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Emlyn Lee: The Woman in the Mirror

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At her core, Emlyn Lee has heart for the community and an uplifting nature that impacts everyone she interacts with.

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By Sabrina LeBoeuf, Photos by Annie Ray, Styled by Estilo, Makeup and hair by Noemi Alvarado, Shot on location at The LINE Austin

Emlyn Lee passed around an envelope to her new colleagues. One by one, each person in attendance pulled out a garden glove she had purchased from the Dollar Store. 

As Lee continued her presentation, she explained how these were not garden gloves but glitter gloves. Like the very glove Michael Jackson used to wear. Lee pulled up her favorite song on YouTube, and it began to play aloud. “I’m gonna make a change/ For once in my life.”

It was a tradition Lee enjoyed with her team at Cultural Embrace, her company that in 2012 was acquired by Academic Programs International (API). She created Cultural Embrace after 9/11 to combat fear of international travel and xenophobia by giving Americans the opportunity to see parts of the world they would not otherwise. Only at that time, there weren’t any gloves—glitter or otherwise. Everyone simply relied on their imaginations, pulling on imaginary glitter gloves and singing “Man in the Mirror” to celebrate client testimonials and hold space for personal reflection. 

“Take a look at yourself and make that change,” Lee says. “That’s my life.” 
Lee has been looking at how she can fight the world’s injustices for as long as she can remember. Growing up near Washington, D.C., she recalls walking through the metro with her parents and seeing homeless people lying on the heating grates to keep warm. 

“Can we bring them home?” she would ask. Her parents replied by tugging her ear, signaling their daughter to keep walking.

Make That Change

At Galway Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, the sixth graders put on a class play each year. When she was in fifth grade, Lee noticed how the lead parts never went to the deserving students. For the school’s production of Wizard of Oz, all of the main characters—Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion—were played by white students. Meanwhile, the Black and Brown students were given roles like the lead munchkin. Regardless of if they were more talented than their white peers. 

When Lee reached the sixth grade, the school planned a production of The Prince and the Pauper. She knew she wouldn’t get a starring role. After all, her best friend Michelle was the one with the talent, the one who would eventually pursue a career in acting. But Michelle didn’t get the lead role either. Instead, the school wanted Lee and her friend to act as the lead jesters while the white students once again carried the starring roles. 

She decided she would no longer have any part in the play. She spoke with other students of color who had received minor roles and convinced them to boycott the play. All except for her best friend. For the school assembly performance, Lee and her fellow students who opted out of the play sat on the ground of the cafeteria with the rest of the school as they watched their peers perform onstage. 

Being BRAVE

At age 48, Lee continues to stand up for what is right. She makes changes within herself and enlightens those around her. After learning about Michael Brown’s murder and countless other Black lives being wrongfully taken by police, Lee decided she needed to focus on fighting domestic injustices, and BRAVE Communities was born. The nonprofit, which stands for Building, Relationships, Awareness, Voices, Engagement in Communities, started in 2016 with a summer cohort called the BRAVE-Makers, where Lee empowered youth through community engagement. In a partnership with Legacy International, an organization that focuses on global leadership development, Lee helped with programming for the U.S. Department of State’s Emerging Young Leaders.

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Within a year, Lee tacked on BRAVE Community Conversations, monthly events where the community could learn and discuss social issues. Come 2018, she started working with the Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program put on by the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Lee realized there was not a community-wide event in his honor. With that, she came up with BRAVE Fest. It started out as an annual event made to celebrate changemakers in the Austin community. It has since evolved into an online event due to the pandemic.

Empowering Tomorrow’s Womxn Leaders

But BRAVE’s current focus is empowering the next generation of women to become leaders of social change. In 2020, BRAVE expanded to include both the BRAVE-Maker program, dedicated to giving a summer cohort of high school female-identifying students the opportunity to develop their community engagement skills, and the BRAVE Ambassador program, a reiteration of the BRAVE-Maker program that would allow girls to work with BRAVE throughout the academic year. 

Jaelin Su joined the BRAVE-Maker cohort in 2020 as an escape from the boredom of quarantine. But it evolved into a life-changing experience. Su started learning about current events and happenings beyond her bubble. As she became more engaged with the community and outside world, she discovered how many things she wished she could change for the better.

“BRAVE showed me a way that young people like me, who can’t vote, can be leaders in our community and help create positive change,” says Su. “Honestly, the BRAVE-Maker experience was such a whirlwind of changing how I see the world and how I engage with it.”

Through the program, Su gained experience in using social media to engage the community and spoke with her peers about topics like identity and biases. She enjoyed the program so much she continued on as a BRAVE Ambassador. 

The Real Wuhan

Years before Lee helped Su expand her bubble, she broadened her own. After Lee graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1994, she packed up her bags and left for Wuhan, China, to teach English. It was her way of connecting with her roots and escaping the typical 9-to-5 job and the pantyhose that came along with it. 

