Glenn Omatsu APAAC Keynote

Thank everyone who came out to our 27th Annual Asian Pacific American Awareness Conference. In case you missed our keynote by Professor Glenn Omatsu, read his inspirational words of wisdom here:

Glenn Omatsu

APAAC, UC Irvine, Jan. 28, 2012

The Movement, Then and Now

      I want to thank the Asian Pacific Student Association for inviting me to join this gathering this morning.  I especially want to thank APSA leader Kevin Mori and Prof. James Lee of the Asian American Studies Department.

This is the second time I am giving the keynote speech at this important conference.  The first time was in the early to mid-1990s during a time period that is remarkably similar to now.  At that time, I emphasized the key role of students, especially in the struggle for Asian American Studies.  In the early 1990s, APSA focused on gaining Asian American Studies for this campus.  This morning, I want to again emphasize the power of Asian Pacific students, but now your focus is not to establish Asian American Studies but to defend it from attacks and expand it.  These attacks are happening in the broader context of Right-wing campaigns against rights of immigrants, people of color, and low-income communities.

Let me very quickly explain why defending and expanding Asian  American Studies is so important.  While most believe that Asian American Studies is defined by its subject matter, it is actually more than simply the study of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  Asian American Studies is defined by its epistemology – its special approach to knowing about the world and changing it while simultaneously changing oneself. This special approach exists as a challenge to the mainstream university in terms of teaching and research, the roles of students and faculty, and the relationship of the university to communities.  This means that anyone who takes a class or teaches a class in Asian American Studies has a responsibility to move beyond mainstream university practices, such as seeing knowledge only in terms of individual advancement.  To be a student or a faculty member in Asian American Studies means living within the dialectic of resisting constant pressures to conform to mainstream university practices while upholding our special mission.

The theme of this conference – identifying the Movement in terms of “then and now” – is very important.  We need to connect past struggles to current ones.  However, let me explain what I will talk about and what I won’t.  I won’t talk about my own history as an activist, which began as a student activist in the late 1960s. I won’t analyze achievements from that time period or important leaders.  I won’t cover legacies from that period, other than to say that these legacies remain alive today in our communities, largely through the work of young activists sitting in this room today.

Instead, I want to focus on critical challenges facing student activists today, especially on this campus.  I will talk about these by connecting them to similar challenges confronting APSA activists in the early 1990s.  By looking back to their victories, I do not want to give the impression that student activists then were more numerous, more committed, or did a better job of mobilizing communities than students today.

All young activists – including myself when I was in my twenties – believe that in our communities there was once “a golden period” of activism.  We conceptualize this “golden period”  as one of large-scale activism and higher consciousness than the present, which is often described in terms of apathy and lack of action.  We then seek ways to recapture this “golden period,” often by replicating ideas and actions from that time period.

In reality, there is no past “golden period” of Asian Pacific activism.  Or, more accurately, the “golden period” that we seek exists potentially within ourselves and will emerge through our collective ability to connect legacies from past struggles to current ones.  Thus, as activists, we need to know the common questions that confront all generations, but we need to be able to answer these enduring questions in the context of new conditions facing us.

By the phrase “the common questions that confront all generations,” I refer to core questions, such as:  How can we unite all that can be united against the forces of oppression?  How can we raise awareness in our communities and get more people involved?  How can we create actions that effectively promote changes in institutions?  How can we use participation in movements to change society to also transform ourselves so that we can promote righteousness without becoming self-righteous?  These are the questions that young activists ask today, but they are the same questions asked in the early 1990s, in the late 1960s, and even by immigrant activists in the late 1800s.

By the phase “to be able to answer these enduring questions in the context of new conditions,” I emphasize the necessity for today’s activists to analyze what is new.  One way of doing this is to understand that past struggles when they are successful create new conditions.  Thus, while the questions raised by activists today are the same as in past generations, today’s activists can answer these questions differently due to what past generations achieved.

This morning I want to emphasize one significant new condition for APSA today:  Student activists in this room are more powerful than their counterparts from two decades ago.  They are also more powerful than Asian Pacific student activists in the late 1960s.  In a few minutes, I will explain why I believe this and how APSA can use this new power.

Back in the early to mid-1990s when I spoke at this conference, I emphasized the power of student activism to win Asian American Studies on this campus.  I connected the student struggle to broader trends in U.S. society at that time.  These broader trends are very similar to what is occurring now.

