AAPI Heritage Month Spotlight: Heang Ly

Ilana Coolidge
Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month (420 x 330 px) (1)

As Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and South Asian American Heritage Month continues, our next spotlight is Heang Ly (LeadBoston Class of 2014). Heang, Director of Consulting and Training at Third Sector New England (TSNE), spoke with YW Boston about AAPI Month, her career, advice for young professionals, and her experience with LeadBoston.  

What does AAPI and South Asian American Heritage Month mean to you? 

This month presents an invaluable opportunity to publicly honor the resilience and accomplishments of our community, highlighting the vital role we play in shaping the places we live and work. As a community we tend towards humility, downplaying our accomplishments, contributions, and impact.  Sometimes, it takes a structured event or occasion created to intentionally spotlight ourselves. AAPI and South Asian American Heritage Month is an opportunity to amplify ourselves boldly, loudly, and unapologetically. It is an opportunity to take up space, where space has often not been created for us.  

How has your heritage shaped you? Has it had any influence in your accomplishments? 

As a first-generation refugee from Cambodia, my upbringing was profoundly shaped by my country’s history and culture. Embedded in the fabric of Cambodian society are the principles of Buddhism, which emphasize wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion. Additionally, we have a deep-rooted sense of family and community, focused on the interdependence of one another.  These values guide how I engage in my work.  

However, our journey as Cambodian people is marked by profound tragedy and loss. The brutal genocide inflicted upon our people during the Khmer Rouge regime in our recent history illustrated the depths of human cruelty, which stands in stark contrast to the above values that form the bedrock of who we are as people. Yet, even in the face of violence and trauma, the Cambodian people’s spirit is unbroken.  

This shared history of resilience and survival has instilled in me a profound sense of empathy and solidarity with those who have endured oppression and marginalization. This history drives the why behind my work, which is deeply rooted in the social change sector dedicated to advancing equity and transforming systems where every person is valued and empowered to thrive. 

My journey as a first-generation refugee from Cambodia has shaped my greatest accomplishment, which is the decision to dedicate my skills, time, and insight into work that is focused on creating a more just and compassionate society. 

What personal or professional accomplishment are you most proud of? 

The Chinese proverb, “Planting trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit,” beautifully encapsulates accomplishments I’m most proud of. My two decades of youth development work created pathways for me to engage in mentorship and develop the context for individuals to discover, embrace, and ignite their leadership. It fills me with joy to witness the transformation of once timid teenagers now fearlessly advocating for change in City Hall, board rooms, classrooms, communities, and other spaces that they occupy. I’m inspired by seeing former mentees, who faced racial and economic disparities, now thriving as business leaders, reshaping the perceptions of Black and Brown entrepreneurship.  The immediate effects of the seeds we sow may not always be apparent, but their eventual growth plays a crucial role in fostering the collective leadership necessary to challenge entrenched cycles of poverty, trauma, and injustice. These anecdotes serve as powerful illustrations of the transformative impact of investing in individuals, especially young people. I am most proud of the hope for our world that lives in the hundreds of young people I have had the honor to work with and mentor. 

What advice would you give to young AAPI and South Asian American professionals who are looking to get into your field? Or what advice would you give to your younger self? 

The advice I would give to my younger self, especially as I entered into my career, is related to the issue of invisibility. In society, where discussions often simplify complex issues of identity into black-and-white narratives, Asians are often sidelined. This prioritizes the oppression of some groups over others, placing a lowered value on the experiences of the Asian community.  Often, we internalize this invisibility, contributing to the narrative that our voices, needs, experiences, and our humanity are less than and do not matter.  

It is easy to understand and sometimes justify our own silence. Our collective history, marked by conflict, displacement, and marginalization, instills in us a resilience that often necessitates a focus on navigating adversity by not rocking the boat so we can survive. Throughout my career, I admit that I have operated with invisibility, thinking that made me a team player and someone who will be seen as dedicated to the work. Each time that I did not speak out when I’ve been harmed, when I’ve been dehumanized, when my voice was dismissed, or when I was told that the injustices of Asians are not as important to discuss, I contributed to the minimization of my own dignity and respect. This made me angry, disappointed, sad, and so many other emotions that limited my ability to positively show up for myself and the work I was committed to. 

We can’t wait for others; we must create the space for us to be seen and valued.  We must lean into the discomfort and break the cycle. It is a muscle we build and with each time, it and we get stronger.  

About LeadBoston

Our signature leadership program, LeadBoston, supports all individual participants as they create and implement a leadership commitment. This leadership commitment is an action plan that confronts some of the systemic inequities they’ve learned about and that are showing up in their organization. This plan, and the collective LeadBoston experience, empowers leaders to create meaningful change in their workplaces, in their communities, and in the city of Boston itself. Staff work alongside alums for a year following the program to ensure participants have what they need to see their plan through. Click here to learn more.