Chiling Tong: Pass­ing a lead­er­ship torch BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CAI CHUN­Y­ING in Wash­ing­ton charlenecai@chi­nadai­

For Chiling Tong, CEO of the In­ter­na­tional Lead­er­ship Foun­da­tion and for­mer US deputy as­sis­tant-sec­re­tary of Com­merce, be­ing a leader her­self is not enough. Rais­ing fu­ture lead­ers who share her eth­nic back­ground is more im­per­a­tive and ful­fill­ing.

As the founder of the lead­er­ship-skill train­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, Tong has for the past 15 years cul­ti­vated more than 1,000 Asian-Amer­i­can youths by help­ing them gain first-hand knowl­edge about govern­ment and pol­icy is­sues in the US and pre­par­ing them for fu­ture suc­cess.

It all started with Tong’s own en­gage­ment with Coro, a San Fran­cisco-based na­tion­al­lyrenowned non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to teach­ing lead­er­ship skills to young adults. Tong be­came one of the only two Asian fel­lows in 1988 af­ter a rig­or­ous se­lec­tion process.

“I was so pro­foundly chal­lenged and had to push my­self so hard to ex­cel,” said Tong who ar­rived in the US in 1984 to pur­sue an MBA de­gree at the Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity in Long Beach.

It was also through the Coro fel­low­ship that Tong got her first taste of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and she liked it.

“In Asia, pol­i­tics has a bad im­age and people tend to think it is mys­te­ri­ous. I, how­ever, found pol­i­tics in the US to be trans­par­ent and work­able,” re­called Tong, who was pres­i­dent of her univer­sity’s de­bate team in Tai­wan.

“I also re­al­ize that be­ing in pol­i­tics is a dif­fi­cult thing but the most di­rect thing to help our com­mu­nity,” she said.

Tong heard from time to time deroga­tory lan­guage di­rected to­ward Asian Amer­i­cans, which ran con­trary to Tong’s ob­ser­va­tion of her fel­low hard-work­ing Chi­nese Amer­i­cans and her own ideal of de­vot­ing her­self as a new im­mi­grant.

Af­ter Coro, Tong de­cided to dive into the pub­lic ser­vice arena and ex­plore the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and she wanted to do it in a way most rel­e­vant to Asian Amer­i­cans.

“I be­came very much en­gaged in the civil move­ment, con­stantly think­ing how to en­hance our com­mu­nity to the next level and make us vis­i­ble and rec­og­nized,” she said.

Tong first be­came vice-pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­nity Re­la­tions Com­mis­sion in Mon­terey Park, Cal­i­for­nia, help­ing build har­mony among Asian, His­panic and White com­mu­ni­ties. She then chaired the Los Angeles County Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Board to help low-in­come fam­i­lies in dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas and moved on to be­come com­mu­nity re­la­tions co­or­di­na­tor at the state level.

Be­ing a first-line civil ser­vant, Tong soon re­al­ized it would take too long for her to move up the lad­der and have more im­pact. There was an­other track — be­ing a po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee as­so­ci­at­ing with elected of­fi­cials.

Tong joined the cam­paign to help Pete Wil­son get elected as Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor in 1991 and be­came ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant to the di­rec­tor of Cal­i­for­nia’s em­ploy­ment-de­vel­op­ment depart­ment. Dur­ing Wil­son’s sec­ond term, Tong was ap­pointed as­sis­tantsec­re­tary for in­ter­na­tional trade and di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Of­fice of Trade and In­vest­ment in Tai­wan.

The ex­pe­ri­ence pre­pared Tong well. When Ge­orge W. Bush ran for pres­i­dent in the late 1990s, Tong helped to har­vest votes and raise funds from the Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

She was ap­pointed com­mis­sioner of the White House Com­mis­sion on Asian Amer­i­cans and Pa­cific Is­lan­ders af­ter­ward and moved on to be­come deputy as­sis­tant-sec­re­tary of Com­merce for Asia and Pa­cific in late 2002, be­com­ing one of the few Asian-Amer­i­can cab­i­net mem­bers.

