Women Who Dared: Emily Teng On Overcoming Racism And Becoming A Voice For Change

Encouraging a sense of belonging

This April, we talk to #WomenWhoDared to take a different path to strive for change on their own terms. Be inspired by their stories of strength and empowerment that all started with one courageous leap forward.

We often hear people say that we should use our voices for the greater good. While that statement rings true, finding that courage to act upon one’s voice is a whole other story, especially when there’s a history of dismissal and rejection. That’s how it was for Emily Teng, founder of award-winning and globally recognised non-profit organisation, Blessings In A Bag. Who would've thought that prior to her change-making initiatives, Emily was once a subject of racism and bullying? Ahead, we share her story of turning things around and finding her voice amid the circumstances. 

The ‘odd’ one out

As a Singaporean who spent a part of her youth in Jakarta, Emily shared that their move to Australia when she was 12 turned out to be one of the challenging stages in her formative years. She stood out in a "wrong" way as one of the few Asian faces in an all-girls school. It didn’t help that her background of coming from British schools gave her a “funny” English accent, making her an object of ridicule among her classmates. She described her experience as “nothing different from the cases we see to this day in schools”, with the likes of “name-calling, racism, and ‘othering’”. 

“That experience was incredibly isolating and demoralising,” she explained. “It impacted my self-esteem and sense of self-worth and I constantly questioned why I had to be different and couldn’t be like ‘everyone else’.” 

Blessings In A Bag main teamEmily Teng and the Blessings In A Bag team from one of their earliest projects

The role of community in empowering others

It wasn’t until she began her career as a radio DJ in 2005 that Emily found herself slowly leaving this shell of isolation and voicelessness. She credited her mentors — ex-radio personalities Mark Richmond, Daniel Ong and Mister Young — for constantly reminding her that she could do and be better in instances when she did not believe in herself. Her radio segment at the time, Say It With Music, also helped her see isolation in a different light when she got to speak to teenagers phoning in about their problems on-air. She was able to relate to these teenagers given her own history. And as someone in a position who could give them a platform of voice, it inspired her to take a bigger step towards driving the conversation on exclusion and isolation.

It was a moment of awakening.

“Because of all the experiences and the overcoming I had to navigate through, I learned the importance of having someone believe in you," said Emily. "Someone who can cheer you on and speak to your potential — even when you can’t see it for yourself.” To address these agonising feelings of solitude, we should not simply turn to the idea of "self-help", but rather encourage a community effort that “can keep us accountable and encourage us to lean into the uncomfortable.”

Emily Teng with some of her youth menteesEmily with some of her youth mentees

She emphasised on the role of gratitude from the standpoint of those on the receiving end of the support, saying that one must never forget to look back at those who believed in you in your lowest point. She noted that communal effort is always of the essence if we, as people and as a society, are striving for a bigger change. This is the message she is constantly trying to convey through her many projects and advocacies.

She’s “always finding ways to be the ‘includer’, to be the one that always makes sure that everyone has a sense of belonging and is seen, valued and heard.” That is what being a community stands for.

From voiceless to a voice of change 

Now, Emily is in her 13th year of being a changemaker. One of her proud works include Blessing In A Bag's signature program, Beyond Awesome, which helps “under-served children and youth to build social capital and access to meaningful experience and opportunities.” In light of the COVID-19 situation, they also launched a virtual community to support young people, parents, and caregivers during this health crisis.

She is also part of the Facebook Community Leadership Program since 2018, where she was named by the platform as “one of the most inspiring global leaders among 115 others”. One can join her Global Community Connection Calls centred on empowerment, communal change, and societal issues monthly, where 100 per cent of the pay-what-you-can participation fee is dedicated to a cause. Emily said, however, that “no one will be turned away for lack of funds” — so simply reach out to her should you wish to participate but have no means to do so.

Emily Teng leading an onsite youth sessionEmily leading an onsite youth session

Emily also exclusively revealed to us that this June, she will be kicking off a virtual speaker series called People x Planet x Purpose, which aims to “convene global community leaders, mission-driven entrepreneurs and people who want to live life purposefully.”

“It is incredibly important to me to elevate diverse voices and stories people need to hear, celebrating humans that can meaningfully impact my generation and the next,” Emily expressed, seeing this as an opportunity to close the gap on racist, sexist or non-inclusive ideas about leadership. “Featured speakers will be thoughtfully curated to include more voices from people of colour, under-represented communities and empowered female figures,” she added.

Emily on the power of voice

Empowered by Emily Teng's many projects? You can make these things happen, too. She highlighted that in today’s world where “people are competing to be the loudest voice in the room”, it’s not just about wanting to “get your voice heard” but “what you choose to use your voice for.” One’s ‘voice’ isn’t just limited to the words we speak, it also manifests through the books we read, the photos we share online or the profession we decide to undertake. 

Ultimately, whether it be in words or actions, big or small, aiming to uplift, encourage or heal someone can come from anyone and everyone — and that can make all the difference in the world.

(Cover photo from: @emilywjteng)

Inspired by this daring story? Catch the rest of our Women Who Dared series here

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