Suyin So’s path to Epicenter is a winding one paved in key tenets of our organization: people-centered journalism, education equity and community-led social impact.
Our new senior advisor also has more literal ties to Epicenter. Suyin first met our founder, S. Mitra Kalita, more than a decade ago, when she was putting her reporting skills to use in a non-journalistic endeavor: co-founding the Central Queens Academy Charter School (CQA), a high-performing independent charter school designed to serve a community of mostly new immigrant youths in Elmhurst, Queens. Suyin went on to lead CQA to statewide recognition for academic excellence and to an 80,000-square-foot expansion of its physical space.
Her impact has been expansive in other areas, too, starting with shoestring reporting at her hometown newspaper, the Marion Chronicle-Tribune, and, later, producing stories at NBC News at 30 Rock (before the hit show glamorized the fast-moving newsroom). From her previous role at a mission-driven real estate company to her time practicing civil law at Pryor Cashman LLP, the common thread of these experiences was a curiosity about communities and a fervor in bending the world toward equity. Through it all, one particular belief has guided her trajectory — and it’s aligned with ours.
“[What] I find very compelling about Epicenter is there’s a centralization of this idea that people are already inherently powerful,” Suyin says. “And what you are trying to do is bring it out of them and basically build these platforms that really draw that strength from communities into a place in which it can be amplified.”
Epicenter’s recent hire spoke with our newest team member about lessons in co-founding a school, what drew her towards community news and away from “big journalism,” and the importance of holding physical and figurative space in community with others.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Epicenter: Your LinkedIn profile is action-packed, with many twists and turns — Could you take us through your life story from birth to you joining Epicenter in about two minutes?
Suyin: In two minutes? That’s hard, but OK. I was born in Nyack, New York. My parents are immigrants from Indonesia, and they are Chinese by ethnicity. My dad is a retired physician who came here to finish his medical training, and then had a career as a pathologist, and at some point decided that New York, not surprisingly, was too expensive to raise our family. So he moved me and my mom and my brother, who’s three years older, out to Indiana. So I grew up in Indiana in a small town called Marion, and I got to work at the local newspaper — the Marion Chronicle-Tribune, which is a Gannett newspaper. I also was part of the high school newspaper, and I thought I was gonna be a career journalist.
I went to Brown University. Through this really cool program at NBC News called the News Associates, a diversity program, I got to basically go straight into 30 Rock as a producer-in-training at Daylight NBC. I was there for about three years. Then I went to law school — I actually had every intention of coming out and coming back to the media and news. I graduated from law school, got my law degree, and was at a very media- and entertainment-heavy law firm named Pryor Cashman LLP, for four years. I like to do things in four-year chunks.
I then did some independent film things, and was grappling with this strong desire to do social justice and public interest work. I had a really good friend from my hometown, Mary, in Indiana, who had gone into education reform and was very active in charter schools. She had always said, ‘I think you should be in education, because it’s an important field, and I think you would be a really good fit for it.’ I was like, ‘I’m not really sure.’
But when I was thinking about what I wanted to do postlaw, I had a bunch of conversations with people in education and realized how many really smart people are working in education generally, but particularly, at the time, in education reform. And for communities that I really cared about — for example, immigrant Asian communities in New York City, who had had many issues with language access, and feelings of belonging, and feelings of vulnerability and exclusionary behaviors in schools. I realized I agreed with my friend.
Epicenter: And then you co-founded a school?
I did some consulting work, and then ended up, through a lot of different twists and turns, spearheading an application for what became Central Queens Academy Charter School, which opened in 2012. At the time I thought, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll do this for a few years, and then I’ll figure out the next thing I’m gonna do, like maybe I’ll go back into journalism.’ But it took a long time to get the school into a steady state, because we had all these interesting challenges. I was fortunate to work with an incredibly smart team that was pretty tolerant when there were a lot of things I just didn’t know about.
The big challenge for the school that I think is applicable for a lot of communities — which is what I’m excited about my work at Epicenter, to hopefully [tackle] this dimension as well — is there’s been an invisible structural racism, and then the literal structural racism was one of the things I wanted to confront with the school. Historically excluded and marginalized communities have not really had the literal spaces to be able to connect to each other. And so there’s been this heavy lift on my part to figure out the ways in which you can connect people not just through information and networking, but also, how you figure out physical spaces — when people have a space that they can feel is not just welcoming but also purpose-built for them.
Epicenter: Where did Epicenter fit in?
I left in 2020 … and here we are today [grappling with] access to information, disinformation, and the politicized environment around immigrant and recent newcomer communities. I was slow walking into, ‘ok, what’s the next thing that I really want to do? ‘ But I had [S.] Mitra [Kalita]. She was actually one of the first people I met when I was trying to start the school in Queens, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a woman with whom I see eye to eye on a lot of things.’ I had always really respected Mitra, and I was watching what she was doing with Epicenter. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, it’s hyper-local.’ And I would tuck it in the back of my mind for a while.
One of the conclusions I had reached that I thought was applicable for a lot of communities in New York was the way I started to see the school as this architecture of networks, architecture of communities, and architecture of — which is true for a lot of things that we do at Epicenter — [the idea that] knowledge is power. The distribution channels for knowledge became extremely fraught when it came to communities that didn’t feel connected to places that they could trust, whether it was institutions or individuals, or friends or peers.
Epicenter: You mentioned you and Mitra seeing eye to eye on things. How did you two first meet?
Once we landed on the school program [for CQA] I had to meet as many people in Queens as possible who would connect me to the resources that I needed. One of my school board members, a Jackson Heights resident and CEO of a tennis organization named Udai Tambar, was like, “oh, you need to meet this woman, Mitra. She’s like the most connected person in all of Queens.” I thought I would meet her in very metro fashion — you know, some people, you set up a 15-min phone call with and it’s very transactional. But Mitra was like, “Oh, come to my house. Oh, you have a kid. Do you want to bring the kid? Just bring the kid.”
And I was like, “OK … I’ve never met you.”
She just said, “come, I’ll make you chai.” This woman is so welcoming, but also hyper-competent and powerful. When the school opened, I had her come and talk to the kids about media literacy.
One of the reasons I left big journalism was that I could see that to try to build a career in this kind of journalism would require continuously trading in these forms of stereotypes and narrative storytelling that kept people in these predefined roles of weakness to make their stories heard — I just couldn’t do it.
Epicenter: So what drew you and continues to draw you to community journalism?
[Some of it likely stemmed] from talking to my parents about their experience in Indonesia, which was a very tumultuous period of active disinformation. I always got the sense that information integrity was very, important for the quality of a nation and a culture in a community. And there was the smell of the printing press. And my hometown newspaper was a central force for good, and I felt that, I saw it. Even if in my family we weren’t the most avid subscribers, not at the pep rallies, I saw the power that a journalistic community resource can have.
At the time I did a story on this Mexican grocery that opened up in my hometown. Just by doing the story, you’re introducing this new store in a very Black and white defined town. I remember going and talking to the store owner. I didn’t know any Spanish, and it was probably not the best reporting work I did, but I remember thinking, ‘oh, this person seems so happy just to be asked questions about who they are.’ There’s this concept that a performance artist friend had said to me not too long ago, about how you get from this notion that you’re disinvited to being the person who’s doing the inviting. Power to me revolved around some source of information. If you had control over who and how knowledge is distributed, you could really transform a lot of things about communities, for good and for bad.