Scott Shigeoka – Bridging Divides
Intro (0:06): Hey, welcome to another episode of Audium Listens. I’m Dave Shaff. A lot has changed since we last saw each other: we got a new president and more vaccines on the way. Today’s interview was actually recorded January 7th, the day after the siege of the White House. But it was indeed actually a timely conversation, since our guest today Scott Shigeoka is directly involved with attempting to bridge political and social divides. Scott is a storyteller and creative consultant, which basically means they’ve done it all — podcasts, web series’, books, articles, commercial design, music. Whooh! These days they’re focused on finding common ground through conversation, bringing together liberal and conservative points of view, and the young and old. How can we bridge this mind-boggling divide? Let’s listen in and hear Scott’s story.
Dave (1:16): Yeah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk in spite of everything going on. Starting out with growing up in Hawaii, what was that like and how did you find your way out here to the mainland?
Scott (1:28): (laughs) There you go, you know the lingo, I love it. So yeah, I grew up in Hawaii, um, I’m Yonsei, which means I’m fourth generation. For me, I’ve always been an extrovert, but I would say that in my younger years I had social anxiety. Um, mostly because I was, you know, consistently bullied and I was struggling a lot with who I was as someone that was beginning to acknowledge my queer identity but not having people around me, or the language, to truly, you know, own it? So, that was really difficult. And then, you know, my dad, he did go to prison for a number of years when I was growing up-
Dave (2:04): Oh wow.
Scott (2:04): And he really cared for me and my family, um, but he struggled with an addiction.
Dave (2:16): You mention just kind of find yourself and finding your identity, I guess, in LGBTQ light. Was there a point when you discovered that sort of thing, and how did that kind of affect your trajectory?
Scott (2:31): Yeah, well I so appreciate you asking questions about childhood because I tell people there’s, you know, an inner child within all of us that we need to, you know, grow a relationship with.
Dave (2:41): Mhm, mhm.
Scott (2:41): So, um, for me, yeah my queer identity is so important to me. It’s-it’s directly related to, uh, my art and to my work because when I was growing up, you know, the-the narrative was you marry someone of the opposite sex, you know, get a home, you build a family… It really made me feel like I was on the outside, like I was being othered.
Dave (3:03): Mhm.
Scott (3:03): And so I was presented with two choices, right? One choice was that I could sort of live within this-this narrative and do something that’s directly against how I felt, and then there’s this other path that said you could be open and own that identity of being queer, but you will face tension.
Dave (3:26): Right.
Scott (3:26): And you will be up against this norm, and this narrative that says otherwise. So in college I made a conscious decision to change my direction and to come out. And I’m soo glad I came out, and so many of those people who didn’t understand me now do.
Dave (3:43): Right.
Scott (3:44): Like, over time, over-over many years of maintaining a relationship. An example of that is my mom. I didn’t feel at first that full acceptance and celebration and I remember she called me, you know, a few months after I came out, and she said, you know, I’m not gonna vote for this person in the next election because they’re anti-LGBTQ.
Dave (4:06): Wow!
Scott (4:07): And, it was like a direct way of her saying, like, I support you and not only do I support you, but I wanna advocate on behalf of you and people who are like you. And, so it made me realize, in that moment, people can change. Even if people have a negative view on you or your identities or they’re dismissive, or even perhaps hateful, right? Like, there is-there is a belief that I hold onto: that through maintaining relationships, through maintaining conversations, people will change. So, so that’s been a huge field for my work as an artist and as a creative consultant around this idea that people can change over time.
Dave (4:50): That’s beautiful, man.
Scott (5:01): The one thing that I truly love and embody as a queer person: society has these norms. These-these dominant narratives of how we should live our lives and as a queer person I said that is actually not for me and I’ve actively, um, countered it, right? So, being queer is actually countercultural — you’re going the mainstream of how relationship or how a family should look like. And, I carried that lesson with me, um, through everything that I’ve done.
Dave (5:45): I know that you wrote for the Washington Post, and, uh, you got a Fulbright scholarship, became an MTV Fellow. How did all that kind of come about?
Scott (5:55): So I landed in, uh, the D.C. area and I was waiting tables at a, you know, chain restaurant just trying to pay my rent, pay my student loans, survive. I ended up doing this educational course that was focused on writing because I majored in journalism and I wanted to keep my writing chops up, and at the very end of the class, the teacher Holly, she says “you know, I just, like, love the way you show up. Can you send me some of your journalistic clips?” And so I sent her some of my clips to her Gmail account and she replied with her Washington Post account.
Dave (6:28): Oooh, yeah!
Scott (6:29): She said: “I don’t know if I shared this in class, but I’m actually an editor at the Washington Post and we actually have an opening right now, uh, for a writer to interview musicians that are coming through the D.C. area — would you be interested in potentially being that person?” And Holly just really supported me and, you know, I quit my job at Ruby Tuesday and I was now interviewing and writing articles about, you know, Big Boi from Outkast and Phantogram and Michael Kiwanuka and-
Dave (7:02): Yeah, from waiting tables to, uh, yeah the next day you’re writing (laughs) interviewing Big Boi and stuff like that, it’s-it’s, uh, not bad. I know, like, a little-little later on you got the Fulbright scholarship and you founded a music festival, is that correct?
