Alumni On The Move - March 2019

Hong Chhuor

Puget Sound Leadership Discovery Class of 2016

My very first opera ever was La bohème. Someone from Seattle Opera came to my high school senior literature class to invite us to see a performance of one of Puccini’s most enduring favorites – for free! This last part is important to mention because I would not have been able to go otherwise.

When I was growing up, my parents worked long hours at low-paying jobs to support their five children so we could all become doctors, lawyers or engineers one day. They fled the Khmer Rouge, which means they left their country, families, and dreams behind. In the U.S., they lacked a community where they could celebrate their culture, including dance, art, and other traditions. It should come as no surprise that instilling a love of opera was not a priority for them.

And so it was that through Seattle Opera, I came to learn about an entire world of music, stories, and art beyond Wagner’s magnificent Valkyries, whom I really only knew about because I saw caricatures of them in episodes of Looney Toons as a kid. I don’t remember much about how my first opera went, but I do remember falling asleep in the cool, dark performance hall as I experienced this uniquely western art form for the first time (shhh – don’t tell my employer).

I could never have imagined that one day, I would help lead Seattle Opera’s fundraising team. Prior to my current role as Associate Director of Development, I served as the Marketing and Communications Manager at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), which is a social justice focused health and human services nonprofit that serves immigrant, refugee and native-born Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and others. You may be wondering about my transition from 1) social services to the arts 2) marketing and communications to fundraising and 3) a manager level role to a director-level role. I’ll share my thoughts on each, but to be honest, it was not a path that I could see very clearly while I was walking on it. Hindsight is 20/20, they say.

Firstly, my experience with EDI’s Leadership Discovery program at the same time that I was working at ACRS helped me to connect the dots in terms of my heritage and identity as an Asian American refugee. All of the combined learnings and insights I gained as a result of the program as well as my growth at my job helped me identify what I wanted from my career. I gained clarity about my values, which made it easier to make choices when I found myself at significant crossroads.

I realized that I found fulfillment in connecting people with causes and issues they care about and helping them to invest their time and resources in ways that are meaningful to them.

While I still care very much about advocating for and empowering AAPI immigrants and refugees, moving to Seattle Opera was about recognizing the power of stories, music, and art to change hearts and minds, and helping us find meaning in our lives. Leaving ACRS was very difficult and what helped me with the decision was the realization that I can continue to love ACRS and be a part of its strong community without working there.

My job title at ACRS hid the fact that some of my primary responsibilities included fundraising as well as managing people and processes. I was fortunate to have support from my manager and my organization to build up my professional experience through hands-on learning, formal training, and coaching and mentorship from others in my field. Attending conferences by and for professional fundraisers really helped me to learn what skills I needed and wanted to develop. It also helped me feel like I was part of a community of people with whom I shared a calling.

In more ways than one, the experiences I gained through ACRS and EDI laid the groundwork for my role at Seattle Opera – almost as if the role was written for me. My overarching goal right now is to help people connect with and find meaning and connection through opera and the community around it. This is not so different from helping people connect with their desire to be part of a larger social justice movement. Through managing people and processes (which is a central part of my role at Seattle Opera), I have an appreciation for how doing these things well contributes to the ability of an organization to achieve its mission and vision. And just like ACRS did a few months ago, Seattle Opera is about to get a new leader. That will bring a whole host of change that will need to be thoughtfully navigated. Thanks to ACRS, I have experience with that, too!

I’m excited for the challenges of my new role, which includes an expanded fundraising team doing things I really only have textbook knowledge about (like major giving, capital campaigns and planned giving). I recently earned my Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) designation and am thrilled to continue my journey as a professional fundraiser – not to mention all of the opera I’ll get to enjoy. Ask me about my friends and family discount – I’d love to welcome you to an upcoming opera.

If I were to leave the 2019 EDI class with some advice, it would be this: push yourself out of your comfort zone and GROW. Don’t let superficial things like job titles limit your dreams. Network, network, network. Find a mentor and serve as a mentor to others.

Hong Chhuor

EDI Class of 2016