Asian American Pacific Islander Advocates We’re Celebrating This (and Every) Month

This month of May brings the change of seasons, longer days, and lots to celebrate. Not least among our reasons for celebration are the many Asian American Pacific Islander advocates, as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The Asian American Pacific Islander community is incredibly diverse – encompassing nearly 23 million people with heritage from the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. At Independent Sector, we value this community’s current and historical contributions to civil society. Asian American Pacific Islander leaders focus on many avenues of advocacy and issue areas – and their work is as diverse as the communities they represent. Below is a small but mighty showing among the many Asian American Pacific Islander advocates we admire.

Grace Lee Boggs – Community Activist 

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo by Trent Gillis, via flickr, and used under Creative Commons.

Beloved Detroit resident, Grace Lee Boggs, is a hard woman to summarize. Up until her death at the age of 100, in 2015, Ms. Boggs worked to achieve a revolutionary, radical, humanist global future. The Boggs Center, the organization she and her fellow activist husband, James Boggs, founded in 1995, continues to foster grassroots activism and develop emerging leaders. As incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans accelerated in the last year, the advocates of the #StopAsianHate campaign can look to the leaders of the Asian American Movement who led before them, including Grace Lee Boggs.

Sohla El-Waylly – Equity in the Workplace

Self-described as a “culinary creator, writer, community advocate, and dog person,” Sohla El-Waylly rose to public prominence as a recipe developer for Bon Appétit magazine. In 2020, Ms. El-Waylly publicly accused her employer of discrimination against employees of color, leading to a broader conversation about race and the culinary writing world. Ms. El-Waylly is still creating culinary content on YouTube and is working on a cookbook.

Fred Korematsu – Civil Rights Advocate

In the United States in 1942, discriminatory sentiment against Japanese Americans was at a fever pitch, and a young man faced down his own government with rectitude and perseverance. Rather than leave the exclusion zone he was assigned to, 23-year-old Mr. Korematsu held his ground, arguing that the orders to send all people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps violated his Fifth Amendment rights. His case (and cause) would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision that was not in his favor. Though Mr. Korematsu’s advocacy didn’t result in the change he hoped for, he spent the entirety of his life fighting for civil rights for all. Today, the Korematsu Institute carries his legacy of tireless perseverance towards a greater society.

Maya Lin – Environmentalist and Designer

Best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (created while she was an undergraduate at Yale University), Ms. Lin centers all of her design work around her concerns for the environment, and humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

Kenji López-Alt – Hunger and COVID-19

J. Kenji López-Alt. Photo source: Wikipedia

In the words of chef J. Kenji López-Alt at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “I was thinking of mostly people who were already food insecure, who were now out of a job or their kids were home from school and the kids aren’t getting food. So, how are these people getting food? So, I started by just cooking and packing food basically out of stuff we had.” In partnership with fellow restauranteur José Andrés’ organization, World Central Kitchen, Mr. López-Alt delivered delicious meals to health care workers and others in need, taking care of those on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Chanel Miller. Photo source: Wikipedia

Chanel Miller – Sexual Assault Survivor

Chanel Miller came to national prominence under the pseudonym “Emily Doe” as a plaintiff in the widely publicized 2015 Stanford sexual assault case. Her survivor impact statement was read more than 11 million times and sparked a change in the conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. But she has stayed in the spotlight as an eloquent and generous survivor, describing the difficulties of the assault and consequent path through the judicial system in her memoir, Know My Name. As a writer, visual artist, and podcaster, Ms. Miller reminds us all that we are more than the worst thing that has happened to us.

Naomi Osaka – Racial Equity Advocate

Where even to begin with 23-year old Naomi Osaka? Of course, the tennis star is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, and current reigning champion at the U.S. and Australia Opens. She cemented herself as a legendary racial equity advocate when she withdrew from the Cincinnati Open before the semifinal to raise awareness of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. At the U.S. Open in 2020, she wore masks with the names of individuals killed by the police, highlighting the continued struggle against police brutality. She continues to represent both on and off the court as an advocate for racial equity.

Kal Penn – Environmental Advocate 

Kal Penn. Photo by Phil Roeder, via flickr, and used under Creative Commons.

Actor, former White House staff member, and (vegetarian) burger enthusiast, Kal Penn reminds us that advocacy is not just about using your voice, it’s also about using your wallet. In 2018, the host of Kal Penn Approves this Message invested in Impossible Foods, a plant-based food production company. In his words, “The way we produce, raise, and manufacture meat is one of the greatest causes of global warming and climate change.” So, he put his advocacy dollars to work, supporting more efforts to move away from industrialized meat supply.

Ai-jen Poo – Workers’ Rights

Ai-jen Poo. Photo source: Independent Sector

As the 2011 recipient of the American Express NGen Leadership Award, Ms. Poo represents the very best qualities exhibited by young leaders in our sector. Ms. Poo founded National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007, becoming one of the nation’s leading advocates for domestic workers’ rights. Under her leadership, NDWA has organized workers and state and federal bills and rule changes benefiting home care workers. She also sits on the Board of Trustees of the Ford Foundation, an IS member.

George Takei – LGBTQ+ Rights

Actor, advocate, writer and social media giant – is there anything George Takei can’t do? One of the earliest pioneers of diversity in inter-galactic space missions, Mr. Takei has been a long-standing advocate for the LGBTQ+ movement. Honored by the Human Rights Campaign for his tireless efforts, Mr. Takei is a model for advocacy that is clear eyed and accessible. He shares with his league of fans on social media about ongoing efforts for his community and has even written about his own family’s experience in a Japanese American internment camp in the graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy.

Esmé Weijung Wang – Mental Health Accessibility

Ms. Wang began her career as a fashion blogger and turned her skill for online storytelling into advocacy for mental health access and care for all. Ms. Wang is open about her own diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, compelling readers to see mental health as part of a holistic approach to health in her collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias.

Alice Wong – Disability Activism

Helen Zia. Photo by World Affairs Council of Charlotte, via flickr, and used under Creative Commons.

As the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, Ms. Wong is leading an online and in-person movement to uplift individuals who identify as disabled. As a champion of disability culture, Ms. Wong has created an inclusive space for disabled individuals to record, archive, and share their stories. In 2020, Ms. Wong edited and published a collection of writings from disabled artists, Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the 21st Century.

Helen Zia – Advocate Against Anti-Asian Violence 

In 1982, the racist murder of Vincent Chin made national headlines, and Helen Zia was writing them. The journalist and civil rights advocate galvanized the country to protest violence against Asian Americans. Her advocacy led to federal charges being filed against Chin’s murderers for violating his civil rights. Ms. Zia is now at work on a mini-series adaptation of this case.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and there’s lots more to learn! Additional suggested resources include:

Who are you honoring during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month? Leave a comment below!

Types: All
Global Topics: Civil Rights, Civil Society, Dignity, Equity, Identity, Purpose, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Voice, Voices for Good
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion