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Summit 2000

New Currents of Asian American Activism:

Past meets present and future at "Serve the People" conference

Moved to action by the rising attacks on Asian American communities, 300 activists gathered at UCLA for the Serve the People conference on Asian American Community Activism on May 15-16, 1998 to discuss responding to issues such as anti-immigrant legislation, homophobia, workplace abuses, sexism, environmental justice and anti-Asian violence. Inspite of the sense of outrage created by these issues, the overwhelming majority of the participants emerged with a spirit that can be characterized by Antonio Gramsci’s famous words: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."

Why the time was right for an Asian American activism conference

The idea for the Serve the People conference was developed by a core of UCLA students in consultation with activists from grassroots community-based organizations in several different cities. I served on the organizing committee along with members of campus-based organizations, such as the Asian Pacific Coalition and the Asian Pacific American Graduate Students Association. We also received a substantial amount of guidance and assistance from staff members of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. We generated our resources from campus-based sources and received generous donations of labor and hospitality from students and members of the Los Angeles community. As a result, we were able to present a two-day conference with absolutely no registration fees and to provide free refreshments as well as housing for those who requested.

As we began our discussions in December 1997, there was a strong sense that a heightened level of attacks demonstrated the need for more organized forms of resistance. In California alone, we had witnessed the passage of Propositions 187 (anti-immigrant measures) and 209 (outlawing affirmative action) and were in the midst of the Proposition 227 campaign to dismantle bilingual education. On a national level, we had seen the gutting of welfare, with a particular focus on denying immigrants access to aid, an increase in the number of sweatshops, and continued reports of police brutality and racist attacks. It was becoming more and more clear that economic "restructuring" was rooted in a strategy by transnational corporations to increase their "competetiveness" through more intensive exploitation and oppression of Third World people, immigrants, and people of color with women and children bearing a special burden.

For many of us who have attended numerous gatherings of Asian Americans, we began to see a trend emerging where conferences were increasingly becoming specialized events catered primarily to those in fields such as social service, academia, or other professions. Although we recognized the value of such gatherings for those attendees, as student and community activists, we felt that something was missing from these conferences. During the Asian American Movement, people from different ethnic backgrounds, from different parts of the country, and involved in different areas of work developed a common vision and language of liberation which served to unite this diverse array of movement activists. It is this sense of liberation which we felt was necessary for students, for instance, to commit themselves to a life of work for the community and to working for the type of profound change necessary to bring justice, equality, and dignity to our communities.

Interest in and knowledge of the history, politics, and activities of the late 1960s and early-mid 1970s has grown among students at UCLA with the recent acquisitions of the Yuri Kochiyama and Steve Louie Asian American Movement collections, an impressive assortment of literature and other items documenting the demonstrations, conferences, organizations, and publications which exemplified the radical politics of the movement. At the same time, we recognized that a good summation of the past was no substitute for a concrete analysis of concrete conditions in the present. As such, we sought to bring together a mix of veteran movement activists and 1990s generation activists at the frontlines of contemporary struggles.

Our sentiments going into the conference were reflected in the following "Conference Vision" issued in the program:

The 1990s has been a time of contradictory developments for Asian Americans. We have seen an upsurge in the presence of Asians in American society, even though much of this new recognition hascome in the form of attacks. Driven by the bi-polar character ofAsian immigration, we are simultaneously seeing a rise in the bourgeois and entrepreneurial sectors of Asian American society side-by-side with the growth of poor and working-class communities.

During the Asian American Movement, the slogan "Serve the People" was a call for activists to commit themselves to progressive community work. In the contradictory 1990s, community work has come to designate a variety of things, such as social service providing, congressional lobbying, and the election of political "leaders." As a result, few and far between are the Asian American conferences which place at the core of their agenda the concerns of community activists for creating fundamental structural change and building struggle at the grassroots level.

The "Serve the People" conference is designed to bring progressive Asian Americans together from different parts of the country to develop an analysis of the crucial issues facing Asian communities in the U.S. and a progressive strategy for work around these issues. While more Asian Americans are rising to positions of prominence in society, this conference is driven by the notion that gaining access to mainstream institutions is, by itself, an insufficient strategy to address the needs of the masses of Asian Americans, particularly those in working-class immigrant and refugee communities.

