A note from the editor: The Women’s Center is a unit of the Office for Equity and Diversity. In the case of all posts, the opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Minnesota or the University of Minnesota Women’s Center.
The experiences and roles of women have long been erased from American history. Women often appear as the wife of an “important” historical figure, or any other generic and minor role. In my public school education, I learned that women earned the right to vote in 1920 and that some women worked during World War II. Not surprisingly, I didn’t learn more about how pivotal women had always been throughout history. I was only ever allowed to hear specific narratives about women that placed them in supporting and non-confrontational roles. These roles reinforced dominant narratives of traditional gender roles, and in the case of Asian American and Pacific Islander women, supported the model minority myth. Little is taught about any of the women who helped to push forward the Civil Rights Movement or advanced the rights of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The experiences of women, specifically women of color, are so powerful and demand to be shared. As a woman of color, when I hear the stories of Grace Lee Boggs, Angela Davis, Yuri Kochiyama, and others, I cannot help but want to be just like them. To grow up, challenge injustices, and be remembered as a fearless leader, not someone’s wife.
You might have heard something about a group of Asian American Pacific Islander (API) students organizing on campus. APIs for Equity and Diversity is a new coalition group that was formed in response to the non-renewal of Juavah Lee from his role in the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE). What might have started as a response to a single issue has grown into a coalition of student organizers who are looking to address issues of inequity faced by API students on campus. Some might be tempted to ignore yet another issue of inequality since it seems like every day is filled with another story of discrimination or injustice. Others might be tempted to look past the students that were protesting outside of Coffman or their presence at all of the “MCAE Forward” events on campus and in the community. That would be a grave mistake. This group of highly motivated students is putting in the time and effort to challenge systems of injustice and they make no promise of slowing down. In a short time period, APIs for Equity and Diversity were able to gather over 500 signatures for a petition, produce a list of comprehensive demands, develop relationships, garner support from campus as well as the community, and make their presence known.
A few years ago, I might have been someone who couldn’t understand what the big deal was or why all of these students’ concerns mattered. There was a time when I would have walked by a group of protesting students and felt annoyed or inconvenienced. Thankfully, I am no longer that person, largely because of the Asian American Studies program and African American Studies department on campus. I’ve been challenged to think differently, think about the experiences of others, and most importantly, read about the badass women who have made my existence possible. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Dee Pha and Julie Vang, two fierce and inspiring women who are leaders among the APIs for Equity and Diversity coalition. The links to the APIs for Equity and Diversity’s community Facebook page and the Tumblr are included below.
Tell us about yourself: My name is Dee Pha. I identify as a Hmong-American. For most of my childhood, I lived in south Minneapolis however, moved over to the northwest suburb of Robbinsdale where I grew up. During my upbringing, I went to a predominately white elementary and middle school but then transitioned to a diverse high school where I really began to start exploring my identity and became introduced to social justice movements.
What is your Major/Minor? Strategic Communications with minors in Asian American Studies and History.
Tell us about someone who inspires you. My grandfather has been one of my greatest inspirations in life. He served as a colonel during the Secret War of 1975 in Vietnam where he played a pivotal role in organizing troops to fight for the cause. Up until his death, he served as a community leader to the Hmong and played an important role in the politics and rebuilding of the community here in America during the early years.
How did you get involved in student activism on campus? APIs for Equity and Diversity has really been my first time at student activism. This first started with a simple conversation with one of my best friends, who suggested we start a group to fight for more Asian Pacific Islander American resources on campus. At first, I was hesitant because I felt uncomfortable and never had taken part in anything like this before however, with an extra push I found myself getting more involved with the cause than I had anticipated.
Why are you involved in the APIs for Equity and Diversity? I became involved with APIs for Equity and Diversity because I believe in the central foundation that it’s built upon. I want to be able to start the journey for API representation at the University of Minnesota and hope that our efforts serve as an inspiration to other groups who are fighting for it as well.
What is something you wished other people knew about APIs for Equity and Diversity or the API community in general? We are not your model minority.
What are your plans for the future? I have found that I love working with and for communities and so, after graduation I plan to do more community organizing work but on a national level in Washington DC. I hope to make my way into policy and/or public affairs work because I find that those fields are powerful pathways to create widespread change. My ultimate life goal is to create a program that will empower Hmong youth to be more civically engaged and to establish a scholarship/foundation for Hmong people who want to pursue careers in civic engagement or political work.
And now, I’d like to introduce Julie Vang, a Family Social Science Major and Asian American Studies Minor at the U of M.
“I am a Hmong American female, low-income, the first to study abroad, and the first to be receiving a bachelor’s degree in my family. I am proud to say that I am setting an example for my family and for my community. My older siblings dropped out of college because they couldn’t afford tuition and they couldn’t meet my parents’ expectations of becoming doctors, lawyers, or teachers. I realized that through my studies and activism in college, I had to continuously fight for my rights and placement at home and in the institution.
I learned the disappointing news of the non-renewal of a valuable staff member who had guided and supported me since freshman year at the University of Minnesota. I am referring to Mr. Juavah Lee, who was let go in August 2015 from his position as Assistant Director of MCAE, under the Office for Equity and Diversity. Mr. Lee created a living-learning community in which I participated called Tsev Hmoob, also known as Hmong House, in Comstock. It was a way for fellow Hmong freshmen to build and learn together and ensure a successful start of college. I truly appreciated Tsev Hmoob because I was able to find a community and a place to say ‘family’ on an enormous college campus. In addition, Mr. Lee was able to connect and interpret in Hmong with my mom, which allowed me to study abroad in Kenya for a semester. By studying abroad in Kenya, I developed cultural competence and awareness, challenged myself to appreciate new and unfamiliar perspectives, adventures, and opportunities that better prepared me for my future careers. Mr. Lee was able to bridge the opportunity gap at home and in higher education for me. I know I’m not the only person who’s impacted by his services.
Therefore, a new coalition called APIs for Equity and Diversity began after hearing about this disappointing news. I am a part of this coalition because I would like to see more accountability and transparency from the University of Minnesota. In addition, unnoticed students and their voices are finally being heard as conversations continue to center around race, culture, gender, and politics. I am hoping this coalition will leave future generations to be heard, seen, listened to, and understood for as they pursue their higher education experience.”