Empowering Voices at APAAC

The Asian Pacific Student Association hosted its 29th annual Asian Pacific American Awareness Conference this past weekend, Feb. 8, with students from over a dozen universities and colleges across Southern California. The blank space in the conferences’ theme of “Listen to Our Voice and Empower ______” was intended to draw attention to the conference’s focus on Asian American issues not necessarily considered in the mainstream spotlight.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

Ironically, the conference that was intended to empower Asian-Americans was hampered by power problems during morning registration as the Student Center’s electricity was off due to the campus’ project to improve cogeneration facility interfaces with equipment owned by Southern California Edison.

Lisa Lei, fourth-year student activist and APSA executive board member, and Patrick Chen, chair of APSA, opened the conference with an indictment of Howard Gillman’s appointment as interim chancellor in the wake of Chancellor Drake’s slated departure, as well as his appointment as executive vice chancellor and provost. A petition letter was circulated among attendees with demands for Gillman, including a request for a town hall regarding his appointment as interim chancellor as well a repudiation of the 2011 “Needs Attention” memo.

Summer Ko, the conference’s main organizer, emphasized the conference’s sweatshop-free t-shirts and vegetarian and vegan food options, drawing attention to the exploitation of third world labor and corporatization of food.

Continuing the trend of grievances lobbied at UC Irvine, the conference’s first keynote speaker Janani Balasubramanian opened their speech by reminding attendees that the university was built on land colonized from the Native American Tongva people. Despite centralizing the thesis of their speech around the necessity of solidarities and family, Balasubramanian also pointed to the contradictions that Asian-Americans in particular face due to the “rupturing of time, place, homeland and family” resultant of immigration and forced migration. They urged, however, that intimacy will be the foundation for the revolutionary social changes.

“It is not easy. But then, if the revolution were easy, white people would’ve done it already,” Balasubramanian said.

Mirroring Balasubramanian’s theme of solidarity, Alejandro Muro and Julie Vue, fourth-year student activists, delineated histories of solidarity between Asian-American and Latin@ communities in their workshop. Other notable workshops included one discussing anti-blackness in Asian-American communities, hosted by UCI professors Dr. Claire Jean Kim and Dr. Jared Sexton, director of the African-American studies program. The decision to hold space for discussions of anti-blackness in Asian American communities stemmed from last year’s blackface debacle.

“It forced me to confront the issue of anti-blackness in Asian-American communities. As I began to learn about how my own community is anti-black, I began to see how prevalent it is in Asian American communities,” Ko said.

“#NotYourAsianSidekick,” a discussion by Suey Park and UC Riverside professor Dr. Andrea Smith, originally intended to map digital activism, instead held space for a discussion of women of color feminism.

Beau Sia, slam poet known for his work with Def Poetry Jam, delivered the lunchtime keynote on the importance of properly acknowledging mental health issues and those who live with them. Listing discussion topics such as racism, immigration and language barriers, Sia emphasized that, “for there are aspects in each of those categories that do impact the overall sense of why to be Asian in America is generally to also not address your mental health needs.”

Other highlights from lunchtime performances include Hmong Student Association’s cultural dance complete with clothing from the Hmong Derr region, acoustic mashups by Jessica Yu (APSA’s own advocacy chair) and Tracy Ratledge, and Sia’s recitation of poems from his compilation titled “The Undisputed Greatest Writer of All Time.”

According to Patrick Chen, chair of APSA, Andy Su, co-president of USC’s Student Coalition for Asian Pacific Empowerment, as well as other UCI and San Diego students, expressed that APAAC was noticeably progressive compared to other recent Asian American student conferences.

In the final keynote address, Dr. Sumun Pendakur, the association dean for institutional diversity at Harvey Mudd College, emphasized that all issues are Asian-American issues.

“We need to be able to think like that because it’s really easy to say ‘That’s not my issue.’ And the minute we start to say that, we’ve lost the point of a solidarity-based struggle.”