This is my sixth Gemstones piece, a blog post featuring people who lead with an open heart and work to uplift others. I’m honored to have the chance to introduce you to the work of Usa Lee Prompongsatorn.
When I first heard you talk about your dissertation topic, I was so interested and wanted to hear more. Tell me about your dissertation?
There have been many different iterations on what I want to focus on, but it is all about transformation. There is a body of literature called socio-political development theory that comes out of community psychology. I was drawn to it because in Community Psychology and socio-political development theory, the concept of internalized oppression and moving into a place of more liberation is centered. There are not many disciplines in psychology that look at people collectively and how social structures impact how a person develops on an individual level.
I found that spirituality is often named in socio-political development as a way that people move towards more liberation. Being more whole and more aware of societal definitions of who you are and the things that are harming you helps a person to have a better understanding of the interconnections of how society impacts how we see ourselves. For instance, for Asian women there is an exoticized way of looking at them (us) or the model minority myth of all Asians being smart. Those descriptions don’t allow me to be in my wholeness. Being able to identify this narrative gives me a choice to critique and see that narrative and notice how it’s affected me. Socio-political development theory says these narratives impact people and can do harm. Spirituality comes up, but it’s not discussed thoroughly – that it is important for people to move towards liberation, but it’s not discussed as to why and how. I’m interested in how spirituality impacts women of color in particular.
I was originally going to focus on Asian-Pacific Islander women, but I decided I want to broaden my focus to hear different experiences. My study will probably be no more than 20 Black, Indigenous, Women of color and I will look to see where there are distinctions and if there are themes.
My focus will be to examine how the women in the study come into understanding themselves through race, class, gender and sexuality. When was it that each of these women started to understand these definitions and how has it informed them and in what ways might they have constricted their ways of being in the world? I’m curious specifically about spirituality and I want to connect internalized oppression and spiritualty as different sides of the coin. bell hooks (writer, teacher, and black intellectual) believes that being able to see and work with one’s internalized oppression is a spiritual practice that can disrupt the harm it’s doing.
I’ll be examining race, class, gender, and sexuality and how each of these might show up as internalized oppression especially when people can’t be in their full dignity within the expression of themselves. When one is not able to fully express themselves along these lines, what happens? Research shows that when one can’t fully show up in the way we want, there are consequences.
For example, in my own life I was taught that to be a “properly” raised Asian woman I should not speak up, even when I see things that are unjust. That lead me to be silenced when I saw my dad speaking in ways that were not respectful to my mother: I am told not to speak up to my father, which translates into me not speaking up in my household. That could lead me to suppress myself in order to belong in my family. That can turn into an internalization of patriarchy that can show up in other relationships, that I can’t speak up and it gets perpetuated.
What are you hoping to learn?
I want to capture Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color’s stories. I’ve discovered a beautiful research method called Organic Inquiry that approaches research as a sacred endeavor. The method comes out of transpersonal psychology. This research method invites transformation by learning through one another’s stories. It’s a qualitative study so there is no hypothesis. What I want to explore is the way women adapt to systems that prevent them from showing up fully. I’m hoping to learn and understand stories to see if there are commonalities and / or to bring forward the inner workings of what spirituality means to the participants and examine how women transform from oppressive situations. I’m really excited about this research method because I consider the participants of the study to be my co-researchers. We will learn together through our shared stories.
Tell me more about your course of study? What made you want to get a Ph.D.?
I am studying at Fielding Graduate University. They use a hybrid model through online learning and bring students from across the world together two times a year. There are also multiple opportunities in between school terms to gather for shorter learning intensives and symposiums. Pre-Covid, we would meet on the West coast in winter and somewhere in the middle of the United States in summer. Everything is 100% online at the moment. It’s a very self-guided program, designed to be a program for working professionals, so it depends on how much you can take on at any given time. I started in May 2016 with six people in my field of study, but cohorts vary from 6 – 60 people depending on the term and are starting all the time. Each group organizes and operates very intimately in nature.