Scott (7:17): So I was, you know, reporting at the Washington Post, meeting these musicians and I realized I don’t wanna just write about the music, you know? I wanna be involved in the actual producing or distribution. Like, I wanted to get closer to the actual craft. And I found this fellowship that was a collaboration between Fulbright and MTV and it was all about using music as a force for social change. And I was like this is perfect, and in the process everyone was like: “are you kidding me? You can’t leave the Washington Post, that’s your dream job! Like, why would you do that?”
Dave (7:48): (laughs)
Scott (7:48): I just knew there was like this-this-this calling to purpose, this like tapping on my shoulder that said you have to. You must go. And the whole, um, proposal that I put together was that musicians in Iceland are so intertwined with the environmental movement, and a part of that journey was launching a community arts and music festival on a sustainable farm in between the mountains and the, the ocean of the North Atlantic, and it was really beautiful. We had people from many, many different countries came. They all came together and co-created, and we like had folks that were going out fishing for the food that would then be prepared for the lunch at the festival and people were, like helping to organize workshops and-and different, um, experiences at the festival. And there was obviously music, and there was a large fire – large campfire that happened at the end of every night – and people would gather around and sing. And I remember witnessing, like, these hundreds of people gathered around this bonfire and connecting across their differences. That was a really profound experience of going to Iceland and, and I-I did not regret taking that risk.
Dave (9:07): Yeah! Man… And going from helping people connect through their differences, I mean, that’s a thread that you’re continuing. A lot more recently, you quit your job to take this kind of road trip across the United States, but this wasn’t exactly just like a travel kind of situation or a self-discovery. What was the point of-of this road trip?
Scott (9:27): So, I’m in Iceland but I realize that, you know, in terms of my personal romantic life, I haven’t nourished that part of me which is so important, right? I decided to move back to one of the queer cities that I can think of, which is the San Francisco Bay Area, and the primary reason for me being in the Bay Area was to really connect again to my queer identity, but then Trump was elected and I just saw the-the change in the division, um, and the divisiveness in our country. I needed to do something, and so I wanted to take this embodied experience of connecting people across differences and th-th-the healing that I’ve done in my own life, um, across those differences and-and bring it to the world. And what I recognized was that the first thing I needed to do was I needed to listen. I needed to do a listening tour to ground into what is already happening in the space of bridging divides? And so I just – I quit my job – and I loaded everything that I owned into a Toyota Prius. You know, got my, sort of, you know, U.S. map out and plotted a couple of places, um, in the Rocky Mountain west, in the midwest, in rural Appalachia, in the South, and I was like: alright, here we go! Two years on the road, like, it begins now. So, I had some savings to help me, you know, sort of propel into-into this, this two-year adventure, but I also had the support of UC Berkeley. Um, they have a Greater Good Science Center which is all about exploring compassion and awe and connectivity and life, and they were starting this new project around bridging differences. And so, I just, you know, went to Trump rallies. And, I went to Republican gatherings and, you know, meetings and I went to churches, and I talked to farmers and ranchers and hunters, and I lived in a small town in-in Appalachia for months and, you know, through this collection of conversations and experiences, I started to understand, quote “the other side” in a more nuanced way. And then, you know, as I was in the South, you know, coming into my, you know, my year two of this voyage, COVID hit. And, I was like, I need to go back home. And so, I went back home to the Bay Area, you know, with my partner. That allowed me to take all of this experience of being on the road, and I started to put it into creative projects.
Dave (12:23): It’s interesting that you’re kind of taking, what it seems like is-is a lot of the thoughts that you-you had on the road and bringing it back here talking about still connecting people and-and bridging the divide… I mean, especially we’re talking about, right now – of course when people hear this it’s not gonna be the same time – but, just for us, just yesterday, uh, we had the, you know, the White House was stormed by protesters and we have a-a sitting president kind of encouraging people to riot and stuff. And, how do you, I guess, how do you put that all in-in context, you know, uh, especially with your experiences of traveling around and meeting people from these diverse communities?
Scott (13:04): So, so much of what I do – for those who aren’t familiar with my work – is I create content, I create stories, I create podcasts and films and different series’ about people coming together across differences to illuminate that there is actually a different way to live and to be in relationship with one another, and hopefully through those relationships we can actually see mindset and behavioral shifts that lead towards more peace, more justice, more equity. People who maybe feel like they are not being, uh, given their basic needs, people who are immersed in a disinformation economy, like, people who are, you know, not aware of racism or some of the systems that are at play — I wanna find shared identities and shared values. You know, bridging isn’t to me this, like, kumbaya, like, let’s have tea together and have conversations like it will all work out if we do that. To me, it is systematic, it is a long-term relational journey, it requires an openness for myself to be transformed by the stories that I’m hearing and the different ideologies and perspectives I’m being given and hearing. Um, it requires an insane level of curiosity and resilience… Particularly, th-th-the bridges I’m interested in most are the generational bridging that needs to happen in our country — so old and young have never been more divided in our country than ever before.
