A number of community organizers once shared this idea of justice with me: working towards equity is when those who have the least options in our world have more. It is so easy to be mired by complex theories of justice, diversity, and inclusion. Sometimes, it’s good to just remember that our actions should be paired with this simple intention of making things more equitable, no matter what we do.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Tam, The Slants Foundation.
Simon Tam is an author, musician, and activist. He is perhaps best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, an Asian American dance rock band that won a landmark case at the U.S Supreme Court to help secure freedom of expression rights for communities of color. He is also the founder and board chair for The Slants Foundation, an organization that empowers Asian American artists with mentoring and financial support.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve been working in the arts and with nonprofit organizations for most of my life. When I was a teenager, I spent my weekends and summer breaks volunteering in developing nations to build community centers as well as train local leaders to run them. And throughout my career, I’ve worked with major nonprofits like the American Cancer Society as well as smaller organizations that focused on state policy work. In addition, I’ve served as a volunteer and board member for dozens of others.
At the same time, I’ve spent the last two decades as an artist, mostly performing in an Asian American band called The Slants. That experience was eye-opening in that we’d often encounter systemic and cultural challenges unique to our community due to our ethnic identity. Sometimes, it was because people didn’t believe that an Asian American group could be successful in the entertainment industry. Other times, resistance itself came from well-intentioned arts organizations looking to help but who didn’t realize that they would inadvertently create additional barriers for certain community groups. Like many nonprofit organizations, these groups meant well but they were locked into old, traditional systems of funding the arts that needed transformation.
As the two parallel tracks of my life — arts and activism — started to merge, I realized that was in a position to help lead that change by developing new best practices that centered around the artist instead of the organization. Once I focused on that perspective, all kinds of new possibilities opened up around developing different systems.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Traditionally, applying for arts grants would not only be exhausting and difficult, but there would be no transparent process as to why certain recipients were chosen. Also, arts organizations would focus on projects — completion of a work or performance, and not necessarily building up the artist in a sustainable way. With The Slants Foundation, we decided to change that by creating simplified applications processes, following up and providing personal feedback for every applicant, and supplementing funding with mentorship from an industry veteran so that artists would have a network of support as well as a plan for their career beyond a specific project.
Also, our organization is completely volunteer driven so 100% of our funds go directly to the work of supporting artists. We’re also structured in a way that allows us to develop programs in response to world events immediately. For example, when we saw a sharp increase in anti-Asian discrimination at the outset of the pandemic in addition to falling support for artists, we launched a new mini-grants program to helped counter hate with artistic works.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first filed the paperwork at the IRS for our nonprofit, we didn’t have an official name for it yet. But since it was my band that was establishing it, I just put “The Slants” on the application. Eventually, the board decided to go with The Slants Foundation as the official organization title. However, the organization started getting listed in a number of philanthropy databases before the amended papers came through, which created some confusion between the work of our band and our nonprofit. I was just so excited to get started that I figured a name could be determined later on — thankfully, it was close enough that things got updated quickly. But for anyone else starting a nonprofit, I would definitely recommend having a name worked out in advance.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve been honored to have a few different mentors throughout my life. One was Allen Diaz, a youth pastor that I met when I was in high school. As a teenager, he gave me a book on leadership that set me on a path to learn as much about leadership, nonprofit management, and unconventional perspectives as possible. By the time I entered college, I already read hundreds of books on communications, leadership, and nonprofit work…and I was always hungry for me. He would often tell me, “There are three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen, and those who wonder what the heck just happened?! Be someone who makes things happen.” I always took that advice to heart and believed in taking initiative, especially when it comes to ideas around justice and fairness.
