Sylvia: It’s April 19, 2017 and I’m interviewing Cleo Tung who works for Partnership for Safety and Justice. And we’re gonna talk about her activism. Has this been your main career?
It has not. Fundraising has always been the work that I’ve done. It’s still, but in terms of criminal justice reform, it’s pretty new.
Have you had special training for this?
I think it’s more just work experience. I sort of fell into fundraising. I started fundraising when I was young.
Yeah, and how old are you now? [laughs]
[laughs] I’m 29. I started fundraising when I was, I don’t know, third grade? My mom used to encourage me to do a lot of community service. I think my first fundraising project was I would sew pillows. And I went door knocking. And I sold them to all my neighbors. And I raised these funds and I donated it to, it must’ve been UNICEF, I think. From there, I was always really enjoying fundraising. But it was never at the forefront of my mind as a career. I fell into fundraising at UCLA and UC Irvine. And my academic background’s in criminology.
I got my undergrad and my master’s in Criminological Research. So I was always really wanting to get back to that. So when I saw Partnership for Safety and Justice and their call for a fundraiser and they were working on criminal justice reform, it seemed like the perfect match.
That’s really amazing, you’re sewing pillows in third grade. This was on a sewing machine?
It was by hand. It was labor intensive, but it was fun.
What kind of pillows were they?
I think I just went to the fabric store. And I bought a bunch of fabric and stuffing, and my mom had taught me how to sew maybe the weekend before. They were really just small, decorative pillows. The craftsmanship was not great. [laughs]
Well it was distinctive.
So, in a way your activism takes the form of fundraising. That’s unusual.
It is. I think that’s what I really love about it. Oftentimes people associate activism with canvassing or marching, right? Or organizing. But, to me, fundraising is organizing. It’s one of the most meaningful ways for me to plug into a cause that I really believe in, because really what you’re doing is you are mobilizing people to give their resources towards achieving a shared vision, right? I think it’s just one of the most direct ways that you can actually be involved in a movement.
I think maybe the culture around money and the taboos around money make people really hesitant to get involved in fundraising. But, for me it’s this really amazing way to unpack some of the power dynamics. You have this traditional sense of philanthropy where the wealthy, maybe, wealthy elites will give a gift and they have ideas about how a group will use that money. But, when it comes to grassroots fundraising and really getting community members to pitch in, I think it just takes on a whole different shape, when it comes to a movement.
And the results can be very different.
That’s right. That’s right.
So, you said that your mother encouraged you to do this. Now, was she interested in social causes or any kind of activism?
You know [sighs], my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. And I think their approach was that they struggled to make a comfortable living for me and my siblings and they worked really hard to basically create a life of privilege for us. So it was really, I think, their idea of giving back to the community and community service. It was still very individualized. Where it was rooted in their personal experience. So growing up they really encouraged us to do community service, to give back in a traditional sense.
My mom would encourage me, my brother, my sister, to pick something that we really cared about and just go for it. So, for example, she would load us up in her van and drive us to an old folks home and we would basically just have conversations with the folks there, and then also because we all played instruments, we would perform for them. Or my mom would, as part of her work at a women’s shelter, she would have us come with her, right? So we would help out in the kitchen and we would organize supply drives. I think her activism was kind of in that realm but it was in some ways still very apolitical. Our community service growing up and my background really was apolitical. I don’t think I became really involved in activism until I broke into my 20’s.
I’m curious. Your parents came from Taiwan. Are they originally from mainland China?
No, both were born in Taiwan. And were the first generation to grow up in Taiwan. On both sides their parents had fled China and the cultural revolution.
Now I have a historical framework. I have a question here which you almost answered already. What in your past led you to become an activist? It’s sort of a transformation from community service to a more political application of this.
And what issues have you worked on?
I think really the main focus and my passion has been criminal justice reform. Really looking at how our system currently operates and addressing all the ways that it’s broken and fails our communities and our families. That’s been really at the heart of all the work that I’ve done. And I’ve just been really fortunate that I was able to find a full time position that pays me to do it, right? Because not everyone gets to have this activist role as their full-time job. [laughs]
Now, why did you ever major in criminology?
It’s interesting. I originally wanted to be a lawyer and more specifically I wanted to be a prosecutor. I had this very, I think, naïve and romantic idea of the law and of being right, quote unquote, being on the right side of the law. And for me, as a young person, it really came down to, well, if people break the law I want to be the person who helps right those wrongs. And wow, how naïve I was to think that. [chuckles]
Also, I was really interested in the reasons why we were criminalizing certain behaviors and why certain societies had more crime vs. others. So, that led me to study criminology and criminological research. Because, I had this intention then that I would use that then to go to law school. But actually I had a change of heart with that. I interned for the Attorney General’s office in D.C. And I was on the civil side but our offices were shared with the criminal side. It was the summer when Obama was running for office. I remember now because I met him.
