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(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)—From December 10-15, 200 Leaders from 33 countries in the Asia-Pacific region gathered together to kick-off a year-long leadership training program by the Obama Foundation.

Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 13, 2019. Photo by The Obama Foundation

President and Mrs. Obama, as well as other prominent speakers and thought leaders, joined us for discussions around progress and opportunity in the Asia-Pacific region and values-based leadership.

In addition to the plenary sessions, Leaders participated in skill-building workshops, leadership development training, and a community service project, among other activities.

Here’s how it went down for me:

Panels

First, the panels:

In “We Are the Future: Progress and Possibility in the Asia Pacific” moderated by Aaron Manian and featuring engineer Arthur Huang, Mongolian MP Oyun Saanjasuren (who has a special spot in my heart since she has a black belt in karate), and Malaysian Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development Hannah Yeoh, the panel spoke about what lies ahead in the region. Ms. Yeoh says “we need to consolidate resources and ideas” as  “everyone starts and NGO and so there is little impact”—something I strongly resonate with and thus prefer to be a lone artist working with multiple institutions, at least for now.

In “Entrepreneurship: Working with Purpose” moderated by Pat Dwyer, the panelists, Tim Brown of Allbirds, Helianti Hilman of Javara and Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, spoke about what it means to practice value-based entrepreneurship and what drives them to pursue their path. As an artist who will likely be an entrepreneur in the future, this was pretty valuable, and also I was very inspired by the humble beginnings of their endeavours.

In one of the convening highlights, Mrs. Michelle Obama and Ms. Julia Roberts in conversation with Deborah Henry about the Girls Opportunity Alliance, a program of the Obama Foundation that seeks to empower adolescent girls around the world through education , allowing them to achieve their full potential and transfer their families, communities, and countries. Mrs. Obama and Ms. Roberts also answered some of the Leaders’ questions.

Former US President Barack Obama speaks with his sister and foundation consultant, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng about how Asia has shaped their lives. Afterwards, President Obama answers some questions by the Leaders.

Finally, Obama administration alumni Bernadette Meehan and Ben Rhodes explore the idea of tackling touch challenges through ethical decision-making and shared thoughtful stories from their own leadership journeys.

Day of Service

On Day 3, it was great to be able to help building a community with the great folks at EPIC Foundation. My group helped build a playground, and all the squats I’ve done this year were put to great use shovelling soil.

Image by The Obama Foundation

Workshops

The meat of the convening were the workshops which taught us the many facets of leadership:

In the Leadership through Reciprocity workshop, we were asked by facilitator Emily Cushman to list down what we need and what we could give.

In a workshop on Leadership and Shared Values led by John Sung, we were asked to list down 16 of our core values and whittle it down to the 4 most important ones. As an artist, this is not something we usually have to do in this way, so it was great to have the time to do this and it was also hard to narrow down, but I managed to cut it to: Love, Kindness, Integrity, and Courage.

In Leadership and Authentic Engagement with Michelle Ann Iking and Reeta Nathwani gave us a coaching session.

In Leadership and Storytelling, Gabrielle Dolan explored why storytelling is important for communicating your mission and purpose.

In Media Skills for Changemakers, Fon Mathuros Chantanayingyong, Nadia Gideon, Amanda Goh, and Rashi Mehrotra spoke about the media landscape in the Asia-Pacific region, developing our own public narrative, and work on building key messages to advance our work.

In Leadership for a Climate-Smart Future, Dr. Maxine Burkett, Dr. Patricia Halagao, together with one of the Leaders per session, interactive exercises allowed us to define how climate change affects their field of work, understand why it matters, and consider ways they can contribute to a climate-smart future. I’ve facilitated workshops like this in my work, so I really resonated with this part.

In the fantastic workshop on Leadership, Power Dynamics, and Influence, Yee Tong taught us about frameworks to understand power and power dynamics, as well as explore the responsibility and ethics of using our own power to creative positive results.

Delegation

On Day 4, we had a formal dinner with the Obama Foundation delegates. I’m feeling very lucky to be part of both the Australian and Philippine cohorts, both of which have brilliant people. Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, consultant to the foundation and President Obama’s sister, and Mrs. Loida Lewis, philanthropist, were wonderful people to meet.

Community Groups

We were divided into Community Groups and I’m so excited to work with these incredible people!


This is an unusual place for an artist to be, though I am very grateful to be part of it. It is a rare opportunity for an artist to have a seat at the table being able to lead, because this power is usually wielded by those who speak about our art or use it for decorative purposes. Before I accepted to participate, I had consulted with a long list of very smart and highly critical people to see whether this was a good idea, and everyone said to go for it. Frankly, this week was fantastic, and while you will hear the words “incredible”, “amazing”, and “wonderful” thrown around, I actually think they speak truthfully to this five-day convening, and if you’ve known me for a while, you’ll know I dislike words like “changemaker” and its ilk. Saying yes to meeting 199 high caliber people who are actually making an impact on their communities—some of whom at enormous risk to their lives—instead of complaining in their tiny little circles and feeling temporarily superior and returning to the suffocating smallness of their worlds was absolutely the right thing to do, and has only served to sharpen my focus in my work and resolve to avoid distractions. As an aside, the staff of the Obama Foundation were extremely professional and outstanding. Years from now, I hope to confirm what I suspect is that my time with these Obama Leaders is one of the most important points of my life. The world is a dark place, but what wonderful opportunities and artist has to be a positive—and no less critical—agent in all of this. I look forward to all of it. Thank you everyone!