Growing up as the daughter of Korean immigrants, Hahrie Han knows firsthand the delicateness of balancing different cultures and creating a community that is inclusive amidst the seemingly growing social divides in our country.

“We’re all moving through our worlds not really sure what it means for us to be in a society together,” Han said. 

It’s because of this precarity that Han began work on the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University as the inaugural director. 

Hahrie Han, professor of political science and inaugural director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

At the Agora Institute, Han and her colleagues work to promote community and conversation across differences in ideology, values, and ideas through the ancient Athenian Agora model. In this model, people gather in a physical space to deliberate and discuss democracy, allowing for a free exchange of ideas. Han believes that there is a lack of these physical gathering places in the world today that are for people of all backgrounds to come together, and she is committed to “working with communities and practitioners all over the world” in the community she has created.

Ultimately, Han hopes the institute helps bring people together around the shared ideal that “we all want to be architects of our own future.” 

Through her work in rural communities, Han has seen firsthand the power of physical gathering spaces such as churches, civic centers, and youth centers.

In addition to her work with the institute, Han has written four books about civic organization and building democracy and is working on her fifth. Her most recent book, titled Prisons of the People: Power and Organizing in 21st Century America (University of Chicago Press), is set to be published this month. She also expands her expertise as a political scientist as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, where she’s the faculty director of the P3 Lab, which examines the way civic and political organizations make the participation of ordinary people “possible, probable, and powerful.”

In the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, Han talks to host Whitney Kimball Coe about the Agora model, blending cultural backgrounds, the Asian-American experience, and promoting inclusivity. Everywhere Radio is a podcast produced by the Rural Assembly in partnership with the Daily Yonder. Every other Thursday, Whitney Kimball Coe welcomes new guests to talk about practicing leadership through the rural lens in communities around the country.

You can find Everywhere Radio wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, and Spotify.


Full Transcript

Whitney Kimball Coe: My guest today is Hahrie Han, who is faculty director of the P3 Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University and is also the inaugural director of the SNF Agora Institute, an academic and public forum focused on strengthening democracy across the world. Hahrie specializes in the study of organizing movements, civic engagement, and democracy, and her newest book is set to come out in July of this year, it’s entitled Prisons of the People: Power and Organizing in 21st Century America. She’s also working on her fifth book, about race and faith in America with a particular focus on evangelical megachurches.

Hahrie has many accolades and credits to her name, and I wanted to have her with us on Everywhere Radio because she brings both a professional and personal perspective to the conversation that we care so deeply about at the Rural Assembly, which is how do we build a more inclusive nation. Let me say that again.

Hahrie has many accolades and credits to her name, and I wanted to have her with us on today’s episode because she brings both a professional and personal perspective to the conversation that we care so deeply about at the Rural Assembly, which is about how we build a more inclusive nation, one community at a time. I’m so pleased to welcome Hahrie Han to this special episode of Everywhere Radio. Thank you so much for joining us, Hahrie Han.

Hahrie Han: Thank you, Whitney Kimball Coe. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you.

Whitney: I was thinking how it’s probably a hell of a time to be a civic researcher in this day and age. I know you spend your day studying the inputs and outputs of civic organizing movements and democracy. I wonder what your large body of work right now is telling you about this particular moment that we’re in as a country, as a democracy. I know we seem to be wrestling corporately with questions about who we are as a nation and who we want to become and how do we get there, and I’m thinking about all those forces at play that would divide us or unite us. I wonder if you can speak to that from your vantage point. What do we need to understand about this moment in history?

Hahrie: Yeah, that’s a great question. I agree, I think that we’re in a moment right now that feels really precarious for a lot of people. I think the precarity comes from a couple of different places. One, it comes from the fact that there’s so much change going on all at once. The fundamental structure of our economy is changing, America’s place in the world is changing. There’s so many really large changes that are going on, and what’s that’s doing is that’s creating a lot of instability for people in their everyday lives. In my everyday life, I don’t necessarily think about America’s place the world, but just the changing nature of all these big global forces means that my own life feels more precarious now than it did 20 years ago or than it did in my parents’ generation, I think.

That sense of precarity, I think, or that sense of fragility that so many people face, I think is causing people to react in lots of different ways. That’s another reason I think that we have some precarity, is that I think we’re all moving through our worlds not really sure what it means for us to be in a society together. I think that very question of who we are, I mean, as you put it, who we are as Americans and what we want to become, I think is one that we are contesting right now. We’re all experiencing it in different ways and so that’s another source of the precarity.

