As a strong leader in facilitating ecologically sustainable partnerships, Cynthia Ong reflects on how we can inspire our lives with meaning and purpose to do something for the wider community.
Looking back at my 17-year-old self, I realize that I had incredible privilege that I didn't see at the time. I had everything I needed to become a high-functioning, independent person; I never lacked for anything in ways that threatened my life or wellbeing. I was able-bodied, I had mobility, I had options.
What do we do choose to do with privilege? Now, 35 years on and with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say there are three possible paths: the path of entitlement and yet more privilege; the path of guilt, separation, and numbing; and the path of awareness, justice, and seeking.
I was on the trajectory of privilege, which takes a profound experience to disrupt. My dad was a police chief when I was growing up and I existed in a bubble of safety; when I was once late coming home from sports practice and didn’t inform my parents, he had patrol cars searching for me. At 35, working in the juvenile justice system in the US, I learned how vulnerable kids felt, how a boy can be black, in the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood, wearing the wrong gang colour, and end up shot dead or in the prison industrial complex. That disrupted my trajectory.
Once I saw that, I couldn’t unsee it; I was politicized for life. I am still learning what justice means – environmental justice; social justice; energy justice; food justice. To me it means balance, equity, voice – levelling the playing field. It means leveraging my privilege to facilitate change. When justice courses through your veins, you are on a one-way track towards service. Causes and issues burn within and call you to use your life for something beyond yourself – for your community, for the planet.
This is when you enter the field of purpose. Purpose is when life becomes inspired by meaning and directed by agency. It is when you align the self with something great, something life-giving, something cosmic. It is when you lift your life from the mundane to the cinematic.
How do you find your purpose? You start with you. Who are you? What is your superpower? How are you fragile? What do you care about when you wake up every morning? What do you know about the future? How do you use the experiences and stories of your past to shape the trajectory of your own life and those of others in a positive way? Have you seen projected weather patterns? Do you know that palm oil demand is expected to double by 2050, that it is the most efficient vegetable oil, and also grows best in regions of the highest biodiversity? How do we deal with paradoxes and polarization everywhere we look?
My mother-in-law is a linguist who analyses plots and narratives through the ages, reading medieval texts to understand our human experience and history. In her fourth book, she talks about her key discovery – that humans are creatures of narrative. Through wars, plagues, depressions, and epidemics, we didn’t die off as a species; it was narrative that pulled us through. Stories compel, unite, and lift us.
What is the narrative that will pull us through this time? In this age of tech and mass communications, the power of narrative is immense. Do we use this power for good to raise awareness, to improve our communication between each other, to connect with those we wouldn’t otherwise connect with, to build new solutions? I see that a key thing that undermines us is separation and fragmentation – people doing things in isolation and silos, working on solutions that only address part of the story. My experience in facilitation has shown that when we bring disparate groups together, design a process where voices can be heard, humanize the space so people see humans and not government or NGO or industry, race or status, a magical narrative unfolds. People begin to see and hear each other, understand concerns, fears and hopes, and move towards creative solutions and new narratives that we shape together.
After a deep and sometimes lonely and perilous journey, I have arrived at 53, and what a joy it is to be a woman. It is thrilling to discover what it means to lead as a woman and a mother. It has been quite a trip – as a little girl I was told that all I had to do was be pretty; as a teenager and in my twenties, I accepted objectification; my thirties and forties were fuelled with fury and wielding big swords; now I carry secret daggers and wands, and stir up potions and trouble with my mixing spoon. I can’t wait for my sixties when I will finally wield a pen, a paintbrush, and a staff.
Cynthia Ong engages in facilitating processes, partnerships, and projects that provoke ecologically sustainable co-existence between groups, communities, regions, and nations. Her experience over the past 25 years has been in the fields of organizational leadership, process facilitation, project management, and financing. With a passion for finding the creative tension and balance between process and task, Cynthia founded LEAP – Land Empowerment Animals People – which has helped birth multiple long-term partnerships and organizations coalescing around systemic solutions and change. Among these is Forever Sabah, the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah’s transition towards a diversified, equitable circular economy with the focal areas of food, agriculture and fisheries, forests, water and soil, infrastructure, energy and waste, livelihoods, tourism and enterprise.