Freely in Hope

In this episode, Dr. Reyes talks to Nikole Lim about her artistic childhood and how her love of storytelling developed into a photography and filmmaking career. She discusses the transition from capturing stories of the pain and suffering in the world to aligning herself with survivors of sexual violence. She notes that this survivor-led approach, centered around education, leadership, and resourcing for women and girls, is the catalyst of community transformation.

Season 3: Episode 9

Leading in a broken and wounded world

Nikole is a speaker, educator, author, and the founder and international director of Freely in Hope. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in film production from Loyola Marymount University and has a master’s in global leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is trained in Compassion-Based Resilience through the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. 


Patrick Reyes: Hey, it’s Dr. Reyes here, the host of the Sound of the Genuine, the podcast, where we talk to leaders in our communities about how they find meaning and purpose in their lives. And today we have Nikole Lim. She talks with us about taking that storytelling background and moving into her work as the founder and director of Freely in Hope, where she aligns and works with survivors of sexual violence across this globe.

She tells us that it is a survivor-led approach centered around education and leadership and resourcing for women and girls that is the catalyst of social and communal transformation. I’m so grateful you get to hear the life and work of Nikole Lim.

All right. Nikole is so good to have you on the Sound of the Genuine. Thanks for being with us. How are you doing?

Nikole Lim: I’m doing well. Thanks so much for having me.

Patrick Reyes: Okay. I have been inspired by not just what you’ve turned in for your grants, because you’ve been a grantee of FTE, and the work that you do at Freely in Hope, but I’m inspired by you and what you do internationally and domestically. You do so much stuff! But I know that’s not who you’ve been your entire life. So can you tell me a little bit about how you grew up, tell me about your people, your community. Take me back to your beginning.

Nikole Lim: Yeah, absolutely. So I am third-generation Chinese American. And grew up in the Bay Area. My family grew up in the Salvation Army denomination. My grandfather was a pastor in the salvation army at the San Francisco church for the past - well for 35 years in total. And so growing up in that kind of environment, service was always a really huge part of my family and my upbringing. And as I grew up learning about what service meant, especially within my denomination, it was always bent towards service to the poor. And we grew up going to different natural disasters or reaching out to the homeless or doing different types of community work that expanded my world view beyond my Chinese American bubble.

And so taking that learning into college, I knew that I wanted to somehow meld together my experiences of the external world together with my lineage and my heritage. Fortunately in my family system, pursuing the arts isn’t completely out of the box, especially for a Chinese family. My grandfather was actually a journalist, my mom, a graphic designer/photographer.

So I grew up actually being encouraged to dabble in the arts. And so as a teenager, I got my first computer, like those bubble gum colored iMac’s, right. And it had iMovie on it and my mom would just let me play with it and do whatever I wanted. And so I started learning how to edit movies, edit videos.

And so when I learned about the magic of video editing I was really curious about what would it look like to put together stories of the people that I was meeting in my service opportunities, or what would it look like to even capture the stories of my own heritage and upbringing to bring forth the learnings of my culture and the learnings of my lineage?

I saw that there was a huge divide in what I witnessed on television, in terms of reporters, in terms of movies, that there were very few people that looked like me. Yet in different, like news captures of like people of the third world or whatever, it always looked like people were complicit to their own poverty and their own pain. But knowing of my family’s lineage and journey, I knew that that wasn’t the case. That yes, there was poverty, yes there was war, yes there was pain - of which my family was fortunate enough to flee from - yet at the same time, there were a lot of lessons of strength and honor and dignity and responsibility interwoven into those stories of poverty and pain.

And so seeing the disconnect in the media - not seeing many images of myself or representations of my family’s story - I wanted to try to create a different pathway in the media. And so that was my intent going into college. Growing up, I was also a very angry child. There were a lot of emotions, very strong emotions, that I felt as a child, but I wasn’t allowed to express them also being in a culture where strong emotion, strong opinion isn’t valued.

And so in being so angry, I was trying to figure out, okay, how can I communicate this anger and this rage, not using words, not using emotion? And so I used my photography/filmmaking work as a way to kind of channel some of those experiences that I was having. And so there was a lot of tension growing up in terms of reconciling my own anger and rage, and the anger and rage that I felt in witnessing some of the disparities of America. And also the anger and rage that I felt from a lot of the stories of war and poverty from my lineage. And so all of that really culminated for me in college in learning how to put together those stories through linear documentary film, through photography exhibits, through different things that I tested, you know, in art practice in school.

And I really wanted to try to make a difference in the world through storytelling as so many people do. And so, as I grew up there was a lot of experiences that I had that really challenged what it looks like to create something new and to create something that had never existed before in the media realm.

