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Finding Sonder and Youth Community with Living Room Conversations

In a time of social polarization, conversations and youth activism have never been more important.

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Peilin is a rising high school junior and host for Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit organization that facilitates healthy conversations about social issues.

What led you to Living Room Conversations?

Sonder is my favorite word in the English language, a noun for the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. From grey shadows around the corner to the mysterious musician on the midnight train, each carries a scroll of unique stories within their hearts. Together, these stories form the tapestry of human understanding, and conversations are the very threads that weave this tapestry together.

I grew up suspended between two worlds. Born in China, I enjoyed having a caring family and being surrounded by people who shared the culture that I love. I remember my grandmother’s sun-baked hands, my grandfather’s favorite baseball cap, and how we would sit down every New Year’s Eve for a warm family meal. However, everything changed when we moved to the United States. That day, I rose with the Beijing sun and slept under the New York moon. As I struggled to absorb the new language and culture, I realized that I was no longer the majority, but a minority. In the eyes of others, I was not Han Chinese, but simply Asian-American. As that revelation dawned on me, fear and insecurity drowned out my voice. I built up walls of silence and encased myself within them, believing that I was safe from any danger. Unfortunately, my newfound status also introduced me to a companion called racism. From offensive remarks at school to public confrontation on a New York subway, it trailed behind me, taunting and sneering. I knew the walls would not stand and began to question my silence. 

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

That was when I found my voice in the place I least expected: Living Room Conversations. In this organization, strangers engage in discussions over a variety of social issues. It never crossed my mind that a country so divided on political and racial lines can come together and talk like family. Encouraged by my school counselor, I signed up for my first Living Room Conversation with curiosity and uncertainty. An hour before the conversation, I received a heart-warming phone call from a member of the LRC staff. She asked me if I had any questions or needed help since this was my first discussion. Hearing her kind and reassuring voice made me feel a strong sense of community. Before entering the call, I placed a piece of paper over my computer camera, still paranoid that an accidental glimpse of my face would stir unwanted insecurities. To my surprise, I was welcomed with nothing but warm smiles and friendly hellos, prompting me to turn on my camera and remove that piece of paper. As we engaged in conversation, I felt safe and respected. People listened to each other intently and nodded their heads in encouragement. When it came to my turn to speak, I told them about my experiences growing up in China and my strong beliefs towards gender equality. I stuttered more than I spoke, but there were no interruptions, only interest, and respect. As the conversation came to an end, we shared our concluding thoughts and appreciations. I was shocked when many participants thanked me for sharing my experiences in China. They informed me that Living Room Conversations is always looking for diversity, whether in terms of age, race, or opinion. Upon hearing that, the walls of silence and insecurity began to crack. 

After my first discussion, I scoured the Living Room Conversations website for events and reached out to the staff for volunteer opportunities. With warm guidance and generous support, I was able to join various conversations and train as an assistant host. In the Race and Ethnicity Series, I listened to others recount their experiences with racism and became aware of my unconscious biases. The conversation created an atmosphere of solidarity that linked our hearts together despite being miles apart. In the discussion on Mental Health, I spoke with people who showed incredible strength and learned about stigmas in society and media. During Life in the Time of Corona, I openly talked about the racial scapegoating I received as an Asian person in the United States. Together, we battled the uncertainty of the future and found solace in shared struggles. Conversation by conversation, I began to stand a little taller and talk a little louder. Recently, I joined with fellow participants to develop the conversation guide Race in the Time of Corona. It was incredibly empowering to work with others and solidify our beliefs into something that could raise awareness. By doing so, we have given ourselves a voice and created a safe place for unity to brew.

Photo by Gradikaa Aggi on Unsplash

Of all the conversations I participated in, one participant’s story stood out to me. During the Race and Ethnicity conversation, Lewis told us about how surviving two near-death experiences taught him that “we are all the same…and uniquely different…” As a result, Lewis established a ground-breaking career in diversity-training and became a pioneer in his field. Listening to Lewis’ story was an eye-opening moment; it taught me the importance of human connection and understanding. To create a truly diverse and inclusive community–where we view ourselves as more than just members of a particular nation or group– we need to listen, respect, and include all sorts of individuals and perspectives. 

Becoming a part of Living Room Conversations has helped me regain my voice and find the community I longed for – the community that supports me when I ask them to, and especially when I don’t.  Through stories like Lewis’, each uniquely fascinating, I understood and experienced sonder. Actually, we are all passersby — a quick blur in the beautiful cityscape that is this world. But if we take the time to stop, whether to have a conversation or to simply ask each other’s name, we will gain the courage to weave this tapestry of humanity.

Why is it so important for young people to participate in Living Room Conversations? 

Photo by Thomas Allsop on Unsplash

2020 is a year of momentous change. As a young generation, we are reliving three points of history at once: the flu pandemic of 1918, the stock market crash of 1929, and the protests of 1968. Fifty years ago, students flooded the streets demanding an end to Vietnam and organized sit-ins to protest the country’s racial hierarchy. From Frank Korematsu’s defiance of Japanese internment to the Occupation of Alcatraz, young people have shaped this country through their activism and determination. However, the fight for justice has not yet ended. The torrent of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic perpetuates the racist “yellow peril” metaphor. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others remind us of racism’s horrors. Therefore, it is our responsibility, as a rising generation, to continue this crusade for the next fifty years. I believe that the first step towards initiating change is understanding change. On the surface, talking to strangers doesn’t seem to create any change. However, by participating in healthy conversations, we expose each other to diverse perspectives and educate ourselves on social issues. We are also recognizing our biases and changing one opinion at a time. When we feel respected and listened to, it is easier for us to find a passion for change. It is also crucial for young people to support each other and create a sense of generational unity, much like the student activists did back then. In the conversation on Mental Health, I met Briscoe, another young LRC host. Her intelligence, eloquence, and incredible leadership was so inspiring and empowering. Briscoe and I have since teamed up to host conversations together and build a youth-led community. For these reasons, I would like to encourage myself and other young people to participate in Living Room Conversations and drive change for our global community. 

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