Individuals of Asian descent may currently represent less than 6% of the American population, but history has shown that it just takes one individual to launch a revolution. There was outspoken writer and critic Wong Chin Foo countering racist perceptions of Chinese by publishing the newspaper Chinese American in 1883 in New York City, labor organizer Larry Itliong leading the farmworker strikes in Delano, California in 1965, and National Domestic Workers Alliance cofounder Ai-jen Poon helping make the Domestic Worker Bills of Rights a reality today in nine states. And thanks to individuals like Phil Yu and the team of the blog Angry Asian Man and other Asian American news-oriented outlets, we now have a constant stream of stories bringing attention to the injustices against and triumphs of the Asian American community.
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We are witnessing and benefiting from such might in ways that are historic. In dire circumstances such as this COVID-19 pandemic, many have been compelled into action: Asian American food businesses organizing meals for healthcare workers and elderly communities; manicurists, students and designers producing personal protective equipment for front liners; and even elementary school children and their grandparents marching side by side with posters in hand to support their teachers, protest gun violence and demand an end to family separation at the border. The following California-based Asian American activists are just a snapshot of the beautiful tapestry woven by thousands of individuals across the country enacting change in remarkable ways.
As a performance artist, comedian and writer, Kristina Wong has long entertained audiences with her no-holds-barred shows, social posts and videos, bringing attention to anti-Asian racism, campaigning for (and succeeding in acquiring) essential services for the homeless as elected representative of Los Angeles’s Koreatown. She now leads more than 600 “sweatshop” volunteers known as the Auntie Sewing Squad to make and distribute thousands of homemade masks to COVID-19 front liners and vulnerable populations.
But there was one particular project for which Wong received endless praise from parents and, unexpectedly, scathing criticism and death threats from right-wing media for its content: “Radical Cram School,” an award-winning digital series featuring lessons and conversations with Asian American youth as young as six years old to explore Asian American history and identity — lessons sorely absent from school curriculum and even in our own households. Directed by Jenessa Joffe, and produced by Anna Michelle Wang and Theodore Chao, the series was born out of the desire to educate kids about what it means to be an “empowered Asian American woman,” says the artist.
There are many laughs to be had in “Radical Cram School,” but more importantly, an infectious call to action for kids to challenge the status quo and to fight injustices of all forms, fueled by very personal stories (from Wong and the kids) and often concrete data. In the first season’s “#4 Statistics” episode, “Auntie Kristina” distributes different-sized chocolate-chip cookies to her class to demonstrate how specific groups are paid differently than men for the same work. In the fourth episode of the second season, they also memorably depict the plight of undocumented workers in America through a humans-versus-puppets conflict on a public playground.
The show’s 12 episodes have collectively more than 200,000 views, with each episode generally running 3 minutes, with not a second wasted. Wong knows very well that any time an Asian American speaks onscreen is a powerful act in itself: “When I was a kid, there would occasionally be one token Asian kid in a classroom scene with no lines, and I’d stare and stare and wait for them to say something,” she recalls. “To me, ‘Radical Cram School’ was a moment where Asian American kids, mostly girls, could see themselves as the center of the story and understand how they can be allies to social justice movements. I think that social movements in America haven’t documented the contributions of Asian Americans … I want to shift that.”
Participants of the Bay Area Solidarity Summer
Founded in 2011 by South Asian American activists, the Bay Area Solidarity Summer (BASS) program draws South Asian American youth aged 18 to 24 for five days of training in the San Francisco Bay Area. The program aims to strengthen its participants’ organizing skills to advocate for social justice and learn about the history of South Asian activism in the United States. More than 250 youth have participated in the program that is currently led by progressive activists Shams-Tabraiz Muzaffar, Palvinder Kaur, Anu Mandavilli, Anirvan Chatterjee and Asha Mehta. Recent participants are already making waves: Aditi Shakkarwar (2014) campaigned for sex education inclusive of LGBTQ students at Cupertino schools; Robin Gurung (2016), who came to the U.S. as a refugee, cofounded Asian Refugees United, which serves East Oakland Asian immigrant and refugee communities; and Muslim American activist Haleema Bharoocha (2019) started South Asians for Black Lives.
“BASS happened partly because [of] the founders growing up in this country asking questions about social justice. They did not have that space to talk about it,” says Mandavilli, who presented her work on environmental justice during the program’s debut year. She joined the core team a few years later. “If you were a young person interested in science or engineering, you’d have many people to speak to your age. However, if you are thinking about issues of representation or justice, more broadly — what’s your place in your society, what is your relationship to other communities of color in the U.S. — there were not that many places that can take your questions.”
The volunteer-staffed program took inspiration from an earlier program for South Asian youth in New York, Youth Solidarity Summer, which two of the original BASS founders attended, as well as from initiatives by other communities of color. Past curriculum has included exploring Black and Brown solidarity, food justice workshops and fighting Islamophobia. BASS also hosts events geared toward community building, such as talent shows and mixers with alumni and South Asian American activists. “Year after year, the youth absolutely love that aspect of it. They stay up late into the night talking,” shares Mandavilli. “They’re all so happy to talk to each other, to find each other. They’re so hungry for that community of other South Asians who are interested in social justice.”
Reanne Estrada has long used art to bring attention to challenges affecting specific communities — and actively invited others to do the same. She’s a member of the artist girl gang Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. and regularly collaborates with artist C. Ree. She recently developed an audio walking tour of the security cameras at the USC Pacific Asia Museum to explore privacy of our digital bodies. As co-founder of the L.A. creative studio for civic engagement, Public Matters, her team also tackles major factors affecting our everyday lives while employing creative, community-driven approaches to activism “rooted in conspiratorial joy and collaboration,” which, Estrada describes, is very much in line with her own polydisciplinary practice that includes “making things and acting out.”
“Public Matters is interested in making a case for arts and creativity to make change happen in other disciplines, and that they are integral, not incidental, to social change,” shares the artist, who also serves as the studio’s creative director. “We attempt to bring imagination, humor and disarming approachability to seemingly intractable social issues like healthy food access (Market Makeovers), tobacco control and prevention (The Truth About Flavor), park access (Pedal2Parks)and traffic safety (Slow Jams).”
Each of these projects involved developing close relationships with community members in the neighborhoods they took place in. For instance, the safer-streets project Slow Jams was launched in 2017 on Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown and Echo Park. Residents took to the streets with large signage, carrying colorful parasols, painting vibrant murals and manning educational booths to help advance the city’s Vision Zero Initiative through LADOT, which aims to protect people’s lives on our city streets. “Traffic safety, as an issue, pedestrian safety, mobility justice, that impacts a lot of different communities,” says Estrada. Together with partners that included Pilipino Workers Center, Los Angeles Walks, and for 2017, Gabba Gallery, Public Matters created an “engagement ecosystem” of local residents, small businesses, community-based organizations, senior centers, schools, a parent network, elected officials and LADOT. This is but one example of the many incredible ecosystems that are made possible each year by Estrada and Public Matters. “A lot of communities of color are proportionally impacted by traffic safety, so there are ways which the work we are doing, that we are seeding, in this context can then be translated into other contexts with other communities.”
When digital strategist William Yu launched the viral social media campaign #StarringJohnCho in 2016, he used Photoshop to replace white male leads in Hollywood-blockbuster movie posters with the Korean American actor Cho. Yu wanted to both critique the whitewashing of Asian characters in the industry and for the public to instantly visualize a world where Asians represented more than 1% of Hollywood lead roles.