For a year and a half, Lee lived on the seventh floor of a teacher’s apartment complex. Considering that the building lacked an elevator, she built up muscle walking up and down the stairs each day. Every now and then, Lee paid 50 cents to have her hair washed in the market. That first summer, which graced the city with humid 100-degree weather, anytime she craved Western food, she made the 40-minute bus ride to the new McDonald’s for a chance to bite into a Big Mac.

The Wuhan portrayed by mass media does not compare to the place Lee called home in her early 20s. Harmful anti-Asian rhetoric from former President Donald Trump, who branded COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” on Twitter in March 2020, awakened a monster. Pew Research Center found that 31% of Asian Americans have experienced racial slurs or jokes since the pandemic began. Stop AAPI Hate, formed to combat anti-Asian hate brought on by the pandemic, conducted a year-long survey from March 2020 to Feb. 2021 with online harassment accounting for roughly 6.8% of the reports. More than two-thirds of submitted reports were for verbal harassment, making it the largest group of reported incidents. Shunning came in second place with 20.5% of the reports. 

Hard Conversations

On March 16, 2021, eight people at three spas across Atlanta, Georgia, were killed; six of them were Asian. While law enforcement did not determine that the murders were racially motivated, many have spoken up otherwise, including Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock. Even more Asian hate crimes have been documented through the news and social media. Then, of course, there are the incidents that never get filmed or posted on the internet. 
After Lee heard about Atlanta, she grieved.

“It’s really sad when we don’t get shocked anymore,” Lee says. “I really wanted to try to process it. It wasn’t just another breaking news [story]on Twitter.”

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Friends and family reached out to Lee to learn how she was doing. She checked in with her BRAVE Ambassadors to see how they were handling the news. The only silver lining she found was how the community came together. Lee hopes the public attention given to this tragedy will inspire more awareness and further action.

She originally intended to host a deep conversation with the BRAVE Ambassadors at a picnic they had planned. The ambassadors had only ever met via Zoom. So for the four who were able to attend, this was their first time meeting in person. As the young ladies gathered on blankets and talked amongst each other about spring break and letting out stress from school, Lee changed plans and backed away. She didn’t want to ruin the moment. However, she made sure to talk with them about Atlanta at another time.

Emlyn Lee Dances to Her Own Beat

Courtney Greene, who met Lee through API, has always admired Lee’s sense of humor and her ability to remain positive and enjoy life despite all the negativity in the world. When Greene and Lee were still teammates at API, they traveled to Bogota, Colombia, together and explored the city on foot. Lee, who has visited roughly 90 countries to date, loved to turn onto random streets and into alleys to unearth the hidden gems not found in a guidebook. She remained calm whenever things didn’t go according to plan.

Over the years, Greene has learned how great of a dancer Lee is. Even though Lee would never tell you herself. For her birthday this past January, Lee hosted a virtual dance party where she invited guests to listen to DJ Mel’s online set and party on a Zoom call. Fairly often, Lee likes to turn on old-school hip hop and go-go music to groove around her house.

“It’s unique to find a person who’s really passionate about social issues but still able to be fun, loving and joyous,” Greene says. “When you get engaged with questions of social inequality, I think it’s easy to get bogged down by all of the sadness in the world and how hard people’s lives are.”

Faith and Survival

Lee credits her resilience to faith and a need for survival. It is her way of staying afloat without avoiding ongoing crises, be it health and education disparities or the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright.

“For me, systemic oppression and systemic racism are a joke. What we’ve just experienced with COVID and post-George Floyd and the racial reckoning, it is so obvious the injustices and the inequities that we have here in this nation that we call the land of the free,” Lee says. “I try to be lighthearted and have a good sense of humor because if not, the negativity will just kill you.” 

An Educator Without the Degree

After her time in Wuhan, Lee boarded a ship on the Yangtze River and joined the tourism industry as a cruise director. She then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to work as a travel director before reaching the state of Texas. Austin welcomed Lee in 2001. Just one year later, she had immersed herself in her new community. She took up teaching GED classes for Austin Learning Academy and ESL classes as part of an AISD and ACC program.

Like the students she taught in China, her students in Austin were on the older side. The ESL program brought immigrants and refugees into the classroom. Hispanic and Latinx mothers and young adults who didn’t want the traditional high school education attended Lee’s GED classes. Despite being the teacher, she felt as though she learned more from her students about their culture and who they were.

“I love seeing the potential in people. A lot of times people in our society just don’t give people chances, whether it’s with language barriers, with their background,” Lee says. “Why dismiss them? They’re still part of our society.” 

Lee likes to call herself an “educator without the education degree.” What started out as teaching English and GED classes has since transformed into educating the community about ongoing social issues and bestowing the necessary tools to those around her so they can achieve their goals and enact change.

