As the founder of a consultancy that prepares and promotes women and minorities in politics, Sui Lang Panoke is trained to find opportunities for organizations to improve their representations of these groups. She sees her love of the Church as complementary, not in contradiction, to her professional training. As a single mother and Relief Society president in her Washington D.C. ward, Sui Lang shares her testimony of the Church’s divine organization and the opportunities the gospel gives each member to grow in her own relationship with the Lord.
I’ll start with my parents’ conversions, because both of them are first-generation converts to the LDS Church. I was born in Honolulu, HI and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah from grade school through college. I moved to Washington, D.C. for graduate school about seven years ago and have loved living in the Greater Washington Area ever since. Major culture shock! In a good way.
My mother grew up in a strong Catholic household, but always found herself searching for something more. After graduating from high school, she went to Utah to visit a friend who was a member of the Church. She received numerous invitations to go to church from friends, neighbors, and the missionaries, and one day she decided to attend. The moment she walked into the chapel on the University of Utah campus, she immediately felt the Spirit and knew in her heart that she had found what she had been looking for. She was baptized by the missionaries shortly after and has been a strong and faithful member ever since.
My father grew up in Nanakuli, which is a small town on the island of Oahu. The legislative district in which Nanakuli is located has the highest percentage of native Hawaiian constituents in the country. My father is not a full-blooded native Hawaiian, but he’s over 60%, which is very rare for this day and age. He was fellowshipped by the missionaries when he was thirteen. They took him to church and he loved it. He was baptized shortly after and ended up being the first missionary ever from his branch to serve a full-time mission. He served a Mandarin Chinese-speaking mission in Taiwan. My parents currently reside in Holladay, Utah and attend the Chinese ward at the University of Utah.
My parents met in Utah, were married in the Salt Lake Temple, and decided to raise their family in Utah. We have a very colorful family in Hawaii, and they wanted to raise their family around like-minded people who shared the same moral values and spiritual beliefs as they did.
Utah is not a very ethnically or culturally diverse state–although it’s getting better! I still find it somewhat telling whenever I meet new people out here in the D.C. area and they find out I’m from Utah. I get the same three questions: Are you Mormon? Are you a Republican? And, are you a polygamist? I usually laugh and probe more about how they have arrived at these assumptions about Mormons and it then leads into a very interesting and in-depth political and religious discussion. Which, on the surface, most of us try to avoid–especially in D.C.–but somehow I find myself falling into these conversations all the time, unintentionally. I do have to say, though, I have often felt the Spirit during these discussions and always end up feeling that both myself and whomever I’m talking to leave the conversation with our hearts being opened in a new way. I am absolutely grateful for my upbringing in Utah because it taught me how to engage, communicate, and connect with people who are different from me. It was a great experience to always be the minority (since I am of Hawaiian descent) because it gave me an opportunity to voice my opinion on a variety of issues. Even when I didn’t think I really had an opinion, people wanted to know what it was. As an undergrad, I singlehandedly represented the woman, the minority, the progressive, and the Democrat perspective in all of my political science classes; I would often get called upon by my professors to share my perspective as a woman, as a minority, or as a progressive. Being the minority also led to a lot of leadership opportunities. For example, I was appointed by the governor to serve on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Commission. The commission was charged with promoting diversity in education throughout the state. I was grateful for opportunities like that.
