Taking the Next Big Leap after BUILD

After five amazing years at BUILD, I’ve chosen to take the next big leap in my life: this summer I’m going to graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Yes, I’m going back to school! I’m moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts! I’m going to Harvard! 2010 is truly the year of leaping and landing.

I’ll have more to say about BUILD over the next few months as we go through transition — I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done over the last several years, and very optimistic about what the future holds. I’m deeply indebted to the BUILD staff for believing in me, challenging me and trusting me with our flagship site. All of our amazing mentors, volunteers, and board members have been crucial to BUILD’s success as well, and I would be remiss if I did not thank you all.

And I especially am grateful to our BUILD students and alumni, who continually inspire me to do the work that we do and show me that our society’s educational inequities and problems CAN be solved… even if it is one student at a time.

I’m pretty sure that I’ll have more to say about my Harvard experience as I transition to the East Coast. Ya’ll know that education is extremely important to me — and I specifically wanted to model that by going back and getting more education. Special shout out to my parents for instilling the love of learning in me! And they say it takes a village… to raise a child, and then send that child to college, and then to send that child to grad school. I want to communicate a deep gratitude to all of the people who aided me throughout the application process: Oudete, Karla, Chantal, Suzanne, Larisa, Sal, Tim, Amber, Craig, Kenyon, Alex, Jim, Amber, Sandie, Regan, Steve, Adriana, Elizabeth, Tony, Jed, Richie, Bola, and of course my family–Mom, Dad, Francis & Rachel. I literally could not have taken this gigantic next step without you!

Below is a note I sent out to everyone in the BUILD Family, with a little bit more explanation for why I chose to go to Harvard.

Onward & upward!

Dear BUILD Family,

Over the last five years, BUILD has grown in significant ways. We have expanded into three sites with a robust, life-changing and innovative program. I have had the privilege of working with phenomenal BUILD students, aiding their growth into confident young entrepreneurs and college students. And I have had the opportunity to work with talented community members and partners, like you, in the fight for educational equity. I am so proud of all that we have accomplished together in my five years at BUILD.

This summer I am about to embark on another personal journey. It is with careful thought and great anticipation that I want to let you know that this will be my last school year with BUILD. In August, I will pursue a master in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Pursuing my education in this country has been a lifelong dream. This next step will allow me to be a better leader for communities of youth in our country and around the world. After delving deeper into education policy in graduate school, my goal is to affect systemic, transformational change in the education sector at national and international levels. Although it is hard for me to even imagine leaving BUILD (and California!), I would be a hypocrite if I did not take risks in the way we ask our students to.

The BUILD Peninsula site is in good hands. Nicole Oppenheim, our current E1 program manager, will be the next site director of the BUILD Peninsula site, and I have the utmost confidence that she will lead the Peninsula team to achieve new and exciting heights. Her management experience and innovative vision and implementation of our freshman year program showcase her qualifications for the site director position.

My last day at BUILD will be on July 16th, and I encourage you to please reach out directly if you have any questions before I leave in the summer. I am equally available on phone or email.

Thank you for our relationship, your continued support of BUILD and your partnership in the fight for educational equity.

With deep appreciation and gratitude,


PS – Because of the transitions, we are hiring an Academic Program Manager and an E1 Program Manager at the Peninsula site as well as a few other positions in Oakland, DC and our Headquarters. Please check out our website for more information and please spread the word: http://www.build.org/browse/employment

PPS – I’d love to stay in touch with you: Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter

Letter to Senior Class of 2010

BUILD Decision Day Celebration 2010

To the Senior Class of 2010,

After seeing each of your in your BUILD stoles today at our Decision Day Celebration, I couldn’t help but be choked up with pride. I am so incredibly proud of each of you for the journey you have taken. I want to acknowledge each one of you for taking that first leap with us and this next big leap in your lives. When you joined the BUILD class during your freshman year, you probably were not quite ready for the risks that you would take or the challenges with which you would be faced. It takes a very special teenager to write a 30-page business plan, pitch concepts to a venture capitalist, sell products at sales events, and take trips with us to check out colleges. As you look back, the risks that seemed huge then may not seem as insurmountable now because you have grown tremendously.

