By Alyssa Shapiro
You’ve seen Jacqui Whang’s face in our new Dream Eye Cream campaign—and students will recognize her from their classrooms, or more recently, Zoom calls. This Korean American educator is passionate about mental health and self-care, and how the two can be prioritized through every aspect of life. Ms. Whang is also the co-founder of GirlSpace Compton, a sisterhood-focused endeavor hosting workshops, conferences, and other activities that center confidence, leadership, and unity.
Alyssa Shapiro: Will you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Jacqui Whang: I'm a Korean American woman and I don't even know where to start. I grew up in a very community-driven household. My dad was a pastor and he started a church out in San Bernardino and it functioned as a place to gain spiritual insight and growth, but particularly for the immigrant community—the first gens are solely Korean-speaking. It became a resource center and a center for people to connect, and to help each other out. It was a church where no one was left without a job. If someone had a company, they found a way to make a job for that person. No one went without rent. If someone couldn't pay their bills, there was someone in the church that would give them a car—like, pretty radical giving within that community. That's the household I grew up in.
In the midst of us growing up, like a lot of Korean Americans, we had a lot of privilege points to climb the social ladder. Most of my life, I grew up in a middle class neighborhood. I jumped around high schools, but my primary high school was a Blue Ribbon high school.
That's the trajectory of my life, but the story that really unfolds a lot of who I am is deeply rooted in my lived experience and the empathy that was built through seeing my family do their ministry and work, but also experiencing trauma at a very young age.
I just gravitate towards people in general—like, “Hey, What are you about? Who are you? Are you good?” And I was pretty empathetic as a kid, I think it's because of that exposure to both sexual and physical violence at a young age. When I went to college, it all made sense. I took my first ethnic studies class and it just verbalized everything, theoretically. That's where my journey begins, and it’s a lot of the social activism work that I'm a part of.
AS: What causes are important to you, and what is your personal connection to them?
JW: The causes I’m super passionate about—and they’re the non-negotiables—are self-care and mental health. How do we, as individuals, become more resilient? And to know ourselves, how do we have more intimate moments with ourselves? Again, that stems from my own traumatic experiences where I had to navigate that alone.
I'm always working on myself and I feel like the more I talk about that in whatever spaces I go, the more people will hear that and feel the same amount of passion to do that for themselves. That could be on a ground level, an institutional level, a cultural level, because the way that we can curate self-care and wellness can happen on so many different levels. I'm learning to narrow it down, to see where my niche is.
For the past seven years, as a teacher in the classroom, I’ve been doing it all. As teachers, we live the frontline day to day. We see the institutional trauma that's going on to both our staff members and kids. A lot of us are a part of a wider culture—policy, music, food, fashion—and that’s where I want to commit to more strategic work.
AS: What grade do you teach?
JW: I teach 11th grade English, AP Lang., and AVID.
AS: You would have been my favorite teacher in high school. Obviously, what school is like right now has changed very dramatically [because of Covid]. How do you continue to do advocacy work within schools while at a distance from students? How has educating changed and how has your relationship to your students changed?
JW: Early on, I always knew [my students and I] were going to be friends. I have boundaries; I’m their teacher… if you talk to any of my kids, it takes earning trust to come and hug me.
I've always taught in communities where I wasn't from there, whether it be a middle class neighborhood or a working class neighborhood, it was always not where I'm used to. So friendships are really important to me to learn who you are, and to learn the space. It goes back to how I’ve been organizing—maintaining these friendships and investing in the relationships that are already in my life, in true, meaningful ways. It takes a lot of work to check in on people, but if a student has been silent for a bit, I’ll call them and just talk about their day. Even with teachers, I’m always checking in, but it’s on a person to person level, like, okay, I care about you, but it's also on an institutional level. What can we do as an institution to make your life easier and more enjoyable?
I also started a nonprofit in May. We also organize, we've done a Compton Corona relief project where we teamed up with our lead organizations to provide $100 or $200 stipends to over 60 families. I do a lot of outside organizing as well, but within the school system the most I could do is just teach the kids what I feel like is supportive of their growth and development and just be there for teachers and staff members.
AS: Can you talk to me about Grassroots International?
JW: It’s an interesting project. It started off with just me and teachers wondering what we can do for the community. There's just a bunch of amazing, powerful women in Compton that are killing it and they've been killing it. I'm so inspired by literally all of them. Like when I sit with them, I want to cry and just be like, yo, I can't believe you've been here. And you've been here. Nowadays when social justice is the hot thing and people are getting noticed, they were here before that. I'm meeting them like, yo, let's all do something fun together.
We wanted to do a conference for our girls and we did this super lit conference. The girls got Nike sports bras, we had workshops on decolonization and self-care. The volunteers were all women, mostly Gen Z, millennial-ish. Even the elders came through and we were all crying.
