Origins in Storytelling: Erica Chen Talks About Table42
ABOUT THE FOUNDER
What is your background?
“I’m Erica. I’m an incoming sophomore at Lowell High School. I go by ‘she/her.’ I’m 14, Asian-American, and born and raised in San Francisco. I created project table42. It's a program dedicated to building community through trending stories and topics, and interviews with people — so we can all just feel united in hard times.
It was impulsive, really; it was in the middle of the night, at 1am, and I was like, ‘You know, I’ve been wanting to do this project since I was in 5th grade… just go for it. What do I have to lose? I’m going to just build this website by myself, start an Instagram, and try to get people into it.’ I actually got an overwhelming amount of feedback; my friends were like ‘Oh this is so great! We really need this right now.’ I felt so loved like ‘Okay I’m going to keep going: I don’t know where this is going to take me, but I’m gonna go for it.’’
Right now, it’s independent — I shut down the website because I knew I needed to focus on one thing than [multiple]. We’re just taking baby steps right now, it’s just really great I think. The environment that we have right now with Black Lives [Matter] and the sexual assault cases — I think this project is really meaningful to some people who need to be connected.”
What figures inspired you?
“My friends, actually — I have friends who have been through really tough events — who’ve been assaulted, have divorced parents or went through some kind of racist experience. I think everyone has also been through [stuff] like catcalling — catcalling is a really big subject.
I would go to my friends and be like, ‘Oh yeah, this time ‘blah, blah, blah.’ They’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, me too! This happened to me.’ It would be overwhelming — we’d all just have the same experience. That just inspired me. ‘You know what? We all have this community and we have this topic that we all know, and there are so many more people out there who experienced the same thing as we do.’
It was just friends because I felt like though I can’t reach out to every single person in the world to help them, at least I can start a little project for them to know there are other people out there, because not everyone has the advantage or scale to speak up.”
What prior experience assisted you in starting your organization?
“I have experience with graphic design, like Photoshop, and editing because I was a PR for Disney Club so I did a lot of ‘art/media stuff’ with a program — also our freshmen committee. I have a lot of experience in that field so that helped me build the social media platform I have right now because the design I use is very — I want to say, ‘aesthetic’ — it’s pleasing to the eye. I think that’s really nice to have because you’d rather have minimalistic words here and there, than an entire list of ‘What is wrong with the world?’ Breaking it down with little pictures and words is easier to the eye.”
What problem(s) or social issue(s) were you faced with?
“There’s the big issue I wanted to challenge: we all come from different backgrounds, but we all share some moments here and there — using those moments, we can build a community. It’s a scary world out there. I just want others to feel safer because we have others who feel the same.
I think [disconnectivity in teens] is also because of parents; their generation is older than us so they don’t go through the same things that we go through. Cyberbullying was never a thing for them, but for us, it’s a major topic because we can get threats so easily — but parents are just like, ‘Oh, it’s just words. It’s not going to hurt you.’ I feel like if we use platforms that teenagers commonly use for a better purpose, not a negative experience for them, then they would shine a light on [social issues]. That would be amazing.”
What was your vision for your organization?
“I think when I first started, I really wanted a lot of interviews to come in; I wanted to interview, like everyone, no matter what the topic. I really just want people to feel like it’s helpful. If they’re going through a hard time, they can just go onto the project — if there’s a website coming up — or a post, and be like, ‘Okay, I can get through this because this person has’ or ‘Oh, they gave me this resource so I know what to do now.’”
What was your greatest challenge in launching your organization?
“I was scared it wasn’t going to go as I expected. Like I said, when my team disbanded, it really made me lose a little hope. I think a really big challenge I’m gonna go through in the future too is there’s going to be a lot of controversial, sensitive topics that I don’t want to pressure people into a side, like ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ — I feel those are really sensitive topics, especially right now and I don’t want to look like I’m being biased, again, we’re trying to be a community — we’re trying to meet in the middle. That’s going to be a challenge.
