sustain a community. Somebody like me doing that labour means other folks don’t have to, and can spend time strategising, or processing and healing.

I know that a past-version of myself would have asked myself “What expert skills and tools and knowledge do I have that I can bring to the movement? Skills like facilitation, conflict resolution or holding space for dialogue.” It felt quite clear pretty early on that – even if these skills and tools were needed in that space – it was going to take a lot of relationship and trust-building before I could be the person to offer these skills.

I also got to witness and learn from lots of other ways of resolving conflict, that emerged from that specific context and those specific people, in ways that I might have missed had I been fixated on ‘bringing my unique and expert knowledge in conflict resolution.’

Basically, I shifted from thinking about what I have to offer, to looking around to see what needed to be done, and then doing it – slogging it out, and through that, gaining people’s trust. I found that when folks see that you’re sticking around, and doing a bunch of shit that people generally don’t want to do, that creates relationships and builds trust.

Also, and I know this sounds kind of weird, but just being funny helps too. In the USA, I found that oftentimes when white folks get into these multi-racial spaces of resistance, there is often a huge amount of tentativeness, especially if you've thought a lot about race and power. There’s a lot of tip toe-ing around not wanting to offend anyone or impose.

I’ve found it really important to let go of the notion of moral purity, and accept that I have racist thoughts and do racist things and live in a racist system where everyone is conditioned to be racist. So there’s no good people or bad people, no pure pedestal that I’m trying to be on or trying not to fall off of. This realisation has allowed me to lean into bringing different parts of myself to movement work – the funny part, the chilled out part, the crass part, the wholesome part – and being able to do that has helped me feel like I’m showing up as my full self. And people appreciate that, like this is a real person, not just someone who is scared of making a mistake. She actually exists and has a sense of grounding.

Aleithia: The direct action work you’ve been participating in is very different from paid work as many of us know it. Earlier you talked about decoupling impact from income. Could you share more about that?

Kei: I don’t like to associate with labels, but have started to recognise that I’m way more left-leaning politically than I had realised in the past. I do think a lot about economics and money and value, and how value is passed along, and thus recognise that it’s completely bullshit that we need to work and pay rent. But that’s the reality we live in: a neoliberal, capitalist society, which requires that we pay to live.

What I have been refreshed to find, is that very often, some of the comrades I’ve related to most, are working on farms, in restaurants, or in the service industry. On some level, they’ve decoupled their paid work from what they want to do with their lives, and do not give that much time of day to the notion of professional paid work. That’s been very freeing for me.

If I’m going to live in a semi-barter-system community, it is possible to not need that much money, depending on how many people one has to support. It is actually possible. Communities have been doing this for a very long time; they may not be able to remove themselves entirely from the cash economy, but as much as possible, they try not to participate in it and instead rely on less alienated systems of production and sustenance

Coming from Singapore, that was a radical shift. I didn’t think it was possible or viable if you weren’t already independently wealthy or had no kin that you were responsible for supporting. But it is, and it’s important to say that, in case people are thinking about options.

Aleithia: Considering the possibilities you’ve seen outside Singapore, but then having to work through the three years here, what advice would you give to other international students on how to sustain themselves, if they are choosing to involve themselves in social impact work in Singapore throughout the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS) years?

Kei: First of all, those years can not be not terrible if you surround yourself with friends. They can be some of the sweetest years; they were, for me. I still have not found any community that remotely echoes what I had in Singapore. It’s very hard to find as good friends like the ones as I have from Yale-NUS.

Cherish your community, and don’t let work be too big a part of your life in Singapore. It’s such a precious opportunity to live among and near friends from College that you might not be able to live with in the future. That was my main focus after College and I’m very grateful that it was. I wish I had stressed less about work, because it wasn’t really about that.

In terms of professional development, it’s extremely valuable to see the few years after graduation as exploration years. These years are a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a lot of different industries and have an experiential understanding of what different types of work feel like. So that moving forward, you can know yourself and decide what you want to do next.

The last thing I would say is that relationships are everything. Everything. I don’t think I’d have any of the experiences I’ve had in the last year and a half, if not for specific relationships. So if you find bosses that are good mentors, or colleagues or peers that you resonate with in the workplace, hold onto them! Value them! Deepen your relationships with them in authentic ways! These relationships can be so valuable and teach you so much about yourself, and they can be valuable in the sector (if it’s related to what you ultimately want to do), and can connect you to people in the next place you might go.

