Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

(Link to China Daily profile: http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-08/08/content_18274036.htm

A few days after their state’s primary elections, Chinese-American community leaders in Maryland woke up to an email in their inboxes.

It was from Lily Qi – director of special projects for the government of Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington – thanking them for their support in the reelection campaign of County Executive Ike Leggett, whose primary victory cleared the way for a third term.

“In a low turnout election like this one, every vote counts and the immigrant community holds great sway in tipping the balance,” Qi said in her note. Throughout the campaign, Qi had tirelessly reached out to the Chinese-American community, which accounts for 5 percent of county’s population of one million.

Lily Qi: Leading like a true American

In her email, Qi, who also serves as chair of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, announced the victories of two Chinese-American state legislators – one delegate and one senator as well.

“We’re growing stronger as a community because of people like you who care about things bigger than yourself,” Qi signed off.

The memo offers a glimpse into the wide spectrum of Qi’s professional and community service footprints and her own “caring about things bigger” than herself.

As a political appointee responsible for high-priority initiatives related to the county’s economic competitiveness and global partnerships, Qi knows the reelection of the county executive ensures she can continue to do what she loves and excels at.

Previously, Qi had been the vice president of Washington, DC Economic Partnership, overseeing the capital city’s business attraction and retention.

Qi’s current grand projects include engineering a new comprehensive economic strategy for the county that integrates existing businesses, community and workforce development strategies and branding the county as a vibrant destination – rather than a backyard of DC – to attract younger generations, businesses and visitors.

“Every morning I can’t wait to get to work because I really believe in everything I do,” Qi said in an interview with China Daily. “I am helping the county executive reposition the county for the future.”

For Qi, community service has no less impact or meaning. Before becoming the state’s point person to the fast-growing Asian-American community, Qi had been the county executive’s liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Americans and also served as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ Greater Washington, DC Chapter.

Calling herself a “cultural broker”, Qi helps local communities and leaders understand the dynamics and opportunities of immigrant communities that now make up one third of the county’s population, while helping these new communities participate more fully in local affairs.

“Being a cultural broker can be tiring,” said Qi, whose evenings and weekends are crammed with community meetings and events. Still, she tries to make herself available for various causes.

“I get a lot of gratification from how much I give to – rather than take from – society,” she said. “I’ve made the choice, so I am willing to make the sacrifice. That’s the contract I’ve signed with society.”

Qi is often able to make her professional and community efforts complement each other, because both fulfill her passion for social causes, which was the main thing that led her into a public service career in the first place – she wanted to have a direct impact on policies that affect people’s lives.

Recognizing the positive impact that a new Life Science Center in Montgomery County could have on growing the “innovation economy” and residents’ employment opportunities, Qi mobilized Asian communities to lobby county council members, who unanimously approved the plan, despite several members’ earlier opposition.

No matter what cause Qi ends up advocating, her signature traits are confidence and the ability to lead.

“Leadership is all about taking initiatives,” said Qi, who serves on the boards of Suburban Hospital of Johns Hopkins Medicine, VisArts and Leadership Montgomery. “Even if you do not have the title of a leader, you should take the initiative to bring about positive changes instead of just voicing complaints. Then you will soon become a leader and an agent of change.”

And Qi has been determined, from very early on, to lead as a true American.

“Twenty-some years ago, I made a decision that I wanted to fully immerse myself in this culture as an American,” she said. “Once I made that decision, everything else followed.”

“As immigrants, you are expected to pay your dues for a generation so your children can be ‘True Americans’. I guess I didn’t get that memo,” jokes Qi, who came to the US from Shanghai in 1989 to pursue advanced education. “This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t have to wait a generation to fulfill our American dream.”

Instead of embarking on the kind of traditional and secure technical jobs that first-generation immigrants often take, Qi went after positions usually reserved for native-borns and often ended up being the only Asian in her work place.

While serving as the assistant director for multicultural affairs at American University in the late 1990s while working on an MBA degree there, Qi also took it upon herself to learn about American racial cultures, including what it meant to be Asian American, which anchored her even better as an active member of American society, she said.

“I have become an expert on the capital region’s Asian-American experience, not because I happen to be Chinese, but because I spend time reading, thinking, writing, and talking about these issues,” said Qi, who writes a column for Asian Fortune, an English-language newspaper targeting the Asian-American community of the greater DC area, and has become a unique voice as a frequent speaker and moderator on immigrant integration, Asian Americans, global/local economic competitiveness and their convergence.

