Rooted in Legacy: Towards A New World Beyond Borders & Across Oceans – Keynote Address to APALA Convention, Aug. 6, 2021.  By Pam Tau Lee.

Editor’s Note: We are proud to post the unabridged version of PamTau Lee’s keynote address to the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s annual convention.  A shorter video version of this speech was presented at the virtual conference.

Good afternoon APALA Delegates, I’m very honored to be with you and to share my thoughts on “Towards A New World Beyond Borders & Across Oceans.

To begin…. what led me to APALA, … and to labor, and my life’s work for environment? My first experience with the intersection of race, class, patriarchy and gender was when I was 7 years old. As a child I lived with my Grandmother. She worked in a garment factory that made jeans for Levi Strauss. I remember denim dust being everywhere, the heavy smell of chemicals and steam, the noise of the machines, the constant chatter of the women, and Grandmother’s workstation.

I was playing on a bale of denim when I heard a piercing scream. The sounds of machines all came to a halt when I saw women rushing to their coworker. Her hand was bleeding and stuck in a machine.  The man from downstairs stormed into the room. He was yelling at everyone to get back to work. Most did, but several refused. With emotion in her voice, grandmother pointed at him, “Do you know who he is?”  (Me) “Yes, he’s the Lo Ban/Boss.” (Grandmother) “Yes, and he’s mean, greedy and too much soy sauce!” “Too much soy sauce!” That was Grandmother’s way of telling me, something is not right!

It was later in college fighting for Asian American Studies that I understood “what was not right.”

I learned that the root cause of my grandmother’s anger was the capitalist system of super exploitation by corporations like Levi Jeans. I learned how they engaged sub-contractors to oppress our people in our immigrant communities and how they engaged in neocolonialism of our homelands. This “soy sauce” moment was the grounding experience that, in1992, drew me to APALA.

This year’s conference theme comes at a pivotal moment in world history. What comes to mind when you think about a New World Beyond Borders and Across Oceans?

For me? I envision A New World where globally, humanity can thrive and be in balance with Mother Earth.

At your 2019 convention, APALA passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal and Principles of Liberation, which “ envisions a society….. Where a healthy, sustainable planet is able to offer a better life for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Black, brown and Indigenous folks, and all communities fighting oppression.” You also call for a just transition that prioritizes Indigenous sovereignty. So powerful!  <APALAPrinciplesOfLiberation> <InSupportofGreenNewDeal>

APALA is an environmental justice organization. What is environmental justice? One year before the founding of APALA, 300 delegates assembled in Washington, D.C. for the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, I was one of 30 Asian and Pacific Islanders delegates. This gathering rocked the mainstream environmental movement by redefining the environment to include “Where we live, work, go to school and play.” We launched a grassroots movement and crafted the 17 Principles for Environmental Justice.

The Asian American delegates along with the farmworkers were instrumental in the crafting of Principle #8 that affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. Grace Lee Boggs often referred to these 17 Principles as a basis for a future constitution and she was proud of the role we played. <><>  <>

Climate and environmental justice impacts everything. Think of a daily routine. We commonly greet each other with “Have you eaten yet?” In fact, that is how you tilted your Principles for Collective Liberation. If you reply “yes”, then everything is OK, but if you reply “no” then it is our responsibility to take care of you.

Globally, 811 million people go to bed hungry due to climate change, economic disparity and COVID. By 2030, up to 26,000 children a year could die from malnutrition in Asia alone. For most of us, rice is considered a sacred food, but scientists have raised the alarm that unless concrete action is taken on climate change, rice production in the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam could decline by 50% thus rising food costs.

Climate will also impact how you will represent your membership. It is projected that illnesses due to climate could raise the cost of health care, other costs such as childcare, housing, food, insurance, travel, could also increase. With climate change will come increased racial and economic tensions. Perhaps an APALA study and work group could research this area more fully.

I believe that APALA is poised to take a major leadership role on climate change by crafting an Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander perspective for a national Just Transition.  A just transition where we speak and act for ourselves and draws on our rich legacy of sustainable, traditional and cultural Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island practices and environmental justice organizations like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. <Just Transition Alliance>

In 2012, Grace Lee Boggs specifically challenged us to not act as victims (“You need to stop being the victim and stop acting like the minority.”) Act and Be the majority, and also challenged us to provide leadership on how to unify with others and build power. In 2016, the movement to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline gripped the nation. That September, the Chinese Progressive Association – SF raised funds to support the struggle and was invited by the Indigenous Environmental Network to Standing Rock, where our delegation met with the women leadership. They asked us to mobilize protest actions outside the Army Corp of Engineers headquartered in San Francisco. To such an ask of “radical love” we could not refuse.

Returning home, together with Idle No More – Bay Area, Indian People Organized for Action, AIM-SF, and PODER we mobilized thousands to engage in direct action and civil disobedience. After several weeks the Corp of Engineers reached out and agreed to meet and discuss our demands. This act of “radical love that challenges capitalism” contributed greatly to stopping the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Communities like Boston Chinatown are vulnerable to extreme heat and flooding, with the highest level of particulate air pollution in the state and one of the lowest levels of tree canopy or permeable surfaces. Most of Chinatown could be underwater by 2050.The Chinese Progressive Association is planning for a community-owned energy micro-grid to reduce emissions in a way that is putting power into the hands of those most impacted by environmental injustice.It includes energy efficiency measures, backup generators, battery storage, and solar panels. Your voice can make sure that projects like these provide good paying, union opportunities for residents in the community.

Let’s move forward, not from a place of fear, anxiety and anger, but from a place that draws on our historic legacy of radical love for the people, our peers, our community and internationalism.

Towards a New World,

System change for a sustainable planet,

Together, we can do this!

Thank you

Author’s bio: Pam Tau Lee is a founding member of SF Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. She was a member of HERE local 2, worked in the industry for 20 years, and served as staff director of hotels and facilitated discussions on immigration which lead to immigrant worker freedom rides.  Pam also cofounded the Just Transition alliance. She currently serves as chairperson of International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.

Cover Photo:

Climate Justice march in San Francisco, September 2019. Photo by Eddie Wong


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