Then the third source of precarity I would say is that sometimes it feels like there’s a mismatch between the problems that people are feeling and the solutions that seem to be out there. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten a link to an email that says, “Here’s one quick trick, that’s going to fix this big problem in your life,” right? We all know that none of those things are actually true, but it almost feels like when we look at our politics, it shouldn’t be a source of some big solutions to big problems that they’re trying to find band-aids and quick tricks in a way that is not really appropriate for the moment that we’re in.

I do think that what we’re seeing in a lot of our work is that that underlying sense of uncertainty that people feel is making it both harder for movements to do their work, but on the other hand is a real opportunity to recreate and reinvision the world that we want to have together.

Whitney: That’s a wonderful response. Thank you for all of that. I want to ask how Agora Institute is working to be part of that solution or multiple solutions. What does Agora really mean, that word?

Hahrie: Yeah, that’s a great question. We’re named the SNF Agora Institute after the idea of the ancient agora as being fundamental to making democracy work. If you all remember, the agora was the place where people would gather in ancient Athens, excuse me, where they would contest ideas, they would deliberate about what Athenian society should be like. They would engage in all the kinds of deliberation, struggle, contestation, and discussion that are fundamental to making democracy work. It’s also where people went shopping and it’s where people gathered with each other.

I think part of the reason why we are named after the agora is the idea that the agora, or places like the agora, are fundamental to making democracy work, but one of the things that we’ve seen, not only United States all over the world, is that the agora in the 21st century has been really hollowed out. It’s kind of been emaciated all over the world. Where are the places where people come to gather, where they’re invited to engage with people who aren’t like them to discuss, to deliberate, to shop together, to hang out with each other, to contest different ideas? Those places aren’t really there anymore. Whether we think about our digital communities or our geographic communities, it feels like we don’t have those places that the spirit of the agora used to embody.

I think part of what we’re trying to do is a combination. We call ourselves both an academic and a public forum, because we both do research to try to understand how do you strengthen the agora, what makes it work and how can we strengthen it all over the world, but then we also try to work with partners like you all to try to figure out how can we put those ideas into practice. It’s not just that we want to be incubating ideas and then publishing them in journal articles that no one reads, but we want to actually be working with communities and practitioners all over the world to be able to put some ideas in practice and to be learning from the work that people are doing. It really feels like we’re trying to create this model of two-way interactions, that we’re both learning from the communities that we’re also working with.

Whitney: Hmm. Is the agora something we’ve had before, and are you all looking to build on what the practices and the intersections and the places where we’ve met before? Or are you looking for new ideas for how it manifests in community?

Hahrie: I think both, right? Sometimes when I think about what goes on in what we would think of as these agora-like spaces, there’s something very human about it. I think in trying to rebuild or strengthen the agora, part of what we’re trying to do is recover something that’s very fundamental about our humanity, which is that people want to be in relationship with each other, we want to gather with people, and that we all want to be architects of our own future. The agora is a place where we can gather with other people to try to think about how can we, together, imagine a new future and what can we do to make that real.

I think there’s a way in which that’s a very fundamental human thing. I think that’s the sense in which I feel like part of what we’re trying to do is how can we learn from how it used to work in other places, how can we learn from bright spots where it’s still working in the United States and elsewhere, and then recover that and make it available to more people. But then there’s also a sense in which the information ecosystem in the world in which we’re living in, in the 21st century, is different from any world that we’ve ever lived in before. I mean, that’s a patently obvious thing to say, but it’s also true, right? Information moves at a speed that’s faster than it’s ever been before. Digital technologies mean that you and I, you’re in Tennessee and I’m in Maryland and we’re having this conversation together in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just in very recent times. We also have to contend with this idea to ask ourselves the question of what does the agora mean in the 21st century.

I think that at the Agora Institute, part of what we’re trying to do is it’s a both/and. We want to recover the pieces of it that are fundamental to who we are as humans, but we also want to make it relevant for the 21st century and to meet people where they are in the places where they want to gather and when they want to be right now, these days.

Whitney: You mentioned that you’re speaking to me from Maryland. I know you grew up in Houston, so your roots are not necessarily fully rural, but you partner a lot with all kinds of groups from all across geographies. I’m wondering, has your research and your practices, have you gleaned things from rural communities and small towns that inform the Agora and where we’re headed?

Hahrie: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I grew up as a daughter of Korean immigrants in Houston. I live now in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m living in more urban areas and certainly I’ve had the fortune to work with grassroots organizations and other kinds of organizations that are working in all kinds of communities from big cities, like the ones that I grew up in, to very small communities. I’m thinking right now, as you ask me this question, of an organization that we’ve done some work with in Minnesota, where they were working with rural communities in Minnesota that over the past couple of generations have really changed a great deal.