One concern I often hear from people of color who visit Utah is that they feel a strong sense–or at least stronger than other areas of the country–of racial profiling and racial discrimination during their stay. I can understand how people of color can perceive any form of what they perceive to be unfair treatment as being racist or discriminatory. And I have experienced that feeling first-hand on many occasions–not just in Utah, but in various parts of the world. But in Utah, specifically, I can honestly say that I rarely felt like I was being racially discriminated against, because I was a member of the Church. In other areas of the country, like Washington D.C. where I live now, racial segregation still very much exists. But in Utah, I feel a stronger presence of religious segregation. Sometimes I feel like there is an unspoken separation between members and non-members. I experienced and felt that divide much more than the racial divide. I have dark skin, dark curly hair. I’m not Black, although often times people think I am. I have one of those ambiguous looks which allows me to essentially fit into just about any ethnic group: I have been mistaken for being Black, Asian, Hispanic–you name it. But I’m actually native Hawaiian, Filipino, and Chinese, and once people find out I’m from Hawaii they immediately open up to me, because hey, who doesn’t love Hawaii? I always felt accepted by my Caucasian counterparts in Utah because I was a member of the Church, and the fact that I was from Hawaii was like a bonus! So, I was “safe” and included in their social circles.
I have always felt that our church leaders have had a special and unique love and compassion for Pacific Islanders–native Hawaiians, especially, because of the “Aloha Spirit.” I actually attended BYU-Hawaii my first year of undergrad. I was working at the Polynesian Cultural Center as a dancer in the canoe show, and while I was there we had the opportunity to meet President Hinckley and perform for him. We had devoted months and months of practice in preparation for his visit, and what struck me the most when he finally came was the manner in which he received the gifts and love we offered him–so humbly and graciously. I’ve heard numerous prophets and general authorities speak about Polynesians in a special way and testify to their love for our people, culture, and food!
I feel the Lord has a special place in His heart for people of color who have been unfairly treated because of the color of their skin, or children who have been born with severe physical or mental disabilities–basically anyone who has come down to this earth and has been ridiculed, discriminated against, or mistreated in some way because of aspects of themselves that are beyond their control. Striving to view them through the eyes of Christ is how I make sense of things that happen on this earth that seem unfair in the world. I have grown to see these circumstances and experiences as a compliment from the Lord, in that, He chose His strongest and most resilient children to come to this earth in those bodies, knowing the level of adversity that they would face. He was confident in their strength and knew that they had the capacity to love their persecutors unconditionally, the ability to exercise their power to forgive, and the spiritual maturity to view these experiences as learning opportunities.
You run your own media and political training organization. How would you describe your career trajectory?
In Utah, I got involved in local politics. I volunteered on campaigns and quickly became one of the leaders in the Young Democrats of Utah. After completing my undergrad work, I applied to American University’s School of Public Affairs to pursue my masters in public administration and a certificate in women, policy, and political leadership at the Women & Politics Institute. One of my passions is empowering women to engage in the political process, pursue public office, and work towards bridging the gender gap in public leadership.
When I was accepted to AU for grad school, my daughter, my father, and our standard poodle drove across the country to Washington, D.C. The week prior to our move, I had no idea where we were going to live, where I was going to work, where my daughter would go to school; all I knew was that D.C. was where we were supposed to be and somehow it all worked out.
My professional interests lie in getting more women and minorities elected to public office. As our population becomes more and more diverse I feel that our political leadership should, in turn, reflect that diversity. We have a long way to go with that. I’ve worked in the private sector, in the non-profit sector, in federal and local government, on the campaign trail, and on the Hill. I have gained a little experience in essentially every aspect of the political process. What I have learned, coming out of these experiences, is that the media is the playing field for politics in the 21st century. If you want to be effective in the political arena, you have to know how to effectively engage in the media. The media landscape has transformed the political landscape and vice versa. As I’ve studied the disparities that exist between women and minorities in political leadership, I’ve also learned that those same disparities exist in the media. It was with this basic understanding that the training organization I run was founded. We target women and minority groups–individuals and organizations–and train them on how to use the media as a vehicle to impact public policy. We offer training participants an opportunity to create “personalized media packages” that consist of three key components: an op-ed on a topic of their choice, a video segment of them speaking on that same topic, and a professional headshot. Each participant walks away from our trainings ready to pitch themselves and their viewpoints to the local and mainstream media with practical tools that they can immediately put to use.