I remember there was a case being brought against the D.C. police and I think it was something around excessive use of force. I wasn’t working on that case. I was just an intern and so I was kind of on the sidelines. But, I think just being around it, kind of getting a sense that perhaps we were on the wrong side of it cause we were defending the police force, it just left a really strange and bitter taste in my mouth. Made me realize that perhaps that’s not the trajectory that I wanted to be going toward. So after that internship, which was–the people there were great and it was a great experience–but I think it just changed my ideas about where I wanted to be.
How long have you been with Partnership for Safety and Justice?
Almost 2 years, so not very long.
What other issues have you worked on?
The other issue that I worked on previously was around immigration. And a lot of the work that I did with that was really, again, individualized, it wasn’t part of collective action. So, I am a second generation Taiwanese-American and there were just moments in my life where I realized that immigration is such a controversial topic. It’s easy to talk about it conceptually, but they’re real people, right? And so my parents were real people. I remember one experience my dad told me when he first immigrated to Arizona. He was at a restaurant and he was just eating by himself and someone came up to him and started singing this song. And I don’t think my father really knew what the song was. Until the man started singing it more. And, so it was, “This land is your land. This land is my land.” But, when he started singing it he just kept saying, “This land is my land. This land is my land.” And this was one of the first interactions he had.
So he told me about this. And for me, you know, I grew up in the suburbs and in a different generation. In Southern California. And so for him to share this with me kind of just struck a chord and I realized, ‘Right.’ I might be comfortable, right? Living in the suburbs and I’m a person of color but Southern California is also pretty diverse, right. And I’m with my community, but there’s still a lot of work to be done? And I think that really reminded me that you have people immigrate into the U.S. all of the time and they’re experiencing that every day.
Certainly. Now what are some of the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist–if you will accept that name of being an activist.
I think there’s so much, but recently, I think, specific to my role as a fundraiser. I think one of the most meaningful things has been being able to train up community members. In their fundraising skills, and showing them that this is a really valuable tool to have as an activist. And to really engage folks who maybe are afraid or feel strange about fundraising. To really empower them to have those tools, right. To actually go out. So, for example, last year I had a donor campaign over the course of six weeks where I try to recruit people. And they’re saying, “Well, I don’t really have the funds to give.” Or “I don’t know anybody who’s rich.” Right?
So for me it was really, “Let’s unpack that conversation.” Because it’s not really about who we know who’s rich, it’s really about how do we get peers and people like us invested in the work that we’re doing. And we don’t want to exclude folks because of their giving capacity. We want to broaden our networks and our community. So, for me, it was really meaningful to bring folks into the fold who maybe don’t consider themselves as philanthropists, but are activists. Training them on fundraising and then giving them those tools so that once the campaign ended they had this experience to go and actually fundraise for whatever cause they wanted to. They were now equipped to do the things they would be passionate about.
What kind of tools are you talking about?
I think really just getting the language right, to ask for a gift. Or planning out the logistics of a campaign. How do you run a fundraising campaign. And who do you ask and what are the principles of fundraising. Cause you’re not gonna ask a stranger down the street, you’re really gonna start with your friends, right. And your family and the people who really care about the issue. So, I think it’s really just formalizing that process. So, that’s been really satisfying as an activist. And I would say just being able to see real results. To actually connect the dots.
So, for Partnership for Safety and Justice a lot of our work is policy advocacy. Being able to actually see the work that we put in to advocate for better solutions to crime and harm. And actually seeing movement. So, for example, we have a policy that we’re trying to pass right now that would create more community based responses to addiction and mental health related crimes as opposed to using prison as the default response. So to actually see this policy move out of a committee and be voted on and to see people from across the state show up at the Capitol. And speak truth to power. And share their experiences of why they care. I think that’s been the most rewarding.
So, as a fundraiser do you also feel you’re involved in getting people to come and testify and so on?
I am. So, that’s what I love about my job. Fundraising is organizing. And so many of our donors are also our volunteers and our activists. And our grassroots leaders. So, it’s really fun for me to have all these different layers of a relationship with someone. And it’s not transactional. I’m not just going to them to ask for a gift. It’s actually building long term, meaningful relationships with people.