I think when most people think of Minnesota, they think of white Lutherans who’ve been there for generations that have been farming the land. There are, of course, people like that and many families like that in Minnesota, but then there’s also been this enormous influx of different migrant communities that have moved to the state and have populated not only the big urban centers, but also some of the smaller communities across the state. Sometimes because they’re near factories or other companies that are bringing in a bigger, more diverse workforce and sometimes it’s because people that have come from other countries want to live in these beautiful, bucolic rural areas.

We’ve done some work with organizations that have really thought about how can a community that has traditionally been racially very homogenous begin to open itself up to a lot of different kinds of migrant communities from Africa, from Central and Latin America, to different kinds of faith communities and so on and so forth. One of the things I feel like I really learned from that work is this idea that solidarity is a function not only of social capital, but it’s also a function of structure.

What do I mean by that? I think a lot of times when people think about what does it mean to create an inclusive community, what does it mean for us to create communities that bridge across difference, people think, oh, it’s just about social capital, it’s about the relationships that we build with each other. That is absolutely true, I don’t mean to minimize that, but the question is that, how do you create settings where those relationships are more likely to occur? When moments of conflict, and I don’t mean negative conflict necessarily, but when moments of disagreement come up, how do you process those kinds of moments of disagreement?

One of the things that I’ve learned that I think small communities are able to do much better than some of the larger communities that I grew up in, for example, is there are these, it’s almost like cellular pockets of social networks that are connected to each other, but are organized into their own small groups in these communities. I’m thinking of this one small community that we’ve done a lot of work with in Minnesota. It’s a town of about 10,000 people, it’s not a huge town, but there are little clusters of communities that some of them are organized around their churches, some are organized around different civic centers. There’s a youth center that’s really active, there’s a group that’s organized around the high school. Each of these groups has their own particular group of people that they’re really close to. Having each of those groups have their own independence, but also be connected to each other and be interacting in this interdependent way means that people can move between a community within which they feel very safe and also a community that is much bigger than just that small, safe community.

Having both of those things simultaneously to each other is I think what made the inclusive solidarity possible, that it wasn’t just about the interpersonal relationships people had, but it was about the nature of the opportunities that people were offered to engage with each other. Having it be both small and big at the same time in that sense was part of what made it really work.

That was a really long explanation, I’m sorry.

Whitney: No, no, I mean, that was perfect because it segues to another question that I have for you, which is about rural communities. We do attribute what we’re calling the agora to small towns and rural places that we still have these forums in some ways, where we can wrestle with positive conflict or work together on different projects and build those relationships, but still, we know that those forums are not available or accessible or even welcoming to every group or community that is within a community. I wonder, you mentioned you’re the daughter of Korean immigrants and I think that probably gives you some insight into a question we’ve been wrestling with on this Everywhere episode, which is about how do we better understand the experiences of Asian-Americans as participants in our communities? How do we make them visible and in full participants? This year in particular, I know we’ve had painful reminders that violence against people of Asian descent is still persistent and pervasive. I just wonder, what do you make of this violence in this moment particularly, and also, how do we address the sense of inclusion and welcoming in communities within communities?

Hahrie: Yeah. That’s a really good question, and I will say, I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past year. As you pointed out, it’s been a painful year, it’s been a tough year to be Asian-American. My parents are in their seventies and they still live in Houston, so I’ve felt really far away from them this year, just because I think in some ways it feels a little more dangerous to be Asian-American in some sense. I do think that one of the things that I felt very fortunate about growing up is I grew up in a very multi-racial neighborhood. Houston has a wide range of different communities, lots of immigrants from Latin America and Central America. It has a pretty big Asian immigrant population, a big Black population, a big white population. The community that I grew up in as a kid was probably about 50% Latino, it was about 20% Black, 20% Asian, and 10% white, roughly. We had this very multi-racial community.

I think one of the things that I learned really early on was that the one way in which all the families that I knew growing up, whether they were Latino or Black or white or Asian, was that we are all people who want to wake up each morning and try to make tomorrow a better day, that no matter where we come from or who we are, we’re all able to judge our own circumstances and try to figure out how we can seek a better future. Everyone wanted to seek a better future for their family.

I think one of the things that I really feel like I learned from growing up in a community where there are so many different kinds of people, was that the way in which we’re equal is that we all can be judges of our own circumstances and seekers of a better future, but the standards by which we might think about how we judge our today and what we want for tomorrow are really different, but that’s okay, right? Just because what I want for my family tomorrow is not the same as what you want for your family tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be in relationship with each other. To me, that’s the fundamental core of what it means to create a pluralistic democracy, is to be able to recognize that we can all judge our circumstances and seek a better tomorrow, but we can do it in different ways and that’s okay.