In 2010, I was invited by the International Republican Institute to conduct a training program for women aspirants in Lagos, Nigeria. The institute’s mission is to strengthen democracies around the world, and it has a women’s program that focuses on integrating and empowering more women to engage in the political process with the underlying belief that women’s increased political participation will strengthen a country’s social, economic, and political stability and infrastructure. That’s where I come in: training women on how to engage with the media, become leaders in their communities, and ultimately pursue public office. Together, we trained over fifty women aspirants and media experts on effective messaging and political communications on the campaign trail. I have been extremely humbled through my experiences working with women leaders in Africa and other developing countries around the world and I have gained a deeper appreciation for the basic rights and privileges and simple things in life that we so often take for granted in America.
You were a single mother of a young child when you started pursuing your graduate degree. How did you make that all work?
Well, there’s no way I could have done it without my parents or the Church. Literally. For that I am grateful. My father is a retired public school teacher who volunteered to basically be my full-time nanny while I was in grad school. I worked during the day and went to school at night. Often times I would leave the house before my daughter woke up, and return home after she had already gone to bed. Looking back now, I think this was by far the most difficult part for me. I remember a time when I had taken my daughter to a doctor’s appointment and the doctor asked me when her last bowel movement was and I couldn’t answer the question. I cried that night. It’s times like these when you, as a mother, begin to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities.
Did you always intend to keep the baby when you were pregnant with her?
That whole experience of going through pregnancy and childbirth alone was extremely difficult. Initially, it was probably the darkest time of my life, spiritually. On one hand, I was really disappointed in myself, like “How did I end up here?” This was not part of my life plan. I haven’t always been active in the Church. But, through this experience I found myself on my knees praying day after day for God’s comfort and guidance to help me through this. I was quickly inspired to shift my perspective on my situation and instead of seeing my pregnancy as an obstacle, I looked at it as a gift–the greatest gift anyone could ever hope for. It was the Lord saying, “Come back,” and at the same time giving me the most precious gift of all–my daughter. No one ever aspires to become a single parent–it’s not your childhood dream–but I can honestly say that being a single parent has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. It has led to my testimony growing stronger than I could have ever imagined. I know that I would not have the testimony of the gospel to the extent that I do, had I not gone through this experience. I have gained a deeper understanding of why the Lord has us go through the trials that we go through. It’s all part of His master plan designed to teach us, humble us, and strengthen our faith. I think a lot of people, when they have children, begin to focus more on increasing their spirituality, and it was the same for me. The birth of my daughter ultimately brought me back to the Church. For that, I am truly grateful.
It sounds like your family was pretty supportive when she was born. Did that support come immediately?
Absolutely! I’m very fortunate–my family is very supportive in everything I do. I think a lot of it comes from our culture and upbringing in Hawaii. The “Aloha Spirit” breeds unconditional love and acceptance.
My daughter and her father remain very close despite the fact that he doesn’t live with us. He and I have also been able to sustain a healthy co-parenting relationship over the years, which to me is essential to the emotional and spiritual well-being of all parties involved. My father, however, has ended up being the primary father figure in my daughter’s daily life. And I am extremely grateful for that. My father is the most Christ-like person I’ve ever known. And, he and my daughter have always had a very close and special bond. I remember at one point when she was two or three years old she would call him “Mama.”
Where do you see your life plan and your career going in the future?
As I get older, I really do want to settle down. I want to get married. I want to have more children. For someone who has had some pretty ambitious career goals, I find my career ambitions becoming less and less a priority. My role and place in the world become less important to me than the place that I’m at spiritually. I know this mindset may not seem very amenable to pursuing a career in the political arena, but as we grow our goals and priorities change. My goal now is to strive to achieve that balance between my responsibilities inside and outside of the home, being mindful of the energy I give to my family and my career. I continuously strive to be in a place where I can continue to pursue professional work that I am passionate about while moving forward with my family goals, too–which I realize, now more than ever, are most important. I don’t want to be one of those women who are consumed by their work. I see that often in D.C. I want to make sure I’m devoting as much time to my daughter as I am to my work. It’s difficult to find that balance, especially when I am sustaining the household on my own. It’s a process every day and every day we get better and better.