By taking risks and working hard, you each have grown by leaps and bounds while running your businesses and striving to exceed academically. But the road to completing the BUILD program and getting to college was not easy. I remember many nights when staff and volunteers worked with you on homework, exams, marketing plans, financial statements, SAT classes or just personal stuff in the Incubator. As you are contemplating the next big step in your lives and preparing to transition from high school to post-secondary education, know that all of us at BUILD are standing by your side. Also know that choosing to go to your college is a moment of empowerment. Let this choice be the first in a long line of choices that you will make that will positively impact your life and the lives of your family.

Your new challenge is to use your college education as a stepping stone for a successful career and life, just like you used BUILD as your stepping stone to a college education. By participating in BUILD, you are equipped with the business-savvy skills and knowledge to lead an entrepreneurial life.

We hope you use the entrepreneurial lessons you have learned for good. As the first graduating class in a brand new decade, you are primed to create positive changes in your lives, your families, your communities, and our society. I urge you to continue being resourceful, taking initiative, and exploring your passions—like you showed me every week in BUILD.

Thank you for making an impact and leaving your mark at the BUILD Peninsula site, and as you know, once you join the BUILD family, you are always in the BUILD family. On behalf of the BUILD staff, congratulations on your amazing accomplishments! We cannot wait to hear about how you excel in education, lead in your communities and succeed professionally!

Stay strong until the end of the school year! We will see you at your school’s graduation and BUILD graduation!



Thinking about Nanay Ising

My chest is tight, and my head is spinning. My heart feels like Manny Pacquiao’s punching bag after an intense workout. Beaten. Deflated. Achey. Heavy. It has been hard to let the breath into my chest since my grandmother passed away almost two weeks ago, but my will to live apparently is stronger than this sadness. Ever since I got back from Manila, I have felt like my heart has a story to tell. I wrote most of the post below in the middle of the 9-day mourning ritual, and now is an appropriate time to expand upon and share it. Hopefully my heart can feel slightly lighter.

Nanay Ising at her 80th Birthday
Nanay Ising at her 80th Birthday

I’m sad I didn’t spend more time with my grandmother, or as we affectionately called her: “Nanay,â€� which is slang for “mother.â€� She never liked being called “lolaâ€� which is Tagalog for “grandmother.â€� The most memorable moments I have with Nanay occurred in spurts and bursts of concentrated Nanay time. From ages one to three we lived almost next door to Nanay in the little village of Punturin, and I remember such fun times as getting stomach worms and Nanay applying some crazy herbal remedies to help me get rid of them. There were also the joyous disciplinary measures that she took with me and my brother — my aunts and uncles like to remind me that we were quite mischievous little ones, and as you can see, Nanay’s (and my parents’) methods worked.

There was also the month when our parents traveled to Australia, and Nanay took care of us — we were living in Hong Kong at the time, and we were still very young, so I don’t remember much. One of my aunts, however, reminded me that when Nanay would look after my brother Francis, my sister Rachel and me, it’s almost like she stowed us away in little pockets on her body. My brother was cradled on her right arm, while she fed me a bottle snuggled up to her left arm, and she used her foot to rock my sister’s cradle on the ground. I’m sure it took a tough woman to deal with us when we were awake.

After we moved to the states in 1990, our interaction with Nanay (and the rest of our extended family) significantly decreased. We couldn’t leave the country since we didn’t have green cards for almost 13 years, but Nanay visited us once in 2003 for 6 months. She stayed in Las Vegas with my parents while I was finishing up school at USC. Even then, I didn’t get a chance to see or spend too much time with her because I was a few hundred miles away, and we always had a language barrier. Although my Tagalog comprehension was fairly strong, my speaking abilities were almost naught. Nanay was almost the same way except with English. Despite the language barrier and the scarcity of our time together, I cared deeply for her and I know she cared for me and my siblings as well, particularly because my brother, sister and I were her first grandchildren.