To get to your question about the Asian-American experience, I think one of the challenges of being Asian and I think part of what has come out over the past year is that the Asian-American experience, I think, it’s more invisible than the experience of other racial minorities in the United States. Part of the challenge is that I think that the world that I hope that we can live in is one in which we celebrate all the many ways in which people try to seek a different kind of future for themselves and for their families. Part of that, to me, would mean to also celebrate the ways in which Asian-Americans do that and how that might be different from the ways in which other communities of people might do that, but it’s part of that richness of that variety of thinking about who we are and who we want to be that I think is exciting. I mean, that’s what I loved about my neighborhood when I was growing up.

Whitney: I’ve had several conversations with Asian-American friends who live in rural places and they don’t necessarily have the same access to diversity around them, diversity of experience. You mentioned invisibility, and they do feel very invisible. I’m wondering, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your research about what are those places where we could make the invisible visible, I don’t know, bring about more awareness and understanding those experiences.

Hahrie: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ll tell you a story. My parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s from Korea. They originally thought they were going to come, they were going to stay for a few years. My dad was going to go to school and then they wouldn’t go back to Korea. It ended up taking my dad a lot longer to get through school than they thought it would because even though he came from college-educated family in Korea, when he came to the United States, because the Korean economy was still a developing economy, his money didn’t go very far and so my parents had to work all the way through in order to get my dad through school. By the time that he finished school, my brother and I were born and we had started school here and so they decided at that point that they didn’t want to go back to Korea, that they wanted to raise their kids in the United States because we had already started school here.

I didn’t know this as a kid, but I recognize it now as an adult, is though then my first language when I was a kid was Korean, but once my parents decided to raise us in the United States, they, for lack of a better term, they went on this aggressive assimilation campaign. They started speaking English at home and my mom went out and she learned how to cook hamburgers and how to cook spaghetti because she wanted us to be eating the same food at home that our peers at school would be eating. They basically tried to make us what they thought was American at the time. This is in the 1980s or whatever when I was a kid.

When I look back on that now, I totally understand why my parents did that, because what they said was when they first got the United States, they felt so lonely and they felt so different that they didn’t want their children to have that same experience of loneliness that they had. That’s why they wanted to do as much as they can to assimilate us into the American culture. I think a lot of Asian families did things like that, and so what ended up happening is there’s a way in which it kind of erased the Asian experience because of this pressure to assimilate.

I think as our family and matured, as my brother and I got older and also as my parents became more comfortable in United States, they started to peel that back a little bit because they realized, “You know what? We don’t want to give up our Korean heritage.” In the end, we’re never going to be the same as a family that grew up entirely in the United States and that part of what we want to celebrate about who we are is our Korean heritage. There’s this back and forth that went on in my family.

I think that obviously many Asian families, they each have their own experiences, but I think there is a way in which the Asian community has struggled with this sort of … The Asian community, I think, because we’re often called something like a model minority or because we’re often pitted in this relationship that sits between Black Americans and white Americans, it’s put Asians, and I think Asian-American community, in a very challenging position and the real challenge for us is to not think about these relationships between these different groups in a mindset of scarcity, but to think about it in a mindset of abundance, that we’re all better if we work in solidarity with each other. I think that’s where we’ve seen some really powerful examples come up, when you see Blacks and Asians working across difference together to rebuild a kind of better future.

I think all these pressures that immigrant communities feel around assimilation, around identity formation, around all of these different things, come together in unique ways for each community. The challenge for the Asian-American communities has been for us to be able to make visible the experience of what it means to be Asian, to celebrate that, and then to work in solidarity across difference with all different kinds of people.

Whitney: Thank you so much. The narrative of abundance or the mindset of abundance is something that I feel every time I’m on a call with you and with the Agora Institute. I’m just so grateful for this relationship we have. Before I let you go though, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing with us, what are you reading right now? What are you thinking about right now? What sort of media are you consuming right now that you would suggest to a larger audience?

Hahrie: Oh yeah. Gosh, that’s a great question. I always have several books going on at once. I actually just finished a great book over the weekend. It’s a book written by Eliza Griswold, it’s called Amity and Prosperity. It’s actually about two rural communities in Western Pennsylvania and she chronicles what the experience of having fracking move into their community was like for them. It’s a beautiful book. She spent seven years researching these communities and really getting to know a lot of the families and it shows the beauty of what it’s like to really be connected to a place, as a lot of these families are, and to celebrate that, and then the challenges that come up when something comes in, like a fracking company, and then changes the relationships and dynamics within that community. I would definitely recommend it to a lot of people.

Whitney: Thank you for that recommendation, that’s great.

Hahrie: Yeah.

Whitney: Well, thank you, Hahrie. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.

Hahrie: Thank you so much for having me.

Whitney: Always good to talk to you.

Hahrie: Really good to talk to you. Okay, take care.

Whitney: Bye.