The early 1990s was a period of both intense racial conflict – exemplified by the 1992 L.A. Riots and Uprising – and also significant work by activists in all communities to form powerful interethnic alliances.  The early 1990s was also a period of severe attacks on rights of immigrants, which culminated in 1994 with the passage of Proposition 187 by California voters.  Although major portions of this proposition were quickly declared unconstitutional by a federal court, this racist legislation has served as the basis for current laws targeting immigrants in states like Arizona and Alabama.  The early 1990s also saw major attacks on communities of color and low-income communities, such as the dismantling of affirmative actions programs first by the UC Regents and later by California voters.  The early 1990s was also a time of U.S. warfare, notably the First Gulf War in the Middle East and the accompanying hate crimes in the U.S. homeland against Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and those who looked like them.  Finally, the early 1990s was a period of economic hardships, with the burden borne by low-income people, new immigrants and refugees, and communities of color.

All of these trends served as the broader context for the students’ movement for Asian American Studies on this campus in the early 1990s.  But their struggle was also shaped by grassroots movements occurring at that time.  At UCLA, for example, a multiracial student movement – led by Chicano activists – fought for the establishment of a Chicana and Chicano Studies Department against steadfast opposition by top administrators.  Eventually student activists joined by one professor from the sciences made the difficult decision to engage in a hunger strike to demand action from the administration.  They were inspired by the examples of Gandhi and Cesar Chavez and initiated their hunger strike with the same understanding that it could result in death or serious health problems for participants. 

During the first week of their hunger strike, the UCLA Chancellor remained unmoved.  But then a remarkable thing happened:  support for the hunger strike grew daily, both from on campus and from community groups.  This powerful support challenged the Chancellor’s insensitivity.  Why was he willing to allow students and a professor to die rather than meet the decades-long demand of students and community groups for a department?  After a two-week hunger strike, the student movement won its demands due to powerful grassroots support on both the campus and from the community.

At that time, APSA leaders such as Michelle Ko and Dean Matsubayashi studied what had occurred at UCLA.  Today, both are important community leaders with the Loyola Marymount University’s Asian Pacific Student Services office and Little Tokyo Service Center, respectively.  In the early 1990s, they and other APSA leaders realized that engaging in the same kind of hunger strike as UCLA students would not win the demand for Asian American Studies on this campus.  They identified the specific conditions facing them:  this campus had become the first majority Asian American campus in the UC system, but administrators used this achievement against them by arguing that most Asian American students did not see the need for Asian American Studies.  In addition, although APSA leaders had gained the support of several Orange County community groups, the local Asian Pacific community was still relatively new, and thus APSA activists could not replicate the tremendous grassroots mobilization achieved by UCLA activists.  Finally, due to the small numbers of Latino and African American students on this campus in the early 1990s, although APSA had been able to create a multiethnic coalition, it was not as strong as the one at UCLA. 

Based on their analysis of these conditions, APSA activists concluded that they needed a different strategy and different tactics than their UCLA counterparts.  They especially needed actions that could educate fellow students on this campus, recruit more into the movement and continue to put pressure on the administration.  What emerged from their thinking was a relay hunger strike.  This creative tactic enabled more students to join the movement.  As a result, the relay hunger strike lasted for more than a month and was critical for winning Asian American Studies.

APSA’s activism in the early 1990s also had an impact on community activism in Orange County.  One example is the campaign against racial profiling of Asian American high school and college youth by several police departments.  This campaign was initiated by high school students who were stopped in their cars by police and then illegally photographed.  Their photos were then put into an Asian Mug Book, which was used by crime victims to identify criminals.  Police departments justified this illegal practice as necessary to combat the rise in gang activity among Asian youth.  According to police, Asian gang members could be identified by the following criteria:  they drove Japanese import cars, there would be at least two people in the car, and they would be wearing baggy clothes. 

High school students with the support of APSA and UCI librarian Dan Tsang formed a community group, protested at police stations, contacted the ACLU and lawyers for help, and created “Know Your Rights” cards for high school students.  Their grassroots mobilization eventually ended the mug books and educated the Orange County immigrant and refugee community about the importance of standing up for rights and recognizing the power of young people.  This grassroots campaign is only one example of how student activism on this campus impacted off-campus communities, leading to greater empowerment.

APSA’s accomplishments in the early and mid-1990s also had an impact on campus administrators.  Although campus officials will never admit this, they now make policy changes with some consideration to how APSA will respond.  They also won’t say it, but they are aware that former APSA leaders are now important community leaders, and as UCI alumni their voices have to be listened to by campus officials.

Thus, the accomplishments of APSA activists in the early and mid-1990s helped to change the political landscape on this campus and in Orange County Asian Pacific communities.  This new landscape is the reason why I contend that student activists in this room are now more powerful than those from the early 1990s and even from the late 1960s.  Your support from community groups for this conference and the participation of many students outside the APSA membership is a testament to this power.