When the opportunity arose to celebrate her 80th birthday with her in the Philippines in June 2009, I just knew that I had to do it. Partially, I wanted to make up for all of the lost time since our immigration to the US. Since I didn’t grow up with Nanay, I didn’t get a chance to ask her all of the questions about our family history. I never got the opportunity to hear stories that a grandmother would share during the holidays or while cooking dinner or while cleaning the house. I yearned to grasp where I came from and on whose shoulders I truly stood. I finally got that opportunity during the summer of 2009, armed with pen, paper, and a video camera to capture all of the impromptu and non-impromptu storytelling sessions. I wanted so badly to capture as much of it as possible so I could get an idea of my own ancestry.

What I found out was at once shocking, telling, and also obvious. Listening to Nanay was like watching a really good Tetris player expertly placing the blocks so that they fit together to tell a full and complete story. I don’t have the time here to talk extensively about her story and her childrens’ stories, but I am sure that I’ll compile that all sometime in the future either in the form of a book or a video (since I captured a lot of her storytelling on video).

I do want to share that the way she is now makes so much sense because of how she grew up and where she came from. From an early age Nanay was forced to grow up. Because her mother died of pneumonia when she was four years old and her father remarried when she was 14, she realized she had to fend for herself and grow up in the process. I believe her highest education was elementary school, and in her teens, she started a fabric business in Divisoria — a once popular shopping destination in Manila (nowadays it’s most notably and perhaps notoriously known for being a bargain-hunter’s dream for knock-off Louis Vuittons). She continued the fabric business, selling diligently and tirelessly for days to make ends meet, and when she met her husband, our Lolo Jose, they joined forces. He became the business’ spokesperson, while she remained the brains and the energy behind it. Through the years she continued her entrepreneurial ventures by running a pig farm and transforming their land to rentable apartments and commercial retail stores.

She was resourceful, not wasteful, and lived in relative austerity. After her burial, the entire family went to her house, and I got the chance to see her bedroom. It was almost exactly the same as it had been when I was a child — the bed, her clothes, the decorations, the rosaries, the smell were all the same. The walls were starkly decorated, and everything was orderly and in its place, from her dresses to her shoes, to the extra plastic bags that she liked to keep tucked between her mattress and the boxspring. She, apparently, liked it that way — plain, simple, and uncluttered. She refused to accept new clothes and new furniture and always said that it was a waste.

Family at Nanays Birthday
Family at Nanay's Birthday

Her priorities were not on material goods, money, or other superficial things. She was relentless in her pursuit of a better life for her family, and when her children had children, that spirit easily translated to making sure their families were taken care of as well. But her love and care of people extended well beyond our own family. Her tenants, neighbors and fellow villagers easily regarded her as an important, influential and caring matriarch of the community. While she was living with us in Las Vegas for six months, my parents told me that they could tell she was homesick, not for her worldly possessions (she barely had any), but because of the community that she created in Punturin. She missed her friends, her neighbors, her people.

It was no surprise then to see and meet many of the people that she considered her extended family at her 80th birthday celebration. The Pavilion was packed with people who loved and wanted to celebrate her. She spoke equally kindly and compassionately to her children and grandchildren than she did to the neighbors’ children that she has seen grow up. Thinking about it now, it made me proud to know that I come from this woman. Her relentless work ethic, thoughtfulness, community-building, entrepreneurial spirit, and caring nature are inspiring. I strive to embody those traits as gracefully and beautifully as she did, while also building a life and family that clearly exemplifies love and selflessness.

