'I feel like I was meant to do this': Asian American activists reflect on their work in the last year

A demonstrator during a rally in Seattle on March 13, 2021.
Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

Manjusha Kulkarni describes the March 16 Atlanta-area shooting of eight people, including the killing of six Asian women, as "beyond our worst nightmares."

Kulkarni, 51, is South Asian American and executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. In February 2020, she co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, the national coalition working to document and address rising anti-Asian hate incidents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though she's spent her career advocating on behalf of Asian American and Pacific Islander, AAPI, communities, the mass shooting targeting Asian women and law enforcement's handling of it afterward were a low point for Kulkarni.

"It was very hard that week," she says, adding that being in community with other AAPI justice leaders that week was crucial for her to remain resilient. She remembers being on a call with the Asian American Leaders Table and processing what an Atlanta-area sheriff's office said was the result of one man having a "bad day," instead of what many advocates say was an act fueled by racism and sexism.

"The fact that we could be together right after what happened was really important," Kulkarni says.

Though anti-Asian racism in the U.S. has gained more attention in the last few months, coinciding with the reporting of increasingly violent attacks, advocates say it's crucial to remember that Asians have experienced discrimination from the time they arrived in the country in waves throughout the 1800s — but that also, throughout American history, AAPI activists have been working to fight injustices in the name of advancing the civil rights and humanity of Asians in the U.S.

A lifetime of activism

Many in the community, like Kulkarni, have committed their life's work to the cause.

She was still young when she moved to the U.S. from India with her parents, both physicians, following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that encouraged highly skilled professionals to start a new life in America. After spending several years in Montgomery, Alabama, her mom applied to be a doctor at a hospital, but the panel of white male interviewers told her that foreigners like her were "coming here and stealing our jobs." 

Kulkarni's parents sued, and with the help of the Southern Policy Law Center, successfully settled a class-action lawsuit that led to redress and policy change against discrimination.

Manjusha Kulkarni, Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council Executive Director, speaks against the hate and recent violence against Asian Americans at a rally held on the steps of County Hall of Administration on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.
Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

That experience led Kulkarni down her path to activism through her chosen career: "I thought, I want to be a lawyer, because that means enabling people to do and be what they are. America has these laws that protect all of us. It was an experience of seeing racial discrimination and knowing there are avenues for redress for our communities."

It's also been an intense year for young activists getting their start in grassroots organizing. Brian Jon, 19, from Tenafly, N.J., began his activism work several years ago. When he was a high school freshman, he learned of an incident in which a teacher from a nearby school allegedly made racist remarks against Koreans. As a second-generation Korean American, Jon felt compelled to speak up and started a petition drive that, along with larger community feedback, led to the teacher being reassigned outside the classroom.

That experience led him to launch the Asian American Youth Council in 2017, through which he hopes to encourage fellow AAPI students to be politically engaged. For several years, that involved efforts to register young AAPIs to vote, and at the start of the pandemic, his focus broadened to include addressing anti-Asian hate incidents.

"I feel like I was meant to do this," Jon says. "We're doing everything to prevent one death of a relative or friend, but every day we're seeing at least two to three hate crimes [reported] in New York City alone, and that's not acceptable. Even when a 61-year-old man was beaten and had his head stepped on, no one did anything to stop it. We're voicing our opinions, but where are the physical actions, bills? What are our politicians doing? Those questions made me realize advocacy is needed."

Through his work, Jon hopes to encourage fellow youth activists to speak up and raise the issue with policymakers to improve incident reporting, community outreach and assistance to victims.

For John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC in Washington, D.C., his work is grounded in the mission to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Yang is Chinese American, and though he's always considered himself an advocate for AAPI issues and done volunteer or pro bono work for vulnerable communities, he says increasing anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the last presidential administration fueled the activism work that he does today.

"One rewarding thing is how deeply this resonates with me," Yang, 52, says. "The last four to five years really changed my way of thinking, and I've found a comfort level in my own voice to represent our community."

