Connecting Threads: Weaving the Past and Present of Asian American Activism. Book Review of Contemporary Asian American Activism- Building Movements for Liberation by Laura Misumi.
by Laura Misumi. Posted March 23, 2022.
As a daughter of Asian American activists, and as a leader of an Asian American organizing group in Michigan, I was honored to have the opportunity to read the collection “Contemporary Asian American Activism.” When I read the table of contents, I was even more psyched to see and recognize movement elders (and yelders) contributing essays as well as essays on organizations and organizing that I have long admired and looked up to.
I have long looked for writings that are able to effectively contextualize Asian American organizing within its proper place in history: the fact of the Asian American Movement and where it left us, and the lessons learned that we can apply today. I’ve also looked for writings that are able to place in current context the work of Asian American organizing across the country, so that those of us who do this work outside of major Asian American hubs in California and New York would not feel so alone.
Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, professor and chair of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is the co-editor of Contemporary Asian American Activism. Photo courtesy of Univ. of Washington Press.
This book does not disappoint on both fronts. I was particularly moved by the introduction that spoke about locating Asian American organizing as solidarity politics, and warning against cultural nationalism, or organizing rooted in racial identity alone. In the wake of the one year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, it was troubling to see so many rallies with Asian Americans with signs saying things like, “Asian Americans are Americans” and “All Lives Matter,” and folks demanding increased police presence, and highlighting how so many of the reported incidents of acts of violence against Asian Americans have been perpetrated by Black folks, without an analysis of how white supremacy manifests itself in different communities, it’s clear that a more thorough grounding in solidarity politics is necessary for Asian American activists today if we wish to succeed in #StoppingAAPIHate.
Rising Voices, a fiscally sponsored project of Center for Empowered Politics, organizes and develops the leadership of Asian American women and young people for power to enact progressive change in Michigan. Founded in 2019, we aim to create a political home for all those who share our values and seek to organize in multi-racial solidarity. One of the more challenging mental barriers our staff and community members often confront is the feeling that we are organizing alone in our communities for the first time. For Asian Americans who are newly entering organizing or political work, learning about movements for social change that so rarely center Asian Americans can often reinforce impostor syndrome, and a feeling of loneliness overwhelms.
When developing political consciousness, there’s a period of time where folks are learning to see the truth of the forces of oppression that so often shape our lives. When learning about those who have fought back against that oppression and not seeing anyone that looks like you, it is not hard to see why folks would question whether we have a stake in this fight.
It is so easy in a place like Michigan, to feel like organizing Asian Americans has never been done before. It is easy to feel despair, even in multi-racial movement spaces, when the Black/White binary persists, and our communities are lumped in with “white” if mentioned at all. It’s easy to feel like our organizing tradition dates back to Vincent Chin and Grace Lee Boggs alone, and that everything else we have to create from scratch.
As someone whose parents fought to against redevelopment (gentrification) in San Francisco, for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans as but one of the many atrocities the US government needs to redress and repair, I have been lucky to grow up with much greater access to information about the Asian American Movement and its legacy: OG comrades around the country are still in the fight, helping to build, organize, and advise the next generation of organizers and Asian American activists.
Diane C. Fujino,professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is co-editor of Contemporary Asian American Activism. Photo courtesy of Univ. of Washington Press.
Just as May Fu recounts in “Political Education and Radical Pedagogy,” on Hai Bà Tru’ng, “HBT organizers honor Vietnam’s two thousand-year history of feminist, anticolonial, and liberatory struggles for self-determination by linking their training program to a revolutionary legacy of Vietnamese love and resistance.” Rising Voices seeks to build a similar bridge between the work we’re doing in Michigan today and the long legacy of Asian American activism and organizing that preceded us. There is such wisdom to be gained by fostering intergenerational relationships and connecting our movements with the New Left in the US and anti-imperialist fights for self-determination around the world. We don’t need to recreate the wheel and we can take the lessons learned from the past to avoid some pitfalls that lead to the untimely dissolution of organizations in the past.
I also appreciated the breadth of the essays in terms of the coverage of the complete life cycles of campaigns, initiatives, and organizations: Soya Jung in “How Does It Feel to Be on the Precipice? ChangeLab, A Racial Justice Experiment,” names for example how challenging it can be in the middle of a campaign to actually take time to think and reflect on current conditions in context of the long haul of the work we aim to do. For new organizers or for seasoned campaigners, these essays provide important perspectives on staying grounded and all the different ways to stay in the work even if it means stepping back from a particular role.
