Channeling Kindness (shan-liang) with Born This Way Foundation

May 20, 2020

Elissa Lee, 24, spent her childhood in Austin, Texas, her adolescence in Taiwan, and her college years at UC Berkeley. She has founded initiatives around storytelling and mental health and arts education. Previously, she worked at Too Small to Fail, coordinating a national campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development in children. Elissa currently resides in sunny LA, pursuing a degree in occupational therapy and researching chronic conditions in medically underserved populations. She is passionate about increasing access to healthcare systems and creating a kinder world through the written word.

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Elissa was in the second cohort of Channel Kindness reporters (2018) and is excited to serve as a program intern with Born This Way Foundation in Summer 2020. 

My mother likes to retell this story — when I was around five, I saw a bird in pursuit of a butterfly and chased after the duo in attempts to save the butterfly. When my attempts were thwarted, I promptly burst into tears. 

“What people don’t realize is, oftentimes what happens is that when you’re young, everything seems so epic. And it’s great and it’s amazing and it’s wonderful, if you’re a creative person because you can take that epic outlook on the world and put it into the art, but if you don’t have that in your mind this art process then those epic feelings can go sometimes in the wrong direction.” – Douglas Miles  (Excerpt from We Rise article) 

Kind-hearted, I think is what I was called. Soft. Sensitive — too sensitive. I was lucky to grow up in a family who nurtured this in me, as they believe to live is to help the community, because our community is our family. 

In fourth grade, I moved to Taiwan, where I noticed that there were many undernourished, underloved stray dogs, and started a service organization to help care for 36 of them. The principal took note and allegedly told my parents, She’s shan-liang (a Mandarin word that means good and kind-hearted), a rare quality nowadays— she’ll have a hard life, but it is something that is much needed in this world. 

This manifested in some of my traumas: I looked at my perpetrators and saw lost souls — and could not bring myself to scream for help. These events have affected a significant piece of my life and worldview. It wasn’t until years later that some of these feelings I was experiencing were given their own acronym – PTSD. 

“My body is in one place and my mind in another. It’s like the panic accelerator in my mind gets stuck and I am paralyzed with fear,” writes Lady Gaga, in her letter on the Born This Way Foundation website, my first encounter with her philanthropic work. A friend had shared it with me, at a time I was feeling particularly vulnerable. With her words, I felt a little less alone. 

In a world that is constantly bombarding us with bad news, working as a Channel Kindness Reporter reminded me to look at the silver lining. It prompted me to look for the helpers, the everyday heroes, the kindness and bravery that happens in the world. 

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

Born This Way Foundation gave me incredible opportunities to meet and learn from like-minded people who were also trying to imagine a better world tomorrow. People like Janine Miller and Loren Van Hynes, who lead the Erase the Hate campaign with NBC Universal to fight discrimination; Elyse Cohen, who spends everyday finding ways for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies to work together to make our nation a healthier place through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and who kindly invited me to witness some of it in action at the business learning tour; Afdhel Aziz and Bobby Smith, who are shifting the role of marketing and advertising towards purpose through their Good is the New Cool movement; Tiffany Au and Caleb Remington, who dedicated their wedding to something much bigger than themselves, causes close to their lives and their hearts — cystic fibrosis and mental health … and the list is endless. 

Channel Kindness inspired me to look for and cultivate kindness within my own community. As philanthropy chair at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, I started our first philanthropy committee. More than 61 people signed up to take part in organizing events, and we galvanized more than a third of our students to volunteer. We were kind (and angry) as we marched in solidarity alongside Lady Gaga in the belief that children’s safety in schools should be more important than guns. We came together to brainstorm, develop, and do the 21 days of kindness challenge as a school – everything from planting trees to writing thank-you letters to our faculty, to our janitorial staff, to each other and ourselves. We fundraised for hygiene kits for Painted Brain, a nonprofit that creates community-based solutions for mental health, and assembled more than 300 hygiene kits for their homeless outreach initiative  — packaged in Joanne World Tour backpacks donated by the Born This Way Foundation, of course. 

I also found ways to be kinder to myself. I gave myself space when I needed it. I asked for more time when I needed it. I forgave myself for past mistakes. I told my story, and I told it again. I allowed myself to write more “I’s” and write about myself (see an excerpt here on Dance the Bay). I gave myself more time to process and reflect. I collected memories, moments I would want to look back on. 

I remember a moment at the Didi Hirsch Erasing the Stigma Awards Ceremony. It took place in a hotel in Beverly Hills, and we were being offered hors-d’oeuvres (a word I still am not sure how to pronounce) — and I was feeling a little out of place until I met David Hsu and connected over Taiwanese street food. 

And when Cynthia Germanotta spoke, I realized I really wasn’t alone. And that I was part of a bigger movement — a movement full of kind, brave people that supported each other.

I remember driving out to the PROUD Prom in Santa Barbara with Ash Lopez, a fellow Reporter and someone I can now call one of my closest friends, to participate and celebrate in the beautiful safe space that Colette, Stephen, Maddy, Sina, DJ Young1 and many more at the Pacific Pride Foundation, Ugg, and Deckers had created for over 200 LGBTQIA+ high school students. 

I remember a late night preparing for the #BeKind21 kickoff with Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, lounging on the barely-vacuumed floor of my room, writing panel questions and connecting over mental health stories, college memories, and the importance of an old-fashioned index card. I remember my incredible friends, Raquel, Ashley, and Creig, driving me there and the pow-wow beforehand with the panelists as I shook with stage fright — and Monique Coleman, turning to me, reminding me that no matter what, I am enough. 

I remember all my conversations with the Born This Way Foundation team, with Aysha, and Alex, and Shadille, and Rachel, and Maya. With my fellow Reporters, with Sarah, and Yanelle, and Tia, and Mark, and Crystal, and Maddie, and Jackie — at the New York convening of the most passionate and fiercely kind young people I know. There is nothing like someone in believing in you, and at Born This Way Foundation, there was a whole team. No, a whole family. 

“Kindness…can be so powerful. It can change the way we think about ourselves and the way we look at the world. It can make us feel less alone and less hopeless. It can change someone’s day, change someone’s life, and it can change the world.” – The OG Channel Kindness Reporter (Lady Gaga)

I always thought I would grow out of my soft, over-sensitive, kind-hearted self, but as I reflect back on my quarter century of life, it seems unlikely. And with this family that I come from and the family that I’ve built along the way, with Channel Kindness and the Born This Way Foundation, I don’t think I will ever have to. 

As I scroll through the photographs from these past few years, I see the strength in the softness, the bravery in the vulnerability. Hand in hand. Kinder, and braver.



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