In the groundbreaking film, Black Panther (2018), one of the standout quotes spoken by King T’Challa is this: But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. Artist and educator Kristin Leong has blazed a path outside the box that bridges cultural divides, encourages diversity and inclusivity, as well as strengthens and empowers communities. Although her trek has not been easy, every challenge has been necessary preparation for self-discovery.
Kristin is a wife, mother, writer, poet, photographer, former middle school humanities teacher, curator, and bartender. She’s also a biracial, gay woman from Honolulu. These various positions, roles, and identities have fueled the way she tells stories. Bleeding into the work, they demand to be acknowledged. But what happens when all of who we are, including our experiences and feeling awkward and out of place, shows up in whatever work we produce? Kristin urges us to explore it.
Kristin embarked on the journey toward a graduate degree six years after earning her BA from Sarah Lawrence. Antioch’s deep-rooted beliefs in social justice and the university’s commitment to non-traditional students pursuing an advanced degree was key in Kristin choosing to enroll in the Master’s in Education program.
“I was a single mom with a baby,” Kristin remembers. “I was bartending nights and weekends while going to school, trying to make ends meet and create a better future for me and my kid.” Navigating the space between trying to earn income and powering forward to earn a Master’s took a lot of grit. Like most working adults with major responsibilities outside of the classroom, flexibility was non-negotiable. Kristin yearned for a supportive community, and Antioch provided that.
“I am deeply grateful for the support and education I received at Antioch, and that I continue to be invited to be part of the Antioch family a decade after I graduated,” Kristin says.
As a former educator, it has always been important for Kristin to create a safe learning space in the classroom for students to share and be heard, welcoming varying opinions and beliefs. Representation is also important—that students see themselves reflected in their teachers culturally, including gender and sexual orientation. Kristin admits to not having any Asian or bi-racial teachers from elementary school to college; and having teachers that were public with their sexuality was simply out of the question, until college. This lack of representation weighed heavily on Kristin, sparking Roll Call.
This 2017 TED-Ed Innovation Project is a gorgeous display of photos that acts as a bridge bringing together students and their teachers by humanizing racial, gender, sexual orientation, and other divides. The project is guided by two crucial questions: 1. What do you have in common with your students/teachers? 2. Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common? For Kristin, the answer is obvious, especially when over 80% of public school teachers are white and female. Roll Call has reshaped its mission to not only bridge the divides between teachers and students but to celebrate the connections despite the divides.
Kristin’s senior project, “Half: Biracial and Bicultural in America” completed at Sarah Lawrence College, is another photo project that celebrates diversity and representation. Nominated for a USA Today Outstanding Academic and Intellectual Endeavor Award in 2003, the venture documents the individual stories of biracial and bicultural persons ages five to sixty-five living in the United States. Their experiences are chronicled through powerful black and white portraits and interviews.
Through her most recent endeavor, Rock Paper Radio—an online weekly newsletter that gorges curiosity—Kristin is showing us that being a misfit is not necessarily a bad thing. “…so many people feel like misfits. We’re all convinced that our curiosities and inclinations are absolutely idiosyncratic and we’re alone in our heads, but in fact, there’s a lot of people out there who feel weird or awkward and just want someone or some story to show them that they’re just humans in the world too.” With all her projects, Kristin is building a bridge, uniting like-minded thinkers through community, urging them to engage and act on their impulses and curiosities, all of which make them unique.
Just as exploring the human condition, showing compassion and kindness are constant themes throughout Kristin’s work, bridges are constant themes as well. “Everything I create is in the service of connecting across divides that I was once afraid to explore or even acknowledge,” Kristin explains. “Although my mediums have been diverse, this through-line is clear.”
Her writing, photography, and other mediums not only connect communities of people that might not have otherwise come together but embraces their differences, celebrating them for the world to see. Kristin is the bridge itself, the structure that allows those communities to cross and engage with one another. Her openness to celebrate diversity and difference draws audiences to Kristin’s work. It’s also the commonality between herself and her audiences. Like students and teachers in classrooms who can see themselves in each other, audiences see themselves represented in her work.
“Storytelling allows me to make sense of all the ways I am three-dimensional. Art also allows me to revel in and share the wonder I feel as I continue to realize that everyone is a work-in-progress and that even the most seemingly straight-forward among us also feel mismatched sometimes too,” Kristin says.
The integrity she displays in unearthing the real authentic self speaks through the work. “Whether it’s through audio features, photography, or writing,” Kristin says. “I keep returning to reckoning with the experience of stitching together a whole self with a seemingly mismatched collection of identities and experiences.” This longing for wholeness in self-discovery resonates with audiences who are on a similar path or need help in taking the plunge.
All of Kristin’s projects have produced a nurturing space for communities (those with various identities and experiences) to be. These communities have birthed fearless, critical thinkers who challenge systems and blaze their own paths. Bridging gaps has been one of Kristin’s strong suits.
A misfit is one who goes against the grain of what is expected. A misfit is also a rebel, one who doesn’t try to fit in but forges their own path. Kristin, a unifying presence that engages, educates, and empowers others to think and live outside the box, has boldly led this revolution of misfits seeking their own paths for self-discovery. Like she’s forged her own path, she encourages others to do the same, which is a tremendous act of social justice. May we all continue trekking onward towards self-discovery!
Kristin is the Community Engagement Producer at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle. You can visit her online at kristinleong.com. Subscribe to her newsletter for misfits and unlikely optimists at RockPaperRadio.com
Photo credit: Keri Zierler, 2020