By Casey Lartigue Jr.
It began with the trolls.
Three days after Christmas, I received a Letter of Commendation from the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Unification. I was thrilled to receive the award and my thoughts zeroed in on those who had contributed to this achievement and how I could share this joy with them.
My inclination to celebrate with supporters traces back to my youth when I read about a football player who avoided being photographed without his teammates. It resonated with me when he said they had bled and sweat together, so they should celebrate success together as well.
This ethos was further reinforced as a sports reporter in college. A Harvard basketball star insisted that I mention his teammates in the feature I was writing about him. These early lessons profoundly shaped my understanding of shared success. More recently, college football star Michael Penix Jr. displayed this ethos, embedding his teammates’ names in his jacket at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
From delivering the keynote address in 2003 at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Historical Association in Washington, D.C., to receiving numerous awards in Seoul, I bring an entourage to events that made it seem a gangsta rapper had crashed the party.
As a co-founder of an organization in a foreign land, I’ve felt this principle even more deeply. I could not have overcome cultural, language, bureaucratic, networking, and financial barriers without South Koreans and North Korean refugees alongside me. I was never alone in this endeavor, so how could I go on stage alone to accept accolades?
First, my main partner has been Lee Eun-koo, co-founder with me of Freedom Speakers International (FSI). While I am occasionally in the spotlight, she is the silent force working behind the scenes. She is the operational backbone ensuring donors and partners can trust our organization’s transparency, accounting, and internal capacity. I am the “brain” of the organization and she is the “arms and legs” keeping us moving forward. If anyone believes she deserves more recognition, then contact me so we can make it happen.
Secondly, the supporters of FSI and North Korean refugees who have been alongside us. Their contributions have been invaluable. Professor Kim Chung-ho, the “Godfather” of FSI, deserves special recognition. He hired me for positions at two different think tanks and provided us the opportunity to incubate our start-up project that initially tutored North Korean refugees in English.
Western volunteers and donors helped us survive our start-up phase and more recently South Koreans have begun supporting us.
And of course, the North Korean refugees themselves, over 500 of whom have studied with FSI. Their endorsements have been crucial in attracting more participants without any recruitment. People ask us how we find North Korean refugees and I answer, “We don’t. They find us, typically after others have recommended us.” I always welcome North Korean refugees to join me on stage.
Thirdly, the critics and researchers who have scrutinized our work in case studies and research projects. Their constructive criticism has been key in strengthening our organization.
Trolls have played a reverse role in my professional career. The advice “don’t feed the trolls” doesn’t apply in my case because the trolls feed me. Our most uncouth critics inspired some of our most impactful initiatives, like the North Korean Refugee English Speech Contest and our public speaking project. Trolls inadvertently honed our mission, inspired me to get re-engaged with Harvard University, and helped us evolve from a fledgling association to a robust incorporation. In early March, I will be giving my 19th speech at a Harvard University event and we are now planning a huge event there with several North Korean refugees later this year.
Our response to trolls’ baseless accusations was to embrace transparency, reassuring our supporters of our financial and structural integrity as we grew. We have welcomed evaluations and audits by various government bodies and institutions, foundation partners, Seoul City Hall, Mapo District Office, the ROK tax office, the ROK’s Ministry of Finance, and the ROK’s Ministry of Unification. That’s in addition to our independent auditors, board members, and accountant who know our work will be critiqued by picky professional auditors at those organizations.
I filter the accusations, lies, and ad hominem attacks of trolls by trashing the true rubbish into my cyber garbage can and storing hidden gems in my cyber recycling bin. Those trolls and detractors, unknowingly, steered us away from pitfalls and spurred innovative ideas that have been recognized with awards and given me many opportunities to stand on stage with our supporters.
These awards, displayed in our modest office, are a tribute to those who believed in us from the start. Our journey with volunteers, donors, and fundraisers has been transformative, turning criticism into growth, doubt into resolve, and skepticism into success.
I eagerly await the next occasion to share the stage with our supporters, celebrating together our shared victory in empowering North Korean refugees. Trolls and naysayers won’t be on the guest list, they’ll probably be too busy anyway spewing hate, lies, and conspiracy theories.
I can promise their unintentional contributions will be acknowledged: as haters who inadvertently became helpers, critical detractors who unknowingly participated in our strategic planning meetings, and liars who, unwittingly, spurred us to become an award-winning organization on the rise.
Casey Lartigue Jr. (CJL@alumni.harvard.edu) is co-founder with Lee Eun-koo of Freedom Speakers International (FSI) and co-author with Han Song-mi of the book “Greenlight to Freedom.”