Raise Your Hand If You Are An Activist.


Raise Your Hand If You Are An Activist.

Reflections on ECAASU & my personal hesitancy identifying as an Activist.


This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the East Coast Asian American Student Unions (ECAASU) annual regional conference. At the closing ceremony spoken word artist, Fong Tran, shared a poem he wrote about identifying as an activist. He prefaced his poem saying, “Raise your hand if you’re an activist?”. Up until recently I would have never identified as an activist. Activists in my mind were over-sensitive trouble makers who made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves. Why would you choose to care beyond your circle of influence?

Growing up as an Asian American where politics are a private issue

Growing up in an Asian American household, politics were considered a private issue. Meanwhile, the creative performing arts high school I attended was made up of a relatively politicized student body.  It wasn’t uncommon to have a classmate come into homeroom to collect signatures or to table for call-ins at lunch to contact the governor about the negative side effects of fracking. My environment at school was exciting something I had never experienced before, and despite having no model or exposure to public political discourse I still tried my best to “keep up” with my opinionated classmates. While their approach was to debate, my Asian side lent itself to participate by actively listening.  I engaged differently than my non-Asian friends due to cultural differences, and unfortunatley my habit of listening and asking questions was often mistaken as having no opinion, being a-political which resulted in being excluded from the conversations happening around me.

“I never want to be like them!?”, A shift in mindset

My first experience with activism left me believing that activism was arrogant, non-inclusive, and abrasive. My ,”I never want to be like them”,  attitude resulted in me staying away from politics almost completely until this past year.  2015 changed the way I think about activism as an identity. In coming to Boston I’ve met incredible Asian American mentors who have showed me the diversity in what it means to be Asian American. Many of the people I have met are highly involved in grass roots organizing, are writers, speakers, pastors, and community organizer with lots to say about political action. In 2015 my mindset shifted to one where I ask myself, “What do I know to be true, what am I still figuring out, and how can I include and invite people into this process?”. I’ve seen activism redefined to be inclusive, inviting, and approachable.

Back to ECAASU

Going back to my time at ECAASU, Fong’s spoken word piece about activism does a really good job articulating my past hesitancy in identifying as an activist, maybe you feel similarly. If you have a moment check out Fong’s video below if not I pulled out some of the lines that I really resonated with.


Don’t be an Activist [Spoken Word]

“Don’t be that dirty ‘A’ word: Activist. Like a viral disease it always starts in college: took that sociology or ethnic studies class, joined that outreach recruitment center for
underrepresented youth of color. You wanted to hold it down for the struggle at the rally for undocumented student rights and then it happens you become an activist and the symptoms will kick in fast and heavy.”

“Ignorance must really be bliss
because it’s exhausting looking through Facebook newsfeed without saying goddammit this shit is fucked up. Without seeing white people throw peace signs and make squinty eyes in pictures with the #asianpose, without having another “conversation” with your well-intentioned but racist ass friend who commented on your scholarly post on “microaggressions in the classrooms”, without seeing another fraternity throw another cinco de drinko “cross the border” party
without seeing another newscaster blame the victim and defend the rapist
without another black body being shot by another gunman named officer”.

“You get tired of being tired and you tell yourself ‘I just want to be normal
just like everyone else, but then you realize normal is that bystrander effect that chokehold that stops you from raising your voice and forces you to turn you head away from injustice and face down at iPhones screens. Normal is making it easier for you to keep up with the Kardashians than to keep up with the sake of humanity. Normal is that basic shit! Normal is that stuff that makes people cynical cause being cynical is always easier than critical.”

“Activism is not a sprint it is a lifelong marathon and your most crucial asset in your run is the not the power in your legs but the strength of your heart. So you must protect it, you must pace to it to give it resiliency. You will be your biggest critic
but the minute you look far too much in your own steps you will lose vision, so you must keep your head upright never lose sight of your finish line”.

“This world does not need normal, it needs relentless unafraid pursuit of compassion
every action or inaction disrupts or perpetuates that power of oppression but you choose to upset the set up, disrupt the corrupt, stand against the standardization, hunger strike for the hungry.”

My hesitancy in identifying as an activist

In addition to my early negative experience with the idea of activism my hesitancy to identify as an activist also stems from the concern over authority. What do I know about the issues at hand? I want to draw attention to issues and encourage conversation but I’m no authority on the matter. I’m coming to see, however, that activism is simply standing up for what you believe in. Activism can include social media activity and reading up on current events to educate yourself so you can foster intelligent conversations. It also includes simply asking other people what their thoughts are and being involved in your communities. Activism can also include organizing, campaigning, and rallying. There is no one right way to be an activist. If activism had a singular look, I don’t think the Activists would have me — I’m much too clean cut, safe, possibly conservative in appearance.

As a senior I have been to more than my share of conferences, panels, and retreats talking about identity, calling, action, race, and faith… I’ve had dozens of “mountain top experiences” of great clarity and intellectual ecstasy. Spaces like these are wonderful because they give you a chance to recharge and regroup but at the end of the time I always find myself wondering what do I do with this wealth of information: moleskins on moleskins of workshop notes, stories, narratives, and an expanded vocabulary. The answer is simple this time around, it’s time to embrace my identity as an activist. I’ve been one longer than I’ve realized.

– V


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