Sunday, June 23, 2024

Changing people around me, and vice-versa

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Casey Lartigue speaking to the Harvard Club of Broward County on March 27. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

By Casey Lartigue Jr.

Last year, I was listening to one of my favorite rappers, Chuck D., when a line from one of his songs caught my attention: “When I can’t change the people around me, I change the people around me.” In other words, when he can’t alter the culture, attitudes, or behavior of those around him, he chooses to associate with new individuals.

Over the past few months, I’ve observed North Koreans in various situations as our organization placed them in different contexts; I have had new experiences as I have put myself in different situations; and, vice-versa, I recognized that a close colleague may have also made a change by not associating with me for a while.

After reflecting on Chuck D. ‘s lyrics, I shared with FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo a new idea for a project. We would take North Korean refugee YouTubers out of their current environments and have them engage with new people. I had noticed that many of the North Korean refugee YouTubers had similar contents, mainly of them talking in a studio with a guest.

I proposed, “Let’s change the situation and the people around North Korean refugees. Let’s ensure they feel respected as content creators and see what happens with the content they create after experiencing new situations outside of South Korea.”

We could have executed the project in South Korea, which would have been easier and cheaper. However, by taking them out of their familiar surroundings, they could be inquisitive citizen journalists working on diverse projects in unfamiliar territories.

We spent ten days in California, placing six North Korean refugee content creators in situations where they could give speeches, run campaigns, sing in public, or pursue their respective missions. Not only did they gain new insights, but they also learned from observing other North Korean refugees engage with people in diverse settings. It was a great success and I plan on posting the videos at this “Workable Words” blog over the coming weeks.

This experience served as a reminder for me to put myself in new situations. I have embraced this approach for most of my adult life, starting with my decision to forego internships after graduate school and see the world (starting with Taipei, Taiwan). I have worked with people in a variety of situations in three different countries.

Some of that curiosity and experimentation slowed when I committed to building an organization in South Korea. Most of my life I have been a leaf floating in the wind, but I had to change that style as the co-founder of an organization in a foreign country. As an organizational leader focused on empowering North Korean refugees to speak freely, I often find myself in a supportive role rather than as the main speaker testing new ideas.

Recently, I decided to challenge myself by engaging with new people and being a solo speaker probing different ideas. During the month of March, I spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference and I delivered two speeches to Harvard Clubs in Florida. Usually, I fundraise for such trips to invite at least one North Korean refugee, but this time, I went to Florida alone and was joined by South Koreans at the HGSE Workshop. The result was a series of new questions from Harvard alumni, including some inquiries I hadn’t encountered in twelve years of speaking, organizing, and moderating events about North Korea and with North Korean refugees.

What made these experiences different? The main thing is that I spoke without North Korean refugees. People may hesitate to challenge North Korean refugees telling their personal stories of suffering in North Korea or China and escaping to freedom. However, as the sole speaker probing a sensitive topic, the audience showed no mercy as they fired questions at me as I reflected on the lack of a revolution in North Korea. I still thought their questions weren’t challenging enough so I invited the skeptics in the room to challenge me and to hit me with their most difficult questions.

I believe those situations — North Korean refugees being in different situations and my own case of speaking to different audiences as a solo speaker — fit in line with Chuck D’s point about changing the people around you. But is there anyone out there who would sing or rap about booting Chuck D out of their lives?

Two years ago, I collaborated with a North Korean refugee on a book. We worked closely in 2021 and part of 2022, but she began to distance herself from me when new people learned about her and invited her for opportunities. Few of them mentioned me and even when she did mention me they clearly preferred not to include me.

She delivered a couple of speeches and had some YouTube and media interviews without me. At first I saw it as a case of her trying to find her voice without me being part of it and got back to my own work. Then when I heard the Chuck D rap, I considered it might have been vice-versa about changing people around you. Sometimes we make the change by moving away from others, sometimes others make the change to move away from us.

However, she recently approached me again, expressing gratitude and a desire to collaborate once more. Before I departed Seoul for nearly a month in the USA, our team asked her to record a short video for Harvard alumni interested in hearing about her life. Midway through, she turned it into a loving testimonial about me. When someone publicly states you’ve changed their life and even says you have been the turning point it is truly touching.

Four days after I gave a speech in Florida that covered her memoir we wrote together, she gave a speech in Seoul to tourists with one of our partner organizations. FSI co-founder Eunkoo Lee sent me lovely photos of my co-author speaking to an audience without me. Some of them bought her book and she signed it for them. Some of them held up copies of the book to show how proud they were to have bought it.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger wrote, “Every new beginning comes from another beginning’s end.” The conclusion of one chapter or a significant change serves as the foundation for a fresh start or a renewed beginning.

Changing the people around us and circumstances can lead to new experiences. I witnessed how North Korean refugee YouTubers created fresh content in unfamiliar environments. In my case, I had a novel experience talking more broadly about North Korea rather than being an organizational figure preparing the stage for North Korean refugee speakers. After a North Korean refugee seemed to change to have new experiences without me, she returned refreshed, thankful, and eager to collaborate once more.

Casey Lartigue Jr. ( is the co-founder of Freedom Speakers International with Lee Eun-koo and co-author with Han Song-mi of her memoir “Greenlight to Freedom.”

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