From 2003 to 2009, Tong was chief of staff at the Mi­nor­ity Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Agency in the Com­merce Depart­ment. Af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama came into of­fice, Tong stepped down from her po­si­tion.

“There is no job left for you. You have to take care of yourself,” said Tong, com­ment­ing on the “hard” re­al­ity of be­ing a po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee. “But this is a good thing about Amer­i­can govern­ment. New blood comes in and people in new po­si­tions push them­selves to per­form.”

Tong, how­ever, was later in­vited to serve on the Com­merce sec­re­tary’s Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil on Mi­nor­ity Busi­ness En­ter­prise, con­tin­u­ing her pub­lic-pol­icy in­volve­ment in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is not com­mon in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and show­cased Tong’s rec­og­nized in­flu­ence in the field.

Tong also soon found out that turnover among po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees might also be a good thing for the or­ga­ni­za­tion that she and her hus­band, for­mer as­sis­tant deputy-sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion Joel Sz­abat, founded in 1999 to pre­pare young Asian Amer­i­cans to be fu­ture lead­ers. She now could de­vote full time to it.

“We’ve gained eco­nomic strength in this coun­try, but we are still lag­ging far be­hind in po­lit­i­cal power. I want to see our whole Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity ad­vance and lead in many ways,” Tong said.

She knows one of the best ways is to start with young people, just as she was in­spired by Coro many years ago.

“My train­ing at Coro is so im­por­tant in my life so I brought the whole con­cept to the ILF (In­ter­na­tional Lead­er­ship Foun­da­tion),” said Tong, who later served on Coro’s alumni board, and re­fined her lead­er­ship train­ing at Har­vard Kennedy School from 2012 to 2013.

She also has poured her 25-year-ca­reer serv­ing lo­cal and federal gov­ern­ments and all the net­works she has har­vested along the way into the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“What­ever I learn, I ap­ply to my ILF. It is just like our child, I want to pass all my re­sources and all my ex­pe­ri­ences to the next gen­er­a­tion. I want them to be bet­ter,” said Tong, call­ing her hus­band her best part­ner and friend. “He does this also for his own coun­try. If Asian Amer­i­cans can suc­ceed, they would help the coun­try more.”

The foun­da­tion runs two sig­na­ture pro­grams: the Civic Fel­low­ship Pro­gram and the Young Am­bas­sadors Pro­gram.

The Civic Fel­low­ship Pro­gram brings promis­ing AsianAmer­i­can un­der­grad­u­ates from leading US uni­ver­si­ties to in­tern at var­i­ous federal govern­ment agencies in the sum­mer, in­clud­ing the White House, Congress and the Com­merce Depart­ment.

The Young Am­bas­sadors Pro­gram re­cruits stu­dents from the Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan to come to the US to learn about govern­ment sys­tems and lead­er­ship train­ing by par­tic­i­pat­ing in a 12-day ses­sion of lec­tures, sem­i­nars and field trips.

Tong has ex­panded ILF to 15 chap­ters in the na­tion, com­posed of renowned com­mu­nity and busi­ness lead­ers. She con­stantly trav­els to those lo­ca­tions, pro­mot­ing civic aware­ness and help­ing lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives re­cruit stu­dents, run lec­tures and con­duct schol­ar­ship fundrais­ing.

Tong also has lo­cal ed­u­ca­tional sem­i­nars and an an­nual con­fer­ence in place, bring­ing to­gether a wide range of AsianAmer­i­can na­tional politi­cians as a way for her stu­dents to in­ter­act with real lead­ers and en­vi­sion their own fu­ture.

“I like people and I love my com­mu­nity. If I see some­thing right, I just want to lead people in that di­rec­tion.”


Chiling Tong, founder and CEO of In­ter­na­tional Lead­er­ship Foun­da­tion (ILF), sits be­side a sou­venir ILF cush­ion and her pho­tos with US pres­i­dents Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whose ad­min­is­tra­tions she served.

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