By Joline Godfrey
Maybe it was just one disaster too many. It had been a harrowing six weeks: 12-year-old Isabelle Kim evacuated with her family as the Thomas Fire encircled her home in Ojai, Ca. in early December. Then, on Jan. 9 mudslides in Montecito, Ca. killed 21 people, closed Rte. 101 and Isabelle chose to take a ferry over rough ocean waters to get to her school. But Isabelle is strong and resilient and she was regaining her bearings when on Valentine’s Day, Nickolas Cruz shot 17 students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida.
She first got the news on Snapchat. Isabelle and her friends looked up from their smartphones in horror. It was not believable. Then reality hit like a tsunami. “We do not understand why it should be harder to make plans with friends on weekends than to buy an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.” 18-year-old Emma Gonzales said later, in a speech that has gone round the world and given her generation voice. “If you have ever felt what it’s like to deal with all of this, you would know we aren’t doing this for attention. If these funerals were for your friends, you would know this grief is real, not paid for. We are children who are being expected to act like adults, while the adults are proving themselves to behave like children,” she observed in disbelief. Isabelle Kim heard Emma’s passionate plea that adults DO SOMETHING and something clicked.
Isabelle had been pondering what project to take on as part of the 7th Grade QED Program her school runs each year. “It’s like a science fair,” she explained. “But you can pick a mentor and study anything you want.” There are a lot of photography projects,” she said with a smile. You can learn to fly an airplane, study how to become a vet or make wine, explore dolphin training, scuba diving, and organic gardening, but I wanted to do something out of the box,” she told me. She wanted to make impact and suddenly what she NEEDED to do became crystalline clear. For her QED project she’d illuminate student activism by becoming an activist herself. She would respond to Emma Gonzales’ call to action and work to change gun laws so that buying an automatic weapon is no longer easier than making plans with friends on weekends.
Isabelle’s decision was discussed that night at the Kim family dinner table. In the aftermath of the Florida shooting, every kid needs dinner at the table with their family. Regular family dinner is a critical variable in a young person’s life; a stabilizing force in the midst of horror. Less than half of all families report eating dinner together between four and six times a week. But Isabelle’s mom maintains a standard that provides a safe environment for weathering life pretty much every night. Isabelle’s dad, Alex Kim confesses, “Some nights I get home tired and suggest we eat buffet style and take our plates and sit at the counter or in the living room. But Jai insists we sit at the table, with proper settings and napkins, without devices, so we can talk!” Dinner in the Kim house is a family touchstone, a ritual taken seriously. “We talk about everything at the table!” Isabelle adds with a laugh.
So over dinner Isabelle explained her plan to her parents. She had a mentor, an attorney whose own life is driven by activism, who has agreed to coach Isabelle through the development of her QED project. “I want to make impact, not just a poster,” Isabelle explains. Isabelle’s project is still taking shape but the first real student action prompted by the Parkland shooting, The National School Walkout is coming up on March 14. Students plan to walk out of school at 10:00 am for 17 minutes, across every time zone in the US, to protest gun violence. Isabelle will be part of that Walkout. I asked if she thought her classmates will walk out with her. She isn’t sure.
Life can be lonely when you see the world through different eyes and I suspect Isabelle’s life may often be lived ‘out of the box’ as she strives to “be the change.” She feels things deeply–the result of highly developed EQ in the Kim family. But not all kids are so tuned in. As one high school teen put it, “The fires were barely out and the clean-up just under way when stories about the new things kids were getting to replace lost stuff began to surface. Excitement about the opportunity to replace things lost in the fires and mudslides with new/better stuff seemed stronger than any awareness of lives and livelihoods lost in the fires and mudslides,” she said. “They’re in a bubble,” one teacher observed. “They hardly have time to grieve the loss of anything before their parents buy them new and better ‘stuff’ and shelter them from anything hard. How can they know what others experience?” Whatever her classmates do, Isabelle is going to walk on March 14.
After hearing Isabelle’s decision to become an activist and her plan for the QED project, Jai and Alex began to talk about taking the family to Washington, DC to participate in the March for Our Lives on March 24. The Kim’s are not uber-wealthy. But like many families I work with they have the financial capacity to keep their kids in a bubble–and don’t. So I asked, “Are you not afraid? Many parents would worry about their children’s safety at such a charged, large event.”
