Asian Americans: The Untold Story

Categories: The Insider

Since arriving in the U.S. in the 1800s, Asian Americans have made great contributions to the prosperity of the country, civil rights and the labor movement. But you likely haven't heard about their struggles and triumphs.  

Like those of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, who co-founded the Alaska Cannery Worker’s Association. Or Yuri Kochiyama, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless fight for human rights and justice. Too little has been said about the forced relocation of up to 120,000 Japanese Americans who were held in U.S. internment camps during World War II. And you likely haven't heard of Vincent Chin, whose death led to the formation of the American Citizens for Justice and sparked the Asian American civil rights movement.  

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, AFGE celebrates Asian American activists, past and present. AFGE sat down with three Asian American activists and discussed today’s challenges, the growing union membership among Asian Americans, and the grassroots movement in the digital age.  

Kent Wong is the director of the UCLA Labor Center and founder of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). Kent writes extensively on labor issues and teaches Labor Studies and Asian American Studies. The Orange County Federation of Labor presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award

Jennifer Li is the new media outreach specialist at AFSCME and is an AFGE alumni. She launched a social media campaign to protest the Julian Blanc, a Swiss-born, U.S.-based pick-up artist who had been teaching seminars on how to violently pick up women. Her Change.org petition garnered 50,000 signatures from around the world, resulting in Blanc's deportation and ban from entering 10 countries. 

Gregory Cendana is the executive director of APALA and the Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement. Greg has been named as one of Washington D.C.'s most influential 40-and-under young leaders and one of the 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30. Greg is the youngest general board member of the AFL-CIO, the first openly gay and youngest-ever executive director of APALA and the Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement. 

The interviews below have been edited for length and clarity. 

AFGE: You have written extensively about Asian American workers in America. What are the most common issues they are facing and what organized labor can do about it?   

Kent: There are currently 20 million Asian Americans, the fastest growing ethnic community in the country. Asian Americans are concentrated in urban settings, and in key industries including the public sector, health care, tourism, retail, food, restaurant, and other service sector jobs. Seventy percent of Asians are immigrants, so they have a lot of new ideas and energy to bring to the table. Asian American workers want better wages and working conditions, and a collective voice that only unions can provide.     

AFGE: Are the challenges of the past similar to the challenges Asian American workers are facing today?  

Kent: Asian American workers have faced similar challenges over the years. Asian workers  are concentrated in low wage jobs, face barriers based on their immigration status, and many do not have access to workplace benefits and are denied basic worker rights. With the growth in labor and Asian community alliances, we are working together for economic justice and to raise the minimum wage, for health care for all, and to support racial justice.     

AFGE: Kent, as the founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, can you discuss why it’s important to have an organization like APALA? What were the challenges in forming the organization?  

Kent: We are now celebrating the 25th anniversary year of the founding of APALA.  APALA has worked over the years to advance worker rights, immigrant rights, and civil and human rights. We have built strong alliances between unions and the Asian American community, have recruited and trained a new generation of Asian American union organizers, and have worked for social and economic justice.  

AFGE: Greg, APALA is pretty good at engaging young people. Any tips on how to win hearts and minds of young folks? 

Greg: One thing I love about APALA is the intergenerational organizing, leadership development, and movement building we have been able to do over the almost 25 years of our existence. It's important to ensure young people are represented in the leadership and all parts of the organization including the rank and file membership. In addition to representation, there must be support from financial resources to mentoring, peer coaching and trainings like APALA's organizing institute. 

AFGE: Jennifer, how can the labor movement make the most of social media in our effort to reach out to the public? 

Jennifer: I think the labor movement first and foremost needs to make sure that the message is relevant and accessible. This doesn’t just apply to social media, but to traditional communications as well. Terms like “collective bargaining” sound daunting and complex, and the phrase didn’t resonate with me.  

Our first step is to make sure that our message works. Then we can use social media to spread that message and start a conversation on what’s important to people.  

AFGE: Jennifer, in your experience, how has social media activism evolved over the years and where do you see it going? 

Jennifer: I used to be one of those people that scoffed at internet activism, but through my own campaigns and seeing other campaigns flourish with the help of social media, it’s clear that social media can be a very powerful tool. There’s a lot of on-the-ground work for actual movements, but social media is a necessary supplement. My own campaigns flourished on Twitter, and using a hashtag allowed people to sort through conversations and filter them through that campaign; we organized extremely quickly.  

I usually see hashtag campaigns as a way to start a conversation. I’m proud that my campaign spurred an important conversation, but it also resulted in concrete real life action. 

AFGE: Greg, what is the most urgent issue facing Asian American Pacific Islanders today? 

Greg: Lack of access to jobs, particularly union jobs. Members of the AAPI community have the highest chronic unemployment rate, meaning they are unemployed for longer periods of time compared to their counterparts. Many in our community find themselves in jobs where they are exploited, do not have a voice in the workplace, and face barriers because of language and other forms of discrimination. APALA is working to combat these issues and is building community and labor partnerships to break through the bamboo ceiling and lift the tide for all workers.  

AFGE: Greg, we’ve heard a lot about the model minority myth in recent years. What is it and how does it hurt Asian Americans? 

Greg: The model minority myth hurts all of us because there is a perception that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do better socially and economically. The reality is that our community is diverse and represents people from more than 50 ethnic groups who speak more than 100 languages.  

For these reasons, it is important that we disaggregate data to get a full picture of the conditions of the broader AAPI community. It is true that some are more educated and higher paid, but at the same time, some of the least educated and lowest paid are under the same umbrella. APALA is working to shatter and dispel this myth and is committed to educating others on these complexities.  

AFGE: Jennifer, you are a gifted artist who have been using art in your social activism with great success. One of them received 32,000 Likes and was retweeted 51,000 times! When did you start using art as a way to express yourself and connect with people? How can the visual arts help in fighting for social justice? 

Jennifer: I used to do a lot more art when I was in high school, but tried to focus on a “practical” path when I went to college, so I’ve only recently revisited getting more into my art.  I’ve always liked to create art, but I never formally thought of it as a way to connect with people; it was just expressing what I felt on paper.  

The visual arts, much like language, are important for social justice because it conveys message, emotion, and provides a path for people to connect. We gain allies when they see what we’re fighting for. We confront our oppressors with the clear injustice of their actions. 


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