I loved hearing her old stories because it made me realize the importance of my roots, while realizing that this is but one step in our entire lineage. Because my grandmother worked so hard to build up her family, my father and each one of his siblings had the opportunity to go to college in the Philippines — a feat that Nanay was never able to complete. Because my father and mother went to college, they were able to take a leap and immigrate to the US. And because of that courageous and fateful move, I was afforded the opportunity for a high quality American college education. Imagine what my children will be able to do, if only three generations ago I came from humble farmers and cloth merchants. The certainty and excitement about how the course of our family’s future has been positively affected is astounding to me. I don’t know if my grandmother ever dreamed that her children and grandchildren would be where they are now, but I do know that I am continually striving for educational excellence and seeking to ensure that educational opportunities are available for all children simply because I want to do what my parents and my grandparents did for me. Just like she made a critical choice to work hard and escape poverty, I am choosing to alter the course of the lives of generations of children.

I am at this critical inflection point because of my grandmother’s choices. I hope to never take that for granted.

As I held her hand one last time on January 28, 2010, I felt her warmth, courage, fighting spirit, faith in God, and love. Although she couldn’t speak, the love permeated through the dimly lit hospital room in Manila. Her hands were calloused, and her legs, although immobile, will never be a cause of pain for her again. As I looked around the room at the teary eyes of her children and grandchildren, I knew that although it was a devastatingly sad time, the beautiful works of her life — her children, her community, and her family — outweighed the sadness.

I miss you incredibly, Nanay. There’s no doubt about that. I thank you so much for how you have built our family and how you have catapulted each and every one of us to be the best people we can be.

For that we are eternally grateful.

Rest in Peace, Nanay Cresencia “Ising� Faustino.

Faustino Family at Michaels Wedding in Sydney
Faustino Family at Michael's Wedding in Sydney

First attempt at writing a song

Since one of my goals for 2010 was to write a song, I thought I’d give it a shot on this lovely / gloomy San Francisco day.

Loving Space

Here are the full lyrics for “Loving Space”:

I just wish I could do something for you
But I know I can’t
The delusions of a warm embrace
The instant fire when my lips touch your face
It’s attachment
Emotion, packed, spirits, love

I flew 10,000 miles, all the while
Trying to give you loving space
Through distance and time
I thought our love would climb
Instead, I saw clearly

You were in pieces, shattered and scattered
But I didn’t care
The hope that we could be forever
Without being together, no matter
We deserve better than

I flew 10,000 miles, all the while
Trying to give you loving space
Through distance and time
I thought our love would climb
Instead, I saw clearly
Take it easy
Baby can you see me
Take it easy
Can you see me

Even in your darkest place
You could count on my loving space
I would climb down those trenches
Brace the defenses
But I realized I love me more

I flew 10,000 miles, all the while
Trying to give you loving space
Through distance and time
I thought our love would climb
Instead, I saw clearly
Take it easy
Baby can you see me
Take it easy
Can you even see me?

I flew 10,000 miles, all the while
I’ll give you loving space

New Years Goals 2010

Leap & Land

2010 is the year of leaping into the unknown and landing into the next great challenge. It’s about taking risks, following your heart, listening to the universe, and opening your eyes to the signs that are guiding you to the next level. I don’t think 2010 is going to be easy.

I think 2010 is going to be a very practical year–a year of rolling up our sleeves and getting things done. If you think of 2009 as the year of preparation, then 2010 is the year of action. And we all know that sometimes it’s not easy to take action. Fear, self-doubt, and distractions will get in the way. But whatever is in store for us in 2010, know that we were born to be there and to take them on.

So I propose that we all take a leap this year. Leave procrastination and fear back in 2009. Do something that you may have been too afraid to do or that you’ve been putting off. Open up your options, make some positive choices, and do something for yourself. Take a leap, and I promise you that you’ll land somewhere amazing.

Alex gave me the "Passion" Angel Card for 2010, and I think it's appropriate

As I do every year during my reflection time, I started by re-examining my goals and values from last year and then brainstorming new goals that fit with my revised personal values. I did not change my personal values at all and have created 10 new goals for 2010.

