Leading With Purpose: Insights from AiLun Ku, Opportunity Network President and CEO

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.
For 15 years, the Opportunity Network has empowered students from historically underrepresented communities by providing them with the support needed to succeed in college and thrive in evolving workplaces. NationSwell spoke with Opportunity Network President and CEO AiLun Ku, a Council member, about how she’s been able to lead by putting purpose into action throughout her entire life.
NationSwell: Thanks for speaking with us, AiLun. How does your current role position you to lead with purpose?
AK: As the president and CEO of  the Opportunity Network, I have the privilege to lead with purpose every day. As an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan at a young age, it was quite tough navigating the American education system and finding a place of belonging. And in my self-discovery journey, I learned that I am good at building and growing community-driven organizations, and given my lived experience, I care deeply about work that sits at the intersection of social justice and education, which OppNet provides me the opportunity to do. My vision is that not only will first-generation students and young people of color influence the future of work and learning, but we will be represented at every level and in every space leading those conversations. And that’s pretty much sums up my job description and the work we do at OppNet!
NS: Can you tell us about a specific time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?
AK: In high school, I worked as an interpreter for a social worker whose job was to check in on the sponsoring families of individuals coming to the United States seeking asylum. Mandarin is my native language, so at 16, I was responsible for giving voice and information to Chinese children and families that have gone through unimaginable hardship in their pursuit of safety.
This job was an early and formative contradiction to how I was treated in the school system. My family and I moved from Taiwan to New Jersey when I was 10. We all had to learn English. In school, with Mandarin as my first language and English as my second language, my first language was deemed a deficit in the American education system instead of an asset.
So, being an interpreter at a young age really helped me transform a part of my identity into purposeful action.
NS: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?
AK: While I think striving for clarity is important, I also think doing purposeful work with a little bit of fuzziness around your own vision is okay, too, because self-discovery takes time.
I think self-discovery is such an important practice that takes time, patience, mistakes, generosity and a lot of grace to perpetually make happen. I believe that self-discovery builds the foundation for one to identify and hone strengths and skills that can then be applied to something that gives those strengths and skills meaning — which, to me, is purpose.
One way to consider striving for more clarity in one’s own journey of self-discovery is the practice of inquiry. I am a big fan of asking questions and charging myself to finding the answers. For everything you do or want to do, ask questions, investigate, take action and harness those insights found; check in with yourself, and then do it again.
The next time, though, ask tougher and more complex questions, investigate broader and deeper, take bolder actions based on you insights and challenge yourself to act with more clarity, even if it means stepping back from something.
NS: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?
AK: There are so many! Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor, Canadian Meritorious Service Cross recipient, one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General and a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment & Economic Growth. She is someone who lives her purpose and speaks truth to power thoroughly and deliberately. She is one of the most steadfast advocates for women and children’s rights and security at the global scale. I learn from her every time I listen to her or talk to her.
Amanda Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Rise, an organization that “organizes and empowers citizens to pen their own rights into existence.” She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing to pass numerous state-level Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and also the United Nation’s Universal Survivors’ Bill of Rights. She is one of the kindest, most fashionable, smartest and fun people I’ve had the chance to meet. She is someone who personifies leading with purpose.
Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. I learned about Ai-jen when I was very early in discovering the alignment between my strengths and purpose. It has been enlightening to watch her organize, stay true to her values and partner with incredible social justice activists who also lead with purpose, like Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and Principal of the Black Futures Lab, and Cecile Richards, former president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund to co-found Supermajority, “a new home for women’s activism, training and mobilizing a multiracial, intergenerational community that will fight for gender equity together.” She is always about the collective “us.”
I think it is important to note that there are also leaders across our organizations that lead with purpose at every level. We not only should look outside of our organization for examples of leadership, but also from within and deep inside our own communities and spaces.

AiLun Ku is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

This Website Empowers People in Need to Make Art — And Sell It for Thousands of Dollars

