These social gains weren’t handed to us. We organized. We formed groups.  We formed coalitions. We marched. We demonstrated.

 

I grew up in the 1960s. It was an exciting and turbulent time. Nationally, the country was coming to grips with the burning social issues of the day. People saw injustice and wanted to do something about it. They organized. They formed groups. They formed coalitions. They marched. They demonstrated. It was the era of movements — the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement.

It was a time when Asian Americans felt they were second-class citizens, a time that they felt their rights were ignored, a time when their voices fell on deaf ears. For many young Asian Americans like myself, we were inspired to search for our ethnic identity and to be proud of our ethnic heritage. We became “community activists,” doing our part for the advancement of Asian Americans — “the Asian American Movement.”

Perhaps the most visible show of Asian community activism was the preservation of the International District (known as the “ID” or the “District”). The ID had been the traditional homebase for Seattle’s Asian American communities. Because of racially restrictive leases, the International District area was one of the few places in Seattle where Asian immigrants were allowed to live. The International District was the first home for many of the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants. By the early 1970s, the International District had fallen into a state of benign neglect. Buildings were abandoned or deteriorating. Social services did not exist.

Galvanized by expected adverse impacts from the construction of the Kingdome on the nearby International District community, young Asian American activists like myself — many of them children or grandchildren of former residents — came back to the International District to fight for its preservation. It was a cause that was essential to our cultural identity. It was a cause we believed in and were passionate about. We were doing something good for the community. We made government leaders listen to our concerns and demands. The response we got wasn’t always what we wanted to hear. But we didn’t go away. The fact that the International District exists today is a legacy to the selfless efforts of community activism.

The Asian community in Seattle has a rich tradition of community activism. In addition to the preservation of the International District, Asian activists have made their mark in achieving many of the societal gains that the Asian community had sought — equal opportunities in employment, education, the arts, political access, the establishment of social services — and respect from the established institutions in our society. These social gains weren’t handed to us.

We live in a different time today. Many of the established institutions that were once closed to Asian Americans have Asian Americans in high, decision-making roles. Asian Americans have been elected to positions of power or work as highly-placed aides to those in positions of power. Yet, that is not to say that social injustice is a thing of the past. Anyone who calls themselves a “community activist” knows that we must be constantly vigilant in protecting the rights we have struggled to earn.

Today, there are attacks on the rights of immigrants. Today, there are attacks on the rights of workers. Today, cutbacks in government funding pose a threat to the very survival of social services that serve the Asian American community. Today, the economic recession has resulted in empty storefronts throughout the International District, threatening its continuing revitalization. We can’t sit on our hands and do nothing. The clarion call for community activism and community organizing still resonates to meet the challenges we face today as a community.

As yesterday’s baby boomers enter retirement, it is time for the leadership baton to pass on to the next generation of community leaders. But there has to be someone there to accept that baton. It is vitally important for our community’s future that we cultivate and mentor today’s young activists. Lessons from the past can serve as an inspiration for tomorrow’s leaders. The label “community activist” is a tag that we can all carry with pride, a badge of honor which shows our commitment to serving our community.

Thanks to a grant from the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the International Examiner has developed an in-depth look at community activism and organizing, sharing perspectives of established and emerging community activists, documenting examples of successfully implemented community organizing strategies, and offering tips on various aspects of community activism. We have divided the discussion into four areas — arts, cultural preservation, and the media; education and employment; labor and discrimination; and community preservation and politics. As case studies, we examine the development of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the founding of the API Women and Family Safety Center, the first Asian American demonstration in Seattle, and the preservation of the International District.

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