Personal Values

  • Challenging Adventures – I live for new and challenging experiences, whether that’s professionally or personally, with others or in another country. The thrill of adventure stimulates my soul.
  • Contribution to the World – I live to make lasting, positive impacts on society’s most pressing problems.
  • Expressing Creativity – Being able to express myself artistically, musically or professionally keeps me inspired.
  • Lifelong Learning – I love to learn. I am energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence to mastery.
  • Quality – I choose to live a full and quality life, which is neither excessive nor is it below my standards of excellence.
  • Family & Friends – Above all, my life is about the people I choose to journey with. They are my heart.

New Years Goals 2010

  1. Go on a spiritual journey
  2. Take a GIGANTIC risk
  3. Get more involved and make a positive impact in the gay community by doing some gay rights advocacy work
  4. Learn how to write music and then write a song
  5. Build something with my hands
  6. Continue improving my Tagalog comprehension and speaking skills
  7. Deepen my spiritual practice (yoga, Catholicism)
  8. Read at least 8 new books
  9. Connect with my international relatives at least once a month
  10. Continue spending time with family members

It’s going to be a phenomenal year, and I can’t wait to face it head on. So here’s to leaping and landing into all of the goodness in store for 2010!

End of the Year Check-in 2009

The goal is just a blip. I was reminded about that at yoga. When you master your mind you’ll realize the pose (e.g. your goal) doesn’t matter. Getting fixated on a goal closes our minds to all other possibilities of surpassing that small blip (the goal). Dropping the fixation lets us move through the world with greater ease, and gives us a better capacity to help others. Goals are useful, but they’re not the end-all and be-all.

2009 was my year of the Epic Journey. There were so many blessings this year that that acted like a domino effect. When one door opened, yet another window opened. It was a journey into receiving a ton of love from the universe and from God. It was sometimes heart-wrenching, other times incredibly joyful, but through it all, I definitely felt loved and gave love. I deepened friendships to levels that I didn’t know existed, and I formed family bonds that I only dreamed of. In a word, 2009 was a blessing. Here’s a quick run down of the events:

  • Getting my citizenship!!!
  • Lots of traveling! Two trips to Chicago, two trips to DC, two trips to Vegas, and two trips to LA
  • Epic trip to the Philippines with my brother
  • Grandmother’s 80th birthday in the Philippines
  • Cousins bonding trip to Bohol Island
  • Amazing trip to Australia
  • Cousin Michael’s Wedding in Sydney
  • Karla’s wedding to herself in DC
  • Rap directing at USC again with Salina and UC Merced with Danny
  • GLAAD Media Awards with Jim Freeman and Professor Ben (Robert Gant) from Queer as Folk
  • Intimate 10 Year High School Reunion with JARK
  • Natasha’s Trojan Wedding
  • Singing in a trio at SFGMC’s Home for the Holidays concert on my birthday!
  • Attending Memorial services for Michael Jackson and old high school teacher, Ms. Van Hunnick

Here’s my annual update on New Years Goals from 2009:

  1. Spend more time with family membersAbsolutely, yes!
  2. Improve my Tagalog comprehension and speaking abilities so that I can hold a conversation with my grandmotherYes!
  3. Get more involved and make a positive impact in the gay community by doing gay rights advocacy workNo, this was one of the goals that I wish I wanted to do, but sadly just didn’t commit to.
  4. Improve my singing abilities and sing a solo at a concertYes, sort of. At SFGMC’s Holiday Concert, I sang in a trio.
  5. Do relief work in a developing countryNo, another one of those timing things.
  6. Fall in love and be in a committed, loving relationshipSort of. Definitely was heartbroken.
  7. Strengthen myself spiritually, mentally, and physically by practicing yoga more deeply and seriouslyYes! I practiced almost 3 times a week

Out of my eight goals, I accomplished about six of them. Again, I realized this year that I did not focus so much on the actual goals, but the journey that I took. And what a journey it has been. Any year where I spend more than 25% of it on a sabbatical, live 2 out of 12 months out of the country, and get my American citizenship after 19 years is automatically an awesome year… probably one of the best ever.

How exactly will 2010 be able to top 2009? I’ve got some ideas already in mind, and if all goes according to plan, then 2010 could be even more epic.

