Rexy Josh Dorado: Engaging the Diaspora

When I initially thought of launching this blog back in August, the very first person I threw my idea at was Rexy Josh Dorado, Brown University 2014 graduate and founder of the Kaya Collaborative. Rexy has been on the receiving end of several of my stream-of-consciousness, out-of-the-blue messages (many of them fantastical and not very well thought-out), but he responded to this idea just as kindly and encouragingly as he had to ones before: “Do it!!!”

This is how I have always known Rexy–eager, passionate, and so ready to do something meaningful. During those first conversations about the blog, I also learned that he had decided to leave his job at Ashoka so that he could return to the Philippines and work on Kaya Co. full-time. Of course, I wasn’t at all surprised. Five months later, as this pet project is finally coming to life and Rexy begins his work in Manila, there was no question that he had to be the first person we would feature.

Like many Filipino-Americans, Rexy and his family moved to Ohio when he was just 11, living in a suburb outside of Cleveland called Garfield Heights. It was the first year that the hospital there had recruited employees from the Philippines, so his family and a couple of others were the first wave of Filipinos to move into what was otherwise a half-white, half-black community. At his middle school, Rexy was one of only three Asian students. Later on, he remained one of the few Asians at his high school of over 1,400 people.

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Rexy and his family, back when they lived in Dumaguete

During these first years in the U.S., Rexy remembers struggling with his identity: “I tried really, really hard just to fit in. I bounced around with different identities, none of which were Filipino. By the time I was out of high school, I felt incredibly detached from my life in the Philippines.”

But all of this changed when Rexy entered college and was exposed to a more diverse student body. In his first year, he started to get to know the Filipino group and began to grow more appreciative of Filipino culture. By trying Filipino foods and learning Filipino dances, he became more receptive to the aspects of his heritage that he had not previously acknowledged. In his sophomore year, it was a trip back to his hometown in Dumaguete that completely changed his perspective.

“I came out of [the trip] sure of two things: One, I wanted to stay connected to the Philippines. I loved everything about the language, landscape, food, culture and everything I experienced in those two weeks. Two, seeing the same streets where I grew up and seeing a lot of the same images of poverty and inequality got me thinking about the question: how does society tackle that? How do policies and initiatives and different tools start to affect the way those things happen?”

Fueled by his experience back home and hungry to learn more, Rexy devoted the rest of his college years to learning more about the Philippines and the process of social change. As president of Brown’s Filipino Association, he helped rebuild the fledgling organization and also pushed for a new class on the history of Filipino migration to the U.S. Throughout the process, he saw how few opportunities there were to learn about being Filipino. He realized that he had the power to create spaces to understand these connections as one of the few Filipino representatives at the university. Outside of these efforts, Rexy also continued to immerse himself in social innovation and development studies, learning more about how to right the injustices that continued to haunt him after leaving the Philippines.

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Rexy with the 2014 Kaya Co. fellows near the Banaue Rice Terraces

As he reflected on these experiences, Rexy shared with me some beautiful thoughts on the complex intersection of identities that Filipino-Americans find themselves grappling with. I wanted to quote some of it here, word-for-word:

When I first started learning about the Philippines, I expected just to learn a lot more about myself as a Filipino-American in relation to the U.S. But what came out of it instead was learning how tied our lives were to all the injustices and oppressions that happened in the Philippines so many centuries ago. This was something I never got to learn despite how complicit the U.S. was in it. To me, it became about this sense of injustice and about our role in bridging all of that as conflicted people who identify with both sides of it–the oppressor and the oppressed. It was also about seeing a lot of potential to be tapped into–seeing how much we could educate and connect in ways that weren’t happening by themselves. I became very excited to know more about the murmurs of changemakers that were in the Philippines, of entrepreneurship in the Philippines… It was really starting to change for the better and had potential to take down some of those old structures.

Anger about the injustices was definitely a big part of my motivation for doing this, but for me, it translated quickly into the NOW WHAT? The first thing I did was to dive deep into what it meant to be privileged, what it meant to be complicit in certain ways, and how many things could be done wrong in that point of in-betweenness. I took development studies classes that were 90% about just how badly things go when people from the outside come in thinking they have the solutions. As the diaspora, we are not fully at that stage of detachment, but one foot is there. For a long time, the focus was more to empower. We want to make sure we’re not letting our privilege get in the way. And now, with that knowledge and understanding at the center of everything we do, we are asking ourselves: what’s the unique role we can play, as allies and as partners, in really putting the Philippines at the front and at the center? What’s the role we can play in changing consciousness and changing behavior here so we can support and make way for this new generation of leaders?

Soon, Rexy’s deep commitment to the Philippines and more nuanced understanding of his unique role as a Filipino-American changemaker spurred the creation of the Kaya Collaborative. Kaya Co. taps members of the Filipino diaspora and transforms these networks into communities with a distinct and effective approach to creating impact in the Philippines. For the last three years, Kaya Co.’s fellowship program has provided several young Filipino leaders the opportunity to work at a high-impact internships in the country’s most innovative and entrepreneurial ventures, then deliver a sustainable, long-term project at the end of their stay.

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The Kaya Co. team at their first open workshop in 2014

Kaya Co. has reconfigured and revolutionized the way second or third generation Filipinos all over the world can reengage and reconnect with their home country. Already, there are signs of the rippling effects that the fellowship has brought about. Rexy shares: “I think the biggest thing is the people it has brought together and awakened. A lot of people have gotten their start through Kaya Co. For a lot of people who started in freshman and sophomore year, it really changed their path. Those people are also starting to collaborate and have these kinds of conversations. What they are doing excites me.”

After spending a year and a half at Ashoka, where he says he met young entrepreneurs who taught him how to do good work and commit himself to a cause, Rexy decided that he could no longer stay away from his home country: “We asked ourselves: what are we doing here? Let’s just go to the Philippines. That was last May and we haven’t changed our course since then. We knew then that this was definitely happening and there was no turning back.”

In Manila, where Rexy and his team have begun their work, he says that the plan is to grow Kaya Co. and expand its scope: “What we’re doing now is trying to accelerate what’s happening on both sides–building all these entrepreneurs in the Philippines and then building it into the story of Filipino-Americans back home. We want to adopt the fellowship in several places and explore ways on how we can turn this into a sustainable business opportunity. While we’re here, we are also on working to build out our volunteers and our chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and the New England area.”

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Rexy, in a jeepney, after returning to the Philippines this January

Though the work is only beginning, it was not hard to hear the excitement and drive in Rexy’s voice. As he rushed off to his next meeting, he left me with a small peek at what his long-term commitment to the Philippines will be. The words were so hopeful and refreshing that they still echo in my ears:

There’s so much I’m excited about on both sides… there are many roles that I can play in building this innovation and entrepreneurship community here. One thing that I’m really interested in for Kaya Co. is building this model of diaspora youth engagement that engages people deeply, and then to be able to work with other diasporas–bringing together a global community to energize the growth of our homeland and ecosystems. My vision is to really see these Filipino communities connecting back to the Philippines and learning about it through this lens of innovation and change.

—–

Rexy Josh Dorado is the founder and chief executive of Kaya Collaborative. Learn more about their work here and follow them @kayacollab. His favorite Filipino food is Silog.

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