When I was working with different international agencies, capturing stories of war, poverty, famine, disease I was really confronted with the pain of the world and the suffering of the world and capturing that time and time and time again became really exhausting and also became very difficult to actually reconcile, how do these things happen? You know, the all-time question of why does God allow suffering to enter into the world? And so when I was witnessing that on the external world, I was also like confronted with my own anger and rage and trying to figure out what do I do then with this anger and rage that I felt as a child yet was never allowed to fully express.

Coming into, I guess, what I felt was my vocation at the time of being a international documentary filmmaker, working with agencies all around the world, trying to establish this new storyline, this new story arc of what I thought could be possible, the realities of the world kept like pummeling me over.

And I felt that it wasn’t as possible as I thought it was when I first entered this work. In my final year of university, I really wanted to try to create a longer story, kind of turning the poverty and oppression, the violence, into something beautiful, something redemptive.

And so I searched for stories, particularly of folks who had experienced different forms of violence, but were leaders in their community. And so some stories came to me from Kenya. And so I traveled to Kenya to capture these stories. And as I was capturing these stories I was also working with multiple international agencies while I was doing my thesis film. Many women who I had interviewed throughout my work were survivors of sexual violence. And in them telling me their stories, it would just automatically come up. And I saw that a common thread that issues of sexual violence were directly related to lack of access to education and resources. Also the fact that they were born women, born girls, that was also a very huge limiting factor.

And so that was the first time that I heard of that, actually. Coming into my final year of university, I’m trying to do all of these things and yet I’m meeting girls who are exactly my age yet have so many more limitations than I had. And that really surprised me because in my family culture, education is key.

And you have to at least get your bachelor’s, preferably get your master’s and we’ll actually be proud of you if you get your doctorate. So with that, meeting girls who did not have access at all just really surprised me and struck me. And it wasn’t only because of financial resources, but it was also because of cultural expectations and limitations that were placed on them simply for being born a girl.

And so as all of these survivors would share with me their hopes and their dreams for a better future, it really centered around education and leadership and resourcing, not only for themselves, but more importantly for the next generation after them. And again, that really struck me because I was imagining if I were in their shoes, would I do the same?

Would I also commit my life story to preventing or alleviating the suffering of others who had experienced the same story as mine? And at that point, I couldn’t say…I couldn’t say yes. Because of course as well, their experiences of suffering were so vast and far beyond my own that I didn’t know how to hold it. I didn’t know how to hold that pain or that tension or suffering. And so I would simply capture these stories and then I would go home and edit them together and package it in this nice little three minute video for the international agencies that I was working for. But as I would create these videos and as I would shoot these photos, I knew that the story that was being told was insufficient, and therefore, I thought that my work was also insufficient. To simply hear the story and package it into a beautiful thing to be represented for these agencies that I didn’t really know if they were going to go back. I didn’t know what they would actually do for the people whose stories I was capturing.

When I was kind of wrestling with what I felt was the insufficiency of my photography and filmmaking work, I had another gig in Zambia to shoot a friend’s wedding. I also did a lot of wedding photography cause that paid the bills. So I was shooting this wedding in Zambia and met this 13 year old girl who had just the worst attitude I had ever seen. And part of that attitude was like, oh my God, 13 years old, I know exactly how she feels. Again, this like common bond of the anger and rage that you can’t fully express, but you know it’s there and it’s manifesting in attitude or silence or anger. I wanted to befriend her because I knew that a lot of this rage that she was most likely carrying was due to, again, those cultural expectations that we, as young women, are often forced to carry. So one day when we were walking home from a friend’s house, we had just finished eating dinner and we were walking home, and she put her hand in mine and she said, “My stomach really hurts.” And so I said, “Oh, was it something that you ate?” She said, “No, it hurts like this all the time since last year.”

And I was like, okay, well, have you gotten it checked? And she was like, no, I don’t want to get it checked because I don’t want to go back to the hospital again. And so I stopped and I looked at her and I was like, what’s going on? Then she said, well, last year when I was walking home from school, I was raped. And after that, I went to the clinic and I was interrogated by the police officers there. I was interrogated by the hospital. I was blamed for what had happened to me and going to the hospital and the clinic is just reminder of that. And she showed me a scar that she had on her wrist. She said, “I’ve tried to kill myself before because the pain of holding this guilt has been just so much for me that I didn’t know what to do except to try to take my own life.”

And so that was the first time that a story had come to me without a camera or without the expectation that you have to tell me your story, because I have a camera on your face. And that was the first time the story had come to me through just pure friendship in that way where I wasn’t on assignment to capture this particular person’s story. It came in in a way that felt really connected because of this common, I guess,anger, this common frustration, this common, teenage anger that we both shared. And so I remember just going to the bathroom and hiding that night and just tears. Crying out to God and asking God, where are you?

