ICYMI: AAPI Women, Power, and the ERA Town Hall

By Ave Lee Green

The ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality held a town hall on April 29, 2021, which focused on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and power. Carol Jenkins, President and CEO of the ERA Coalition/FFWE, welcomed panelists and attendees. She then introduced the moderator of the night’s event, Julie Suk, a Professor of Sociology and Political Science at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

An overlooked woman in the fight for women’s equality in the U.S.: Patsy Mink

Julie Suk opened the conversation by talking about Patsy Mink, a Japanese-American woman from Hawaii, who was the first woman of color to be elected into Congress. Mink’s work extended beyond the fight for women’s equal rights via the Constitution. She also worked on Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools, and other legislation that focused on national childcare policies.

As an Asian-American, female lawyer, Patsy Mink was able to understand that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would not just give women the ability to go to court based on sex-based discrimination but would empower female American citizens and legislators. Women are systematically underpaid, which can be mitigated by non-discrimination policies.

The importance of connecting work and legal claims

Miho Kim, Cofounder of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition and Eclipse Rising, began the discussion talking about the “Comfort Women,” which is a euphemism for the over 500,000 sexually enslaved women and girls who were taken from countries colonized by Japan until 1942. In 1991, a Korean woman revealed this injustice for the first time, which not only informed the world of the horrendous system but also empowered other survivors to do the same. The Comfort Women Justice Coalition works to preserve the voices of these women who have bravely stood up to fight against the systems that were oppressing them.

Yolanda Zhang, organizer of the Ain’t I A Woman campaign, Youth Against Sweatshops, and the Flushing Workers Center, spoke next about the Ain’t I A Woman campaign. Asian women in New York, along with their male co-workers, started to fight the people and systems that were overworking but underpaying them. The long work hours were destroying their health and families and were prohibiting the women from making a life for themselves. Many other women of color were empowered by the Asian women’s fight and joined the campaign, which led to a class action lawsuit demanding $16 million in lost wages. 

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, continued the discussion by giving insight into her own life as a refugee from Uganda. Throughout her childhood, she witnessed her father passively tolerate discrimination. As she recounted this story, Saujani remembers thinking, “I can’t be like my dad. I can’t be silent.” She started Girls Who Code to empower and educate girls of color so that they could get higher paying jobs and move into the middle class. She also referenced the Marshall Plan for Moms –  originally an op-ed focusing on the needs of working mothers who were asking for better wages, childcare, and paid leave but were being ignored. The plan puts pressure on both the public and private sectors to support families and provoke a national conversation about the needs of working mothers.

Kumu Hina, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and community leader, said that by virtue of her culture, support should be shown for movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. However, she struggles with this idea because her own people have to fight to be seen and heard. The U.S. government and its people only pay attention to native Hawaiians when it fits their agenda. Hina spoke about the struggle with tourist irresponsibility in Hawaii and recent legislation that failed to require tourists to take accountability for actions that directly impact native lives. Pressure from the mainland makes advocating for representation and equity extremely difficult.   

Relationships between the AAPI communities and other minority groups

Julie Suk referenced Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs, which was one of the the first feminist economic recovery funds and originated in Hawaii during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. This fund, along with Reshma Saujani’s Marshall Plan for Moms and many other organizations, center around women who are trying to work while also taking care of their families’ needs. Suk also connected the “Comfort Women” issue with the importance of adding women’s experiences with human rights to the conversation of constitutional amendments. 

The discussion continued with Yolanda Zhang and Reshman Saujani by bringing up that often, AAPI women are seen as the model minority and are discounted in social movements regarding race. These women are speaking out and no longer just want to see the minimum wage rise because it doesn’t have as significant of an impact while employers still harshly control workers’ hours.  

Intersectionality

Miho Kim stressed the importance of intersectionality when it comes to understanding the history of U.S. imperial expansion and how the ERA will empower women. The public has not been properly informed of the treatment places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico have faced from the U.S. If this continues, the U.S. will preserve the pro-military country which silences the voices of people of color who are trying to speak out. Kim reminded people that, “When we become more and more influential constituents of this country, because of the place that it holds in world politics… there’s an enormous responsibility that comes with it.”

AAPI in relation to native Hawaiian experiences  

Kumu Hina voiced the problem with referring solely to the mainland when talking about the U.S. The idea of the American dream has overrun the historically default idea for native Hawaiians that Hawaii is the place to be. This has had an impact on native Hawaiians because many people are moving away from Hawaii to the mainland. The U.S. is essentially forcing Hawaii to center their focus around the mainland when Hawaiians are silenced when they speak up about their needs.

How to support the AAPI community

As the final question of this town hall, all panelists spoke on this topic. Both Reshma Saujani and Yolanda Zhang vocalized the importance of asking more questions and supporting peers that may be experiencing struggles that are different to your own. Miho Kim added that while women are at the forefront of these struggles, they are often left out during conversations regarding AAPI issues. An intersectional framework is needed for these conversations to ensure everyone’s needs are being heard. Kumu Hina finished the discussion by stressing the importance of supporting programs that assist marginalized groups. 

Julie Suk and Carol Jenkins thanked the panelists and audience for their participation to conclude the event.

Resources from our speakers and panelists:

Julie Suk, facilitator // @JulieCSuk, Florence Rogatz Visiting Professor & Senior Research Scholar, Yale Law School and Professor of Sociology & Political Science, The Graduate Center, CUNY 

Miho Kim, panelist, Executive Committee Member / Cofounder, “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, & cofounder of Eclipse Rising, a first Zainichi Korean social justice organization in the United States 

Yolanda Zhang, panelist // @aiwcampaign, @youthasnyc, @flushingworkers, Organizer of the Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign, Youth Against Sweatshops & key volunteer at the Flushing Workers Center 

Reshma Saujani, panelist // @reshmasaujani, Founder, Girls Who Code and Marshall Plan for Moms 

Kumu Hina, panelist, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader 

Watch the full event online:

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