A Cross-Section of Community Activists

The Serve the People conference featured a mix of roundtable discussions, designed to provoke thought and debate on "large" questions facing all activists, and workshops and panels designed for activists in similar areas of work to open lines of communication with one another and to share lessons garnered through struggle. The choice of speakers was based primarily on their grassroots community work but also on concerns to have diverse geographic, ethnic, gender, and generational representation. A highlight of the conference was the opening panel on "Interracial Unity and the Struggle for Liberation," in which longtime, history-making activists Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama espoused upon why they have remained committed to revolutionary politics for decades.

With years of dedication to the Black Freedom Movement, both Boggs and Kochiyama served as living examples of the importance of unity among people of color. Boggs shared theoretical and practical insights from her highly praised autobiography Living for Change, which was a popular seller at the conference. Kochiyama brought the capacity crowd to its feet with her impassioned call to "Serve the people at the bottom... the people at the top don’t need your help!" They were joined by local activists Leon Watson and Bill Gallegos, veterans of the African American and Chicano movements, respectively. This inspirational opening plenary served to impart a radical tone to the proceedings and to bring out the best in participants, allowing the conference to maintain a pleasantly non-sectarian atmosphere throughout. The next morning, veteran activists of numerous since-dissolved cadre organizations engaged in a friendly yet critical conversation on the legacy of the Asian American Movement with some admittedly having not made contact with one another for upwards of 25 years. Overall, "Serve the People" provided an opportunity to interact with some of the most prominet community activists from around the country including Anannya Bhattacharjee of New York’s Workers Awaaz, Debbie Wei of Philadelphia’s Asian Americans United, Eric Mar of the Bay Area’s Asian Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment, Jane Bai of New York’s Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, Joe Navidad of BAYAN-International, Kent Wong of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Meizhu Lui of Boston’s Health Care for All, Miriam Ching Louie of Berkeley’s Women of Color Resource Center.

These pathblazers of past years were joined by those of the present, as the conference sought to bring new voices to the forefront, particularly those from ethnic groups which are often times marginalized in a pan-Asian setting. On the closing roundtable on "The New Asian and Pacific Islander Working-Class," Nam Thai of the Vietnamese American Coalition for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area electrified the audience with her indefatiguable spirit and sense of humor along with gripping accounts of the problems facing refugees and struggle of Southeast Asian activists to deal with widespread anti-communist sentiments. Sefa Aina, a staff member at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, pointed to the valuable gains Pacific Islanders have made through coalition-building with Asian Americans. Yet, he was forthright in his criticism of thoe many "Asian Pacific Islander" organizations who opportunistically claim to represent Pacific Islanders but remain dominated by East Asians.

On the cultural front, Nobuko Miyamoto provided an introspective opening performance of her songs from the Asian American Movement while Pinay poet Faith Santilla provided a thunderous closing with her socially-consicous spoken word performance emblematic of the hip-hop generation.

There were a total of 18 workshops and panels broken into three sessions with additional speakers coming from organizations such as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (Oakland), Chinese Progressive Association, League of Filipino Students, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, Korean Education and Exposure Program, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (Los Angeles), South Asians for Collective Action (San Jose), Chinese Staff and Workers Association (New York City), and the David Wong Support Committee (New York City). Anyone interested in a complete listing of conference panels and presenters should feel free to reach me through the contact listed below.

Who Answered the Call?

Although we received much encouragement from those with whom we consulted prior to the conference, we weren’t quite sure what would transpire when the first day of the conference arrived. After all, no one could recall attending an event of this nature, a national conference of Asian American activists, in recent memory, so there really was no precedent from which to work. A most encouraging sign was attendance at both events far exceeded initial goals and projections. Organizers were scrambling to find bigger venues at the last minute when the Serve the People conference drew 300 people over two days. Although predominantly Asian American, all races could be found in attendance.

This large turnout—double the most optomistic predictions—was based on several factors. Large, well-organized contingents from Northern California and New York showed up due to the efforts of organiziations such as Asian Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment (Bay Area) and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (New York City), groups which are serving as a beacon for progressive, under-the-age-of-35 activists in their regions. Smaller contingents of community activists in organized delagations also made the trek from disparate places such as Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and Minneapolis. This in large part contributed to the fact that half of the attendees came from outside of the Los Angeles area.

