How does our past inform our present? Where do foreign and domestic policies intersect? What does representation mean beyond the silver screen?
Though not a complete list, the following article begins to answer these questions and remedy our erasure from mainstream discourse. Here, we highlight some of the past decade’s most impactful Southeast Asian organizations, activists, and artists working for change in America.
Organizing for political action
Family separation is one of the most prominent threats Southeast Asian Americans have faced in the last decade, whether that be through direct violence or the prison to deportation pipeline, which has forcibly repatriated a steady stream of Southeast Asians back to our homelands.
U.S.-instigated wars in Southeast Asia created a wave of refugees, many of whom resettled in America. Bi-partisan policies that encouraged mass incarceration targeted members of vulnerable, poverty-stricken minority groups like refugee communities, who served jail time only to be rounded up by an ever-expanding ICE. From 2017 to 2018 alone, Cambodian deportations have increased by 279%.
“let’s continue to elevate the work of others and carry that community building, exchange, and focused dialogue through this coming decade.”
Since 1998, the U.S. has issued more than 16,000 deportation orders to Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian Americans. Deported Southeast Asian Americans struggle to get by with limited resources, have no family or connections, and are unable to speak the language. The Asian Prisoner Support Committee aids the incarcerated and advocates for restorative justice, working alongside other organizations like SEARAC and the Asian Law Caucus to provide resources and legal counsel for detainees and campaign for pardons like #KeepPJHome to halt deportations.
The problem is ongoing. At the start of 2020, nearly 30 Cambodians were deported, adding to the hundreds of community members already sent to Cambodia. To help them resettle, please consider donating to fundraisers like these that are facilitated by the Southeast Asian Freedom Network: supportrefugees2cambodia
Without understanding America’s imperial history in Southeast Asia, we cannot understand the needs of those displaced and dispossessed. But according to data from SEARAC and the AAPI CHARGE collaborative, only 39% of surveyed AAPI youth in California have learned about their racial or ethnic history, culture, and identity at school. AAPIs make up a significant 11% of the statewide public school student body, and the push for ethnic studies courses aims to empower marginalized communities by encouraging self-determination and combating racial bullying.
In 2018, state senator Janet Nguyen introduced Senate Bill 895, which was amended to include Vietnamese, Cambodian genocide, and Hmong history in California’s K-12 school curriculum. After the bill’s passage and a year of campaigning for Lao inclusion by organizations like LaoSD and the Laotian American National Alliance, Assembly Bill 1393 was also introduced and passed with the aid of 11 senators, adding Lao history like The CIA-backed Secret War to the curriculum. Unfortunately, Governor Newsom vetoed the bill, renewing the Lao community’s push to close the educational gap left by SB 895.
Anakbayan-USA is a national democratic youth and student-led organization that seeks to end imperialism and exploitative neoliberal capitalism in both the Philippines and the U.S., promoting international solidarity for liberation. They recognize the connection between continued U.S. military presence in the Philippines and the billions in U.S government funding that supports the Philippine police state as well as Duterte’s war on drugs and suppression of government critics, indigenous peoples, and environmental land activists. Anakbayan upholds workers’ rights, opposes war, and fights for access to free education.
In their mission statement, online platform Project Yellow Dress stressed the importance of creating “a safe space for [Southeast Asian diaspora] to talk about issues that affect us, and inspire one another to rise up and effect change.” To honor these same goals, let’s continue to elevate the work of others and carry that community building, exchange, and focused dialogue through this coming decade.
Activators and activists
Major incidents harming Southeast Asians became rallying points for Asian Americans. In 2017, doctor David Dao was violently beaten and removed from a United Airlines flight. A viral video of the incident incited public outcry and shed light on corporate abuse of power and racial profiling. That same year, the police killing of Tommy Le, a Vietnamese American student who was shot in the back while holding a pen, rocked the local Seattle Asian community. The King County Sheriff Review Board ruled its own officers acted justifiably, reminding us how important it is to politically activate our communities in response to these injustices.
