May 19, 2022

Celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month: An Interview with Mei Kwan

As part of our recognition of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Kathy Wagner interviewed Mei Kwan, Deputy Director of the Los Angeles Zoo. Mei is Chinese-American.

Note: Zoo Advisors recognizes that the terms Asian/Pacific American and Asian-American are inclusive of many different cultures, races, ethnicities, and countries, and that individual perspectives will vary. 

Mei, tell me about your path to leadership. How did you get started and what influenced your choices?
I’ve had a wonderful career with the City of Los Angeles, starting right out of UCLA where I earned my degree in math and economics. I guess I was influenced by my family and my cultural background. I have two siblings employed by different municipalities, so this got me thinking about a career in public service even though I didn’t start out that way. I always wanted to do something with an entrepreneurial business focus where I could exercise my creativity, but I didn’t know exactly what that was. I was able to get a job with the city fairly quickly and started in the public works department, then moved to the housing department, and then somewhat fatefully ended up at the Zoo. I thought maybe I’d stay with the city for a couple of years—32 years later I’ve come to love that public service kind of job. I’ve gained an understanding of how governments and our city works and how vital city resources are to our citizens, including something like the L.A. Zoo.

What opportunities did you encounter along the way?
I was very fortunate to have good mentors—one mentor always wanted me to succeed and made sure to make me feel included and valued and helped me prepare for success, and another mentor encouraged me to think outside the box, asking “What can we do to solve this problem? To make things happen?” I learned that the answers are not always in a book. When I started with the Zoo, the Zoo had just become its own department in the city, and we had to establish protocols and processes for this, so my problem-solving skills and entrepreneurial business sense came in handy. I took the lead in this effort, and I saw that I could do this, that I was making a difference. This built my confidence so that as I grew, people sought me out for advice—for help with solutions. Thinking creatively has helped me with my Zoo work; we’re always trying to think of different ways to solve things to meet our unique needs as well as different ways to maximize and connect the Zoo as a resource to the community.

What challenges do you see?
Without this kind of support from mentors, it can be difficult for women, especially minorities. It can be hard to have your voice heard, especially for many Asian-Americans. We’re seen as “the model minority” and often dismissed because it’s assumed that we don’t need assistance. We’re not considered “under-represented”—for example, there’s no funding stream for us in NSF environmental justice programs. Our culture has shaped us as Asian-American women to be quiet; we’re told “don’t create a stir;” so we are dismissed or invisible. Sometimes we’re seen as “exotic,” just for show, without any substance. It’s often subtle or unspoken and not outright; it’s demeaning but it makes me stronger and more resilient, wanting to prove myself more.

What advice do you have for others and for emerging leaders?
As women, especially within the Asian-American community, we have to rally together. It’s important that we learn from each other and support each other and advocate for ourselves. Part of the difficulty is our culture—it’s not in our culture to air those things or have support groups. It can be hard to find others to share your experiences. My advice would be to learn from others, develop your passion, and listen to other’s perspectives. One of the biggest things I think you can do is learn from others and use that to help yourself grow and then share that with others so they can grow and succeed as well.

Anything else?
Thinking about my path to conservation and who’s influenced me, I always come back to my mother and how, as a child, I’d watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with her. She would remark about how much smarter animals are than people, how interesting it was to observe their behavior, and how quickly they learned and were able to find solutions to meet their needs. Like the animals we watched on Wild Kingdom, she would also always have a lesson to impart to enable me to learn and then do for myself. She would always say, “Now, once I teach you, you have to remember, then when you’re on your own, you will know how to do it.”

Maybe those things were actually an early and fateful influence on my career. Empathy, being kind and helpful to others, and learning to do things for myself to become an independent and strong woman, these qualities I learned from my mother, plus dignity and respect for others. Sometimes we think there’s a bigger, grander influence on us somewhere else, but it’s actually right at home. I want to thank my mom for being my biggest mentor, for instilling these qualities and values in me and helping me to become who I am today. I hope I can return the favor to all of my mentors and help others achieve whatever their goals are.

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