When Tiffany Yu was only 9 years old, she experienced a life-changing car accident that took her father’s life and left one of her arms permanently paralyzed.
In the years that followed the accident, Tiffany found that she didn’t have the space to talk about what happened to her. When someone asked about her arm, she would divert the conversation because she didn’t have the words to share her story. “Ultimately, it ended up bubbling up and coming out of my body in 2009,” she said. “I think that moment of vulnerability was me wondering if I could convince myself that my story mattered. What ultimately ended up happening was I realized that people could see parts of my story that resonated with them.”
From there, Tiffany took the power of her story and became a disability advocate to reach people experiencing the same thing.
This week, TC Founder and CEO Sophie Beren sits down with Tiffany Yu, the CEO & Founder of Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise, to amplify disabled voices. She talks about her work as an advocate and the accident that left her disabled at just 9 years old. She also shares how vocalizing the story around her disability led her to feel liberated and how she’s navigating her identity as an Asian-American woman in a time where anti-Asian hate is rampant.
Tiffany is also the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter. This monthly micro-grant has awarded $47.5k to 48 disability projects in 8 countries and the host of the podcast TIFFANY & YU. She serves on the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council and was a 2020 Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit. She started her career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and has also worked at Bloomberg and Sean Diddy Combs' REVOLT Media & TV. She is a 2x TEDx speaker and spoke on 5 sessions at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. She has been featured in Marie Claire, the Guardian, and Forbes.
In proper TC fashion, we opened the conversation by breaking the ice. In a series of rapid-fire questions from Sophie, Tiffany shared that she’s currently located in San Francisco, California, her walkup song is “Freedom” by Kygo, and the food she can’t live without is french fries. She also shared that what makes her Tiffany is her ability to live unapologetically as herself and with integrity.
She also offers some insight into her echo chamber, which she said is made up of people who are similar to her. “Maybe they sit at the intersection of an oppressed identity or multiple oppressed identities, and if they don't, they have a desire and a willingness to learn and have a conversation and be open-minded and a commitment to social justice,” she said.
Tiffany added that she realized she was in that echo chamber when she joined TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic. She was asked to record a video about the fear of harassment she was experiencing as an Asian woman. On Instagram, she received messages of solidarity, and on TikTok, she received hate. While it was shocking to see that people believed in misinformation, she realized how different algorithms could look. “Our hallways are all different, and we're all being fed a different newsfeed,” she said. “So anything I see and everything you see, even though they are different, are feeding into what our deeply rooted beliefs are.”
Tiffany shared that only a few days before the Atlanta area shootings, in which Asian women were targeted, she was a victim of racist harassment. She recalls feeling horrified by what was happening around the country and the racial gaslighting she experienced afterward. While she is grateful for spaces that allow her to experience grief, she’s also thinking about a safe and inclusive world for everyone and how to start conversations about Asian issues among allies and her disability advocacy spaces. “One of the reasons why I'm being pulled into this conversation is that I can't erase my race,” she said. “I can't erase this part of my identity. So I always want to preface that I’m not coming in here as an academic. In my diversity equity inclusion work, I don't necessarily like to talk about this, but I'm being affected by it. This has nothing to do with the fact that I have a disability. But it does have everything to do with the fact that I am an Asian woman.”
She also spoke about how this ties into her work at Diversability and what a safe and inclusive world for people of every identity looks like from her perspective. “I think safety is rooted in liberation,” she said. “Liberation to me is just unapologetically being ourselves. One of the things I'm thinking about now is, ‘should I dye my hair?’ What are the things I can do to look less Asian?’ I feel ashamed having that come out of my mouth, but that's a reality that I need to think about to be safer in the world that we're currently in.”
Sophie shared how Tiffany’s experience resonated with her as someone who grew up as the only Jewish student in her community. “People would say to me, 'wow, Sophie, you don't look Jewish,’ and I used to be grateful for that,” she said. “I think there's something there that I don't think has clicked until now that makes me realize that is never something we should be striving for, that we should be grateful for fitting in because that's not what the world is about.”
Tiffany also spoke about Diversability, which is open to both disabled and non-disabled people, and how it operates as a space for people to feel validated and share their stories. “It was only until I created Diversability that I started to realize that my story mattered,” she said. “That I started to realize that disability didn't just look like one thing. Ultimately it's where I became proud to be disabled. How radical is that? Our goal is to get as many people as possible to that second story, the one of disability pride. I call these our origin stories. The first origin story is when you become disabled. The second origin story is when you realize that you can take up space and that your story matters and that you can be proud of your disability identity.”
Finally, Tiffany believes that being a good ally and knowing the best way to amplify disabled people comes from proximity. This is one of the reasons why her community is open to non-disabled people. “Think about all the things you do in your daily life,” she said. Then, think about ‘What are the areas of influence or power and privilege that I do have in all of these daily activities that I'm doing that I can make more accessible?...’ Let's take a magnifying glass on where you have influence or power and privilege, and where can we enter access into those conversations?”
Here at TC, we have a whole room in our community dedicated to Hot Takes, where members can share a controversial thought, question, or icebreaker about something they believe. This week’s hot take was brought to us by community member Sia, who thinks speaking louder doesn’t make your opinion any more valid.
Tiffany completely agreed with Sia. “As someone who does have a voice that carries, I think it's just really being cognizant of whose voices we haven't heard yet,” she said. “Sometimes, the ones who aren't the loudest have the most insight. The best speakers are the best listeners because they've taken the time to understand who's in the room.”
Tiffany shared that when it comes to using your voice for good, you have to start before you're ready, which she learned from her own experience. In her work, she often says that ending discrimination begins with self-reflection and that to change the world, you have to change yourself first. “So many of us are holding deeply rooted beliefs that disability means something really bad,” she said. “That disability means that we're broken and that we can't do anything. These are all things that I'm still working to unlearn. We call this internalized ableism.”
From there, she encouraged Gen Z’ers to think about things they care about and find a platform to share about it. “When you post about this journey, I would try to stay as in alignment with yourself as possible because there are going to be people who don't agree with you,” she said. “I just have a lot of trust that as long as I stay true to myself and in integrity and alignment with myself, then that is your armor. I remember having a couple of people nitpick at a couple of things that I said or some actions that I took. So I took full ownership for my actions, full accountability, acknowledged if I made a mistake. But I also acknowledged that at the time, that's what I thought my truth was.”
Tiffany invited listeners to follow Diversability on social media. Those looking to be more active allies can join their Facebook group. “I think for me, it's really how can we move the conversation forward?” she said. “We do need allies to be a part of that. So it could be easy to follow, but if you want to take it to the next step, you can join our community.”
Snaps to Tiffany for sharing her wisdom with us today! We couldn’t be more grateful to have her in our world. Keep up with her on Instagram to learn more about her work.
Now, we want to hear from you! How are you using your voice for good? Join The Conversationalist Community on the Geneva app. You’ll be able to make new friends, find new opportunities, and have 24/7 conversations about anything under the sun that matters to you. Come and introduce yourself, break the ice, share your hot takes, and more. Want to be chosen as our featured hot take on our next podcast? Make sure you’re in our community, and sharing your thoughts in our hot takes room.