By Tova Green
Angela Ni joined San Francisco Zen Center’s Board in January 2020 and became the Board Chair in January 2023.
An active participant in Young Urban Zen (YUZ), Angela was regularly attending weekly Tuesday night meditations, as well as a multi-day retreat at Green Gulch Farm. After two years, Angela wanted to deepen her experience and connection with SFZC; she recalled being moved by a Dharma talk that Eli Brown-Stevenson gave one evening at YUZ, which prompted her to ask “What’s next? What happens after YUZ?”
For Angela this question sparked a “colliding of worlds.” As Board Secretary, Eli knew that the Board was looking for new members. Eli’s wife Cat had also met Angela while taking a mindful self-compassion class led by SFZC alum Lea Seigen Shinraku. Cat and Eli saw Angela’s potential and appreciated the enthusiasm she could bring as a Board Member, and referred Angela to then Governance Committee Chair Joe Rodriguez.
“The Board was committed to diversifying, and was looking for a Millennial female with business or strategy experience. I fit the bill. After talking to Joe, Board service sounded like it matched what makes me tick—understanding how things are structured and built. I see things through an organizational lens, so joining the Board felt like a natural path to understanding Zen Center.”
Angela’s path to Zen practice began much earlier. Her father and his side of Angela’s family are Buddhist. Her father came to the U.S. from Taiwan to attend graduate school, where he met Angela’s mother, and they started a family in the U.S. When Angela was a child, her family spent six years in Taiwan, where she got to know her grandparents and attended a local, all-Mandarin-speaking school. She visited Buddhist temples with her family on holidays to offer incense; her father read books by the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers.
As a freshman at UC Berkeley, Angela took a meditation class for credit. She and about a hundred students would follow guided meditations in a large lecture hall. She later took a class in business ethics that started with meditation to ground everyone.
After college, Angela pursued a Fulbright research fellowship in China, and later worked and lived in Hong Kong through 2014. “I spent several years traveling and working around the world, but I always missed and longed for the Bay Area from those formative years spent at UC Berkeley. So, in 2017 I bought myself a one-way ticket back to San Francisco.” Around the same time, Angela began looking for a meditation community to practice with. A friend told her about SFZC’s Young Urban Zen group. “When I stepped into Zen Center it felt like home,” she said. She could read the Chinese characters on some of the hanging scrolls. “I was drawn to the way East meets West, which felt very familiar to me.”
When Angela joined the Board in 2020, she was a member of the Finance Committee, a good place for her to start as she appreciates the analytical use of charts and graphs. Shortly after, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Angela saw her role on the Board shift to helping San Francisco Zen Center think about how to navigate the pandemic. Angela brought her experience working on strategy for Kaiser Permanente’s pandemic response to bear on SFZC’s long-term planning.
Angela considered how SFZC could use the time during the pandemic to assess needs. People were more isolated, and moving to online (and later hybrid) offerings was a way to meet the need for connection. Angela described “from an organizational standpoint, many of the pressures Zen Center was experiencing before the pandemic got accelerated and exacerbated by Covid-19.” Angela sees these challenging dynamics as including:
- Financial pressures from declining income from guest stays and retreats
- Staffing shortages, in particular senior practitioners with leadership experience
- Generational and demographic shifts in leadership and practice community
- Calls for more concrete actions to advance equity, inclusion, and diversity and create systemic change
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Angela saw, both at a large organization like Kaiser Permanente as well as at SFZC, the moral obligation for organizations to do something more concrete about disparities, institutionalized racism, and equity, in furtherance of their mission.
In 2021, Angela was asked to serve as Board Vice Chair and to help the Board Leadership Group think more proactively about SFZC’s reopening. Having served as Vice Chair for two years, Angela developed a clearer sense of the workings of the Board. When Board Chair Helen Degenhardt’s term was ending, Angela was approached about filling the Chair position beginning in 2023. She said yes, as she feels she can hold space for a diversity of voices, ideas, and opinions on the Board. “I feel happy playing a facilitator role. I feel lucky—there’s an appetite across the Board, the Abbots, and the Administration to work as a team to think about the long-term sustainability of SFZC, its vision, values, and offerings.” Angela has found within the Board a supportive group of colleagues who are respectful and inclusive and who model strong leadership qualities. She has learned a lot from them.
The role of the Board, from Angela’s perspective, is not to manage the day-to-day activities of SFZC, but to ask questions that provoke new thinking, generate ideas, and serve as a bridge to the broader community. As a Board member, Angela thinks about SFZC’s vision and what it means to be a training temple in the 21st century. “I entered the board organically, finding my way in the mist. I use that as a reflection for how people enter and engage with SFZC, how people can come in contact with its offerings. I came with an open mind, asking seasoned board members to explain how we do things. I didn’t have many preconceived ideas about San Francisco Zen Center.”
For a long time, Angela was the youngest member of the SFZC Board. Many Board members had been practicing Zen far longer than she and had done practice periods. She sees herself as representing a younger generation that wants to deepen their practice. Angela wants to support an organization that has created a safe space for practice for so long.
Her expectation was to balance out the Board Leadership Group in terms of demographics, particularly age and gender, and help keep things moving organizationally and structurally.
“Serving on the Board has really helped me understand the full breadth of what SFZC offers. Right now my Zen practice is focused on volunteering on the Board.” Angela sees herself participating in more formal practice periods after she completes her term as Board Chair.