BY HIROKO SPEES
Earlier this year, 200 Asian Pacific Islander women gathered at the Loyola Marymount University campus in Los Angeles, shouting “Justice now!” and “Power now!” Power for API women? YES! They have been silenced for too long and are demanding their share of power. They are hard-working women who are nice and wear friendly smiles, but they are not quiet or submissive women. They are strong, confident and assertive. They gathered together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) from Sept. 14 – 16.
NAPAWF was founded in 1996 by attendees of the United Nation’s Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, China. There, 100 Asian American women met and realized there was no organized voice to represent API American women. They vowed that they would meet again in the United States to build a national, progressive, multi-issue movement. Shortly thereafter, they gathered in Los Angeles and founded NAPAWF. Later, NAPAWF moved its national office to Washington, D.C. and hired the first executive director, Kiran Ahuja. NAPAWF has a small staff and a committed board of directors at the national office and lobbies on API women’s issues in the nation’s capitol. It has seven local chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, D.C., and Yale Campus. The 10th anniversary was a time to look back at NAPAWF’s past and to recognize its accomplishments. The group also established a new plan for the future.
The participants of the L.A. conference were diverse. They included attendees who were multilingual, recent immigrants, second, third or fourth generation API Americans, adoptees, and people who identified as Hapa (mixed-race). They were also diverse in age, ranging from 17- to 80-year-olds, including peace activist Yuri Kochiyama who was honored for her lifetime achievement.
The participants attended workshops related to Asian women that included the topics of reproductive justice, human trafficking, violence against women, and immigration. They learned ways to organize in the community, how to work with legislators, to recruit new members, to work with other women of color and to create international coalitions with women in other countries. They also heard about current work and projects and discussed what the national chapter and each local chapter can do for these issues.
The Seattle chapter had a strong presence at the conference — 30 members and community leaders came from Seattle.
At the conference, young students saw mentors and role models they could look up to, and community activists got reacquainted with old friends and made new ones. Each chapter learned from other chapters; some are good at organizing youth groups, some at fund-raising, and some have worked well with state legislators. Many also learned from the national office which published booklets on reproductive justice for API women and debriefed its findings at several chapter meetings. The conference was also an opportunity for long time activists to pass the torch to the younger generation.
Although API women have made several advances, they still face many barriers. Some say the progress has been too slow and not enough gains have been made. API women continue to suffer from racism, sexism, anti-immigrant sentiments, homophobia, and language barriers. For example, many human trafficking victims are API women and girls. Many API women do not have health insurance and do not get adequate health care. API women are murdered by their intimate partners at much higher rates than white women. Stereotypes of API women and girls as exotic sexual objects and submissive women are still used in media, pornography and by international marriage brokers. Among API communities, sexuality is a still taboo subject, making it difficult for API GLBTQ women to be open about their sexuality. In addition, many API immigrant women and their children still do not get adequate social services because of many barriers.
Though the conference took place in sunny L.A., few took time to go to the beach as they felt that attending the conference was a privilege many of their API sisters did not have. They knew others who had to work two jobs to support their families, or had to take care of children or elders, and could take three days off from their busy work schedule. They knew they have privilege in terms of their career, education, class and family/community support. They can all speak English and have knowledge on systems in the United States. NAPAWF hopes to do more outreach into other API communities for their membership.
By the end of conference, the members were re-energized. They knew there was a lot of work to be done and it would take a long time before they could get any significant victories. Keynote speakers who have been longtime activists reminded members that the goals of creating a more tolerant and just world will take more than one generation to achieve. The API women will not give up their struggle for justice because they know there will be always someone after them who will continue their struggle.