Farewell 2009, you have been amazing and full of surprises, and 2010, I welcome you and all of your challenges and promises with open arms!

The Year 2009 in Pictures

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Shifting Education into the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, I listened in on a webinar entitled “Lessons from Abroad: International Standards and Assessments� presented by Stanford professor and renowned education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond (I also attended the Kerner Forum at Stanford a year ago where she was the keynote speaker). It’s been a busy few months since I came out of my sabbatical, and I’ve focused a lot on work and the efficacy of what we do, so I was interested to hear more about international education standards.

Overall the presentation was quite eye-opening, especially in regards to America’s archaic and sometimes obsessive focus on results, to the detriment of actual student learning. She points out that while most US standardized tests (think SAT, ACT, CAHSEE, ABCDEFG…) are designed to assess whether students learned what they were taught in school and focus on recall and recognition of facts, there are a set of international tests designed to assess if students can “apply what they’ve learned to new problems and situations, focusing on inquiry and explanations of ideas.�

How novel.

She goes on to mention how schooling evolved through the ages from “The School of the Church� in the middle ages to the Industrial Age’s emphasis on educating for discipline. It made sense back then because workers in factories and other industrialized functions required routine manual and cognitive behavior to be successful. But the demand for skills changed, especially over the last 20 years with rapid growth in technology, social and cultural contexts.

The education challenges today and in the future are to prepare motivated and self-reliant young people to analytically think and interact via multiple mediums.

Welcome to the Knowledge-based Society, kid.

So what can be done to take our slow and bureaucratic education system to the next level – to prepare our youth to be competitive for the knowledge-based society?

1) Improve the use of technology in schools – Remember your school’s computer lab? Get rid of it! I envision a future where students don’t have to go to a lab to access computers, where the technology is built into every classroom and seamlessly integrated into the learning experience. Imagine if teachers used technology to have real-time student assessments so that they can adjust their teaching techniques and styles as quickly as their students can text their classmate across the room.

2) Institute summers of service – Americans need to stop wasting summers! I don’t necessarily think we should have year-round schools, but I imagine a future where instead of wasting away at home playing video games, students are engaged in summer learning activities, like community service or entrepreneurial endeavors. Check out this cool start-up social venture that shows amazing promise for this initiative: Summer Advantage.

3) Invest in recruiting, retaining, and developing teachers – By strengthening the professionalism of the teaching force, teachers will not only get the training that they need to continuously grow, but teachers will also want to stay in their profession. There are interesting models out there that are experimenting with performance-based pay for teachers, most notably in Washington, DC and Singapore, and while I don’t know if that specific change will create the desired results, I do know that teacher compensation needs to rise to that of comparable civil servants.

4) Institute leadership training for principals and school leaders – Outstanding principals drive schools, teachers and students to achieve better results. School leadership is an important and sometimes misunderstood piece of the education puzzle. At a meeting with a principal at one of our partner schools recently, she constantly joked around about how tough her job was and how her marriage was at stake because of all of her responsibilities. Yet the culture and tone that the principal sets impacts the quality of instruction, the development of staff, and orderly administrative tasks. Because it can be lonely at the top, principals should routinely collaborate with colleagues and receive leadership training from seasoned coaches.

5) Implement assessments to inform investments & improvement rather than to deny diplomas and sanction schools – This last one is a Linda Darling-Hammond staple, as I have heard her say it at several events. Because of No Child Left Behind, American assessments are obsessed with results. “Assessment systems should support the learning of everyone in the system, from students and teachers to school organizations and state agencies.� School systems need to take back the power of assessments so that they can be used positively.

Anyway, there’s my end-of-the-year rant on the education system. Click here to read more about the Darling-Hammond’s webinar.

Which of the five improvements above do you think will be the most important for the next generation of education? Or do you have an idea for an improvement I didn’t mention?

