May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Here at CCEJ we want to continue to amplify and uplift the voices and experiences of our AAPI staff. Therefore in the spirit of this month, and thinking about the work we do here at CCEJ I asked our staff who identify as South/Southeast/East/Central Asian or Pacific Islander why AAPI activism is critical for liberation? Here are their responses:

Belia Saavedra
Director of Restorative Justice in School

“As a mixed race person who doesn’t “look mixed,” I am most often assumed to be a Xicana working in social justice. And while my Xicana identity is immensely important to the way I articulate my political identity, my lifelong commitment to social justice began with my maternal family lineage of Asian-American activism. Growing up, my mother, grandparents and aunties told me stories about Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Fred Korematsu, Noriko Sawada Bridges Flynn, and Richard Aoki. If you notice a lot of Japanese surnames on that list, it’s because our family is Japanese-American. They emphasized that it was against our family values to play into the Model Minority stereotype that is designed to align and assimilate East Asians into the larger oppressive projects of anti-Blackness, hostility to immigrants and indigenous people, and classism.

When I was a child and US Islamophobia began to grow as a result of the first Gulf War, my grandfather told me that he always believed that history would repeat itself and the US Government would mass incarcerate families and children again just as it had done during WWII. He told me that even if it wasn’t us being targeted in the same way anymore, we could never accept it happening to someone else just because we were safe. I was moved to see a contingent of elder Japanese internment camp survivors saying the same thing at recent protest against immigrant detention. All of this points to a truth – that although the API voice is not amplified in today’s larger discourse around race, we come from a lineage of people who resisted not only for their own sakes, but also as allies of other people who were targeted in different ways than they were. I hope our communities continue to take the example of people like Boggs & Kochiyama, and all our ancestors’ names that are unknown to history books. I’m honored to carry that legacy as both a CCEJ team member and the granddaughter of Arthur Shigeru.”

Kimmy Maniquis
Executive Director

“Some of my most cherished and meaningful experiences in my time with CCEJ have been at Building Bridges Camp, specifically in racial affinity group. The Asian/South Asian/Southeast Asian/Central Asian/Pacific Islander meetings are an opportunity for campers, youth leaders and adult volunteers who identify broadly as API to come together and explore our shared as well diverse experiences connected to this racial identity. I love this space to my core and I’ll share why. I love being part of the progression and observe the awakening that happens around identity over just a few days—the realization that their voice is important and they are not alone in their experience. I love seeing the range in difference, even within a shared identity. I love seeing youth begin to problematize how their racial identity, when situated within a Black and White paradigm renders their experiences around racism as either invisible or insignificant. I love holding space that allows for the sharing of personal stories that uncover not only the wounds resulting from immigration and displacement, but the resiliency and beauty of their families and ancestors that live in them as survivors of colonization, war and genocide. I love witnessing them “Speak Out”, contesting the stereotypes that API people are quiet, submissive and model minorities.

I even love the painful parts—of guiding the exploration into the things we don’t like to confront. I love being given the chance to witness young people grapple with the complexities of being both on the receiving end of racial discrimination, and perpetuators of anti-Blackness and shadeism, realizing the ways that we are beneficiaries of a system that upholds a racial hierarchy around skin color. I love helping to build the connections around their personal struggles, from the impacts of toxic masculinity and heterosexism that run in our families; to the struggles of interracial, cross-faith, cross-class and same sex relationships; to the lack of media representation; to dealing with the pressures of living up to our family’s expectations as well as society’s imposed gender roles that are racialized. And I love supporting them connect their experiences to the larger societal issues we are dealing with including immigration, the Muslim ban, community violence and mass incarceration. I especially love celebrating by eating all the good Asian candy gift wrapped in Samoan fabric on Sunday.

It is such a privilege to be able to hold the space for this story sharing to happen—to see ways that exploring their shared identity builds connection, relationships and eventually a heightened sense of pride. This experience brings me to tears time and time again. Having personally struggled at points in my life with my own identity as a Filipina American, the experiences that converge in that cabin are reflective of my own journey.  My own awakening came from taking Ethnic Studies courses, learning not only my history and the histories of communities of color, but seeing the strength that comes with seeing API people leading movements of resistance and social change. It is what ultimately brought me to CCEJ and the place I am today to lead an organization that is moving toward a world free of discrimination and harm by seeing each person for their full and unique selves, while engaging people of all identities to move us toward our collective liberation.”

Kathleah Consul Pagdilao
Director, Building Bridges for Youth Programs

“In my role at CCEJ, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several youth and adults on a range of social justice issues. At our Racial Justice Camps, we work in Racial Affinity Groups to unpack the ways we have been impacted by Racism so that we can be better allies to our fellow People of Color. For us at camp, we refer to the API community as the Pacific Islander/East/South/Southeast/Central Asian (PIESSECA) group. The reason for the name is to bring visibility to the multitude of identities within our community as well as serve as a starting point of the dialogue.

Though the conversations in our group evolve as the political landscape shifts over time, one thing hasn’t changed: the amazement that PIESSECA (or API) community members have when they find other PIESSECA folx who are committed to liberation work.

This amazement—which I sometimes feel, too—tells me a couple things:

  1. We (API folx) don’t see ourselves in the movement. Visibility for our community is limited in general, so visibility of API change agents may also take effort to find.
  2. We desire to see more of us as part of the work. The fact that folx get excited when they find themselves in others reveals this need and want of our community.

If we truly want to be liberated from the systems of Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Cisgenderism, Ableism, and more, we must engage in the movement and make ourselves visible in a society that often says we are invisible. Our amazement in API Activism should come from the progress we are making rather than the surprise that we are actually doing and seeing others in our community do the work.”

We hope this dialogue of why AAPI activism is important continues and we wish you all a Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Month!

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