Working toward systemic change

While many activists say their work to center AAPIs hasn't changed during the pandemic, the demand for their appearances at rallies and fundraisers, in media, and on the frontlines of continued advocacy has been more urgent in the last 14 months.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, 39, immigrated from South Korea to the Chicago area for college and is currently the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, or NAPAWF. Following the Atlanta shootings, she made dozens of media appearance to stress that the attack was based in both racial and sexual violence — advocacy that's made her organization's work more visible overall.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, or NAPAWF.
Sarah-Ji Rhee

Kulkarni has also noticed a shift: Early in the pandemic, white journalists would ask her why people should care about the incidents behind the data. As more people have acknowledged the problem, she doesn't have to answer that question and can focus instead on proposing solutions.

"Caring is about finding a human level of...commonality," Kulkarni says. "If you can't find it within you to care, I can't make you."

Now, more than ever, leaders are pushing for systemic change.

For example, Kulkarni says Stop AAPI Hate has worked closely with the Biden administration, and their data has informed policy changes at the national level. In March, the White House announced several initiatives to address anti-Asian violence, including reinstating and expanding the White House Initiative on AAPIs; improving data-collection efforts to study national hate crimes statistics; and funding training for state and local law enforcement agencies to promote accurate reporting of hate crimes.

Choimorrow wants to make sure awareness and advocacy continues for long-standing issues among marginalized AAPIs.

For example, she says, the health crisis of the pandemic made her work advocating for the HEAL for Immigrant Women and Families Act more urgent, as it would remove the five-year bar for immigrants to be able to access the health-care exchange and public aid, like Medicaid. 

"We've been working on this law for the last 10 years," Choimorrow says. "We picked up the most number of sponsors on this bill right at the beginning of the pandemic, because we were able to make the case as to why affordable health care is so important."

Asian Americans Advancing Justice Executive Director John Yang, center, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about the 2020 census in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill January 09, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Yang agrees that the next steps to discussing the inequities of Asians in America are continued awareness, greater education and inclusive policy: "I do want to make sure we maintain momentum toward positive change."

This includes the ongoing work to debunk the model minority myth, a set of assumptions that AAPIs are all successful and erases many of the structural barriers they continue to face in education, employment, health care, housing, policy and more.

Finding resilience in community

Long-term change for AAPIs must also consider the work of allies in social justice overall, Yang adds, recognizing leaders like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Marc H. Morial of the National Urban League.

These figures have "made sure our different vulnerable communities continue to work with each other and amplify each others' efforts," Yang says. "It's so important to make the progress we want to see."

This AAPI Heritage Month, celebrated in May, Yang also hopes communities can come together to celebrate the many cultures, successes and resilience of Asians in America in the last year and throughout history.

Kulkarni and Choimorrow also point to being in community with other AAPIs, family members and loved ones as ways they've practiced resilience over the last year. Kulkarni says having colleagues reach out and express support for AAPIs has been big help.

Further, Choimorrow says, her resilience comes from "having the perspective that I don't need to and cannot do all of this on my own, and that I stand on the shoulders of amazing women that have gone ahead of me, including women in my own family who have paved the way. What I'm doing is paving the way for the next generation of folks."

Yang keeps his focus on the progress, no matter how incremental: "As long as I can reflect back and think that our work has moved the needle forward, so there's a little less discrimination and racism, and a little greater access to resources for our vulnerable communities, I feel like progress is being made. Ending racism doesn't happen overnight. It's a battle that needs to be continually fought."

Brian Jon, 19, established the Asian American Youth Council in 2017 to encourage activism among AAPI students.
Courtesy of subject

As for Jon, the high school student, he says the Asian American Youth Council serves as a support group to empower young AAPIs to be vocal and active, and to know that they're not alone in their fight for justice.

He's already done advocacy work with politicians including Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and considers himself politically active, but he's not sure if running for office is part of his future. With that said, he says activism will remain core to whatever he pursues professionally and personally: "Community service is a lifetime commitment. I want to be a bridge so people think it's OK to raise our voices and feel there's always backup."

Additional reporting by Courtney Connley.

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