A Helping Hand

She applies the same principles when it comes to helping fellow business owners. Rodney Hair met Lee at Motion Stretch studios where he worked as a masseuse. Lee had gone in for a massage when she saw Hair digging into somebody’s quads. The next time she went in, she requested to work with him. With that first appointment, Lee noticed how much of a difference one of his massages made. Whenever he was available, she would try to go in for regular check-ins. All of that came to a halt when the pandemic hit.

The studio closed, but Hair would occasionally check in with Lee to see if she was interested in an appointment. She originally declined, but after getting married in July, her muscles felt tense. He started making house calls mainly because he did not have an office space of his own. Around the same time, Lee’s chiropractor mentioned she was looking to share her office space. 

After Lee connected Hair with her chiropractor, Hair finally landed a home for his own massage, stretch therapy and fitness training business, 206 Fit. Lee continued talking to him about how to market the business at their sessions together. She told him to share his story on social media and taught him about Canva, a website that allows people to make graphics for free.
“She’s the type of individual that would not let you fail,” Hair says. “She finds the greatness in you and lets you strive for that greatness. That’s what she does for me.” 

“She Has This Heart…”

Just as Lee aided Hair with his business, Lee hopes to give her ambassadors the tools they need to carry the torch and move forward with community and civic engagement, as well as disrupt systemic racism. The ambassadors are currently working on a community nourishment program to feed the hungry in Austin. The initiative, which began early this year, taught them about food insecurity and injustice. So far, the project has involved finding food resources, managing distribution and gathering volunteers—including Lee’s husband, Lysander Lim. 

“She has this heart,” Lim says. “Other people that I’ve seen, they seem to kind of turn it on and turn it off. Emlyn is always thinking about [how she can help others].”

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What advice can you give young entrepreneurs about how to be BRAVE in their businesses?

1. Get out of your comfort zone and take risks.

Give up control, take a leap of faith and let yourself go!

2. Opposites attract, especially when building a team or partnership.

Find and work with people who don’t think and look like you. You’ll get a broader and better perspective on your business, clients and life.

3. Embrace new mistakes.

Be fearless and persevere. Be willing to fail, acknowledge your failures and learn from your mistakes. Dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

4. Keep an open mind.

People and experiences happen for a reason. Be receptive and adaptable to change while you keep your eyes and heart on your end goal and purpose.

5. You matter.

Set boundaries. Know your limits and be sure to preserve self-care. Make yourself a higher priority on your “to-do” list, and give yourself some grace.

Lim could see Lee’s passion for the community from the moment they met. They had one of their first dates after Lee attended a diversity and inclusion training. Since then, Lee has roped her husband into various volunteer engagements, be it for BRAVE or other ideas she has. Were it not for Lee, Lim says he would never have become involved in as many volunteering engagements as he has. 

Emlyn Lee and Dr. King

For the first distribution of the community nourishment program on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Lee went to pick up boxes of produce, 50 gallons of water and paper bags full of groceries. The load was so heavy Lim could see the fender touching the wheel. That Friday evening, Lim unloaded everything and on Saturday convinced Lee they needed to drive two cars instead of one. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has always been a day of commemoration for Lee. He’s one of her biggest heroes. 

“He embodies leadership, a servant leader,” Lee says. “His influence to bring change for the marginalized, for systemic racism, systemic oppression, economic empowerment for the marginalized. He was doing it all through the calling of his purpose. His faith and his spiritual walk with being a Christian pastor is one to model.”

In college, Lee used to host parties for the occasion. Once, she invited her seven housemates to eat food and watch Boyz n the Hood. She picked the thought-provoking film because of its realistic portrayals of inner-city America. The last thing she wanted was the usual Hollywood narrative.
When she arrived in Austin after her time abroad, Lee reignited the tradition with an annual social gathering. With the creation of BRAVE, the annual celebration has transformed into a community event. Lee began scheduling the first BRAVE event of the year on the day as a way to kick it off with King’s spirit. 

Holding on to Faith

Greene started attending the parties after they met at API and was taken aback. They were the first of its kind she had ever been to. There would be food and drinks as well as stories being retold over and over again. Party guests could donate funds to a cause of Lee’s choice. 

At the MLK party in 2002, Lee was introduced to a friend’s colleague who happened to be a member of Greater Mt. Zion Church. The new acquaintance invited Lee to attend the church the following week for Super Bowl Sunday. When Lee arrived, she was stunned both by the church’s level of talent and its diversity. 

On Dec. 6, 2009, Lee became baptized in the church. The realization of her faith has played into her life as an entrepreneur. In the same way she tapped into her travel experiences, Lee relied on prayer and wisdom from the Bible to help her make sound decisions for Cultural Embrace until 2012, when she sold the business to API, and now with BRAVE and the young women she champions.

“There’s always positive experiences from traveling. But it’s a big culture of fear because there’s so many unknowns that are out of your control,” Lee says. “Owning a business is like that. The only thing I could hold onto is my faith.”


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