During last May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Qi was keynote speaker at a National Labor Relations Board celebration, as she has been for the FCC and several military installations in the past. As she does with any public presentation, Qi took the time to make sure her speech was “flawless”.

“No matter what you do, you should do it the best you can because you are the brand,” said Qi, laughing at herself for being “a perfectionist”.

This might explain how Qi, a non-native English speaker, when asked to teach a course in public speaking as a new graduate student at Ohio University in 1991, would overcome her fear and excel. This might also explain how Qi would later become spokeswoman for the Washington (DC) Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, leading a team of native English speakers.

Proudly standing at the intersection of politics, business and culture as a connector and influencer, Qi said she has reached a point in her life where job or career are secondary to her desire to wake up every day with a cause to work for, whatever her position may be.

“The questions I ask myself the most are: What is my passion? Where can I offer some unique value?”

charlenecai@chinadailyusa.com

Giving and Receiving Compliments

Something as mundane and common as giving and receiving compliments may be a serious challenge if you are an immigrant.

Over the years, I have learned, often the hard way, the essential importance of receiving and giving compliments, at home, at work, and in social or semi-social environment. Generally speaking, East Asian cultures tend to be more reserved in expressing appreciations or affection toward others compared to the American culture (some generalization here).  We have all heard of such jokes about Asian parents singling out the only “B” in the child’s report card amidst all other “A”s and demand to know why the child had failed to get straight “A”s, while American-born parents would emphasize on the progress or efforts rather than the outcome.

True, those of us with Asian heritage, especially those growing up in Asian cultures (not just from Asian families), tend to forget the importance of being positive and encouraging at all times, including with family members, by paying compliments for a job well done or even for making an effort!

I remember when my son was still in elementary school, he asked me one day why I wasn’t more like his teacher. When asked what he meant, he said his teacher would praise him and give him stars and stickers for good work, while “you never see anything good that that I do,” he protested to me.  I felt terrible because he was mostly right.  But I know I am not alone.  Asian parents generally don’t like to praise their own kids in front of other friends, but American born parents frequently do.

The skill of giving positive feedback doesn’t come naturally for us.  Even though many Asian cultures value reciprocity, especially in gift-giving or doing each other favors, paying someone compliments for a job well done is not common practice in our culture.  It is a skill we have to consciously learn and apply because we consider a job well done as a duty rather than something that would warrant any compliments or attention.

The inability to compliment can not only affect family relations and friendships, but also cause workplace tension and make us seem less effective as leaders or less appreciative as co-workers, because much of leadership is conveyed through verbal communication and the ability to connect with people.  Being able to give positive and encouraging feedback and acknowledge your co-workers for their collaboration, initiative, or great efforts is not only a matter of professional competency but also a matter of cultural competency that builds personal networks and loyalty.  Focusing too much on the tasks at hand makes you look harsh and ungrateful, or less than leader-like, and hurts your ability to grow strong teams that are willing to follow your lead and your agenda.

It is common knowledge that many Asians are highly competent professionals, but often hit the glass ceiling too soon in career advancement and as a result, are severely underrepresented in senior and top leadership positions.  There are undoubtedly institutional issues that continue to perpetuate such discrepancy.  But at the individual level, much of what holds us back is not the lack of technical competency but rather cultural competency as reflected in verbal communication, including the ability to conduct meetings, share a good laugh, talk sports with colleagues or bosses, or give genuine appreciation and compliments to co-workers.

Giving and receiving compliments go hand and hand.  Though simple as it may seem, not everyone knows how to properly receive a compliment.  When being complimented, simply say “thank you” or something to the effect of “I appreciate your compliments” or “it was very nice of you to have mentioned my work at today’s meeting,” etc.  The key is being gracious whether people compliment you, whether it’s your new hairdo or your accomplishment.  The worst is insisting you don’t look good or that you are not good enough.

Focusing on soft skills such as building relationships, managing expectations and communication can go a long way towards becoming a more competent professional, appreciative leader as well as a more attractive person.  Learning how to genuinely appreciate other people’s efforts and good work is a reflection of our humility and maturity.

The day when we change from being primarily receivers of compliments for our good work to being givers of compliments for other people’s good work is the day when we will likely enjoy more influence in workplaces and in leadership positions.