College students (many of whom were reached through "pass-this-along" e-mail messages) also turned out in larger-than-expected numbers, comprising 45% of the attendees and providing evidence that while a coordinated Asian American student movement has yet to materialize in the 1990s, there are increasing numbers of students moved to resistance in response to the recent wave of attacks. Although the days of the California Asian Pacific Islander Student Union conference drawing over 1000 students ended in the early 1990s, student activists, many of who turned out from campuses such as UC Davis and Berkeley, demonstrated that the campus is still a heated site of battle. In many ways, students brought dynamism to the conference environment, which was characterized by spontaneous outbursts of chants and unity claps. From the floor, students could be heard openly questioning planned careers as professionals in the midst of roundtables where panelists challenged the audience to construct a wider vision of the future and its possibilities.

Finally, there were a high proportion of participants from the Los Angeles area which comprised a diverse group working in organized labor, workers centers, social service agencies, public education, international solidarity efforts, academia, queer organizations, environmentalism, cultural work and youth work. Overall, the "Serve the People" concept was exemplified by the fact that those working in the non-profit sector (29% of attendees) comprised the second largest block of attendees after students and nearly tripled the presence of private sector employees. The latter made up a surprisingly low 10% of attendees and were almost outnumbered by K-12 teachers (8% of attendees). For the most part, rank-and-file workers were absent as were high school aged youth, reflecting the general need for Asian American activist work to penetrate deeper into these sectors and develop organic leadership.

The Legacy of "Serve the People"

The legacy of the Serve the People conference remains to be determined. Ultimately, the true advances of a progressive Asian American activist movement can only be measured locally in the number of people mobilized at the grassroots level and in the actual improvement of living and working conditions.

However, based on the conference evaluations (developed by Meg Thornton), a number of common themes can be detected at this time. First of all, nearly all of the conference participants shared the organizers assessment that such a gathering of Asian American activists was long overdue. As a matter of fact, a common criticism from respondants was that they wanted the conference to be significantly longer. Many complained that there were too many good workshops and panels to attend and not enough time slots scheduled to be able to attend them all. (Think for a moment. When was the last time any of you heard such a complaint voiced at a conference you’ve attended!) When asked what they had learned from the conference, a number of respondants noted that there was "too much to write down." Unfortunately, the fact that the all-volunteer conference staff was not prepared for the high turnout was also not lost on many of the attendees who wished that the logistics of the event had been smoother.

As for what the conference participants wanted to see happen next, there was a strong desire to see more grassroots organizing occurring in Asian American communities. Some expressed this in terms of personal convictions while others noted that organizations in their particular area such as student work or Asian American Studies needed to be more responsive the concerns of the community. A network of Vietnamese American activists developed out of discussions and meetings at the conference and provides an important example of how the gathering was used to further long-term community objectives. In addition, there was a heavy sentiment among participants that there need to be greater efforts to build unity between Asian Americans and other people of color. This is consistent with a desire to see a movement of Asian Americans confront oppression and inequality on a social-structural level rather than get bogged down in parochial, identity-based politics. A significant portion of the respondants wanted to see a movement that went further than "progressive" politics and pointed to the necessity for radical and revolutionary change. Some who attended the Serve the People conference began to address this need by convening a meeting of Asian American leftists in an ongoing effort to forge greater alliances on a national level based on anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist principles.

Finally, almost everyone polled stated their desire to see the Serve the People conference become a regular event. For this to occur, I believe it will be necessary for another campus or city to develop an organizing committee. We in Los Angeles are anxious to share what we have learned through this process but also in need of directing our attention back to our local organizing. For future conferences to be successful, they will have to bring together activists who are deeply rooted in communities, who are confronting problems first hand and have their finger on the pulse of movement. Moving the conference around geographically also helps to bring fresh voices into the dialogue. In particular, many conference attendees expressed a desire to see more ethnic diversity and greater representation of marginalized groups, as well as full participation of queer activists and activists from the many parts of the country (and beyond the U.S. borders) not represented. In addition to the work which must continue, I believe the dialogue must continue on a regular basis, as well. There is not a single national publications that I am aware of which brings together the concerns of Asian American progressives and serves as a forum for activists. In the meantime, some of the organizers are working to publish selected presentations from the Serve the People conference. But there are many more opportunities to carry on the important type of dialogue which broadens our imaginations and challenges us to think creatively about the type and scope of political change which is realizable in our society. The internet provides many opportunities, so long as steps are taken to insure that those without computers can participate on equal footing.

In closing, from what I have learned through my work on the Serve the People conference, there is a widespread desire to see a resurgent Asian American progressive movement and ample reason to be confident that one will emerge.