Dave (14:52): Mmm, mmm.
Scott (14:53): And that has soo much political and social ramifications. The other bridge I’m really interested in is the bridge between the LGBTQ and the faith community, which by the way, has overlapped. Like, there are queer clergy, there are people who are queer and religious, but at the same time, we have to recognize historically that the LGBTQ community has been harmed by dominant religious narratives.
Dave (15:25): You know, as you say, the polarization – the divide between us and them is-is getting greater and greater and you need to be able to bridge to those people who are in the middle because those are the people that are much more reachable and you can have an-an effect on much quicker.
Scott (15:40): Well, and I would just caution us using words like “middle” because people in the middle, people who are moderate, like, I feel like it simplifies people.
Dave (15:48): That’s true.
Scott (15:49): Like, people are so complex. I grew up, when I came out as a queer person, hating religious people because of the spiritual harm that I felt. And I actively discriminated against religious people because I had a stigma about, um, religious people and a fear about people who were religious. But what I quickly learned by actually talking (laughs) to people who have different belief structures is that no two individuals are the same. There’s this nuance and this complicating the narrative, um, that we need to be doing, um, in order to do this bridging work well.
Dave (16:29): Absolutely, yeah.
Scott (16:30): So I’m not-I’m not necessarily targeting people, quote, “on the middle” or people who are, quote, “moderates”, I’m just targeting people who are, just like me, willing to hear different perspectives and then perhaps will change, um, through that process.
Dave (16:51): I read that you’re writing a book about this road trip, is that correct?
Scott (16:56): I am writing a book. Actually, for me the idea of the book – the central idea – is around curiosity. It’s that when we are curious about ourselves, our inner world, we can heal. And when we are curious about other people, even people who have very different perspectives than us, we can heal. And, and it’s all about this idea of, like, curiosity as this way of not othering people, of not prejudging or stigmatizing people, of using curiosity – something we are born with – to actually examine, explore, and foster understanding with self and others. But we grow up in a society that smashes out, often, the curiosity from us.
Dave (17:37): Right.
Scott (17:45): And I just think that is the biggest mistake we could be doing, and I would argue is one of the determinants of why we are so polarized and divided as a country, and why there is so much lack of connection to self and exploration of the inner world is because we’re not-we’re not highlighting the power of curiosity.
Dave (18:03): No, yeah, that really resonates with me. Uh, especially with the kind of curriculum you get in schools, and the, you know, the emphasis on STEM and the science, math, and engineering and this kind of curriculum, and not taking a look at the arts. As a collective country, I think it’s, uh, we gotta reexamine how we’re educating people to their senses and their curiosity.
Scott (18:26): The power of listening is soo critical to curiosity and to this work of bridging divides, and sound and music. And I hope, like, if there’s one takeaway (laughs) from this, it’s that you use the power of curiosity, you use your power of listening to move through the world and know that that’s going to serve your life, your own personal healing and growth, but also serve your career and the work you want to do in community and society.
Dave (19:06): In terms of just, personally, how are you staying mentally healthy and, kind of, what advice would you give to other artists to have the kind of motivation that I can see that you have with all your projects?
Scott (19:17): You know, in this moment of mental health, it’s so important to not be isolated, uh, so stay connected to the people that are in your life, um, whether that’s through a phone call or through Zoom or, I’ve been writing letters… um, you know finding ways to just, like, stay in contact with people and remembering that we have the capacity to hold both. To hold both the joy and also the pain and suffering that’s happening, both in the world and also in our lives. So remember we don’t have to hyperfocus on what needs to change, what is going wrong, what is, you know, causing us anxiety. We can hold that – be realistic about that – but we can also hold the joy, the moments and the people that are nurturing us, that are giving us life, the-the moments of play, the laughter, uh, th-th-the positivity that exists, and should exist, in our light, uh, life. Because light and dark should coexist.
Dave (20:21): That’s so beautiful. (laughs) That’s a good way to end it, on that positive note, and, uh, with all of that positivity that I appreciate in you, Scott. So it’s, uh, (laughs) great to talk to you.
Scott (20:32): Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much.
Outro (20:38): Welp, there you go. Something we can all work on: bridging those divides to the people around us. By the way, Scott also mentioned they welcome artists getting in touch. You can find them through the link in the show notes. If you like what you heard, don’t forget to like and subscribe, and you can find out more about what we do here at Audium on our website Audium.org. Next episode, we’ll be speaking with digital artist Mark Sabb from the Museum of the African diaspora. Until then, keep safe and stay curious.