Pushcart Classroom Earns Filipino CNN’s Hero of the Year Award

Pushcart Classroom
Pushcart Classroom

It’s not too often that I hear good news coming from the Philippines. But recently I was inspired by a story about a Filipino man who was awarded CNN’s Hero of the Year. Efren Peñaflorida grew up in poverty-stricken Cavite City near Manila. His experience growing up surrounded by gangs and violence inspired him to divert kids from similar situations. Eventually he and his friends started Dynamic Teen Company to reach out to slum kids by conducting classes on the streets using specially designed street pushcarts. His pushcarts, rather than holding food and other goods, held a chalkboard, books and other classroom supplies.

In this time of thanks giving, I’m reminded how fortunate Americans are. The state of our education system, albeit not perfect, is at least a democratic attempt at making sure all children are getting the education that they deserve.

Efren Peñaflorida reminds us, “We should all start the change from within. All of us, we should open our minds and hearts to accommodate to the needs of the less fortunate and release the hero within. We are all capable of contributing to our community and to our country.”

Read more about his story on HuffPost and Asian Journal.

What I learned from remodeling kitchens with my dad

“Pass me the screws,” my dad said with a power drill in his right hand and a beautifully crafted overhead kitchen cabinet propped up against his left shoulder. I picked up a few screws from the tool bucket on the ground, handed them to my dad, and helped him shoulder the burden of the heavy wooden cabinet. Generally the heavier the cabinet, the better quality it is, and this cabinet was top-of-the-line. The tough edge of the front of the cabinet dug roughly into my thirteen-year-old shoulder, and I pushed it up as hard as I could with my little hands.

The first screw forcefully squealed into the wood backing as it made contact with the stud behind the drywall. Dad placed another screw through the back of the cabinet and another loud squeal attacked our ears. Four squeals later, and the cabinet was securely installed in the corner of this old kitchen. The home itself was probably built in the 1970’s judging by the ochre-tinted appliances and plainly “modern” facades of the light avocado-shaded cabinets.

Every few minutes the owner of the home, a gaunt African-American lady in her 50’s or 60’s, would peak into kitchen to observe our progress. Because she was tall, I could easily feel her presence as she supervised the remodeling project, and her gaze on the back of my head felt like hot nails. As a self-conscious thirteen year old, I tried as much as possible to avoid eye contact with her for fear that she might ask me a question, so whenever she was around, I would turn my back to unbox another big cabinet or to put away scattered tools.

“Go get the second cabinet. The smaller one that goes above the cooking range,” my dad ordered.

Casually I sauntered to the garage to sort through a maze of cardboard boxes and new kitchen cabinets. The summer heat permeated the old garage and heightened the aromatic mixture of finely crafted oak and ripped-apart cardboard. Cabinets that came up to my waist and others that were taller than the reach of my outstretched arms were strewn about in a methodical madness. The mess created a miniature metropolitan skyline. I weaved in and out of the imaginary city streets. Boxes and cabinets were skyscrapers that created thoroughfares and alleyways, and for a moment I pretended I was a messenger delivering an important package to a downtown firm. Zip. Zoom. Dive.

“Huuuyyyy. Nasaan ka? Hey. Where are you?” my dad shrieked.

The daydream faded away and I was back in the overcrowded garage somewhere in Orange County. “What size is it again, dad?” I yelled back.

“The small one about four feet by two feet.”

After sifting through more boxes, I found it on top of what I had imagined was the city’s public library. I snapped the plastic ties off the box, swiftly released the little cabinet from its cardboard and styrofoam confines, and bear-hugged it through Main Street, all the way back to the kitchen.

“Is this it, Dad?”

“Oo, ilagay ito dito. Yes, place it here,” Dad ushered while gesturing at the empty spot next to the first cabinet.

Thud. Cabinet banged against the wall. Squeal. Screws forced in place. Snap-snap. Another one unboxed. Shimmy-shimmy. Cabinet dragged to the kitchen.

After examining the floorplan, I became slightly better at predicting which cabinet my dad would need next. In an attempt at being efficient, I lined them up from the garage to the kitchen, like wooden soldiers getting ready for battle. We repeated the cycle until the bare walls started to look like a kitchen again. Three hours and fifteen installed cabinets later, my dad said, “Pahinga na tayo. Let’s rest.”