We so often tend to compare ourselves to others–our successes, our failures, our trials, and our accomplishments–but I have learned that our lives are not a competition. Each and every one of us has a unique role and mission here on earth. No two are identical. It is with this knowledge I find peace and joy in any work that I choose to do.
Is it tempting to have your career be all-consuming?
Absolutely. I always have to check myself when I feel like I’m ignoring my kid! Anyone who knows me knows I’m notorious for dragging my daughter to conferences, meetings, networking receptions. But, anyone who knows us will also say my daughter’s a great networker herself! On our way home from one of my board meetings the other day, she was telling me how someone had recruited her to join their fundraising committee! My initial thought was, that’s brilliant! I was like, who wouldn’t want to give money to a bright, beautiful nine-year-old girl advocating for a good cause?
I was an only child of a single mom myself. I got dragged around to a lot of grownup places too! I’m sure she’s doing beautifully.
She really is. I actually look up to her! I think she teaches me more than I teach her. One of my closest aunts made an observation about my daughter a few years ago that I have found to be remarkably true over the years. She said that she has never seen a child at such a young age who “thinks before she speaks.” This is such an accurate characterization of my daughter and, hey, I don’t know very many adults that have learned how to do this, so this is a true sign of maturity in adolescence for sure.
I do feel that I have unique blessings as a single mother in the Church. I get to call all the shots in my home. I get invited to all the singles and family activities. And, I’m always saying this to our missionaries, but one benefit of being a single mother in the Church is that I am required to have both sets of missionaries in my home whenever I invite them over for dinner. I love having the missionaries in my home. One of the reasons I love having them over is because I love feeling the presence of the priesthood in my home. I find it remarkable that these men at such a young age are so much further ahead, spiritually, than some of our world leaders that reside right down the street. Over the years we’ve had some very interesting intellectual, spiritual, and sometimes political discussions and we always arrive at the same consensus: even though I’m a big champion of diversity, we all understand that it ultimately doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is, what your political affiliation is, what country you come from. We are all daughters and sons of Heavenly Father and we all warrant the same divine love. We all have access to the same blessings. I love that the missionaries always get this.
One of the things I’ve struggled with in the Church is the history of its treatment of African Americans. My daughter’s father is African American. Most of the men I’ve dated have been African American and I have sort of developed a reputation for dating black Republicans. Many of my friends wonder how I do it. But, I have learned a lot about the gospel and what it really means through these relationships. Me, being politically progressive but religiously conservative, finding myself drawn to African American conservatives actually makes perfect sense to me. I believe that when each of us is able to get to the point where we can sit down with people of opposing views and genuinely seek to understand where their beliefs are coming from, this is how our country–and, ultimately the world–will be healed. It is very difficult to get to that point, and it always ultimately begins with us. I feel that the gospel is what’s going to get us there. Or at least it is what’s gotten me to where I’m at right now spiritually. I haven’t always been as open and accepting as I am now.
Since I’ve been formally trained to analyze organizations, institutions, or governments and assess where they stand in terms of women and minority representation, I find myself inadvertently doing the same thing with our church. I can’t help but understand the concerns that people of color have about the way minorities have been treated within the Church. If you look at our church worldwide, it’s extremely ethnically diverse. But in America, it’s overwhelmingly Caucasian and most of our leaders are Caucasian men. I see many similarities between what we face as a church and what other churches face with regard to integrating women and minorities into leadership roles. I know there will be a day when we see more ethnic diversity in the leadership of the Church, but every church has essentially struggled with this for centuries. That’s why I always say, “Why does the LDS Church always seem to be singled out in this regard?”
