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Jetfarers at Large #1: Justin Trinidad on Advocacy, Empathy, and Travel

Welcome to interview #1 of the Jetfarers at Large series. I started this series to showcase some real-life Jetfarers doing some amazing things, and give them a platform to tell their stories in their own words.

Today, we’re talking to Justin Trinidad, a policy researcher for Bellwether Education Partners based in Washington, DC. One of the few things Justin loves more than policy and advocacy is travel, and his work in policy and international affairs has brought him to numerous places around the world, including The Hague, Netherlands and Tainan, Taiwan. 

I met with Justin on a quiet Wednesday night, chatting with him as we threw together a few things for dinner.

JF: What is your 3-minute autobiography?

JT: By day, I am an education policy researcher, at an organization called Bellwether Education partners. They work on policy and thought leadership, and strategic advising with various education organizations ranging from school districts to state educational agencies.

Prior to that, I’d been in public service since I graduated college in 2015 from the University of Virginia. I was previously at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as an advisor during the Obama administration. Before that, I was at an advocacy organization, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates. So, the theme of my career is public service, partially advocacy and partially policy, working in different issue areas.

In my spare time in DC, I like to try new restaurants. Restaurant Week is coming up, so I’m excited about that! I also enjoy hanging out with friends, either at happy hours or through social gatherings. I also love to travel, which I’m sure we will  talk about more.

Justin, me (Kay), and a few of our best friends at sunrise in DC

JF: Leading up to today, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your life?

JT: Now it doesn’t seem so bad, but [I think it was] when I was in college figuring out what to do with my life. I was 3 years into the pre-med track and pretty much told everyone I was going to become a doctor. I was dead set on it. I put so much time and energy into it, but I really was not passionate about the subject.

Fortunately I had an internship at the White House Initiative for APIs, and that summer really opened my eyes to what careers are out there. I think I knew I was driven by helping people but I didn’t know how to make that into a career. Having that experience in DC, going to different events and learning from different mentors and people in the field enabled me to realize that advocacy and policy were viable career options.

Having set certain expectations with my family on what I was going to do made it really hard to switch and really tell myself, “this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, or at least a significant portion of it.” Looking back on it, it was really scary in that moment, but now I don’t know what else I would be doing.

JF: Was there a particular turning point when you realized, “oh crap, I really need to look into something else?” What was the turning point for you?

JT: I don’t know if it was one moment but it was more of a culmination of years of doing science classes and working really hard at them, btu not doing as well as I could have been. I was actually a politics major at UVA, and that came to me much easier because I was so fascinated by what I was studying, and the work didn’t feel like as much of a burden.

When I was applying for different internships, I thought about what I had been studying and what motivated me. From there, I understood that maybe I should look more into this path.

JF: Describe one of your favorite places in the world.

JT: Of all of my travel experiences, the one that I remember most fondly was my time abroad in Tainan, Taiwan. I studied abroad there during college, and it was the first time I’d lived abroad in my adult life. Being able to live life outside of the US and immerse myself in a new culture and language was really eye-opening for me.

I went there to study Mandarin in a scholarship program. There were about 20-30 Americans in the cohort and we were paired with Taiwanese students at the local university where we were studying. They were able to take us to their favorite local places, help us get around because we were just learning Mandarin. Just being immersed in a different atmosphere, I was able to learn about myself and realized I want to be able to challenge myself in different ways. Being in a country where you can’t speak the language sets its own challenges, and I think for me, always being comfortable is a little boring.

“Of all of my travel experiences, the one that I remember most fondly was my time abroad in Tainan, Taiwan”

JF: I’ve never been to Taiwan before. Can you describe a little bit more about what it’s like to walk down the street? Or what one of your favorite places in the area that you lived was?

JT: I was in Tainan, which isn’t as big of a city as the capital, Taipei. It was sort of suburban and sort of urban, but defintiely quieter and not as much public transportation. Generally, it was a 10-minute walk to the university from where I lived. It felt a lot like Richmond, VA [the city where I grew up].

My favorite place there was the night markets. There was one pretty close to where we lived that we’d go to at least once a week. There would be so many food stalls, shopping, and games. It was so eclectic, and around every corner we’d find something fascinating or different.

It was the smells that really made an impact on my memory. I remember the really pungent smell of stinky tofu, which after getting used to it, started to smell like home in a way. [Laughs]

JF: How do you think traveling has transformed the way you think and live?

