Transformative Conversations: Nikki Toyama-Szeto
By Kathy Khang
Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the new executive director for Evangelicals for Social Action, an organization serving as a catalyzing agent for Christ's shalom through projects focused on cultural renewal, holistic ministry, political reflection and action, social justice and reconciliation, and creation care. Nikki comes to ESA by, most recently, International Justice Mission (IJM), where she served as the vice president and director of the IJM Institute and Global Prayer.
I personally got to know Nikki through her work at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA where she was the program director for Urbana, InterVarsity's triennial missions conference. She is a mentor and friend whose commitment to a holistic faith, rooted in both scripture and action, challenges and encourages friends and colleagues to envision life in Jesus as beautiful and possible.
Nikki's commitment to a holistic faith, rooted in both scripture and action, challenges and encourages friends and colleagues to envision life in Jesus as beautiful and possible.
Nikki's connection to ESA started years ago. "I became familiar with Ron Sider's work in college, and it was my early introduction into a faith that intersects with some of the most pressing issues of the world," she says. "The new role feels like a hand-in-glove fit commitment to deep biblical scholarship, theology, and the challenges of the world today."
She sees ESA as committed to the marginalized and to theology, each informing the other, and as an organization that, through programs like Oriented to Love and the Racial Justice Institute, brings together people from different theological spaces to listen and learn. "In a world that is very blue and red, black and white, ESA occupies a unique space that may actually help us dislodge from our bubbles into having truly transformative conversations," Nikki says.
In a world that is very blue and red, black and white, ESA occupies a unique space that may actually help us dislodge from our bubbles into having truly transformative conversations.
ESA's interim director Sarah Withrow King never saw herself in the role permanently, desiring to focus on her work on CreatureKind, an ESA program that invites Christians to love God and their neighbors by attending to the welfare of farmed animals. Withrow King's leadership, along with the staff, has continued ESA's work—but it was clear to the staff and the reorganized board of directors that permanent leadership was needed to move ESA forward in its vision as a "do" tank, rather than a "think" tank.
Nikki brings two decades of leadership development, program design and directing, and the board enthusiastically affirmed her as the type of leader who brings creativity and critical thinking into life. One of her smaller projects, for example, started out by listening to a group of Asian American women sharing their leadership stories and lessons as part of InterVarsity's Daniel Project, a leadership pipeline development program initially launched for Asian American staff. Nikki saw it as a opportunity to create a resource out of the stories, brainstorming with Tracey Gee, and proposed writing a book by and for Asian American women leaders—More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith—demonstrating her ability to move from thinking to doing.
(Full disclosure: Nikki's leadership and friendship on a personal level has been the catalyst for so many people that I also benefited from the book project as a co-author, and it was the start of a new season of writing and leadership in my life as well.)
ESA staff and the board of directors are honored and excited about the skill set and vision Nikki brings to this next season for the organization, and I'm grateful to continue learning under her leadership.
Kathy Khang is a board member of ESA and is a writer and speaker.