The Muslims Among Us

Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently took it to the Senate floor to publicly denounce accusations by five of his Republican colleagues in Congress that Ms. Huma Abedin, a Muslim American and a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood that is trying to infiltrate the highest level of the U.S. government. In his powerful and moving statement, Senator McCain called the allegations against Ms. Abedin “unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant.” Such fear-invoked and ignorance-based attacks, as he eloquently put it, “defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Incidents like this remind us that mistrust of Muslims and Islam still persists and rears its ugly head all too often. This happens to be the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, which started July 20 this year. Throughout the capital region, Muslims in our communities are hosting numerous Iftar events to celebrate the breaking of the fast and to share their cultural heritage with the larger community and with fellow Muslims.

Because of my previous job, I have had the rare opportunity of working with many Muslim community organizations made of Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, Egyptians, Indonesians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Bangladeshis, and native born Americans of all ethnicities. What I have learned about Muslims in our community is truly inspiring. They strike me as one of the most highly engaged and empowered communities conscientious of contributing to and connecting with the larger community.

Since “9.11,” Muslim Americans have had a greater sense of urgency to improve the public’s perception of the community. New organizations such as the Montgomery County Muslim Council (MCMC) and its sister organization, the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation (MCMF), were born with the explicit purposes of serving the greater Montgomery County community (not just Muslims) and to encourage activism, while existing organizations have become more aware of civic and political engagement. In just a few short years, MCMC and MCMF have become highly-regarded organizations with such staple programs as the annual food drives, holiday baskets, and feed-the-hungry, in partnership with local charities and the government.

Another exemplary organization is the Muslim Community Center, which operates a health clinic that has made a name for itself in the region for offering free health care provided by volunteer doctors and staffers to the uninsured and low-income residents regardless of their faiths or ethnicities. In providing much-needed services to our community, MCC has become an integral part of our local fabric and an important partner of local government. These organizations are not alone. MARTI, the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community often host educational forums and actively reach out to the larger community for dialogues and understanding. Other active groups in our community include the Islamic Center of Maryland, the Islamic Society of Germantown, the Islamic Center of Washington Area, and the Pakistani American Association.

Such activism reflects the Muslim community’s foresight in turning individual success into community success, and their gratitude for the freedom, opportunities and respect they enjoy in this country. Since 2009, Montgomery County has been hosting public Ramadan Iftar educational programs (paid by community donations), as we have done for the Diwali tradition celebrated by Indians and other South Asians. Such community relationship building at the local level, no matter how large or small it may seem, contributes to community good will and helps ensure that the United States remains an infertile ground to those extremists who ARE trying to influence our youths and hijack a religion.

What Muslim communities are doing is what all of us ought to do—to be better informed, engaged and empowered citizens and communities. In the words of MCMC founder and community leader, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, “the white population in our community is not growing, and most of the charitable activities are done by the white community, so the minority communities need to step up. The Muslim community is doing well. We don’t need much, but we have a lot to offer.” One doesn’t have to agree with Mr. Ahmad’s assessment completely to admire his sense of duty towards the local community and fellow Americans. This is what makes us all richer as a people and a nation.

 

Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

Public condemnation has been swift and abundant for former DC mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry since his infamous remarks about dirty Asian shops that, in his opinion, “ought to go” and be replaced by African-American business people. It was a sure sign of progress to see the mainstream media turning the heat on Barry, and for groups from advocates to public intellectuals and elected officials make it clear that such divisive and racist rhetoric would not be tolerated.

It is easy to be outraged and to demand apologies. What is much harder to do—though equally necessary—is to reflect on how our community is perceived by others and how we can improve our public image and community relations.

Here is what Mr. Barry actually said at the primary election victory party in April: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops… They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Mr. Barry wasn’t just talking about the Asian shops being unsanitary; he saw the Asian business people and their shops as outsiders that didn’t belong in Ward 8, a predominantly black community. While his intention might be to see more black businesses in the community, his tactic of scapegoating by pitting one community against another is most unfortunate and drives a wedge in community relations.

Anyone who has been paying attention should hardly be surprised at these remarks from Marion Barry, who, in spite of his past glory as a civil rights champion in Washington, D.C., has become synonymous with reckless and shameless personal conduct by public officials. What bothered me more than his comments was the audience’s cheers and applause at his words. Right or wrong, Mr. Barry seemed to have echoed a sentiment among some residents in Ward 8 towards Asian American-owned businesses.

This should sound an alarm to the Asian business community and our community leaders about how we are perceived by other communities. The residents in Ward 8 elected Mr. Barry repeatedly to represent them because he is seen as a fighter for the underclass.

