Ubuntu, American Diversity, and the Importance of Our Stories

My name is Elaine Mak. I am an American.

I was born in Bronx, NY, and grew up in Queens and Long Island. I am an American.

I am a Chinese woman. My Chinese name is Mai Yee-Ling and my nickname was Ling-Ling. I am an American.

My brother is Allen Mak. His Chinese name is Mai Chung Bong, though he was not so lucky in getting a cute nickname when we were young. His was Fai Jay – roughly translated, that’s a term of endearment for ‘fat boy’. Cute nickname or not, he is an American.

My father’s name is Mai Hui Yin but everyone calls him Gary. My mother’s name is Chan Pui Fong, but everyone calls her Mariana. They are American.

My parents, Gary and Mariana Mak, were immigrants from China. With barely a Junior High-level education and speaking no English, they landed in the U.S. more than 45 years ago in pursuit of the American Dream – a better life for our family. They worked hard, raised two children and put both of us through college. My parents fought to ensure my brother and I would have access to opportunities they never had. This is America.

My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. She was in an arranged marriage in China by the age of 16. And while she never learned English, she found solace and a better life nestled in New York’s Chinatown. She is an American.

My great grandfather arrived in America at the turn of the 20th Century. He served in the U.S. Army and fought for the Allies in World War II. He was a proud American.

Growing up, our household was bi-lingual; we spoke both Chinese and English. My parents taught us to celebrate and share our Chinese heritage and traditions. We were also raised to respect and honor others’ cultures – to accept and value our differences. They reminded us to embrace all people, whether they be white, black, brown, yellow or purple (I’m still searching for the purple people!).

My parents taught us to be survivors, to work hard and to persevere. They ensured we would never forget our roots or the sacrifices made for the privileges we have today.  Those privileges are not taken for granted; they are a responsibility to uphold.

I know my story isn’t particularly special or unique. After all, in one way or another, most of us are children of immigrants, and we could each tell a similar story of identity, culture and pride. No matter where our families came from or where we call home today, these are clear ties that bind us. And that’s exactly why I feel so compelled to tell my story – to raise my voice and do what I can to represent and empower those who are less often heard and seen.

I’ve spent my career building organizational teams and cultures among some of the most influential institutions and companies in the United States.  I have seen first-hand how the richest, most rewarding and successful environments are those where people come together not just to work, but to really know and understand the diverse backgrounds of their colleagues, clients and communities. In many ways, this approach is rooted in the South African “Ubuntu” philosophy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, through whom many in the U.S. first encountered the concept, describes Ubuntu as “the very essence of being human…[that] my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.” In short, Ubuntu is an ideal for life in a community — a belief that we must affirm our own humanity by recognizing and respecting the humanity of others. That understanding of universal human bonds, in turn, forms the foundation mission-driven organizations need to thrive and make a greater impact in the communities we serve.

At Health Leads, inclusion of diversity is a key value not only for all of us working within the organization, but a reflection we seek in our healthcare partners across the country. We firmly believe that true success in addressing the challenges that affect our patients’ health depends on really knowing who’s in the room with us – on understanding the needs of our neighbors. It’s the power of connecting at a human level that enables and empowers healthcare leaders to see the full picture and achieve superior outcomes.

That’s why I chose to share my story. Because with all the discord and uncertainty that surrounds us today, the spirit of Ubuntu is more important than ever. We must do everything possible to approach each other from a place of understanding, respect and compassion – to create space and promote dialogue and understanding around the rich diversity of our communities.

That kind of open, inclusive and equitable approach often begins by sharing a simple story. So what is your story? What is your America?

Elaine Mak is the Principal of People & Culture for Health Leads, leading progressive, innovative HR operations that help the organization to perform effectively and scale efficiently. Her focus on creating, integrating and promoting a culture of inclusion and diversity has enabled Health Leads to achieve higher impact and build a diverse talent pipeline geared toward systemic social change in healthcare. For nearly two decades, Elaine has directed talent management, leadership development and change initiatives for a host of major start-ups, corporations and non-profit institutions. She is passionate about using her talents and heart-based leadership practices to empower organizations and people to lead on great movements to change the world for the greater good. Elaine currently resides in Oakland, CA.