Aleithia: You’ve shifted from focusing on the scale of impact, to living richly, and honestly and being authentic in your actions – I do see more people moving towards that. Our friend and fellow alumni Hui Ran also talked about this: having worked in corporate sustainability, she is now farming. Though the impact is bound by the land she has, what she does on a day-to-day basis is right and true to the values she has.

Kei: I have no idea what’s the right thing to do, but I do know that in my own being, I feel a lot more settled and coherent when doing certain types of work over others. I’ve started to prioritise that sense of intuitive rightness, which is a departure from having previously been more judgemental of what is the Right Thing to do with my life.

If you’re in touch with yourself, and what you’re doing is coherent and makes you come alive, then excellent! You’re probably making a lot of positive contributions to the world.

Of course, I would draw the line at someone working in the arms industry or for a fossil fuel company; I might ask them to reconsider. But beyond that, who am I to say what is the right thing for anybody else to do? Everybody has their own answers. If you’re in touch with yourself, and what you’re doing is coherent and makes you come alive, then excellent! You’re probably making a lot of positive contributions to the world.

Aleithia: Yeah, I feel like in Singapore – and I’m quite prone to this – there is a lot of intellectualising and reading all the books you can on wealth creation, economics, climate, migration, and supply chains to find the best thesis on how to live life. And I think it’s also about the kinds of knowledge and experience we’ve learned to value here. It has to be written, academia, reports, books, trying out different professions, as compared to working on a farm, traveling, volunteering with different groups, lending support to in what can seem to be very day-to-day ways.

Kei: There’s definitely a sense of technocratic conditioning, of expertise that has to come from a particular form of knowledge.

One other thing I might mention is: I’ve spent the last year and a half building a house from the ground-up with my brothers. I’ve never done something like that before, nor have they. It’s a natural building project, we’re building a timber frame, straw bale adobe house. That has been a massive educational experience, especially coming from Singapore – where I was basically in front of a computer eight hours a day – to transition to spending my days standing in a pit of gravel, shovelling and cutting wood, and drilling.

There are so many forms of knowledge in the world, and I am so limited in the knowledge I have. My knowledge is primarily conceptual, literary and communicative. And yet there’s also knowledge of how to build a structure, or how to grow food, or how to heal somebody with herbs. I don’t know anything about the things that keep me alive, sheltered, fed, warm and healthy.

Right now, I would encourage other people to try and become more balanced if that notion appeals to you. I’ve been learning more hand-skills, which are making me feel like a more complete and fulfilled person. I feel a lot of humility and gratitude for people who came before me and who are always so willing to teach and generously share their knowledge. Major respect, you know.

Aleithia: That’s really nice to hear. It sounds like your world has expanded, in terms of what you can do, what you choose to do, the actions you take, the values you have, and how you spend your time. To me, that’s very hopeful.

Kei: Totally. For a lot of people in Singapore, these have always been the things we value, but there are places that make it easier to realise these values in a more tangible way. Not to say that you can’t do that in Singapore – you can, people do – but as a foreigner, it definitely felt hard.

We shouldn’t feel shame. I know that myself and other people living in Singapore feel this – we feel so much shame – because we don’t know how to do any of this shit and feel so alienated.

We shouldn’t feel shame. I know that myself and other people living in Singapore feel this – we feel so much shame – because we don’t know how to do any of this shit and feel so alienated. It’s okay to step away from that sense of shame. Of course we are alienated. We are in a system that has decided that certain skills and types of knowledge are not valued. In fact, they’re stigmatised. So it’s okay that we don’t know any of these things.

But coming from Yale-NUS, we are really good at learning. If there’s one thing we know how to do, we know how to learn. I do think there is a lot of hope. Not only in the ability to jump into something unknown, but also in the humility to say, “I’m doing something I’ve never done before and I don’t know what I’m doing but let me be inclusive and collaborative about it.”

I have a very big hope that I will live on a piece of land with a bunch of friends – that’s very much my dream. I feel it’s totally possible. I trust people’s capacities, and my own, to learn new skills. I’m excited to think of what we’ll all do as we spread across the world.

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