Kitty Zen used to sell her art on a blanket in a Boston public park. Now, her art has been displayed at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and has sold for $1,000.
Zen, a 25-year-old self-taught artist, has been homeless for most of her life. But through ArtLifting, she’s created an income for herself.
“When I got that first check, it was amazing,” says Zen. “I didn’t want to cash it. I wanted to frame it.”
ArtLifting is an online platform where individuals impacted by homelessness or disabilities can sell artwork. There’s an application process where the artists and their work are assessed for mission alignment and curatorial standards.
Liz Powers, one of ArtLifting’s founders, started working in homeless shelters when she was 18. After graduating from Harvard, she received a grant to create art groups within shelters. But she noticed the art produced in these groups ended up in closets and trash cans.
“I realized there were already existing art groups all across the country, about a thousand of them, and that quality, salable art was being produced every day in these groups. The issue was that the art wasn’t going anywhere after. Instead, it would just collect dust or be thrown out. This is where I realized the need for something like ArtLifting,” Powers says.
So Powers and her brother Spencer pooled together $4,000 and founded the public benefit corporation in 2013. Originally, it functioned solely as an online gallery for original works of art. Now it’s expanded to a marketplace for curated art, business partnerships, prints and merchandise.
ArtLifting started in Boston with just four artists. Six years later, there’s about 150 artists and customers in 46 states. Staff curators choose the art they then represent on their website.
“After the last decade of working with homeless individuals, I’ve heard over and over, ‘Liz, I don’t want another handout. I don’t want someone to hand me another sandwich. I just want opportunity. I want an ability to change my own life.’ And that’s really gotten to me,” Powers says.
While the income artists make is essential, empowerment is a key element of ArtLifting.
“My ultimate goal is to create a movement celebrating strengths. There are countless hidden talents out there, and our goal is to inspire people to notice them,” says Powers.
On its website, each artist has a story. Aron Washington, whose acrylic paintings are influenced by physics and designs, uses art to fight stigmas. Washington, who has synesthesia triggered by a bicycle accident, paints to bring awareness to humanity, he says.
Jackie Calabrese uses art as a release for PTSD and depression. Using colorful acrylics, she paints calming landscapes from memory that remind her of safe and happy places.
“[Painting] helps me to be more motivated in life, to feel less depressed or more peaceful. My past has been full of trauma,” she says. Art is a way to release a lot of that and find more peace within myself. It gives a place to think of that is beautiful instead of all the horror from the past.”
ArtLifting works with small businesses and Fortune 500 companies, like Staples and Microsoft, to provide artwork for offices. Prints sell for about $300 and original artwork has sold for as much as $25,000.
Eric Lewis Basher sold two artworks to Microsoft that now hang in Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Basher currently paints at Hospitality House, a shelter and art studio in San Francisco.
“I am thrilled at the potential this means for me,” Basher says. “If anyone at that level likes my work then the world opens up.”
When a piece of art is sold, each artist makes 55 percent of the profit. One percent goes towards a fund that provides support to art groups, and the remainder keeps the business afloat.
Powers stresses that this isn’t a charity. These are talented artists looking to sell their work and spread their talent to a larger audience.
“It is a very touching moment to actually meet the person who wants to have a piece of your artwork be a part of their homes,” Zen says. “Artists are always our own hardest critics. Being appreciated that way is truly uplifting.”
More: 6 Stunning Art Projects That Are Making Cities Healthier

Fighting Poverty With Jobs

We all seek meaning in the work we do, but what if you’re struggling to find a job in the first place? For some, that means turning to America Works. Called a “company with a conscience,” this employment agency offers a network of work-readiness and job-placement programs to clients including veterans, people with disabilities, the formerly incarcerated and the homeless. Their mission: to help lift people from all backgrounds out of poverty, by giving them the skills they need to support themselves.
Since it was founded in 1984, America Works has helped more than 700,000 people find, and keep, meaningful employment. Here are some of their stories.


When Jaquell Langley showed up at the America Works office in the Bronx last April, he was dressed for success in a full suit.
“His motivation was already there,” says Abigail Kelly, a program manager at America Works of New York (AWNY). “We didn’t have to teach it.”
The 24-year-old was eager to land a job, yet a significant speech impediment and slight cognitive delay meant Langley was struggling to get noticed by potential employers.
Still, he was determined. Each day, when the America Works office opened at 8:30 a.m., there was Langley, suited up and waiting outside the front door. He immersed himself in employment skills workshops and sat through mock interviews. Realizing Langley found it harder to speak when he was nervous, the staff worked on upping his confidence — chatting him up in the halls and encouraging him to perform in a poetry slam.
When Langley first interviewed for a part-time greeter position with a pharmacy chain, he didn’t get the gig. “But he didn’t mope,” says Kelly. “He kept showing up to our office, ready to work.”
AWNY staff arranged for Langley to re-interview for the greeter position a few weeks later, and this time, he was hired.
“We ring a bell in our office when someone gets a job, and Jaquell ran to ring it,” Kelly says. “He made the rounds, shaking hands and giving high fives like the mayor.”
Langley has since been promoted to full-time cashier and is saving money for his first apartment.
“Too many in life take the easy way out, refusing to even try to push themselves,” says Kelly. “Jaquell chose a different path, and pushed to have as normal a life as he could.”

America Works 2
America Works helped Jaquell Langley find work as a greeter at a pharmacy chain.


30 years. That’s how long Marvin Daniel worked as an operations manager in the banking industry. Yet last year, when his company decided to move out of New York State, Daniel found himself out of work.
The good news was that Daniel, 59, had glowing references and a solid resume. “The only thing holding him back was a lack of opportunity,” says Sami Martin, his career advisor at AWNY.
Martin enrolled Daniel in classes to get him up to speed on commonly used computer programs and website design. She arranged for him to meet with America Works’ career agents, who have connections to companies looking to hire, and encouraged Daniel to pursue leadership training.
Within a few months, Daniel landed a position at a bank. He’s about to celebrate his one-year anniversary.
“I love being a person’s cheerleader,” says Martin. Of the three years she’s been at America Works, she says, “I couldn’t tell you how many clients I have helped, but I can say that they’ve all been special to me.”