I want to identify ways to effectively use this power.  On this campus, the struggle to defend and expand Asian American Studies should be connected to other student struggles, especially defense of the rights of Muslim American students.  Their ongoing court case not only emphasizes students’ right to free speech but is also linked to the historical struggles for civil rights of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

All at this conference should also be aware of the attacks on Ethnic Studies occurring in other cities and at other colleges.  In Arizona, for example, politicians are attempting to eliminate the highly successful Mexican American Studies program, which has achieved outstanding graduation rates for high school students. 

Politicians have banned books, including Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my CSUN colleague Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America, and the powerful collection of essays called Rethinking Columbus.  If you are not familiar with these books, please check them out and find out why some Arizona politicians are afraid of their impact on young people today.  The banning of books is obviously a violation of the U.S. Constitution.  But if there is only one thing that a student learns from taking an Ethnic Studies history class, it is that rights in the U.S. are fragile and only exist if people fight for them.  This is why high school students and community supporters are fighting for their rights and not relying on the courts to protect their lives.

In Arizona, the attack on Mexican American Studies is connected to a broader attack on rights of immigrants and low-income communities.  In other words, it is part of a larger political agenda, and student activists promote awareness of these larger issues through their actions.

Similar to what has occurred in Arizona, last year at Cal State L.A. one official suspended the Asian and Asian American Studies program.  He justified his decision by citing low enrollment in classes and small numbers of majors but never acknowledged the lack of funds and support for the program from administrators.

At both Cal State L.A. and in Arizona, powerful multiethnic alliances led by students mobilized against the attacks.  Today’s student activists have learned from the struggles of past generations and formed student-community coalitions that are multiracial and multi-generational.

In Arizona, the student movement is led by high school students who are directly affected by the attacks.  At Cal State L.A., the multiethnic student alliance successfully beat back the administration’s efforts to eliminate Asian and Asian American Studies.  However, the students remain vigilant, realizing that their opponents have not gone away.

The campaigns of students at Cal State L.A. and in Arizona are also part of an upsurge of activism across the U.S. in the past six months, symbolized by the numerous Occupy campaigns.  I support these campaigns, and I urge others to do so too.  However, these campaigns also give Asian Pacific students an opportunity to reflect on the special legacy of Asian Pacific activism, which is similar to but also different from the high-profile forms we see going on around us.

Understanding our special activist legacy will help students in this room respond to the challenges facing them.  It will also enable them to use their power creatively and effectively.

To explain the legacy of Asian Pacific activism, I want to focus on a mural on this campus.  It is now housed at the Asian American Studies Department, and there is an interesting story behind the mural and the artist who created it.  This story will enable me to concretely explain what I mean by the legacy of Asian Pacific activism and how it differs from the prevailing approach to activism seen in America.

The mural was created by Darryl Mar, a UCI and APSA alumnus who is now working as an animator for many children’s projects.  Darryl is a private person, and I know what I say about him would embarrass him, but I hope he will understand why I am focusing on his mural project.  He is a talented artist, and after finishing the UCI mural he went on to create several more murals.  There is one at UC Riverside, one at UCLA, and one on the walls of a housing project in San Francisco Chinatown.  There is also a magnificent mural he did with fellow artist Tony Osumi on a building in Koreatown.  Unfortunately, that mural was covered over, but it may be discovered fifty years from now by community archaeologists and restored and preserved as an important cultural artifact.

Darryl’s name is probably not prominent in APSA archives.  He never defined himself an activist or a leader, but he fervently supported the need for Asian American Studies, and after graduating from this campus in the early 1990s he entered the UCLA grad program to further learn how he could develop his skills as a community-based artist and serve his community.  In his first year of graduate work at UCLA, he decided to create an Asian American history mural for APSA.  He saw the mural as his way of using his talents to give back to this campus and contribute to the student movement.

As an artist, Darryl was used to creating projects by himself.  He developed the historical themes for the mural and decided to fill it with famous Asian American leaders.  Each evening after his graduate classes at UCLA, he would work for several hours on the mural in his apartment near campus.  But he soon realized that working on the mural this way would mean that he would not be able to complete it for several years.  He seriously thought about abandoning the project.

From his discussions with UCLA student activists connected to the Asian Pacific Coalition and Asian American Studies Center, he heard an intriguing idea.  The students suggested that he should bring the mural to the UCLA campus and allow others who were non-artists to help him work on it.  Initially, he didn’t like the idea, but he also realized that Irvine students were expecting the mural, and this would be the only way he could finish it quickly.

Involving other students in the mural changed Darryl in unexpected ways.  Many of the students who volunteered to help him were women, and when they saw Darryl’s original design, they gently criticized him for its content.  All of the historical figures in the mural were male.  They asked for the inclusion of women.  Other volunteers gently criticized Darryl for putting only famous people in the mural, and through these conversations he realized that his original attraction to Asian American Studies was to tell the stories of ordinary people like his grandfather.  Still other volunteers gently suggested to Darryl that he should include the histories of other Asian Pacific American groups instead of only Chinese and Japanese.  Finally, several volunteers gently urged Darryl to link his historical images to contemporary issues, and he realized that their recommendation was another core teaching in Asian American Studies.

