Power in a Label, More in the Journey


I have a confession to make: until I was 23, I never called myself a leader. I was in plenty of leadership programs and positions as an undergraduate student, had even pursued a Master’s degree in Education, and was serving on the boards/involved with a number of formal and informal community organizations dedicated to promoting service and deeply invested in the fight for social justice.

I even attended CAPAL’s Washington Leadership Program as an undergraduate student, and never connected how all of these incredible opportunities synthesized into my own leadership style. In a conversation with a fellow Asian American friend and colleague, I blurted it out loud: “I have never identified as a leader.”

VPatel2 1 CAPAL Alum Spotlight Viraj Patel 14

There’s a lot of reasons for this. Role models, for me, were few and far between in positions of public leadership/leadership outside the home. If they did exist, they were often in professional fields I did not connect with, or who could affirm my passion for politics, academics, and social justice. Combine that with the fact that almost every book or article I’ve ever read about leadership usually rewarded qualities that I simply didn’t connect with- individualism, positional superiority, success defined by professional achievement, etc., it’s not surprising this process didn’t happen earlier.

Fast forward to a few years later- my relationship to identifying as a leader was (and still is) a bit shaky. The reality is, I’ve always seen my involvement in supporting other folks, as being an advocate of social movements, and helping to get stuff done, as simply who I am. Some folks may see that as leadership, but leadership is also a skill that needs to be continuously honed. It simply wasn’t enough to realize that I could call myself a leader- that was only half the battle.

CAPAL, for me, was the place I did the second part. CAPAL helped me, as a young professional, to begin the process of nurturing my growth as a leader, or whatever it is that I’m looking to become, in a culturally conscious and nurturing environment. My tenure as a board member helped me to learn the following about what it means to be me, for all that I am, and to embrace this truly complicated idea of leadership, especially when it comes to serving our Asian American communities:

  1. Everyone has something to contribute, and it may not be what you expect. Be patient and be willing to seriously consider all ideas presented.
  2. Just because you’re on a Board doesn’t mean you have it all figured out. Treat each professional experience as learning opportunities, especially when you are no longer on a campus.
  3. Celebrate each other and do it often
  4. Always ask how you can be in service of your team and organization- it’s literally never about you, and you alone.
  5. Center the experiences of the people your work aims to impact, not the organization’s image
  6. Read and learn about other communities- our stories are intersected, and we need to develop understanding of those intersections in order to move forward.
  7. Professionalism and success can look really different- a strong leader nurtures and empowers nuanced understandings of both and celebrates them too!
  8. Getting dressed up and going to society events is just as important, if not a little bit less important, than seeking out opportunities for discomfort and to get your hands a bit dirty

I am proud to be a past participant of the Washington Leadership Program and member of the Board of Directors. I am even more proud to say that my experience, development from, and involvement in CAPAL has extended far beyond my time as someone with a formal position of leadership and the physical space of Washington, D.C.. The lessons I’ve learned through CAPAL, and the amazing other people I’ve met who have also been impacted by this amazing organization, will stay with me forever as my understanding of leadership continues to grow and shift.

 CAPAL Alum Spotlight Viraj Patel 14

Viraj Patel is a scholar practitioner in higher education student affairs whose roots are in student activism and social justice education. Currently serving as the Associate Director at the Pan-Asian American Community House at the University of Pennsylvania, Viraj focuses on advocacy, wellness, access, leadership and mentorship programs for Asian and Asian Americans both on and off a college campus. Viraj is a skilled facilitator, advisor, and writer. She is also an organizer with the Philadelphia South Asian Collective and is a founding sister of NAPAWF-Philly. She is a proud past board member of CAPAL.

Posted by Evelynn Bui

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Evelynn is this year’s Fall Project Coordinator. Prior to CAPAL, Evelynn served on staff for the International Leadership Foundation as the 2016 Civic Fellowship Program Manager. She has project management, communications, and advocacy experience in the health sector working across federal agencies, private institutions, and non-profit organizations. Originally hailing from Texas, Evelynn holds a Master of Public Health degree from Baylor University (sic ’em!) and aspires to cultivate and ignite the desire for positive change in her surrounding community. In her spare time she enjoys urban gardening, live music, and adding excessive amounts of garlic to all home-cooked meals.