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COM Instructor Toan Lam Spreads Inspiration Through the Alchemy of Storytelling

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School of Communications & Media Technologies instructor Toan Lam. Photo credit: CocoTran.com.

Toan Lam’s message remains the same, no matter the audience. He could be talking to viewers of the inspirational videos posted on his multimedia platform, podcast listeners, crowds gathered to hear him speak or a classroom full of Academy students. Lam guides them all toward the same goal: Be better. Do better. Discover your superhero power, and use it to serve others.

His methods don’t involve multistep programs, daylong seminars or financial investment. Instead, he uses storytelling to show people what’s possible. “I don’t tell people to do anything,” he said. “I just show them examples of people doing amazing things. My goal is for you to think, ‘Maybe I could do this.’ This alchemy happens when you tell stories.” 

Stories offered young Lam, who lived in a Sacramento trailer park with his poor Vietnamese immigrant family, an outlet for imagination. Although his parents hoped he would become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer, Lam wanted to talk for a living. 

He excelled as a television reporter in markets from Wisconsin to San Francisco, where he worked on KRON’s Asian American lifestyle show, Pacific Fusion, and hosted California Heartland on PBS. But as stories focused on crime, disaster and financial crises dominated the news cycle, Lam realized that he felt unfulfilled. So he made it his mission to present inspirational, positive stories in an approachable way.

Go Inspire Go, a nonprofit organization that uses social networking to affect social change, grew out of that mission. Its programs and videos spotlight people helping others—not after achieving financial security, not someday when they have time, not when work calms down, but right now.

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School of Communications & Media Technologies instructor Toan Lam. Photo credit: CocoTran.com.

These everyday heroes simply recognized a need and did what they could to help. A 5-year-old girl collected hundreds of cans of food for the hungry. An East Bay mother sent her children’s clean, outgrown baby clothes to a local women’s shelter, and piles of donations followed. A UCLA lecturer lent his home to a homeless family for a year.  

Lam’s authentic connections with subjects and viewers make the stories especially powerful. His upbringing informs a sense of empathy and intention further honed during a 12-month period in his 20s during which Lam lost four family members. Having heard his story, others are inclined to trust him with theirs. “Being the sidekick for all these heroes, I found my superhero power,” said Lam.

His latest project features a less newsy, more informal tone. “My podcast TruthDare is intimate conversations with successful, awesome people who have listened to their true calling and are using that power to serve others,” Lam said.

 “I want to dare you to trust your personal, professional, spiritual truth, and to act on that.” Guests include singer, actress and ACLU activist Ari Afsar, who plays Eliza Hamilton in the Chicago cast of the musical Hamilton.

The podcast serves as rehearsal for Lam’s ultimate dream job: To become the first Asian male to host an inspirational talk show. His years as an Academy instructor have provided ample experience working with live audiences, too. Lam teaches classes in digital storytelling and blogging based on your passion, the latter of which he wrote.  

“There are some pretty big, awesome ripples that have billowed out from that class,” said Lam. Success stories include one student who blogs about working through depression, and others who parlayed blogs into an online show for Napa Valley TV, a Los Angeles talent agency and a cooking show in Thailand. 

Initially, not all students were on board. “The man asks that his students step up their game, because they can,” said Jan Yanehiro, director of the School of Communications & Media Technologies. “That’s the kind of instructor I want.” In Lam’s early years at the Academy, students lined up to complain about how tough he is, she remembered. Her response: “Isn’t that great?” 

In demanding the best, Lam inspires students to learn, reach and think outside the box. “Now students ask to take classes with Toan,” said Yanehiro. “That’s why Toan’s here: To inspire people to reach beyond what they think they can do.”