For several intense weeks, Darryl worked with volunteers to complete the mural.  Afterward, he said the experience was exhilarating.  In the past, all his art projects had been individual ones.  As a result, he usually felt burned out near the end.  The mural was his first experience in working collectively, and the process energized him.  He said the experience also changed him as a person.  He learned how to listen and incorporate the ideas of others, while also emphasizing his own vision.  From women activists who helped on the project, he learned the necessity to incorporate women’s voices and women’s issues into his work and not to be defensive when gently criticized by others.

I have spent several minutes focusing on Darryl and the story behind this mural because it can serve as a way to concretely understand what I refer to as the special legacy of Asian Pacific activism.  Unlike activists in the broader U.S. movement who openly proclaim their activism, there are many in our Asian Pacific movement who, like Darryl, contribute their talents but do not self-define themselves as activists.  The challenge for APSA leaders is to be able to create activities within its campaign to allow these people to contribute to the movement.  In other words, while the emphasis in the broader American activist movement is to highlight a few activist leaders and to get many people to work together as a single mass to do one common thing at one particular time, the legacy of Asian Pacific activism focuses on encouraging people to contribute their talents in both big and small ways through many activities that are connected together.

The story of Darryl and the mural also highlights the importance of discussions, especially informal dialogues, in clarifying ideas.  These informal interactions are just as important as formal meetings and often more important in the history of activism in our communities.  In contrast, in the broader U.S. activist movement, the emphasis is on formal meetings where all discussions and decisions are thought to occur.

The story of Darryl and the mural also illustrates the practice of militant humility among Asian Pacific activists.  Militant humility has been passed down to each generation by previous generations, and student activists in the early 1990s learned this value from Philip Vera Cruz and Yuri Kochiyama.  While in the broader U.S. activist movement, the emphasis is only on militancy and being humble is regarded as being weak, there is a long tradition of militant humility in Asian Pacific communities.  Asian Pacific activists also know that practicing militant humility is often difficult because it requires ideological clarity.  Teachers such as Philip Vera Cruz emphasized the need to be humble towards those we serve but to be militant towards those who oppress us and others.  During the mural project, student activists working with Darryl learned to criticize him gently.  In contrast, in his previous work at Irvine he encountered other activists, mainly white, who criticized him in the same way they criticized top campus administrators. 

Finally, the story of Darryl and the mural shows how personal transformation of lives is integrally linked to participation in movements for social change.  Through the process of collectively working with others on a mural project to educate people about Asian American Studies, Darryl said that he became both a better person and better artist.  He confronted his sexism, his ethnocentrism, and his own ego.  He learned also that he did not have to feel self-conscious or defensive about not being an activist because others appreciated his contributions to the movement.

Let me end my talk today by summarizing from this concrete example of Darryl Mar and the mural what the legacy of Asian Pacific activism is and how students today can use this legacy.

Asian Pacific activism is not simply a set of beliefs or a series of actions; more accurately, it is a way of living.  It is practicing militant humility in transforming society while transforming ourselves.  It is learning how to give back our talents – in both small and big ways – to build our community around the principles of justice, equality, and righteousness.  It is propagating the practice of Shared Leadership rather than the individualistic style of command leadership commonly seen in the U.S. today, even in progressive movements.  It is honoring our historical legacy – rooted in immigrant worker struggles of the late 1800s and early 1900s and in earlier peasant uprisings in Asia and the Pacific – and sharing this legacy with the generations that follow us.  Asian Pacific activism is helping people around us deal with uncertain situations and dark times by recognizing the power within themselves.

Obviously, Asian Pacific activism is not practiced only by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but is common to many people of color in ongoing struggles against colonialism and oppression.  However, in the broader U.S. activist movement today, this alternative approach to activism is not always recognized or valued.  Thus, it is vital for young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to share our vision of activism to help other activists.  Other U.S. activists need to understand that there are alternative approaches that they need to acknowledge, respect, and follow. 

We can best teach other activists about the legacy of Asian Pacific activism by practicing it in our daily work.  In our daily work, we can show others how to practice humility along with militancy and to develop the ideological clarity to understand this activist value.  We can help others to engage in personal transformation along with social change.  We can nurture Shared Leadership in our campaigns rather than individualist notions, and we can encourage all in our networks to serve communities with their talents.  And most of all, we can show why we define activism not in terms of set of beliefs or a series of actions but as our way of living.

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