I want to quickly share an experience. When our stake got reorganized, Elder Holland came out to assist in the transition and it was the first time that an apostle had come to the Greater Washington Area in twenty years, so it was kind of a big deal. We prepared for this stake conference months in advance. You had to arrive four to five hours early just to get a seat. I was praying that I would get a seat in the chapel. One of my friends from my ward was serving as an usher and got me a seat in the chapel about a dozen rows from the front of the stand. It ended up being the most spiritual meeting I’ve ever been in. I think this is why: oftentimes I find myself looking up at the pulpit in sacrament meeting, stake conference, or General Conference and observing that the leadership of our church residing on the stand are overwhelmingly, if not all, “old white men.” I think I do this naturally because of my training.
This meeting was different, because in this meeting, though I found myself looking up on the stand and once again seeing all white men, this time I was inspired to look beyond what meets the eye. And I didn’t see them as “old white men”; I saw them as men of God who just happened to be white. One after another they each testified of their love for their wives, their love for our Savior, and their love for each and every one of us there. Although they were sitting above all of us on the stand, I knew that in the hearts of these men, they did not set themselves above any one of us in the room; their leadership roles were more lateral than hierarchical. Each one of them came from a place of humility, meekness, and gratitude. It dawned on me that all of these years, I was hoping and waiting for the demographic of the leadership in the Church to change, when in fact, the Lord was waiting for me to humble myself to the point where I could switch my focus from viewing those around me through the eyes of the world to genuinely seeing those around me through the eyes of the Lord. It doesn’t matter what any of us looks like on the outside; what matters is what’s in our hearts. In fact, this is the only thing that matters to the Lord. It was the most powerful meeting that I’ve ever been in.
It was also particularly inspiring to me because Elder Holland talked about how remarkable the Church is to have a divinely led process through which the transfer of power is passed on. I have always found this most fascinating about our church. He commented on how quickly and efficiently the reorganization of the new stake presidency was and how it was, most importantly, done with love. This made me think of the contrast between the Church and the political arena today, where it is pretty much impossible to have a smooth, expedient transfer of power from administration to administration, let alone “with love!” It seems like the absence of love is what’s prevalent throughout the world whenever a transfer of power occurs in the public or private sector. Where else in the world can you witness a transfer of power like the reorganization of our stake presidency? A transfer made so smoothly, so expediently, and with love? He was absolutely right. Hearing testimonies like that, I couldn’t deny it. I could not deny that this church is led by Jesus Christ.
Another thing I have grown to love and appreciate about the men throughout the Church is that nowhere else will you see so many men crying in front of hundreds or thousands of people. I mean, you rarely see men cry, period, and if they do it’s in a private intimate setting behind closed doors. But, in our church grown men will be speaking to large congregations, or at a world-wide-broadcast General Conference and it is very common for our patriarchal leaders to break down in tears! To me, this is just another testament of the power of the Spirit and the humility of the men that lead our church. They become so overwhelmed with love and gratitude that their emotions take over, and they can’t deny the Spirit! It’s that strong. It will bring anyone to their knees. It’s a great thing!
I have realized that as my faith in the gospel grows stronger, I find myself questioning the roles of women within the Church less and less. It is important to acknowledge that the Church and society play by different rules. When you truly believe that the Church is led and directed by Jesus Christ, your desire to question its precepts dwindles away.
You were recently called to be the Relief Society president of your ward. What has been your reaction to that new calling?
When the bishop initially extended the calling to me in his office, I sat there for what seemed a long moment of silence, allowing myself to process what he was saying. I was immediately overwhelmed–not overwhelmed with the responsibility that comes with the calling, but overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and love, I had never felt closer to my Heavenly Father. The first words out of my mouth were, “Are you sure you want ME?” I quickly became emotional because I had never thought of myself as being worthy or even qualified to serve in that role; in my mind, that calling was reserved for the “other” RS ladies, the ones I grew up with in Utah. The bishop’s response was very comforting as he replied, “Yes, you. The Lord does see you in that light and He wants you to serve.”
