“A Narrative of Invisibility”: Asian American Activists Step Up and Speak Out

October 11, 2019

Though midterm season was in full swing, more than a dozen students flocked to the Asian American Hub for Organizing, Movement, and Empowerment (AA HOME) on Oct. 2. The light green townhouse on Magis Row has a no-shoes policy, so students kicked them off at the door before piling in for the Chai Chat. 

Co-sponsored by the Asian-Pacific Islander Leadership Forum (APILF) and the South Asian Society (SAS), the discussions at the Chai Chat revolved around “issues of perception and visibility within the South Asian community.”

For Nat Tahir (SFS ’20), director of community outreach and communications for APILF, the event was especially significant. “This year, a big goal of mine was to do a lot more South Asian American organizing,” she said.

Through APILF, Tahir and the club’s other members try to support Asian American and Pacific Islander students by holding conversations and community events, as well as by organizing around political issues relevant to their experiences, like academic inclusivity and immigration. In keeping with its intersectional mission, this year APILF is advocating for a diverse range of Asian American studies courses, as well as collaborating with other on-campus activist groups on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.

When Tahir first arrived on campus, she looked for community in groups like the Asian American Student Association (AASA) and SAS but was disappointed by their narrow focus on cultural topics. “I didn’t feel like I could talk about issues that were pertinent to our community that were more political.”

As she got involved with APILF during her sophomore year, Tahir found a group of Asian and Pacific Islander students determined to talk about issues beyond cultural identity. 

Onrei Josh Ladao (COL ’21), APILF’s historian and co-director of programming, hopes that the club serves as the kind of activist community he was looking for when he was a freshman.

“When Asian American first years come into Georgetown, they see big umbrella organizations like AASA and immediately assume that this is the space for them—that’s how I came in,” Ladao wrote in an email to the Voice. “However, the organization has been historically East Asian-dominated, and as a result, other Asian identities, as well as Pacific Islanders, are pushed to the margins.”

Since its founding in 2016, APILF has aimed to be a platform for Asian and Pacific Islander students of all backgrounds, especially those typically underrepresented in larger organizations like AASA.

That fall, AASA Co-Presidents Bethany Chan (COL ’17) and Steven Xiue (COL ’18) started planning an Asian Leadership Forum. Designed to be a coalition organization like the Black Leadership Forum and Latinx Leadership Forum, which represent the common interests of the various black and Latinx clubs on campus, Chan and Xiue hoped their forum would involve representatives from more specific cultural clubs. 

When Zack Frial (COL ’18) heard about the meetings, they were eager to get involved. “I knew that this would be my chance to get more involved with that part of my identity,” Frial wrote in an email to the Voice. “I attended the very first planning meeting all the way through until the constitution of APILF in spring 2017.”

Frial said that, eventually, the club grew away from AASA, hoping to create a smaller, independent organization where each club could be heard. Frial added “and Pacific Islander” to the club’s name in order to include more students of Pacific Islander heritage. The following spring, they helped write the constitution for the Asian and Pacific Islander Leadership Forum.

At first, Frial struggled to sustain student involvement in the club. “This is not to say that Asian Americans were not active in other political groups on campus,” they explained, citing Asian American involvement in groups like the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. “However, any group focused around explicitly Asian American issues was not in existence.”

Interest waned steadily during Frial’s senior fall. “I strove to keep APILF alive during that semester,” they wrote, by co-sponsoring events with groups with more resources like La Casa Latina and the LGBTQ Resource Center.

In the spring, the club saw the arrival of APILF’s future leadership: Tahir, Ladao, Heejin Hahn (COL ’20), and Jennifer Sugijanto (COL ’20). Frial credits this new generation, especially Sugijanto, with revitalizing the club. “Jenn entered the picture and added new energy to APILF, primarily through pushing for Asian American Studies courses,” they wrote.

For the last year and a half, expanding the Asian American Studies curriculum at Georgetown has been the student activists’ primary goal. Universities like Cornell, Northwestern, USC, and UCLA have entire programs for Asian American Studies, but Georgetown has only one full-time professor who specializes in the field: Christine So, who joined the faculty in 1998.

So is now an associate professor in the Department of English. Last spring, she taught English 221: Intro to Asian American Studies. “It was hands down one of the best teaching experiences that I’ve had at Georgetown,” So wrote in an email to the Voice. “I taught ‘Intro to Asian American Studies’ because APILF students came to me and said they wanted that class.” 

Tahir explained that the club is committed to expanding course offerings because they don’t believe that Georgetown’s curriculum is inclusive. “There is no space for ethnic studies on this campus,” Tahir said. “It really goes to show that Georgetown really cares about white narratives, white history.”

In 2009, university President John DeGioia announced the Initiative on Diversity and Inclusiveness in order to foster a more inclusive campus. Among the promises made in a 2010 update on the initiative’s work is a commitment to “explore creating new programs” in the areas of African American, Latinx, and Asian American Studies.

An African American Studies department was created in 2016. Currently, there is no department for Latinx or Asian American Studies.

In protest, APILF partnered with AASA’s Political Action Committee (PAC) this January to create “Georgetown Doesn’t Teach Me,” a photo campaign advocating for an expanded Asian American Studies curriculum and more full-time faculty. Inspired by similar campaigns at universities like Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Amherst College, the campaign features photos of students—many Asian American or Pacific Islander—holding signs that name what Georgetown didn’t teach them about the Asian American experience.

“About Lum v. Rice,” reads one sign, referring to the 1927 Supreme Court case which ruled that excluding a Chinese American girl from a public school on account of her race did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and American imperialism in the Philippines,” reads another.