I used my t-shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from my brow, exhaled a sigh of relief, and wished that the lady would turn on the AC in her house. Dad sat down on a step stool, opened a large plastic Coleman container full of water and ice, and took four generous gulps of the cold refreshment. I collapsed myself on top of a bright orange toolbox, and dad passed me the Coleman and a pandesal (lightly sweet Filipino bread roll) with American cheese neatly encased in a plastic sandwich bag. I quenched my thirst desperately and inhaled the little pandesal in two bites. As we ate and rested, the old lady curiously poked her head through the open doorway to inspect our progress. She looked at the half-finished walls and then glanced at my dad. “It looks like it’s coming along really nicely,” she commented with a mischievous smirk, and then she placed her gaze on me, “it looks good. You did a good job.”

Sheepishly and with my eyes fixed on the unfinished cement floor, I replied, “Thank you.”

“So are you going to remodel kitchens too when you grow up? Are you going to follow in your dad’s footsteps?” she asked benignly.

I don’t remember quite how I responded to her, and it really doesn’t matter. I might have given her a half-smile and then looked away, but I distinctly remember what I thought the moment that she asked:



I love my dad and honor him for the rigorous and relentless work ethic that he instilled in me. My brother, sister and I joined him all throughout our childhood years at different jobsites as he worked hard to establish himself and his small business as credible and high quality. I credit my dad for truly living and breathing the entrepreneurial spirit and the American dream, and inspiring me to work hard, challenge myself, and do my best. If it were not for the weekends, school holidays, and the summers that we spent tearing out old houses and creating beautiful masterpieces, I can easily say that I would not have been able to go to college or be an American citizen.

However, I knew it then, and I know it now: my path would lead me down a different direction. And although my thirteen-year-old self was vehemently opposed to following in his dad’s footsteps (because really, what thirteen-year-old would want to do that?), I can see now that I did not veer completely off. Yes, I work and have been working with youth in the educational nonprofit sphere for years, and my passion clearly is to positively change the lives of youth, but everyday I use the lessons I learned from working with my dad to remodel kitchens.

My dad, an architect by trade, taught me how to read blueprints and floor plans, which planted the seeds of my ability to be visionary in my approach to leadership and creativity. I observed how my dad efficiently organized the chaos of a jobsite from the shipping of all of the cabinets to the installation timeline, and I rudimentarily practiced efficiency and systems-building in customers’ homes. He treated his clients jovially, fairly, and assertively, and he was my first model of how to be a leader and an effective negotiator. He built houses that stood on a solid foundation, while I built curricula and programs that stemmed from a solid foundation.

See, although I’m not quite remodeling kitchens, I suppose I can answer that old lady’s question differently now. When I enter into a nonprofit organization, when I engage in a new project, or when I get my hands dirty on a new program, I take the same approach my dad taught me years ago. We took out the old things that were obsolete and unnecessary; we carefully, meticulously, and systematically replaced them with new and better things; we tested the things to make sure they worked; and then we made sure the clients were happy with the new things. You can replace “things” with anything: cabinets, curriculum, culture, core programs, operations, etc. And of course, you can add steps and other systems to fit the needs of the project or team better, but I digress.

If the old lady were here now, I’d tell her, “Yes, I am following in my dad’s footsteps,” and I’d also thank her. Her simple question stuck with me for over fifteen years. Back then I used it as fuel to study smarter, work harder, and achieve more in school so that I could go to college and become successful… So that I wouldn’t have to do manual labor again (let’s be honest, if you give a teenager the choice between manual labor or studying in a comfortable, air-conditioned room, he’d pick the latter). Even though I was not that enthusiastic about giving up weekends and summers to work with my dad and even though the manual labor was exhausting and physically draining, I now realize that my dad’s footsteps did not lead me astray. In fact, they led me to where I am today, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

I love you, Dad. Thank you!