Jai explained, “While we were living in St. Helena, one day the kids’ school went into lockdown and we didn’t know what was happening. It turned out there had been an armed robbery nearby, not at the school. But the kids didn’t have phones and we were frightened. Our new normal is kids going to school with Kevlar backpacks–bulletproof backpacks in case of a shooting! Who could imagine? This is no way for kids to grow up. I’ve never been political but this is it. We have to make change. I joined Moms Demand Action and will support Isabelle’s choice to become active any way I can.” And Alex added, “I’ve never seen Jai as deeply touched by anything as she is by this–and she’s a passionate woman. I support them. The March is an event we need to do together.”
It’s not an accident that Isabelle’s older sister, away at school in Toronto, had been part of an original dance performance celebrating the #MeToo movement the week before the shooting. Teaching their kids to live the family’s values, not just spout them is at the core of the Kims’ approach to family. Some companies have a motto while others have a culture that is alive and active. Families bifurcate in the same way: some work at being authentic and adhering to values that guide their lives. Others talk about having values and hope for the best. The Kims don’t just hope, they put their values to work.
I turned back to Isabelle and asked, “What do you need? What do you need to be successful–in your QED Project and in the real practice of activism? She thought a minute then said, “The mainstream media is not covering what students are doing to change gun laws. The media needs to pay attention. We’re organizing; we’re on social media. We’re going to make change or get rid of politicians who stand in our way.” Isabelle’s right about media coverage. The shootings happened on Feb. 14, but other than covering the shooter, possible gun legislation, and the drama of the shooting itself, coverage of what the students have sparked is spotty.
“What else do you need?” I pressed. “To be able to express ideas I have in a way that gets attention,” she said. I wish I had been as self aware and and brave at 12 as Isabelle. But it was another time. Families didn’t know as much about the possibilities of building capacity in families and their children as we do now. It would not have occurred to my family to find a professional who could coach me to express my ideas. I was a shy 12-year-old, not unlike Isabelle, but certainly less proactive in getting my needs met. And my parents meant well, but a small town in Maine in those days would not have had a world class speech coach in the way Ojai, Ca does.
The Kims’ human, social, and intellectual capital seems boundless. Isabelle is about to start working with a coach who develops TED speakers and their connections in the community are making it possible for the young activist to meet with her Congressional representative while in Washington DC. By tapping these non-financial assets they are a) exposing Isabelle to the world of activism by going with her to the March for Our Lives in DC and b) helping her develop tools to express herself.
I asked Isabelle why she is moved to action and if she felt different from her friends in this way–where she thinks her well of compassion comes from. Isabelle paused and thought about it. It occurred to me in that moment that compassion may be so much a part of her normal family life that it’s just part of her cells–hard to articulate. When, a moment later, I asked what books touched her in a deep way she cited, A Long Walk to Water, the true story of two eleven year old Sudanese children–a girl from Sudan in 2008 and a boy in 1985. Nya, the girl, makes two, two hour long trips to the pond every day to fetch water. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship, their stories intersect in an unusual way. The Kim family reads, talks at the dinner table, connects. It is in such an environment that children acquire resilience and courage; and a sense of responsibility to humanity.
Financial education is not just about money. Human, social, intellectual, and creative capital are non-financial forms of capital that, when nurtured and managed as mindfully as one’s financial capital, provide advantages money can’t buy. In the Kim’s case, the family’s values are a priceless form of their human capital, as is the EQ they actively develop in their kids. Their relationships with friends and community–not for transaction but for genuine friendship–are part of their social capital. And the emphasis they place on education and development of their children’s talents and passions builds their intellectual and creative capital much as compound interest increases financial assets.
Though it’s anticipated that over a half million people will attend The March for Our Lives, Alex and Jai Kim have less fear and more conviction that the experience will enrich them all as a family. And like companies that thrive because their cultures are adaptive and purposeful, the Kims embrace change and growth and arm their kids with the emotional tools needed to anticipate the future–no matter what surprises, wonderful and wicked it may bring. The Kims’ story heartens me–not just for what they’re doing, but for the model of mindful parenting and wise use of non-financial assets that can help any family thrive.
Something you should know:
- A pair of provocative articles in the NYTimes recently offer parents of boys and girls plenty to chew on. Michael Black’s piece, The Boys are Not All Right and Susan Chira’s Money is Power and Women Need More of Both (you’ll find me quoted in this one:) highlight how intentional families must be to raise confident kids. Implicit in both articles is the glaring reality that now, more than ever, it takes a village to raise kids. But villages with a little more harmony and a little less agita would probably be helpful!
- New this summer: Launch Generation, a terrific program for teens that is a worthy successor to Camp Start-Up. Still helping teens explore entrepreneurship, this summer program takes a broader view of what it takes for a teenager to launch into the world in these complex times. https://www.launch-generation.com/