My Ph.D. is in human development. I’m focusing on different ways that people move through a developmental process. I’m looking at childhood through adulthood and examining the systems that have shaped us, our inner narratives, and the types of life decisions people make based on this shaping. I’m looking at an arc of experiences over time to see how one’s individual development informs who we are today.
Getting a PhD. Is something I intuitively wanted to do. I have wanted to continue studying and I’m drawn to it because it’s set up to ask questions and look at phenomena and that’s how I inherently move in in the world. I work a lot in leadership development, and I enjoy looking at the phenomena I’m studying.
I’m interested in leadership development for people of color and in particular women of color. I kept hitting places where organizations were not meeting the needs of women of color. It’s not enough to open the space for women of color — there is more to it than just a seat at the table.
I found that there was inherently something else coming up and that was often internalized obstacles:
- “Am I good enough?”
- “Am I wise enough?”
- “This is my first leadership position. Why do I feel so fearful speaking to white audiences effectively when I know I have the right training, the right credentials and yet, it feels like I still need to go out of my way to prove myself?”
I am interested in this recurring theme which is about what is happening for women of color in leadership positions. It’s the invisibilized parts of development that is not addressed in the typical professional development training. The part that names race, gender, and structures in society that impact how women see themselves. The academic and scholarly knowledge is useful because when you enter a doctorate program the assumption is that you will contribute something new to the field. I draw from my lived experience and the experiences of other women of color to create knowledge about what I, and we, see as something that seems missing from the field. I’m interested in how I can contribute to the body of knowledge about leadership.
How will you go about finding and selecting the women who participate in your study?
I tend to do things a little differently from traditional practices. I won’t do a large call for applicants. Instead, I’m going to reach out to folks in my network and use word of mouth and invite the women I contact to work with me as co-researchers and help me shape the work and learnings. I want to engage the participants more in the how and what of what we are learning so our collective voices are captured in the research, not just mine.
I am not looking for a particular age, but the criteria is someone who has been part of a process, program or community that has a focused internal reflection process (DEI process, yearlong meditation program) on who you are in the world and how you walk in the world with your gender, class, sexuality, and race.
Why is this important to you?
I feel like so much of my experience in navigating the world was without the help of my parents or mentors. I don’t have parents who were able to be alongside me to help me navigate the world because they were busy trying to survive in a new country without speaking English and while raising three kids. My mom only went to grade school and she had more education than my dad. They are both tailors and they could not walk hand in hand, side by side, with me to help me make choices. I feel I have a duty to help others who don’t have the guidance or mentorship or who haven’t found their way yet. My research will give examples and deeper insight into what I and other women of color have experienced.
I’m also doing this because I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to move up into a place of executive leadership. When I have been a supervisor for women of color, I hear that I am the first person who understands their experience with no extra questions asked. For example, that someone has to take care of their family, that they may have many extra demands and is not an independent person walking in the world, that they feel strongly interconnected to a family ecosystem of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins that may be dependent on them for support physically, financially, and psychically.
Who are the writers or people who you enjoy reading and who have formed the foundation for this work/research?
Women of color and feminist literature that looks at making change. Some examples are:
- bell hooks – Teaching to Transgress
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D. — Women Who Run with the Wolves
- Grace Lee Boggs – The Next American Revolution
- Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua – This Bridge Called My Back
I’m now looking at more Asian women’s writing and contributions and I’m learning more about the contributions of Asian people because I’m realizing that when I was growing up, I did not have exposure or access to many Asian women writers. I was born into a culture of assimilation and as the first born in the U.S. to parents from Thailand, I was raised to assimilate to white culture and internalized the model minority story and felt it was not as important to read about Asian people and chose to focus more on Black and Latinx people since I was part of the “model minority. “ In this way, I did not seek out to learn about the struggles of my own lineage even though I felt them.
Anything else you want to share or that you want people to know?
This is one of the first time I’m talking publicly about my research and it feels vulnerable and exciting. This is my first articulation of what’s coming and I’m just getting started, so I’ll learn about the details more as I move forward, so it’s really good timing to practice sharing publicly!