On May 14, 2021, in the courtyard outside of the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles, my husband and I took our Oath of Allegiance and became proud Americans.
My smile may have been hidden by my face mask – its red and white colors matched the new stars and stripes on my government-issued mini flag – but my eyes were wide and teary with joy.
You might be thinking, why now, when America is in tumult and fighting racial and social inequities? Especially since I’m Asian, my husband is Jewish and both groups are under fierce attack in America. Many of our American friends, tired of the country’s upheaval, continually tell us they want to move to Canada, our country of origin.
The truth is, in this nation of immigrants, we are now two more resolute citizens determined to fight for our country and intent on living the American dream, knowing that for our young daughter especially, the sky’s the limit. As card-carrying voters, we now have an extra tool in our do-good arsenal.
Becoming a citizen took a more than decade-long journey including YouTube civics reviews, virtual practice tests and mountains of flash cards. I learned which Great Lakes separate my birth nation from my adopted one. I learned that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in only the Confederate states, and that the country’s first motto was “E Pluribus Unum,” or “out of one, many.”
I am now “one” a part of the “many.” As is our daughter, a young Eurasian who celebrates Rosh Hashanah and Chinese New Year with equal enthusiasm. Her diverse heritage roots her firmly in the best American tradition, and we want to ensure that the path to her future is paved by open-minded, inclusive citizens working to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. She is American by birth, but even she understands the significance of having parents who chose to become Americans.
My husband and I view our dual citizenship and mixed identity as a powerful combination. In our multicultural household, we won’t be bound by stifling stereotypes or nationalist narrow-mindedness.
We became citizens during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, celebrating the contributions of my forebearers and contemporaries. It’s extremely significant to us both that we opted into a country that, following April’s Atlanta spa massacre, feels overwhelmingly polarized and chaotic.
But I did it with pride and purpose, while guiding tough conversations with other ad executives and global diversity, equity and inclusion champions. As President Joe Biden advised on a video message as we took our Oaths, I am embracing my rights and responsibilities as an American. Moving allies from being non-racist to socially anti-racist is imperative.
Citizen, for me, is a verb. I see my civic duty as making the world a better place for not only my family, but for everyone — including in the workplace. Agencies in the social good space especially must rework their strategies and messaging tied to giving and living. Helping nonprofits and purposeful for-profit clients activate consumers around causes that count will help all communities and constituencies.
As an Asian American female CEO, I represent how anything is possible if you reach for the stars. It’s a message I want to send to girls all over the world, starting with my American daughter. I am the see-it-and-be-it proof that it is possible to break through the “bamboo ceiling” and occupy the executive suite seats that our degrees and experience deserve.
Diversity, for me, is also a verb. Barriers of entry and advancement for marginalized groups must come down. With our votes, and more to come, our odds become better.
Being an Asian female leader in these post-Atlanta days means I have the opportunity – and responsibility – to use my voice. It’s frustrating to continually have the same conversations and not be able to achieve my goals at scale, but it’s imperative to keep fighting the fight. I’ve been honoring women trailblazers at conferences and forums the country over, nodding to my Tiger Mom and my mother-in-law (“Bubbie”), who both continue to teach me lessons that I’m modernizing and delivering with conviction.
As I join the ranks of American citizens, I am embracing my new culture while keeping our traditions alive, like every other immigrant who passed through Ellis Island or risked her life crossing the Rio Grande. Because being an American means, perhaps ironically, expanding our borders. We will add on, not subtract. We want our daughter to know her future is limitless — from the occupation she chooses to the way she celebrates her life and culture — and yes, her holidays.
My message to girls: dream big, work hard and give back. To those with a seat at the ad agency table: make room for those who may look, love or lean differently than you.
And to my fellow Americans: I pledge to work tirelessly to make our country, and the world, a better place — with liberty and justice for one and all.
Denise Wong is CEO of One & All