Ward 8 still feels left behind in spite of the capital city’s remarkable economic turnaround and massive revitalization since the late ‘90s. It is one thing to be poor, quite another to be “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his “I have a Dream” speech. That feeling makes some residents resent “outsiders” who are seen as only interested in making money without being part of the local community.

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

Asian immigrants all over the world are known to be industrious and successful in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But history teaches us that focusing only on making a living or a fortune may be fine for the short-term interests of individual businesses, but over time may breed resentment among locals who may perceive us as opportunists. Investing in community relations by hiring local residents, volunteering or donating to local charitable or social causes, and living where one does business are not only sound business strategies, but also economic imperatives for survival.

Wake-up Call

What happened in Indonesia during the mid to late ‘90s, when Chinese immigrants were targeted and had their properties and lives violated, should serve as a wake-up call to Asian immigrant communities everywhere. Economic success without community involvement or political empowerment can be a lethal combination that isolates us from the larger society and deepens mistrust between newcomers and the local communities.

I was impressed by a poignant commentary in the Washington Post (April 27), “Still the Same Marion Barry,” by Colby King, a Pulitzer Prize- winning Post columnist who happens to be African American, condemning Mr. Barry’s remarks while putting his life and popularity with some blacks in perspective. It is important that leaders and pundits in the black community speak out on such issues to advance other minorities’ rights and well-being. While we shouldn’t cut slacks for anyone, especially elected leaders, we should also rise above outrage and use each incident as a teachable moment to advance the bigger purpose of social integration.

Lily Qi Named A Finalist in Washington Chinese Post’s “2011 Person of the Year”

I am honored to have been nominated by the community as one of the five finalists of the Washington Chinese Post’s “2011 Person of the Year.”  The Chinese community in the Greater Washington region is about a quarter million strong.  This nomination is very humbling. To see all candidates and to vote, please visit http://173.64.86.36:8080/fmrenwu/fmrenwu.jsp. The voting ends in just one week, by the end of March.

Lily Qi

New Year’s Resolution: Give Where You Live

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune January, 2012 edition, http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_0112.php?article_id=25.

During the holiday season, you must have received countless mailings and calls from around the country asking for your donations to charitable causes. It can be overwhelming. After all, how do you choose among feeding the hungry, curing diseases, helping wounded veterans, educating at-risk youth, and protecting the environment? While you may already have your favorite charities, including some halfway around the country or around the world in your home countries where you came from, I am urging you to give locally, where you and your family and community now call home. There are many great reasons to give where you live, but here are a few that have compelled me to give locally each year.

  • Investing in the well-being of the community at large helps build strong communities that benefit all of us. A report on the Greater Washington, DC charities a few years ago showed that for every dollar invested in local charities, we get an average of five dollars of return in economic benefits in reduced need for government services or avoidance of greater crisis down the road that could be far more costly to all of us as taxpayers and members of the society.
  • Giving locally helps us pay attention to local affairs and gets us connected at a deeper level. Many important policy decisions were made without our communities’ direct input because we did not bother to read about them in local papers or show up at town halls or find some other ways to shape the outcomes. Giving makes us focus on who we give to and why. It also helps us exercise our influence and exert our voices.
  • Giving locally enhances our communities’ image and relationships with the larger communities, especially when you do that in an organized fashion. If we are perceived as only interested in economic opportunities, we cannot enjoy the true benefits of social integration at the local level. The Muslim community in Montgomery County has been a great model among new communities in that regard. For example, the Montgomery County Muslim Council (www.mcmcouncil.org) was founded with the dual mission of serving the larger community and increasing Muslim community’s activism and visibility. In the words of its visionary founder, Mr. Tufail Ahmad, the Muslim community doesn’t need much but has much to give. In just a few years since its founding, MCMC and its affiliate MCMF have made a great name for themselves through their range of charitable activities. Another one, the Muslim Community Center (www.mccmd.org), runs a highly successful health clinic for the uninsured and low-income, by using the wealth of medical expertise within the Muslim community to serve the larger community while building good will.

Many of us came from countries with no tradition of an independent nonprofit sector, so charitable giving, especially giving to those we don’t feel connected to, is not deeply rooted in our cultural psyche. In this country, nonprofits, especially charitable organizations, are an American beauty. They are critical partners of the public and the private sectors doing what neither one of them can do alone or cost effectively. They are a measure of a society’s civility and collective conscience.