A challenge I already faced was getting my word out there; growing up, I was not a big ‘I’m-going-to-speak-up-for-myself’ person, and I’m still not. I had a team but I’m not a ‘leader type’ — I’m usually the one who follows, so our team kind of just disbanded after. I was like, ‘You know what? It was a really big setback for me.’ At that time, I felt really sad like, ‘Man, I really wanted it to work out but I just don’t have the leadership skills, so I’m gonna try to build that. I believe if I speak up, then a lot of people will too. I think that’s the great part of being with people.”
In difficult or uncertain times, how did you overcome adversity?
“When I had to say ‘goodbye’ to the team because it wasn’t working out, I felt like it was my fault because I didn’t be the leader I wanted to be for them and guide them through [the process] — I was just as confused as they were; it was on a whim. I lost hope — I kind of stopped, that’s why I paused the project for a little bit. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna figure out how to get through this. What do I need to do to stop?’
At this time I also had the website on — the website was barely even running; it was so incomplete. I was just like, ‘Okay, I know I’m not capable of running a website by myself,’ so I shut down the website. Then I was like, ‘What am I good at? What do I have right now that I can provide people?’ That was just making social media posts because I was comfortable doing that from past experience: ‘Okay, I’ll just grab Photoshop. I’ll just work on [a post]’ then I posted that… and I was just sitting there like, ‘Is this right?’ Because of what happened to the team, I thought everyone would be like ‘Yo, did you just fire everyone?’ There were a lot of insecurities, but I basically talked with myself, let myself have a break… just let go of something here and there.
You just want to get so involved in the work you do — we all want to go for it, just write everything down, post it all — but it does take time. Billionaires don’t just become billionaires overnight. They all have got to go through so much, you got to just work for it — reach that.”
IMPACT & LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
What was the impact of your project on the community?
“Even though it’s not as involved yet — I kind of put a little pause on interviews, like I’m still interviewing behind [the scenes] but I don’t want to post it yet because of what’s happening right now. My friend, actually, came up to me and was like, “I don’t know if you wrote this but it connected to me because I went through bullying too.” I was just so touched — I was like, “Oh my gosh! You actually read it!” She was like, “Yeah! I love the work that you’re doing.” My mutual friend — they DMed me and said, “Look, I know we haven’t talked yet but I just want to say that the work you’re doing right now is so great and I would love to see more. I was just like, “Thank you! I’ll try my best.” I didn’t fail these people that I didn't know.I feel the impact isn’t as big because of the stuff I haven’t posted yet, but I believe that is necessary for people — that’s all I want from [the project]."
How would you describe your personal growth through starting table42?
I think I understand myself better because of how I faced the team disbanding: I just sat there and picked out all of my flaws and my advantages right now, and I think that made me especially realize that ‘You know? I may not be strong in building websites or coding or being a leader — but hey, I’m good at graphic design and that’s something I want to do.’ That actually led me to like wanting to have a college minor in graphic design. But doing the project and launching it from my intentions just made me realize I actually have a passion and I want to do that.
What skills have you gained from starting an organization that will assist you in the future?
Although my leadership skills did not actually go through (and actually have a team), but I definitely got a better sense of how it is to be a leader because, again, I’m not the “leadership type” — I’m not the one to speak out or order people around because I feel like that’s really mean. When [my team] came to me and asked me, “Oh yeah, how do I do this?” or “Can I double-check with you on this post?” or “I have an idea, can I meet with you?” That would just make me build it up like, “Yeah, let's schedule this! Let’s do this!” That made me have a sense of order and my communication skills developed as I was working because a lot of people gave me feedback like I made a lot of typos in my post and my friend actually pointed that out, and I was like, “Okay! I need to work on my grammar.” The skills I improved were leadership, communication — and honestly, self-awareness; I just became more ‘one with me.’
What advice do you have for new founders?
I’m a new founder, myself. The advice I’d give is to just take it slow: no one is rushing you, the only person who is going to force you to post something is yourself. There’s definitely no limit to where it’s going to go. When I started the project, I didn’t have a major finish line like, “Oh, once I get this, I’m going to stop and let everyone else just control it.” I just think your own goals are your finish line; those goals should never stop. I think you should also realize you can’t sprint the whole way — you can’t just power through. There’s going to be setbacks — like I already had a setback and I barely posted anything. Don't give up and just know that the little stuff really does matter.