Karen Umemoto’s chapter, “Ho’opono Mamo and Restorative Practices: Reflections on Scholar Activism in Juvenile Justice Systems Change,” offered not only an important case study of dreaming and attempting to implement actual systems change grounded in Native Hawaiian practices, it also showed the many ways such attempts can be undermined by those who lack a full analysis. In this, the chapters complement each other: without ideology and political education, the most comprehensive proposals to achieve systemic change with seeming buy in from many stakeholders (in this case say reduced contact with the juvenile legal system for Native Hawaiians) can be thwarted both in implementation and in outcome if not all stakeholders share the same understanding as to why certain types of change are necessary. In this case, among other reasons, the actual implementation of the program did not match the design, because those in charge of creating the diversion program were both unfamiliar and unwilling to learn about Native Hawaiian cultural practices, and instead “treated the problem of youth delinquency” as an individual problem devoid of history.” Thus, in implementing the more traditional approach to diversion, there was a missed opportunity to create “a program rooted in Hawaiian epistemology [that] could strengthen an ethic of care embodied in everyday interactions among all those who interacted with youth along a journey of healing, reconciliation, and coming of age.”
This book is going to become a critical component of onboarding for any Rising Voices new staff, and the basis for political education programming that we may develop in the near future. It serves as important information around the ways in which we make radical praxis out of the process of political education as well as how not to get stuck on making sure that we’re doing exactly the right thing before we take action. Most importantly in my mind, it shows a model from many different examples across the country of ways in which organizations can continue to take steps forward even if they don’t feel like they have all of the right answers.
Protest: Stop the Raids & Attacks on Negros, Samar & Manila. Nov. 3, 2019. Photo from BAYAN USA.
Several essays affirm much of what we already know and how we view our work, that those of us in the Asian diaspora fighting for liberation in the US, also know that our fights must be rooted in solidarity for fights for liberation in Asia. For example, Jessica Antonio’s “BAYAN USA: Filipino Transnational Radical Activism in the United States in the Twenty-First Century” reminds us that “through our transnational analytic framework, Filipinos participating in BAYAN USA are engaging in the transnational struggle for national democracy in the Philippines while situated in the United States and also incorporating struggles Filipinos face as Filipino Americans and Filipino migrants.”
Alex Tom’s essay hit harrrdddd: pessimism, perfectionism, and purism hampering our movements are dynamics that I have seen at work first hand in the various organizations I have been a part of, and while our organization has read some Mariame Kaba and hold that “hope is a discipline” (We do this till we free us) and not just an emotion, the ten movement practices that Tom lays out in my mind makes clear and concrete how to enact radical optimism.
In particular, the practice of “prepare to govern” resonated. Too often, reactionary movements and mobilizations seek only to disrupt and to oppose, and when combined with the purism and pessimism mentioned in the essay earlier, can often be truly unable to affirmatively name the world we want to live in and begin to describe what it would look, feel and sound like. If we believe a better world is possible, then we need to be prepared to practice it: as in, democracy as a verb and not something that can be passively enjoyed and dismantled just as easily. This means that no one is disposable: “We need people everywhere, and, more important, organizing is needed everywhere.”
The process of collective liberation is collective: if organizers think that they have to have all of the answers before we begin taking steps to bring more people in, we’ve already lost the game. It’s really important that people believe that the world can be different than what it is now and take inspiration and hope from folks who have come before, who have done this work, who are staying in this fight. Even though conditions are constantly changing and even though times can feel more hopeless, every age comes with it its own set of challenges, but also it’s own set of opportunities. As Pam Tau Lee writes in “The Struggle to Abolish Environmental and Economic Racism,” we must believe that a “better world is possible” and continue to create and tell each other the radical love stories that sustain the souls of movements. We make the road as we walk it, but we don’t do it alone, and we do so with the wisdom of those who have fought this fight before shining a light on the path ahead. Beyond the specific case studies and best practice notes, I hope that’s what folks take away from this book.
Climate Justice March. San Francisco, 2018. Photo by Eddie Wong.
Laura Misumi, Esq. (she/her/hers, Fmr. ED and current Director of Special Projects Rising Voices, a project of Center for Empowered Politics)
Laura is Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) born in San Francisco like her father and grandparents, and grew up in Massachusetts, where her mother was born and near where her maternal grandparents resettled after getting out of the camps. Laura’s Sansei parents were involved with the grassroots organizing of the redress and reparations movement. Laura seeks to further the work of her parents and honor her grandparents’ legacy through her work and life, particularly by standing in solidarity with those being targeted today, and sees her work with Rising Voices as an incredible opportunity to build power with Asian American women and families in the State of Michigan.
Laura has formerly served as: Staff Attorney for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Michigan, a state-wide local union representing nursing home, home care, and hospital workers; Workers’ Rights Staff Attorney at the Community Development Project (CDP) of the Urban Justice Center, providing legal services to immigrant workers in support of grassroots and community-based groups in NYC to dismantle racial, economic, and social oppression; and as the Home Care Law Fellow at the SEIU Legal Department.