INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING PROJECT: Campus organizations no longer breeding ground for future leaders: The story of FIND, Inc. (Part 1)

The search for focus and direction at a FIND meeting

FIND’s search for focus and direction continues

By Kristina Rodulfo

The sounds of cheers, chants and chaos you hear at any opening ceremony of a FIND Inc. conference draw striking resemblance to a sports game. The bi-annual gatherings for Filipino American college students on the East Coast feel like pep rallies, with each of FIND’s seven districts excitedly reciting prepared, coordinated anthems.

Since starting at Yale in 1992, the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue – or FIND — has been the influential hand bringing together college organizations in New England (Districts 1 and 2), Metropolitan New York/New Jersey (District 3), Upstate New York (District 4), Pennsylvania and South Jersey (District 5), Maryland and Virginia (Districts 6 and 7). It has been a point of cultural discovery and, in some ways, a hopeful incubator for future FilAm community leaders for several decades. It’s nearly impossible to find any second generation-run organization without ties to FIND. Despite its revolutionary roots in creating a national network out of a fragmented population of Filipino students, its legacy has been waning on value with little action outside of conferences to stand on.

Nearly 1,000 students attend the FIND Dialogue and Conference each year, and for many U.S.-born youth, it is exhilarating, almost empowering to witness so many young Filipinos in one room together. College students come in droves touting agendas of “uniting.” Simply showing up has become the main event.

I will never forget when, as an outgoing president of a FilAm college organization myself, I asked a prospective successor what he thought the purpose of our club was: “To bring all Filipinos on campus together, to make friends with fellow Filipinos” he recited matter-of-factly.

Then what?

Student leaders have grappled with this question. The purpose for organizing has grown murky, mixing expectations of cultural programming, social gathering, political advocacy, talent showcasing, career development and personal growth altogether. Lost somewhere in that jumble is the organization’s focus.

“Potential,” or that promise of greatness, is a word often used in reference to FilAm college organizations.

While countless leaders from the New York metropolitan area I interviewed spoke fondly of beginnings in university organizations, they also acknowledged that we’ve reached a point beyond celebrating potential. These college clubs hold the key to sustainability and vitality of organizations and whatever structural inefficiencies there may be somehow affect the leadership pool of the wider FilAm community.

“These days, current student leaders are scared to pull the trigger,” said Steven Raga, who took on various leadership roles in FIND, including National Director. “They have a level of comfort with how everything is given to them already: a higher budget (allotted by universities) than we had 10 years ago, an increase in membership, more access to resources and speakers, more access to space. If you had people in the ‘90s and gave them these resources, they’d run circles around these kids.”

Students liked to look back on the ‘90s, when FIND was established, as a decade of hopeful expectation. In its heyday in 1998, FIND students attending a Spring Conference at George Washington University in Washington D.C. marched to the White House with Filipino civil rights advocates to protest the U.S. government’s failure to recognize Filipino World War II veterans with full benefits. There were similar gatherings that sparked social and political activity and tested the mettle of community organizing and leadership.

Over the years, FIND seemed to have lost its way. It has not produced the same degree of commitment to a cause or issue. Aside from Spring Conference and Fall Dialogue, one of the more recent successful, cohesive uses of FIND’s organizing effort was in June 2013 when FIND appeared at the Philippine Independence Day parade forming the “Philippine Human Flag” with participants wearing red, white, blue and yellow t-shirts. FIND drew in students, including myself, called it a “historic event,” and made sure to note all the TV networks that would be present.

Rexy Dorado, founder of Kaya Collaborative and former president at Brown University’s Filipino Alliance (FA), contemplated earlier years of FilAm college organizing. Brown is technically part of District 1, but since most of the region is concentrated in Boston, its students are not as close-knit to FIND. He offered this perspective.

“When you look at these histories and where FilAm college organizations started, its existence was such a political statement,” he said. “It was not an indictment, but an understanding that there were not enough resources for our identity.”

Decades later, organizations haven’t moved past the novelty of identity discovery.

