Progress, Not Perfection
Race, diversity, and discrimination are uncomfortable conversation topics many shy away from. Kamna Parafina ’13, former Operations Coordinator at Kasasa, a financial and marketing company in Austin, is not one of the many. “If you’re a person of color or from a marginalized community,” she says, “you don’t get to walk away.” Given the increasing volume of conversation about race and discrimination in our communities today, this especially becomes the case. “I need to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone to keep thinking about these things,” Parafina shares. “How can I actively be working against [discrimination]?” One of the first steps to answering this question is being a model for students.
Her first year at Southwestern, Parafina struggled academically, feeling isolated and disconnected from campus culture. Joining with others helped her combat these problems. “I started working at the Office of Diversity Education,” she shares, “and there, I was able to find community in the other marginalized communities at Southwestern.” Coming together with students who were going through similar struggles gave her a purpose and voice to speak out confidently about issues they had been dealing with individually. “We realized we really could make a difference if we were together,” she says. “On our own, it wasn’t the experience we wanted, so getting together and having events to encourage [each other]—proves to me that it was needed.”
So Parafina began looking for groups to connect with. One of them, named ASIA Club, was an Asia appreciation group that consisted of non-Asian students who liked Asian culture, movies, and anime. To reclaim this space—since these students were unaware of how they came across to Asian students who felt exoticized—Parafina and her peers ran for office to educate themselves and others about Asian-American civil rights and cultural events that did more to include a sense of belonging. “Those [previous club members] were great people,” she acknowledges. “I’m glad there was even a space at all: progress, not perfection. We were just trying to get it to a space where it was a little more educational.” And so they did, renaming the club the Pan Asian Association (PAA), currently the Asian Student Association (ASA).
After realizing students could make a difference if they acted as one entity instead of separated groups, Parafina helped cofound the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) with three other seniors. Their goal was a space for education and solidarity for marginalized students that encourages many organizations in various cultures, identities, and social-justice topics. A key thought in developing this umbrella organization was that they had to consider what tougher experiences previous students went through and then pave the way for current and future students. “Having that knowledge and being able to take it down to [a first-year student] who could keep it going for years to come was really important,” Parafina says. “If you’re from a marginalized community, it’s important to do the research—to get out of your own experience because, while it’s valid, it can also be contextualized in a larger story.”
For example, Parafina remembers understanding why she dealt with more racism after 9/11. Even though she is not Middle Eastern, many people did not discern between Middle-Eastern and South-Asian identities, which resulted in a harsher time for her and her family. An educational space for marginalized students who have had those awkward, sensitive experiences will always be needed as long as racism, sexism, or other discriminatory attitudes and behaviors exist.
Parafina has already noticed a few changes that she was able to enact when she started the organization. She gushes that CDSJ now has its own center where students can gather, and that the donations they requested from alumni nearly 10 years ago have grown into a resource library.
“There will always be a need for this,” she comments. “It’s not about fixing [racism] but constantly working at it, pushing ourselves to work towards progress.” CDSJ has made these conversations about diversity and inclusion an important facet of SU’s culture, but it’s progress, not perfection. “I don’t think we’ve achieved any level where we can stop doing that work,” she says, “because you have to keep making it a priority.”
It takes integrity
Leaving campus life for the workforce, Parafina brought the skills she learned—such as standing up for what matters to her—to her career. When going into her interview for her Kasasa, Parafina remembers the extensive amount of research she did to know how they treat their clients, since client advocacy was, and is, important to her. She wanted to know if they as a company were interested in building a community of inclusivity.
To test this, Parafina measured their values against her own by describing a scenario in which her values of integrity and honesty had been compromised in previous employment. “Thinking about what matters to you, specific things that have gone wrong in your experience, you can find ways to frame those questions that don’t put you in a bad light.” For Parafina, such questions allowed her to witness her interviewers’ gut reactions and then prepared her for what to do should something happen down the line. “Looking at their mission and values,” she says, “and analyzing them against what you’ve gone through can offer guidance on how to deal with them.”
Not done yet
While in the workplace, the biggest challenge, she admits, “is about deciding which battle is worth the fight and which isn’t, what I need to pursue and what I’m willing to let go.” She mentions this in conjunction with wanting to fight every battle after graduating—going from a space of inclusivity and candidness through CDSJ to the workplace. There’s a sense of fear that making a complaint about every little thing could jeopardize her career. “I’m in a position with job security, and that line of trust exists among others in the company. I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’ll lose my hard work and growth,” she shares.
To combat that struggle, she says, “You just have to keep doing it and gain experience. You have to mess up and be OK with not getting it perfect—progress not perfection, yet again.” The reality of the situation is simple. Doing more encourages others to realize they could be doing more as well. It may have started with PAA and in creating a larger space for marginalized communities to come together at Southwestern, but for Parafina, the work is never done. “With more experience, maybe I can pick every battle,” she reflects. “But until I’ve made a few mistakes, I’ll never know how to approach it.”