TO ANYONE WHO WANTS TO DISRUPT A SYSTEM
To anyone who wants to disrupt a system and doesn’t know where to start,
We want you to meet Jacqui. In a time where so many are examining oppressive systems and tend towards feeling powerless and even apathetic, Jacqui turned her disempowerment into action. Nearly expelled by the public school system for a minor offense, something her white classmates also committed but received no punishment, she decided to focus her energy on education. After receiving her graduate degree in Education at Harvard, she found herself working as a high school teacher in Los Angeles and her commitment to change began.
Through meaningful relationships, her commitment to building herself up, and actively listening to younger folks, she pursues what is undoubtedly a meaningful and generous life. But Jacqui is not a martyr - she does not believe in punishing herself in light of the injustices she sees. Instead, she actively seeks out inspiration and is conscientious about what fills her up so that she can give to others. She is careful with her time and her energy. She knows it is limited, and she does not waste it. She maintains an understanding that pursuing a life of meaning also requires your life to be sustainable.
In a world where people want women to choose between being soft and bold, she is committed to encapsulating both. When people want educators to just stick to the curriculum, she finds ways to incorporate wellness and meditation into her class. When people seek others’ comfortability first, she prioritizes telling the truth, even at the cost of making people uncomfortable. Our hope is that when we are inevitably faced with systems of oppression we will face them head on and resist in the ways Jacqui exemplifies: telling the truth, and taking care of ourselves along the way.
STREET GRANDMA: As an artist in many senses of the word, as an impactful public school teacher, and most recently a model, how do you build confidence?
Jacqui: My first years of teaching my confidence was crippled. I'm not the person that wins the first match. I'm always the underdog. I lose the matches, but I'm the one that keeps going. So I continued to tap into myself to build my confidence by connecting with myself physically, mentally, spiritually. But I also have moments of failure.
How do you combat moments of failure?
It depends on what is diminishing my confidence at the moment. I often turn to yoga, nature, or just sitting in the sun. But more recently, I took a 40-day break from social media because it was hurting my confidence. I recognized that it wasn’t making me feel good, anymore, so why keep doing it?
How would you describe your style?
My everyday style is like a middle school boy. I wear oversized hoodies, jeans, and some old air force ones almost every single day. Sometimes I do try to wear different things to show my students how an adult can dress going to work.
Is fashion a creative outlet for you?
In a way. I love my cosplay outfits. I love the brands that I get to model for. I love supporting those around me. I wear a lot of my friends' stuff and if I model, I’ll ask the stylist to pull from them. One of my students from years ago, he started a brand and I follow him to this day and wait for his drops. This aspect of fashion excites me.
Any style icons for you?
Right now it’s Killua in Hunter x Hunter. I think he dresses so well. He's a professional assassin and he can kill anyone, but he decides not to just because. It’s the layers, the oversize fits, the shorts, and he's always in sneakers.
What inspired you to start teaching?
My high school years were full of traumas. I was also uncovering trauma I experienced as a child. It was just...hell. I’ve always wanted to teach but after a situation where I was suspended and on the verge of expulsion, I knew I wanted to be part of changing the system. Looking back on it, I was like wait a second, this should have never been a suspension. I also felt no one considered or cared about the things that were going on in my life. As a second-gen immigrant, I always felt like an imposter to mainstream institutions in America, but during those years I felt like a victim in the school system - I wanted to be part of changing that.
As an Asian-American teacher teaching in a predominantly Black and Latino student population, what are some things that you have to be cognizant about?
I am really fortunate to have met and be surrounded by educators of color who share the same or somewhat of the same vision of what public education should look like. These are individuals who are willing to stand against a school system that in many ways compromise on the quality of learning for our kids. To this day there I look up to them so much. I never try to play like I’m anything I’m not. I welcome conversations but the biggest priority for me is to provide them a space to unpack their identity and their purpose in America - to find power in who they already are as what they already are as they define themselves. These conversions also influence the way I see myself in America and find deeper solidarity each year.
How open are you with your students about yourself and your experiences?
I'm very open about who I am and the things that I've experienced, but I highlight my privilege points as well. I’m not here to tell them what to do because I don't know what they're going through, but maybe I can connect with them with somebody who has. We can find a common ground when we talk about who we are as a political identity. Because Asian American is a political identity. In my eyes I'm Korean. Once we can share common ground, it’s easier to unpack political identities, discuss stereotypes, and talk about the history of America.
Are your students curious about Korean or Asian-American culture?
Yes. There's a fun end to it as well. They’ll ask me, “Do you like Kpop?” No, but I will listen to your playlist. “You love anime?” Yes! We can have an anime club in my class. I just try to be honest in all facets of myself, but also be aware of my blind spots.
How do you foster your student’s confidence?
Watering someone's confidence comes through relationships. Being a good friend, listening, trying to understand what their vision is. I'll believe in anyone's vision if it's for them, but it’s a balance. I'm going to say, “you could do anything you want to do”, but I don't want to be a yes-man. I want to help build their vision but I don’t want to instill superficial or momentary confidence.
Why is teaching at a public school important to you?
I want to feel like I am adding to the public space. I wanted a school run by teachers and I wanted to be part of a school with a legacy. Some have been working here for 30+ years and I’m like, please, just sit here and let me learn from you.
In addition to teaching, you are passionate about so many other art forms - yoga, poetry, music... What genre of music speaks to you the most?
I grew up listening to Linkin Park, Wu-Tang, Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson… but in high school I started listening to underground rap music because my friends and I would sneak out and go to live shows. I connected early on with hip hop’s focus on identity and our purpose and placement in America. But now I listen to a lot of worship music because it helps me stay grounded.
Where does worship music come in for you?
I’m Christian. It’s a heavy word nowadays, but I don’t know how to express or make an experience out of that word yet. For me, a lot of my identity is through experience or how to share an experience. It’s tricky with the work that I do because Christians have not created a very safe place in policy. I live in tension most of my day because there's a lot that I do that has high stakes. So I like to listen to things that keep me soft and open. It could be worship music, ambient music, beats, or even silence.
As two people who met at a Christian school, recently we’ve been working on unpacking our experience there and the ups and downs of evangelical Christianity. How do you keep up with it in your life?
I was really fortunate to have been raised in a church that I felt safe in. But most of it comes through personal commitment, devotion, and relationships. At the end of the day it’s about understanding and trusting the person that I am. Teaching is a difficult job so it helps me get through my personal failures and get motivated to give it another year.
Is there anything you want people to know about your students?
They have viable solutions to real problems, especially when they are provided the access to thorough research. There are so many Gen Z activists and everyone wants to know what young people want, what they are thinking, their potential. But teachers have been knowing. I’m so inspired by them and I'm glad I get to be part of these epic moments for young kids. That’s how I see my students.
Follow Jacqui's journey on Instagram @ms.whang and see more of her work on her website.
Top Left Photo: Jacqui for Nike AF1, Shot/Produced by The Neue School
Top Right Photo: Jacqui for Girlfriend Collective, Shot by Sasha Samsonova
Bottom Center (title): Jacqui for Nike AF1, Shot/Produced by The Neue School
This interview has been edited and condensed.