Featured Alum: Grace Chai – from Political Science to the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture

Who is Our Interviewee?

Grace Chai, Class of 2017, from Renton, WA

Current Job Title

Grants Administration Consultant

Current Organization or Company

City of Seattle, Office of Arts & Culture

Briefly describe your current role

I assist with administering grant funding to local arts & cultural organizations, as well as individual artists. I help with facilitating grant review panels, analyzing applicant and grantee data, processing invoices, and managing communications with our community partners. I also provide input on strategic decisions to align our programs with the City and Office’s commitment to racial equity and social justice.

How did you get started in a career in your current sector / industry?

My relationship began with the Office of Arts & Culture through an internship in my senior year (2016-2017). I supported communications and events coordination, and was able to have an inside look as a municipal agency endeavored to implement racial equity initiatives throughout its programs and operations. I loved witnessing and contributing to the impact of public investment in arts and culture in communities. Over time, my relationship and responsibilities with the Office grew in variety and complexity, and I have since then continued my work with them through 3 consecutive consultant contracts. 

How did your education at UW prepare you for your career? What was your undergraduate major? 

The analytical lens I developed at UW was and is crucial to how I approach my work. As a political science major, my academic foundation was in history and understanding how policies, institutions, and systems interact with and affect communities, and conversely, how communities have endeavored to enact change on institutions and systems of power. Working in public service, whether it is at the municipal, county, state, federal, or international level comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility, as these institutions have caused deep harm in the past, especially to communities of color, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, people in poverty, and other marginalized communities. A tremendous amount of my learning also came from experiences that occurred outside the classroom, such as in student activism for campus diversity initiatives.

If you are no longer in your first position, briefly walk us through your career journey since then:

My first job after completing my undergraduate diploma was in diversity recruiting at Microsoft via a temp agency (temporary contracted employment). That experience taught me a lot about the opportunities and limitations of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work within the corporate sector, and allowed me to build my institutional analysis of the barriers to high-paying STEM sector jobs that underrepresented communities experience. It also illuminated the benefits and risks of employment through a temp agency, and caused me to educate myself on labor laws and my rights as a worker within that environment. After a little over a year in that role, my old team from my internship at the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture asked me to contract with them as a self-employed consultant. I helped coordinate the largest public arts event our Office had ever executed, for the closing and demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct that served over 70,000 visitors. After that contract, other teams within the department asked me to contract with them, doing work in program coordination for an equitable development professional development program, and my current role assisting with grants administration.

What do you most enjoy about your sector / industry / job?

I love that my work allows me the opportunity to feel impactful and like I’m contributing to building the kind of world I want to live in. When I am feeling exhausted, discouraged, and hopeless by all that is wrong in the world and all the ways people are experiencing injustice or harm, I can recenter myself in knowing that I’m doing what I can to prevent similar things from happening in the future. I also love that my work brings me into contact with awe-inspiring people who feel the same calling towards a vision larger than ourselves; it’s so reassuring, uplifting, and healing. Growing up, I always wondered what my place in history would be. As I grew older, I realized that this is the choice I get to make. I feel connected to the legacy of activists, advocates, healers, and freedom fighters (both known and unknown) that came before me, and I feel connected to those who will carry on this work long after me.

How is your current career the same, or different, than what you thought it would be when you began college?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my career after college – I was still very much in an open-minded place in terms of what field(s) I specifically wanted to pursue. But I knew how I wanted my work to feel: powerful, important, connected, inspiring, challenging, daring, exciting, and creative. Over time, I learned to disinvest from definitions of “success” that did not feel like they served me, the people I most wanted to serve, and the problems I most wanted to solve. I learned to reinvent and reimagine what I wanted “powerful” and “successful” and “important” to look like to me and others.

Do you have any words of advice for UW students interested in a career in your sector or industry?

Do the Work of unlearning the assumptions and biases you were socialized to have. Open your mind to other ways of thinking and being. Read books and consume content created by people who are different than you, especially people whose voices tend to be underrepresented. 

Don’t expect praise or trust right off the bat. Trust will come if you continuously show up, do what you say you will do, and prove yourself useful.

Positive intention does not excuse harmful impact. Take accountability when you have messed up, but don’t be paralyzed by shame. Commit to and have a plan for doing better next time. Find people who can hold you accountable while also supporting you.

Try to turn every situation into one you can learn from. Let failure be your teacher. Consider that “success” is not always linear.

Acknowledge what you do not know and may not ever fully understand. 

Know that you will never be able to control how others act, but you will always be able to control how you respond.

Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Ground yourself in history.

Seek out feedback from others. Embrace criticism as just useful information.

Learn to take care of yourself too. Sometimes you may feel like you will never do enough; give yourself some grace. 

By Eli Heller (He/Him)
Eli Heller (He/Him) Career Coach Eli Heller (He/Him)