“When I think of all the dialogues and conferences, they’re not as progressive,” noted Christine Sicwaten, a content Chair for FIND’s 2014 Dialogue and former District 3 Secretary. “Really, the themes are replayed over and over and over again: cultural identity, what’s the status of FilAms in the country now or internationally, and we always had to stick to those themes.”

Given its numbers, FIND can really be a powerful voice for Filipinos. For instance, there was no organized FIND contingency during the People’s Climate March in September. I did see some familiar FIND faces scattered in the crowd affiliated with other groups. It was quite a disappointment considering the march was a momentous showing of solidarity against climate change, a force directly striking the Philippines each year with deadly typhoons. It’s the same cause FilAm college clubs jumped out of their seats to throw fundraising events for when Haiyan hit in 2013, when a timely, appropriate reaction was expected from college organizations.

Despite being a cultural organization, FIND has been dedicating its efforts largely toward more of a career development and professional skills approach. There’s no one better to see evidence of this than in FIND’s current two-term National Chairperson, Marc Densing.

From left: Steven Raga, Marc Densing, Rexy Dorado, and Christine Sicwaten

From left: Steven Raga, Marc Densing, Rexy Dorado, and Christine Sicwaten

“I wanted FIND to be run more like a corporation,” he said. “If you’re looking for a place to develop your skill sets that you can use in a potential career you know it’s all there.”

He explained that he set out to focus on building the organization through staff development, like a company strengthening its manpower pool.

“There was no professional development whatsoever,” Densing said. “What I love doing is leadership development. If I see someone with great potential, I will gladly take them in, nurture them, build them up to be FIND national chair someday.”

He also expressed his desire to look beyond the college campus. “I want the greater Filipino community to know that we are a force to be considered in the sense that we have such a great pool of people to pull from. We could fill your empty positions.”

At FIND meetings, like District leadership summits, the most emphasized workshops are typically about work productivity and management. Anything historical or cultural gets dwarfed in interest because some students have future job prospects in mind.

Sicwaten reflected on a meeting of FIND District 3’s e-board that was planning the year’s activities: “It came to a consensus that we should take a more professional route because that’s what seems to be interesting to students (at the time),” she said. “I guess all of us were assuming or thought that everyone’s individual organizations were teaching about culture.”

It’s uncommon to see significant attendance at culture-focused events like panels or other advocacy-type initiatives. Densing explained that is so because most of FIND is still in a state of learning the basics.

“We can’t expect to do advocacy work if nobody knows the basics,” he explained. “From first-hand experience, cultural programming in FIND I feel has dwindled down a lot. FIND started in 1992 so people were more politicized then in a sense that they had (opinions) and they acted on them.”

There’s certainly a desire to dive deeper into cultural programming aside from the steady stream of social engagement through food events, singing and dancing competitions, and pageants, said Densing. When he talks about his ideas, one gets the impression his administration is at the cusp of a turn in the right direction: That FIND is finally upholding its goals of offering a channel for dialogue and action, promoting and preserving Filipino culture, furthering awareness of issues, and acting as catalyst to pool the efforts of Filipino organizations within the larger FilAm community.

Kristina Rodulfo is a recent graduate of New York University and journalist whose work has appeared in Rappler and ELLE magazine. She was former president at NYU’s International Filipino Association and is also a founding Program Director at LEGACY, where she develops mentorship programs for Asian American students on building leadership skills.

Part 2: Leadership burnout: Why youth lose interest in community organizing after graduation

The FilAm’s Investigative Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of our readers and contributors including the following:
Consuelo Almonte
Melissa Alviar
Bessie Badilla
Sheila Coronel
Joyce and Arman David
Menchu de Luna Sanchez
Kathleen Dijamco
Jen Furer
Marietta Geraldino
Dennis Josue
Lito Katigbak
Rich Kiamco
Monica Lunot-Kuker
Michael Nierva
Lisa Nohs
Cecilia Ochoa
Rene & Veana Pastor
John Rudolph
Roberto Villanueva
2 anonymous donors

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