In the midst of suffering, in the midst of pain, in the midst of violence that’s happening to innocent people around us, where are you? And I felt so strongly this question being asked back at me saying, Nikole, where are you? Where’s your support and your love and your compassion and grace for my children that are experiencing suffering?

And so I held that question with me as I discerned what would it look like to align with these stories of suffering and of recovery from violence and what would it look like to meld my work of storytelling with that instead? And so as this story came up in Zambia, other stories were coming up in Kenya and I just felt this really strong call/alignment to partner with survivors of sexual violence that I was meeting and form a new organization that supported them and their dreams, which centered around education. And so we started there - funding their education, and sending them to safer schools. And as they were going to school, they would gain a sense…their sense of self again. And so then they would be like, okay, now that we’re in school, now we want to be leaders in the community.

Now we want to learn about telling our story. Now we want to learn how to design community programs that can prevent sexual violence. And so I was like, okay, how do we do that? And so I would kind of design the programs with them as we went along. Folks always ask me, you know, if I’m still doing filmmaking and photography work and kind of somewhat indirectly, but at the same time, I feel like a lot of my documentary work was capturing people’s past stories and past lives and sharing what it looks like for them today because I’m meeting them in the present moment. But in my work now, I feel like I’m journeying with them in real time to see what it looks like as they move through education and leadership and opportunity, and a sense of thriving in their leadership that’s helping other girls come into healing and transformation themselves and witnessing that in real time is so much more full than simply capturing what had happened in the past. And so in that, I’ve been doing this for the past now 12 years, I’m learning how to better advocate with survivors of sexual violence, learning how to hear stories and not just hear it and capture it and make it beautiful, but to listen to the vision and the needs and the solutions that survivors have for their community.

And so that has really formed my understanding that survivors of sexual violence have the potential to become the most powerful liberator’s in our world. Oftentimes we just need to listen to what those ideas and solutions could be and partner together, rally together, support each other’s dreams in a way that builds equity and liberation and freedom for so many others that are looking for leadership opportunities, are looking for educational opportunities, are looking for others that have been through their journey and pathway, that they could look up to and align with as well.

Patrick Reyes: Nikole that was inspiring and my follow-up question, as you’ve done this work for so long is you used words like anger, rage, suffering, sexual violence, survivors, liberation, freedom, and this deep theodicy question of where are you now, God? Where are you? And that being kind of posed back to you. As someone who has been attentive to suffering and rage, it sounds like a lot of your life, going all the way back to the Salvation Army with your family, trying to capture these stories. Can you tell me a little bit about the people, the mentors, the folks around you, the community that you had - Were other people trying to pay attention to these stories, the communities that you were involved in, the individuals that you’re working with? Tell me a little bit about how you relate to other people as you attend to these themes, these people, the stories that you have.

Nikole Lim: Yeah, I think the most formative relationships in my life, of whom I’ve been able to witness what service to the world’s suffering looks like is through my grandfather. When my grandfather was a pastor at the salvation army, he was there for 35 years, which is actually the second longest world record of ministry term in the denomination.

But after he retired, he continued in ministry by going back to China to serve the people in the hill tribes. I was around 11 or 12 at this time and he would send physical photos back to me with little captions on them, just to like tell me a little bit about what he’s been experiencing there, some of the faces of the people that he was serving. And there’s this one photo that he sent me of this girl, little girl who was around same age as I was 11 or 12. And she just looked really like shy and scared and angry, but then all these children around her were like super happy. And my grandfather took a photo with her and he labeled this photo, she reminds me of you.

At the time I didn’t understand it, but now, you know, over a decade later, I’m able to really reflect on, that story could have easily been mine had my parents, my grandparents never immigrated. Had I grown up on the other side of the freeway, had my parents not been able to find the jobs that they’re in currently because of racial discrimination, like just so many questions that could have caused my story to be hers.

At the same time, there’s still that reminder of as we share these common stories, even though the experiences or the circumstances might be different, the story of pain, the story of suffering, is the commonality. And so my grandfather, he was always driven to those places, I guess. And I think the longevity of his work has always inspired me to always evolve, always be innovative, to always try something new, to expand what you thought you knew, and to also go back to the places that you came from. So I think a lot of that has really inspired my trajectory. I have multiple mentors that have really helped me in this nonprofit formation journey.