At first, Melvin Taylor was reluctant to visit America Works. In other employment programs, he’d faced rejection due to his criminal background. But a few months earlier, he’d lost his job due to alcohol abuse and had found himself living in a homeless shelter.
When a public assistance agency referred the older gentleman to America Works’ Staten Island office, his desire to find a job led him to show up.
Kaitlyn Squire, a career advisor for AWNY, helped Taylor get some professional clothes, revamp his resume and hone his interview skills.
“From the get-go I really clicked with him,” she says. “Melvin has such a genuine personality and a smile that touched my heart.”
Taylor told Squire that he would work in any field, just so long as someone would take a chance on him.
When a string of job interviews led nowhere, Squire had an idea. She contacted the cafe where she used to work. Her ex-manager there agreed to interview Taylor for a part-time dishwasher position.
“They loved him and hired him on the spot,” Squire says.
Fast forward a year and Taylor has graduated to a full-time position. He was recently named Employee of the Month, and came back to America Works to show Squire his certificate.
“I was just a helping hand. Melvin did his own work,” says Squire. “Our program is not a fix-all, but clients who really take what we offer and apply it can do amazing things.”

This post was produced in partnership with the NationSwell Council, a membership community of service-minded leaders committed to moving America forward. To learn more about the Council, its members and signature events, click here.

Watch: How YouthBuild Creates Better Communities and Stronger Leaders

YouthBuild provides unemployed young Americans ages 16 to 24 with opportunities to pursue their education, serve their communities, and learn job skills. Since Dorothy Stoneman, founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA, started the first YouthBuild program in East Harlem in 1978, the movement has spread across the country, with tens of thousands of YouthBuild students building affordable housing and becoming leaders in their communities.
In a Google Hangout On Air with NationSwell, Stoneman discusses her reason for starting YouthBuild, while Jamiel Alexander, YouthBuild alumni council president, and Filomena Chavez from the Just-A-Start YouthBuild program in Cambridge, Mass. talks about the way service has shaped their lives.
“Your neighbors see you building in the same neighborhood where they used to see you standing idle. Now you’ve got a hard hat, now you’ve got a book bag, now you’ve built a house, and you can tell your children, ‘I built that house,'” Stoneman says of the pride that YouthBuild students feel.
Since 1994, when federal money for YouthBuild first went into local communities, the program has put up 28,000 units of affordable housing in 273 communities across the country.
“Self, family, then community,” Alexander says of the way he worked to get on a better path before raising a family and building a better society. “You have to take care of yourself first. You have to heal.”
People in low income communities should have the opportunity to improve their own communities, Stoneman says, adding “that’s an energy that needs to be unleashed, and AmeriCorps does have a priority on including low income people in giving service in their own communities.”
YouthBuild is one of the organizations doing the most to enhance the culture of service in America, a topic the New York Times recently explored in an editorial previewing the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. And General Stanley McChrystal is just one of a number of leaders who has outlined the importance of giving all young Americans the opportunity to serve.
Click the Take Action button to learn how you can join NationSwell and The Franklin Project to spread the word on service year opportunities, and make sure to tweet thoughts or questions with the #serviceyear hashtag.
NationSwell is featuring various service opportunities in a series of live Google Hangouts On Air. Next month, we’ll be talking with CityYear, a nonprofit that partners with public schools to provide targeted student interventions.

Watch: How One Man is Saving His Community, One Child at a Time

Some people experience bad things, leading them towards a life of violence and crime. But with others, tough situations encourage them to help others.
Billy Lamar Brooks Sr., fortunately, belongs to the second group.
Brooks, a former Black Panther member, has experienced many of life’s challenges as a black man living in North Lawndale, Illinois, a neighborhood just outside of Chicago. As a young boy, he experienced racism from Chicago police, lost his son — Billy Lamar Brooks, Jr. — to murder right before Father’s Day in 1991, and has seen how poverty affected his hometown. Despite all this, Brooks continues to help his community the best way he can: By impacting the lives of young people in his neighborhood.
Currently, Brooks serves as the Director of YouthLab@1512 at the Better Boys Foundation (BBF), where he works with kids ages of 13 to 18 throughout the year. “I love them [students]. That’s why I’m here. I enjoy doing what I do,” he said. “It’s my profession. It’s my career. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
While he helps his students with their academic and prevocational goals at BBF, he is also out on the streets every day, trying to teach the neighborhood’s kids the value of their choices. “There are times we have to go out there and hunt them down, and chase them, berate them, but it’s all out of love.”
In The Atlantic‘s video, republished by Upworthy, he says, “It’s about choice, when I tell young people this today. One does not have to come from a middle class, two parent household to be successful in life.”
MORE: What Can Former Gang Members Teach Psychology Students?