To Tahir, a wider curriculum would mean expanding the ways students think about the Asian American experience. “It’s just a narrative of invisibility,” she said. “Asian America isn’t recent—it’s not just a first-generation immigrant experience. It goes way beyond that. It has two centuries, three centuries of history, and to not teach that is a disservice.”

Besides pressuring the administration to fulfill the promises it made ten years ago with the introduction of the Initiative on Diversity and Inclusiveness, APILF and AASA also hope to introduce Asian American and Pacific Islander activist efforts to the wider student body.

“Not everyone is as politicized as we are,” Frial wrote of APILF and its co-leaders. “Through movements for Asian American Studies and for the Asian American HOME, we have managed to mobilize parts of the Asian American student body who normally would not participate in other forms of political action.”

Gina Kang (SFS ’22) has a similar mission. As co-chair of AASA’s PAC, she wants to invite Asian American students to ask critical questions about their identity. “A lot of freshmen come into college never having really discussed their identity really critically or talked about issues in a setting where other people were concerned about them as well—political issues, cultural ones, being an Asian American,” Kang said. “That’s kind of our push, to encourage those conversations.”

Asian and Pacific Islander students make up ten percent of Georgetown’s student body, but Kang believes their voices are underrepresented in national electoral politics and on-campus activism. “Activism is something that we want to expand upon more this year,” she said.

This year, PAC is campaigning to increase Asian American voter registration. According to Census Bureau data, only 40.4 percent of Asian Americans were registered to vote in 2016, more than twenty percent lower than the national voter registration rate of 64.2 percent. In September, PAC partnered with APILF to host two voter registration drives at the AA HOME. 

“Voter registration and this kind of direct political action is something that Asian Americans could be more involved in,” Kang said. She cited Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang as an example of how Asian American figures are becoming more prominent in the public sphere. “Yang is a really good example right now, and that makes us a lot more visible to the American public, but that is a place where I see room for progress and there is room for growth.”

Groups like APILF are trying to propel that growth by adding new dimensions to the discourse around Asian American identities. “We try to be as intersectional and inclusive as possible,” Tahir said. “‘Asian American’ is just a race label and to not include all the different intersectionalities of that identity really would be a disservice.”

Within Hoyas for Immigrant Rights (HFIR), students like Rimpal Bajwa (SFS ’22) are expanding conversations about immigration to include Asian and Pacific Islander experiences. Bajwa has been passionate about immigration advocacy in D.C. since her freshman year. “Being the child of two immigrant parents, it was something that’s always been really topical in my life,” she said. “When I found a group on campus, I was really eager to join.”

In her role as leader of HFIR’s Activism Committee, Bajwa organizes events around communities affected by immigration policy, including Asians and Pacific Islanders. According to the Migration Policy Institute, of the 44 million immigrants who currently reside in the United States, more than 14 million were born in Asia or the Pacific Islands. Pew Research estimates that 1.5 million Asian immigrants in the United States are undocumented.

“The burden of immigration rights and advocacy is unfairly put on a certain community that’s always visible in the news,” Bajwa said. “The thing is, immigration isn’t a topic that impacts one community—it impacts a lot of communities.”

HFIR aimed to demonstrate this intersectionality in September with a panel titled “Unpacking Summer 2019: Attacks on Immigrants.” Featuring representatives from black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian immigrant rights organizations, the panel explored how different immigrant communities have responded to the events of the summer—ICE raids in D.C., migrant detention camps at the southern border, and the fatal shooting of 22 people by a white supremacist in El Paso, Texas.

“It’s an issue that affects a lot of people,” Bajwa said. “That’s why we reached out to other organizations on campus that we thought would diversify the audience and let people know that immigration isn’t just one community’s issue.”

APILF was among the panel’s co-sponsors, and its leadership hopes to host more events with other on-campus affinity and activist groups, Tahir said. Many of these events, like its joint programming with SAS and AASA earlier this semester, are slated to take place in the AA HOME on Magis Row.

While the Black House and La Casa Latina are sponsored every year by the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA), Georgetown has no permanent community space for Asian and Pacific Islander students. Tahir said that APILF leadership and their advisor in the CMEA, Esther Sihite, are investigating the possibility of establishing a similar permanent space.

“The fact that it’s a Magis Row right now was intentional. To apply for it was really to set a precedent,” Tahir said. “We have a very particular mission that we want to follow through with.”

To APILF leaders, the creation of the AA HOME represents a big step forward for Asian American and Pacific Islander students, but the club is also in a transitional moment. Three out of its four leaders will graduate this spring, leaving Ladao and a new generation of activists to keep fighting for an Asian American Studies department and a permanent Asian American affinity space at Georgetown. “Our organization is constantly a work-in-progress,” Ladao wrote.

But Tahir is hopeful about the club’s direction. “I see a lot of big steps, foundational steps, happening right now,” she said.

Besides organizing political events like last week’s Chai Chat, HOME’s residents—Hahn, Sugijanto, Kenna Chick (SFS ’20), and Hatty Nguyen (SFS ’21)—also hold open house hours twice a week and screen episodes of the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender every Friday.

APILF events so far this semester have been well-attended. The Chai Chat attracted more than a dozen attendees, and students convened at the HOME last month to share snacks and decompress after the Unpacking Summer 2019 panel. When the panel was over, moderator A’idah Defillipo (SFS ’20) had to shout over the crowd to describe where students could find the townhouse on Magis Row.

“It’s the one that says ‘Abolish ICE’ in the window!” 

Caroline Hamilton
Caroline Hamilton is a junior in the SFS studying Culture & Politics. She’s a half-ironic fan of Arcade Fire and an earnest fan of Paul Simon, as well as the features editor for the Voice.

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