Initially, I found it rather ironic actually that I would be called to serve in the RS, because growing up in Utah, I used to actually make fun of the RS ladies–wearing their Christmas sweaters, always knitting something, swapping Jell-O salad and funeral potatoes recipes. I never really felt like I fit into that mold. But, over the years I have grown to love the women in RS as I admire the manner in which they raise their children, foster sincere and loyal friendships with each other and their husbands, adhere to the needs of our communities, pursue successful careers outside of the home, and even serve in our armed forces. The women in RS have quickly become living examples in my life of the type of woman that I want to be. So, in many ways, this calling is a true testament to me of how much the women in RS have contributed to my own personal and spiritual growth over the years.
For me to be given the opportunity to serve and lead this organization in our ward is a true honor and blessing in my life. I consider it to be my greatest accomplishment next to raising my daughter. As I think back now to my young adulthood years when I was graduating from high school and going off to college and really starting to think about what my career goals were going to be, I realize that I always had the desire to serve women. Most of the women I grew up around filled very traditional female roles. Many of them were full-time moms, and if they worked outside of the home it was a part-time job in administration, education, or healthcare. Of course I’m generalizing, but this is the image I remember. Growing up surrounded by that image of women, I always felt like I saw an even greater potential and role for women, especially women of color, and I wanted to inspire and empower women to become leaders not just in their homes, but in society as well. I wasn’t sure in what capacity or to what extent I was going to do this, but I was always so inspired by the women in my life that I wanted to pay that forward in some way.
When I think about what makes a great leader I think of personal and spiritual strength, perseverance, humility, gratitude, high self-worth, low ego, and sincere concern for others. I’ve been blessed because pretty much all of the women who have inspired my life have possessed these qualities. In many ways I feel like women are any society’s greatest asset, and in many ways today they remain an untapped resource that has yet to be unleashed and utilized to its fullest potential. One of the significant differences I see between the Church organization and our secular societies at large is that the Church has been tapping into this invaluable resource called “women” since its inception, and the dynamic impact of women is being carried out through the Relief Society. The Relief Society is the vehicle through which the power of women is being utilized in the latter days to bring forth the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. I love that our church views men and women as equal partners walking side by side. We may each serve in different roles, but both are equally important and equally valued in the eyes of the Lord.
As a child, when you go off to college and try to create a so-called “successful” life for yourself, eventually you come to the realization that all you really want to do is make your parents proud. You want to be able to call home and report that you accomplished “something great.” We’ve lived in D.C. for over seven years now and knowing all of the sacrifices that my parents have made in order for me to be here, not a day goes by when I don’t pray that this will be the day that I can call home to report on my “something great.” Although I have had many tremendous accomplishments during my tenure in Washington, I still felt like I hadn’t reached that pinnacle of success I was striving for, but when I received this calling I knew immediately that this was it! This was my “something great!” The opportunity that I was waiting for, the opportunity the Lord had been preparing me for, where I could do the work I’ve always had the desire to do and make both my earthly and heavenly parents proud. I can’t think of a better way to inspire and empower women or a greater mission than tending to the temporal and spiritual welfare of our brothers and sisters while spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This calling is confirmation to me that the Lord does know and love each and every one of us individually. He knows what’s in our hearts. He hears our prayers. And, He will never leave us under any circumstances–even when we don’t choose to follow Him. My testimony has never been stronger and it is because of the trials I have faced that have brought me closer to our Savior. It is because of opportunities like this that I have had to serve in the Lord’s church. It is because of the examples of the women in RS and the worthy priesthood holders that lead our church who have reconfirmed to me time and time again that this church is true. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” It is up to each and every one of us whether or not we become one of God’s chosen. For this opportunity I am indeed grateful and pray that I will serve in a way that is pleasing to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
At A Glance
Sui Lang Panoke
Location: Washington D.C.
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Founder of Women Politics Media
Schools Attended: BYU, University of Utah, American University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.