My degree is in film production so I didn’t study any of this. But I’ve been really fortunate to have an auntie who has studied organizational development. And so she’s really coached me in my process of learning and my journey and her approach is very community oriented which is, you know, how I aligned. I just didn’t have like language or skills to know how to build that. So Auntie Lisa has been very formative in my journey of allowing me to see myself and my leadership in a different way. And she always will call me back to my true intention. So if I’m doing something that’s like not in alignment she will tell me. And I’ll be like, oops, my bad. That was not, yeah, in alignment with who I am. And so I think that’s what I’ve really learned in this leadership journey like, what are your intentions? What are your values? What is your purpose and your mission, and how can you ensure that everything you say and do moving forward from that is always in alignment?

And yes, there will be times, many times, that I have strayed away, that I have slipped up and I had said something inappropriate or unkind or I would make a decision that was not in alignment with my values and she’ll always like re- correct me back to who I say that I’m striving to be. So I think that’s been a really important part of my journey that has kept me into now my 12 years.

And lastly, the survivors in our community, they have been incredibly generous in teaching me what allyship looks like. You know, there’s been a lot of more public campaigns around #MeToo movement and celebrity status and people aligning with different people because that’s the “woke” thing to do or that’s what social justice looks like, right? And there’s a lot of, I guess, ego building around that? There’s a lot of words that are used to condemn others and to, you know, make your ideology better. And what survivors in our community have always brought me back to is centering the survivor voice, but also equipping that voice to be the leader.

And so in my role, as the director, right, it’s learning how do I come alongside? How do I be the shoulders on which survivors can stand on, because I believe that their vision is so much more vast and strong and rich than mine. And so if they can tell me what they’re seeing in the future and direct me so that I know how to best support them in their leadership, then that’s truly my role. And so they have been so generous in correcting me, and walking alongside of me as I walk alongside of them, and teaching me how to better align with my values, especially centering around trauma informed care and developing leadership from folks who had never been in leadership positions before.

I’m working in cultures that are not mine, working in communities that have vastly different ways of approaching community development work than I might, yet finding the gifts and the opportunities in that. So survivors have really kept me also going in ensuring that what I say and what I do, and the decisions that I make in the organization are centered and working around their leadership goals.

Patrick Reyes: As you think about this work, now that [you’ve] been doing it for 12 years. I ask every guest who comes on this show, a very similar question - how much of your vocation, how much of this call to attend to the suffering of the world comes from, or maybe is sustained by, is probably a better question in this case, sustained by some inner voice - attention to that question that you heard God put back on your soul, you know, where are you? And how much is attending to these stories that you just told us about, the stories of survivors, your grandfather? How much is it driven by your community? How much of your call is sustained by that inner voice, that inner conversation with the divine and how much by the community?

Nikole Lim: Yeah, it’s, it’s all of it, I believe. As I’ve mentioned, the survivors in our community they are the organization. And so they sustain me as I work to support them in their leadership. And as they’re moving toward their dreams of pursuing education, becoming leaders, implementing community driven programs that are preventing sexual violence. Those are their stories, not only again, the past stories of trauma or suffering, but also their current story and their dream. Those are also the stories that are driving us forward and sustaining the innovation and the new things that are birthing from our organization. And in terms of the inner call, I think the practice that has really sustained me in this work is contemplation meditation.

That practice has kept me grounded again, to that inner voice of the values, the intentions that I hold in moving forward. And so the more I can re-center and re-align myself with the original intention and values that I hold, the more grounded that I feel to not only listen to that inner voice, but to also listen to the voices around me without allowing my ego to get in the way too much. I see it as that both/and especially in doing community work, you are constantly listening to the voices of those around you, but you also have to listen to that inner voice to know how you use those voices to inform the decisions that you need to make.

And so, yeah, I feel like a lot of that sustaining force and the sustaining grace that keeps pushing me forward is ensuring that I’m in alignment - one with God in me, and also noticing God in community, and allowing all of those voices to form the trajectory moving forward.

Patrick Reyes: Nikole, thank you so much for this incredible gift of sitting with you. I think talking about alignment and sustaining spirit, I’m hearing your story it inspires me. The work you’re doing is amazing. I’m so grateful that you’re doing it. I’m so grateful that even in response to this interview, you centered survivor’s voices and how we’re going to get them on. So I’m looking forward to those future episodes. But thank you for everything. For you sharing the gift of your life, your stories. It’s an honor and privilege to sit in the chair opposite you and hear these stories. So thank you so much.

Nikole Lim: Thank you. Thanks for having me and thank you for the work that you do too.

Patrick Reyes: I want to thank you for listening to Nikole Lim’s story. And please do head on over to to learn more about her work and the organization’s work. As always I want to thank my team for putting this story into the world. So our executive producer Elsie Barnhart, our producers Heather Wallace. Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats for his music. Thank you again for listening. We hope these stories inspire you to find a little more meaning and purpose in your lives. And we’ll see you next week here on the Sound of the Genuine.