JT: This might sound really cheesy, but it really gives me perspective of being a person in a sea full of people with different experiences and lives in the world. It’s helped me acknowledge the privileges that I have as an American. We have so many opportunities here that we take for granted, and we have the liberty to switch career paths whereas in other countries, that’s not a viable option. I can take time to “find myself,” as many people do, or take time to travel the world.

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When you travel abroad, you realize that there are so many different types of people out there, both with the same opportunities and without. Seeing the people who are without the same support, like in the Philippines, helps me understand that I should be grateful for what I have.

JF: Given your interest in advocacy work, how does this new perspective help you in your career?

Travel has helped me empathize, understand, and listen to people who are not like me. Especially when there’s a language barrier or because our experiences are so different. We’re often inclined to have quick reactions to how people live. In advocacy work, you definitely need this skill – being able to hear peoples’ stories and then transform that into policy. I’m more able to listen to peoples’ histories, stories, or concerns. It’s a muscle that you have to work on in order to integrate it into your everyday life.

JF: What’s something (a fear, or a worry) you think many people have on their minds but are afraid to say?

JT: Especially in DC, I’ve noticed that we’re all chasing some status or prestige, but we really don’t know why we’re doing it. People like to talk about how prestigious their school is. Everyone aims for the top thing in their field, like top consulting firm or top think tank. But they’re not really understanding the work they’re doing or who they’re doing it for.

I’ve definitely fallen into that trap, having been exposed to it in either undergrad or in the DC culture.

JF: It seems like that’s rooted in competitiveness or social proof. Why do you think it has to be that way?

JT: I don’t think it has to be that way and I wish it weren’t that way. People feel a lot of societal pressure to do things a certain way. It’s definitely pushed in part by social media, on how awesome your Instagram or your Facebook looks. Because people are really exposed to how we see each other, people feel pressured to make their lives look as perfect as possible. It’s like curating that perfect Insta post, or getting that perfect title in that perfect job, rather than living your life understanding what makes you happy.

JF: In your conversations with those people who seemingly have those dream titles or dream lives…do they?

JT: I’ve grown to not assume that their lives are perfect just because of their past experiences or their associations with big-name institutions. I’ve learned to talk to people for who they are and learn more about what they do.

I’ve seen in the DC bubble that the first thing people ask is, “What do you do?” Instead, I’ve learned to ask things like, “What keeps you busy?” or “What brought you to DC?” It’s not always a job. Maybe their family moved here or they were sick of their previous city and wanted to try something new. I’ve tried to outgrow those assumptions and get to know people.

JF: What’s the best advice you ever received? From whom?

JT: One of my good friends and mentors, Jason, who I used to work with, told me – “when you’re in a position of power, you should look back to help those behind you climb the ladder too.” That’s what has helped drive a lot of my work, from my perspective as a 1.5 generation immigrant to having a job in DC, I’m motivated by helping people get to that same place.

Our mission at Bellwether is to help the most underserved children in the nation by improving schools and policy in general in education. I also volunteered in a nonprofit board that seeks to increase representation of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in public service. I want to make sure that people gain the skill sets or the network to do these things, to create the next generation of public servants. I’ve always held on to that piece of advice.

JF: What legacy do you hope to leave behind one day?

JT: I’ll start from Point A and we’ll go from there [chuckles].

I definitely want to dabble in a lot of things career-wise. I’ve done some nonprofit work, I’ve studied international relations and foreign affairs, I’ve done domestic policy. But I want to see different policy areas and both private and public sector to get a number of experiences.

However, I don’t really want to be remembered for my career accomplishments. I think I just want to be remembered as a person who gives more than he gets and is happy with that. I want to be remembered as someone who is good company, either through my professional career of helping people and being public interest oriented to being really social and connecting people and building genuine friendships throughout the world.

JF: You used a very specific word there: genuine. It sounds like throughout everything, that’s one of the biggest themes – being genuine to yourself and in your interactions. Expand on the idea of being seen as somebody who keeps it real.

JT: Having been in DC for a few years, I’ve met so many different people who are motivated by different things. I’m not saying anyone is malicious, but there are some people who are more receptive to building real friendships and relationships, not just because of your career or your connections. They care about what makes you tick or what you’re motivated by. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to build friendships, because I think being genuine such an important value to have.

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If you have any questions for Justin, reach out to him in our Facebook group, where he actively participates. And, as always, if you know someone who has an incredible story to tell, please contact me and send them my way!

Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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