As we become more established both individually and as a community, we are in a much better position to give. At the risk of playing favoritism, I am recommending a few local Asian American charitable organizations that provide vital services to the most vulnerable among us so they may lead a dignified life.  Due to space limits, I am only offering links so you may check them out online.

For a list of local charities, visit the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington (www.nonprofitroundtable.org) or the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (www.thecommunityfoundation.org).
This New Year, let’s put “give where you live” on our New Year’s resolutions list. Let’s pay it forward–it’s the American way.

A Rich and Rewarding Experience: Lessons on Career Path

When I considered the Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison job about four years ago, I was the Director of Communication and Public Affairs for the DC Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. I had a decent income, a team of staff, and a nice corner office near Union Station. So what made me want to take a job with no travel opportunities, no staff or administrative support, requiring significant time commitment on evenings and weekends, and on top of that, a double digit percentage pay cut? Indeed, some of my friends thought I was crazy.

The answer is passion. To me, being a community liaison is not just a job, but a way of life, with or without the title. Like a typical Asian in the capital region, I am an immigrant. I can relate to our communities’ struggles as newcomers trying to establish ourselves here; as parents facing the dual challenges of cultural and generational gaps, and as professionals taking too long to find our ways but then hitting the bamboo ceilings too soon. I wanted to act as a voice and a link for our growing, vibrant, but still disconnected communities. I wanted to see our communities more visible, engaged, and respected. And I wanted us to matter more.

It turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever held as it was the closest to who I am at heart. I had the honor of representing the local government in the public and speaking for our communities inside the government. I had the gratification of involving our new communities in local affairs, while educating the established communities and institutions to be more culturally competent and adaptive to changes. And I had the privilege of recommending our community leaders and volunteers for jobs, boards, and awards, and connecting people with opportunities. What’s better than being paid to do what you love to do anyway?

As a generalist, I have probably asked myself this question more often than most people, “What should I do with my life?” Each job has taught me valuable lessons about life, tested my limits, and brought me closer to that answer.

First, I learned that a career path doesn’t have to be linear. If you are truly passionate about something, it is worth pursuing it during the best years of your life, not after you retire. Adapting to changes, identifying the needs and seeking to add my unique value in every situation has been my compass because our jobs are what we make out of them.

I have also learned never to let my pay grade stop me from doing what needs to be done. Instead, I took initiatives and built allies. For example, I engaged top management on the signing of the executive order on language access by the County Executive to raise the bar on how we serve people with limited English proficiency. I involved community media and organizations to support an economic development vision so they have a voice on a major local issue. I teamed up with both senior managers and community leaders to initiate the “Leading a Global Workforce” training series for managers and the “Global Montgomery” series for staff to learn about our changing communities and workforce.

Finally, I try not to lose sight of who I really am. With training and practice, we can develop competency in many areas, but we are only really great at a few things we are meant to do with our lives. I am old enough to know what I am really good at, though never wise enough to figure out what to do next. So life is still an open book and an adventure.

This past summer, I was appointed by County Executive Ike Leggett as Special Projects Manager overseeing such priority initiatives as strategic partnerships to grow our innovation economy and develop international relations. I am content that a group of highly capable people in our community have stepped up and applied to be the next Asian and Middle Eastern Liaison. I join our community in thanking all of you who applied for putting yourself out there to serve us all. As for me, I have found new ways to be a voice and a link for our community, and writing this column is part of that. May the New Year bring you new adventures. Happy Holidays!

This article was originally published in Asian Fortune December issue.  Online version can be found at http://www.asianfortunenews.com/site/article_1211.php?article_id=30.

Muslims In Montgomery County

I recently hosted a cultural competency training program called “Beyond the Veil: Muslims in Montgomery County” for our County government employees, in anticipation of Ramadan on Aug. 1, when the month of fasting begins for Muslims this year.   Over 80 staff showed up to learn from and connect with the local Muslim community leaders.  Many believed we could use a lot more time to cover this fascinating subject.  Panelists answered questions including Islam and women, and why Muslims aren’t more volcal to speak out against radical Islam. 

I must say I have been very impressed with the Muslim community in Montgomery County because of their conscious efforts in interfaith relationship building, civic activism and exemplary charitable contributions to the larger community.  Please contact me at my work email, lily.qi@montgomerycountymd.gov if you are interested in local Montgomery County, Maryland’s list of Ramadan community activities.