That sparked the whole movement of Girls Space—we support local women and hopefully in the future, more trans and non-binary folks in starting these organizations, like we don't need the YMCA anymore. We have Compton Girls Club.
AS: What does it mean to you to be the face of a campaign? Had you modeled before? What does it feel like to have various aspects of your work intersect?
JW: My first campaign was with the Nike Air Force Ones, and that was like a pretty huge campaign there—my face was everywhere and it was really big. Of course I'm human, so I love attention, but I'm more on the side where it's like, what are people gonna think of me? Like, am I cute? It’s just an existential crisis, like now I’m up for criticism. I never wanted this in life—I’m the person that will delete all these posts on Instagram.
I’m getting more comfortable and less comfortable at the same time. I’m not a spokesperson for a movement. I cringe when I see the words “community organizer” and “social activist” because there are so many people who inspire me that deserve to be on the platform.
I struggle a lot with that guilt, especially as someone who has these privilege points. I know that the work I do really does amplify my friends, the big issues that I see, and the big solutions I believe in. If I ever do want to be in a campaign for more than my face, what's most important for me is being a part of that greater movement.
AS: You’re wearing a sweatshirt that says “inhale” and I noticed that you talk about meditation. Can you talk about the role of meditation within Girlspace and what benefits you’ve found from a practice?
JW: I just breathe a lot. So many things happen, and what’s helped me—particularly in Girlspace as well as as a teacher—is in the moment to take a pause and to not miss a side of the experience that really grounds me.
I think a lot of us, including myself, switch to panic mode really fast. And in that quick switch, we lose an opportunity to connect with ourselves, to trust ourselves more, to maybe to call a friend and connect with a friend. And honestly, through Girlspace and meditating, I’ve grown closer with my team. I’m close with both my executive team and my board, to an extent where it’s so deep. The way that I’ve grown in my friendship with them...I’ve really met some irreplaceable friends that got me through some crazy times.
Even with my students, meditation puts you in a state where you relax and you really enjoy the people around you and the present moment. It becomes less about what’s happening and threats to the ego, or whatever. It becomes about appreciating myself and the people around me, and you can’t really go wrong with that.
AS: Is there an ideal version of your community that you picture in the near future, or now?
JW: The right people being in leadership, the people who are really the leaders—who are leading without the position—being in leadership. More talking. People need to talk more to each other, and just connect and not be afraid to really be there for one another. What's made situations better is when we all open up and really acknowledge that we do depend on each other. And give each other a chance, take risks with ourselves. I think that’s like my dream community.
The teachers [in Compton] have to go back to school, and there's been a lot of things that have been said from leadership on a district level that have been infuriating—but it's so amazing to see so many capable people, people who have wisdom and passion and empathy.
Public affirmation, and also more financial support and a better salary for everything that [teachers] do. I want the public to recognize certain people who have so much power and wisdom, and I want for them to be in a position of influence—how can we as allies put them there?
AS: When you think about the future, what do you get most excited about?
JA: Our young ones. They're so crazy. I love them so much. When I introduce my boyfriend to my kids, I’m always like, “Meet my friends!” Then I’m like, “Oh wait no, they’re not my friends, they’re my students.” And he goes, “They’re your friends!” And I’m like, “No, they’re not! Don't say that in front of them. They're going to come late to class. They're going to think it's okay.” But wow, they’re so mature. I think I'm the person that I am because I've been teaching for this long. I started teaching seven years ago, and the majority of people that I see are that age group, gen Z. They’re on something else. Seriously. They motivate me so much; the future, equity, and justice is possible because of how hard they fight and how much they’re willing to sacrifice to see that happen. Even in these times, I can only be hopeful. They have far exceeded the maturity of my generation. They bring me a lot of hope.
AS: If you could get the world to change its collective mind about something, what would it be?
JW: To be collective. It goes back to taking care of yourself first. I really hope some people give themselves permission to slow down and to connect, and in doing so, arrive at a better place where they can connect with others. Because that has to be why we’re all here.
AS: What does it mean to dream beyond?
JW: It means a few things, but what came to my mind immediately is: to dream beyond myself. To overcome our own personal disappointments of what has happened either in the now or in the past, to start investing in the future.
When I think about dreaming beyond, it’s really the collective mind who believe in the collective good to start pushing and moving forward, not forgetting and neglecting what has happened in the past, but setting an intention that we can really push forth together. We’ve seen wins in the past. We’ve seen a lot of losses as well in these past few months... but to really commit to that beyond… What is beyond? Let’s be in awe of the future. Not like, yo it’s gonna suck.
Even when I think about school, I’m like, how am I going to do this here?
We can always leave room to be in awe of the magical, the things that happen that no human can even foresee, but it comes through us being collectively together, being empathetic, loving yourself, loving others. Not just, “Hey, let’s feel good,” but like the tough kind of love to grit through together.