Motivated by her personal experience with sexual assault, activist Amanda Nguyen founded Rise, a non-profit civil rights organization staffed by sexual assault survivors and advocates. Rise was responsible for passing the federal Sexual Assault Survivor’s Rights Act of 2016, which extends legal protections to survivors and requires rape kits to be preserved for the duration of the statute of limitations. Their goal is to pass similar legislation in all 50 states.
In 2011, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas chronicled his life as an undocumented Filipino American immigrant in an essay for the New York Times, and launched the platform Define American to shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship. He released Documented, a film about these experiences, in 2015. He continues to work as an activist and advocate for immigrant rights.
Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra is best known for his speculative literature. He works extensively with Lao and Hmong community organizations to address everything from unexploded ordnance to promoting creative work, and he even makes his poetry available for free online to ensure access for members of these underserved communities. In collaboration with fellow storyteller Kaysone Syonesa and 40+ artists, Worra will present LAOMAGINATION 45, a touring exhibition of multi-generational stories marking the Lao community’s 45th anniversary, this year.
Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has used his writing to criticize orientalism, imperialism, and inequity (see his New York Times op-ed, “Close the Curtain on ‘Miss Saigon’”). He also facilitates the publication of refugee literature as the editor of diaCRITICS and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.
Since the 2017 success of her graphic novel and memoir, The Best We Could Do, cartoonist Thi Bui has used her platform to help other refugees. She collaborated with Bao Phi to create A Different Pond, a children’s book about what it’s like to grow up as a working-class Vietnamese refugee in America. At The Nib, she published a detailed overview of the policies that allow ICE to systematically detain and deport Southeast Asians.
Rapper Ruby Ibarra’s 2017 debut album Circa91 explores her identity, the struggle to survive as a 1st-generation immigrant, and her relationship to the motherland. The song and music video for “US”, a collaboration with Pinay rappers Rocky Rivera and Klassy and poet and community organizer Faith Santilla, creates a bridge between our revolutionary past and present. Whether in our homeland or in the diaspora, it encourages us to draw upon the strength of our ancestors and organize in our continued struggle against oppression.
In 2016, Black-Filipino actress Asia Jackson started the #MagandangMorenx movement to challenge colorism in Filipino communities online and offline, connecting diaspora to the motherland. This problem dates back to Spanish colonization and is reflected today in the extractive, multi-billion-dollar skin whitening industry as well as the adherence to classist and Eurocentric beauty standards in media and culture.
“Southeast Asian American organizers, activists, and artful agitators have been paving the way for increasingly more connected and defiant generations to come.”
Actor Manny Jacinto, best known for playing Jason Mendoza on NBC’s “The Good Place”, joined indigenous leaders, activists, and other celebrities to protest government inaction on climate change in 2019. When racist tweets by one of the writers and co-executive producers of The Good Place resurfaced online, fellow Filipino American creative Joshua Luna reflected on how that was likely the reason the show failed to humanize Jacinto’s character. No stranger to industry discrimination, Luna has been blocked from publishing his own collection of comics on the many facets of the Asian American experience, from identity and belonging to racism and inequity.
Founded by Dr. Kim Nguyen Tran in 2015, the Missing Piece Project’s goal is to coordinate a mass dedication of objects at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) in Washington, DC by Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Khmer, and other communities impacted by American wars in Southeast Asia. By disrupting the memorial space, they also disrupt the dominant imperial narratives of the “good refugee”, “evil communist”, and “American savior”, enabling them to reclaim their past on their own terms. The dedication will take place on April 30th, 2025, the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and each object can be submitted for digital documentation on the Missing Piece Project’s website.
Southeast Asian American organizers, activists, and artful agitators have been paving the way for increasingly more connected and defiant generations to come. No matter our ancestral homeland, we are all connected through our shared histories of colonization and imperialism. We stand together in resistance. Isang Bagsak!