Another mentor of mine was my late best friend, Perla Cabral. She taught me patience, empathy, and initiative in ways that no book could ever have done. We started a business together, a vintage clothing store in Temecula, CA, at the age of 19. No one told us how — we just scraped together a few hundred dollars (enough to sign the lease) and figured out how to do everything on our own, including building the store’s counters and signs. She always reminded me that what we consider possible is often distorted by our own personal experiences; when we believe in a vision and create a community around that idea, we can overcome just about anything. Sadly, she passed away in 2013. But I’ll never forget how her ideas were magnetic and transformed everyone around her.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
People often have a misconception about systems: they often say that they are broken. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of them are not — they are working the way that they were designed. And if they aren’t living up to the values and ideas that we hold, it is mostly because of poor design. This is especially the case when it comes to areas in law, education, and health, where we see a disparate impact divided by class and race. So when I hear the phrase “disruption,” I think about its literal translation: an interruption. An interruption when something isn’t working well is a good thing because it gives an opportunity to evaluate if a different course of action is better. It allows for innovation.
On the other hand, disruption isn’t always a good thing because that interruption could also interrupt something that is doing some good. For example, when civil rights activists fought for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it brought some important changes to U.S elections to make our democracy more accessible and accountable. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of it in Shelby County v. Holder on a heavily political ruling. That single disruption has disproportionately impacted the poor and minority voters and has done nothing to actually strengthen our democratic values.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
I used to be a philosophy major so some of the things that have most influenced me came from that world. One of my favorite ideas comes from the philosopher John Rawlings, who wrote A Theory of Justice. In it, he suggested that the rules that are the most fair are those that we would all agree to if we didn’t know who was in charge. In other words, if you didn’t know what position you would end up taking in a society (be it class, race, or power), you would want the system to be as fair as possible. This has definitely shaped my own ideas, not only for the causes I champion as an activist, but also for thinking about how we set up processes when it comes to The Slants Foundation.
Another favorite bit of wisdom was something from my father. When I was young, he loved to share parables with me and my siblings. One night, we asked me to break a pencil. It was simple — I just snapped it into two, smiling as I did so. Then, he took a handful of pencils and asked me to repeat the task and break them at the same time. I couldn’t do it. Then he said, “there is strength when there is more than one.” I didn’t realize how profoundly it affected my view of the world but looking back, I see how I valued building coalitions and partnerships (especially unexpected alliances) to bridge gaps and create change. Our world is experiencing a lot of division these days, with many forgetting how we often do share values we disagree with. I wish more would find ways to work together instead of finding reasons to tear away.
Finally, a number of community organizers once shared this idea of justice with me: working towards equity is when those who have the least options in our world have more. It is so easy to be mired by complex theories of justice, diversity, and inclusion. Sometimes, it’s good to just remember that our actions should be paired with this simple intention of making things more equitable, no matter what we do.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I recently joined a the staff of a nonprofit called StriveTogether that is working to build a world where a child’s potential isn’t dictated by race, ethnicity, zip code, or circumstance. They are doing brilliant work to coach, convene, and codify organizations around the country, especially in the education sector. I’m very excited to be making some much needed trouble in that world!
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
A podcast that I’ve enjoying lately is A Bit of Optimism, a show by Simon Sinek. In it, he interviews people about their own ideas of optimism, leadership, and disruption. It’s uplifting, inspiring, and often presents unconventional perspectives from many different industries. I really enjoy it because he presents a view optimism that I share — that it isn’t just about looking for the silver lining in things, it is seeing the possibility of change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I often tell others that, “The true cost of following your dreams isn’t what you sacrifice when you chase them, it’s what you lose when you don’t.” It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years: what would have happened if I just accepted the status quo instead of challenging it? The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing happens when we accept things just as they are, whether that is an unfair law or unfair social outcomes that hurt our communities. Often, artists ask about the risk of pursuing their dreams but I always come back to this idea: what happens to us, as individuals and a society, when we don’t adhere to our values. Like maintaining the status quo, we lose a lot more than we think.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to change our society’s relationship with the arts. Right now, most people see the arts only as entertainment and something that we support out of charity. However, the arts do more than simple pass the time: they inspire, they create change, and they serve as a mirror to ourselves. I’m hoping that people see the value of the arts and pair that appreciation up with funding, support, and appreciation to those who continue to serve our culture.
How can our readers follow you online?
To learn more about The Slants Foundation, visit www.theslants.org
To learn more about my work, visit www.simontam.org
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!