How Asian American studies classes, groups amped up activism in time of protests and COVID-19

As the academic year ended, college students carved out time for registering people to vote, in-person and virtual organizing and more.
Jenni Huynh, Ramon Chanco, Thao Tran and Chad Dominic Sahilan organized Fresh Off the Vote, a virtual music festival to get young AAPIs to vote ahead of November's elections.
Jenni Huynh, Ramon Chanco, Thao Tran and Chad Dominic Sahilan organized Fresh Off the Vote, a virtual music festival to get young AAPIs to vote ahead of November's elections.Kevin Truong

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By Kevin Truong

For some students at Hunter College in New York City, Asian American studies courses aren’t just a way to learn about their communities — they’re also a way to get involved in them.

As part of a class she took this spring, senior Isabelle Yank volunteered at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a group that serves poor and working class immigrants and refugees, and used her language skills in Mandarin to call older adults in Queens to check in on them during the coronavirus pandemic.

It's just one example of how Asian American students and student groups across the country continued acts of activism related to COVID-19, racial justice and voter registration as the academic school year came to an end, even if it meant doing so remotely.

One of Yank's classmates, Yuanqian He, a sophomore, volunteered with Red Canary Song, a coalition supporting Chinese massage parlor workers, to help inform them about unemployment insurance. Nafiul Bahri, a senior, meanwhile, raised money for COVID-19 patients living in Bangladesh. He promoted the campaign through social media, saying that as a Bangladeshi American, the effort was also a way to stay connected to his roots.

“As Bangladeshis here, we can make a difference,” Bahri told NBC Asian America. “Every little bit matters. We had some folks donate $200, and one day we had some folks donate $2. But at the end of the day, something is better than nothing.”

Isabelle Yank, a student at Hunter College, volunteered to check up on older Mandarin-speakers in Queens during the coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy Isabelle Yank

Glenn Magpantay, who teaches Asian American studies at Hunter College and serves as executive director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, said that he requires students to volunteer at community-based organizations as part of his course. (This year because of the pandemic, it was voluntary, but some students still contributed remotely.) He said that they deconstruct the model minority myth in the classroom, and volunteering further exposes the needs many in the Asian American community have.

“We learn about the Asian American community through books and articles, through pop culture and media, but there’s a real community that’s there,” he said.

For other students, online organizing is a way to explore issues such as race and identity.

During a Zoom conference on activism in May, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of the Midwest discussed issues such as Asian American identity during the coronavirus pandemic, how to address anti-blackness, and the killings of Trayvon Martin and Vincent Chin, whose 1982 death at the hands of two white men galvanized the Asian American community. It also included discussions about race and gender, as well as breakout sessions and a skit showing solidarity with other communities.

“We're always going back to the Vietnamese identity, but also thinking intersectionally about all the other identities we have,” Pele Le, one of the organizers of the event, said.

The virtual conference, which was attended by 24 people, was a way to keep student leaders and community organizers connected – which Le said was needed after the larger annual in-person conference planned for March was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Those retreats, and those spaces are extremely valuable in the Midwest, especially as most of us I'd say have the narrative of living in predominantly white spaces,” Le said.

Participants were also encouraged to reflect on their own privilege as a way to understand how they could best serve as allies with other communities.

“One of our questions was how would you demonstrate or explain what privilege is to someone who doesn't recognize their own privilege?” said Justin Le, a recent graduate from the University of Iowa who helped organize the conference. He noted that in light of the wave of protests around the country, UVSA-Midwest is already planning its next workshop, which will focus on creating a space of healing in the community.

For other students, virtual activism became a way to expand their reach beyond the Asian American community.

The Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations, for instance, partnered with Better Than One, a collective of DJs and producers popular within the electronic dance music community, for the 2020 Project, a campaign to register 100,000 Asian American and Pacific Islanders to vote ahead of the 2020 elections.

Together, they put on a two-day virtual music festival called “Fresh Off the Vote” that livestreamed on Twitch the last week of May. The event drew more than 15,000 people and got more than 450 people to either register to vote or pledge to vote in November, according to Thao Tran, campaign manager with the 2020 Project.

“Planning for livestreams and actually doing these livestream events really helped us understand that we want to use our platform to empower others, not just Asian Americans,” Ramon Chanco, co-founder of BTO, said.

Fresh Off the Vote, a virtual music festival aimed at registering young AAPIs to vote ahead of November's elections.UNAVSA and BTO Collective

Organizer Chad Dominic Sahilan agreed, saying that current protests around police brutality and racism are a rallying call to fight injustices across all communities, not just within the Asian American community.

“With our livestream events taking place concurrently around these civic issues and events, we wanted to bolster and leverage our platform to help represent the underrepresented,” Sahilan said, noting that after the event members of BTO donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which pays bail for those who can’t afford it.

For Tran, also a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, the experience was a reminder of the importance of organizing during uncertain times.

“Never in a million years would I have thought that we’d reach that many people for an event to promote civic engagement amongst the young AAPI community,” Tran said. “With all the issues going on in this world, I constantly tell myself, ‘If I don’t try to help make the world a better place, who will?’”

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