Although anti-Asian racism and violence have gained attention nationwide over the past year, female leaders of Asian heritage in Washtenaw County are envisioning a greater shift towards solidarity, strength, and healing.
"It's an agonizing point in time, but I'm hopeful," says Melissa Borja, an assistant professor of American culture at the University of Michigan (U-M). "Because what we know is that Asian-Americans are organizing very forcefully to say that it's not okay to be made scapegoats for the pandemic, and it's not okay to use anti-Chinese rhetoric against us."
Borja, a native Michigander currently based in Indianapolis, is uniquely positioned to lend insight. Not only is she herself a member of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, but she's also an affiliated researcher with the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center
. Last April (with support from U-M's Center for Social Solutions
and Poverty Solutions
), Borja founded Virulent Hate
, a project dedicated to raising awareness around the escalation of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative tracks anti-Asian hate crimes reported in the media and identifies trends in order to shape public policy, improve public understanding of anti-Asian hate incidents, and guide community activism. The research has uncovered an unsettling trend: women are the victims of 68% of reported incidents.
"The experience of Asian-Americans across the country has been really hard in the past year, but thankfully they've found really amazing and creative ways to respond to the racism and violence that they've experienced," Borja says.
We asked 10 female Washtenaw County leaders of Asian heritage to share their personal reflections on the past year and weigh in on where we need to go from here. Here's what they had to say.
Ypsilanti resident Yen Azzaro is an activist artist, consultant, and illustrator. She currently serves on the boards of Mentor2Youth
and the Ypsilanti Housing Commission
. Over the last eight years, Azzaro has facilitated and/or obtained over $64,000 in grants to produce creative projects to uplift the community.
Born in Taiwan, Azzaro has lived in Michigan for most of her life. Her family history includes both of her grandfathers' harrowing escape from China's communist rule. Most of her elementary school experience unfolded largely in rural Tecumseh, where her family was one of only three Asian families — if one counts her uncle, who lived next door, as a separate household.
"I've been faced with my otherness my whole life, but I'm really grappling with just what that means now that I have an eight-year-old son who's half Caucasian, but looks very, very Asian," Azzaro says. "I have to show my son that life is a very painfully beautiful experience and I feel the responsibility of creating art that makes people turn their heads and reconsider their thinking."
She believes that change will come if every individual takes personal responsibility in dismantling the "monolith of the Asian person in America."
"As humans, we see somebody's appearance and think, ‘I have a friend who looks like you, so therefore I know you.’ But we get into dangerous territory when we tokenize people," Azzaro says. "The heritage of the Asian population is rich and deep. Find out where a person is from and what language they speak. But better yet, find out what dialect of that language they speak."
A transracial, transnational Korean adoptee, Lori Roddy says her identity as an Asian-American shows up differently. Growing up, she did a lot of explaining who she was as she responded to the question, "where are you from?"
Today, Roddy is the executive director at the Neutral Zone
, a diverse, youth-driven teen center in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor resident says it's a dangerous time to be Asian, but luckily, she has been supported by others of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage in the community.
"It's outrageous that we live in a country where our former leadership blamed Asians for their grief, loss, and struggle," she says. "I'm grateful for my leadership role at Neutral Zone, where I have the opportunity to create a space for young people to feel safe."
Roddy stresses that the Neutral Zone is a place where youth are supported to build their leadership skills and develop the courage to lead much-needed change not just in Washtenaw County, but across the country.
"If you want to create a society that's inclusive, then we need to support our young people who will be helping to create that vision. That's my part in this awful mess," she says.
Over the last year, longstanding community leader and advocate Praveena Ramaswami has given a lot of heartfelt thought to the large Asian population (particularly its senior citizens) on the north side of Ann Arbor, where she resides.
"If something happened to them, do they know how to report it and who to contact? We need an organized community for outreach so that everyone feels seen and safe," Ramaswami says.
She points to research from Stop AAPI Hate
, showing that 16 AAPI hate incidents were reported in Michigan between March 2020 and February 2021.
"Just speaking to people in our community here in Ann Arbor, I know that the actual number is higher, but they were not reported perhaps due to fear and/or lack of information on how or why it should be reported," she says. “I ask that our schools, nonprofits, and civic and public organizations keep our [Asian American, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Asian] community on their radars with proactive outreach to access services.”
Ramaswami, who is of Indian heritage, refers to herself as "an immigrant of immigrants" because her parents were immigrants to Canada and she was born and raised there. Having lived in Michigan for over 21 years, she's seen lots of change, but says so much more is needed.
"I'm looking for solutions and ways to help people who don't have a voice," she says. "We can be angry and hurt, but we can also use this time as an opportunity to build bridges in our community."
Guiding students through the surge of emotions in the face of anti-AAPI sentiments and violence "is just heartbreaking," says Nhu Do, principal at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy
(WiHi and WIMA) in Ypsilanti.
Do was born in Vietnam and immigrated to Toronto before life brought her to Michigan many years ago; she now lives in Ann Arbor. Growing up, Do was no stranger to racism directed toward her, so she's deeply empathetic with her AAPI students. She reports that many students are railing now more than ever against the "model minority" myth
and the hypersexualiztion of Asian women
She says her students are lucky because WiHi and WIMA have always housed an incredibly diverse community that deliberately fosters social justice and inclusion. She is especially proud that her AAPI students felt safe to share their feelings in a group meeting after the Atlanta massacre
of eight people, including six women of Asian heritage, in March.
"These young people were sharing stories about racist slurs, and of feeling dismissed and silenced. There was a lot of crying, and a lot of pain and anger," Do says. "But we absolutely must have open and honest conversations about what is necessary for us to do as educators, as students, and as a whole community — no matter how painful the conversations are."
Looking toward the future, Do wants more attention on revising educational curricula to include all marginalized voices.
"I believe the root cause and solution is education — and every school has to be committed," she says.
Trista Van Tine
When Trista Van Tine was four months old, she was adopted from Korea and lovingly raised in North Branch, a couple of hours north of Ann Arbor. Her adoptive parents and their three biological children are Caucasian. She has a sister who is also adopted and Korean, but not biologically related.
Trista Van Tine.
"There weren't many Asians in my town, and I faced some painful microaggressions growing up. You know, things like what some kids do when they pull their eyes back to look slanted and then laugh," she says. "Once I was outside a grocery store and about to use the phone when I heard a woman say that all I probably knew to say in English was 'hello.’”
As a young girl, she didn't know how to respond. Since then, Van Tine has lived and worked all over the world, and is now the director for the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund
. The Chelsea resident's reaction to the current surge of hate directed at the AAPI community is based on deep introspection.
"All the recent events underscore how crucial it is for each of us to vote. It takes decades to overcome division and animosity. But a powerful tool we each have that can't be diminished is our voice," she says. "We should use it to elect people who demonstrate through their actions what code of ethics and values they subscribe to, candidates that we believe will do what is morally right for our country and all of its citizens."
For many in Washtenaw County, Linh Song is a familiar face. The former Ann Arbor District Library
board member is the only Asian-American on Ann Arbor City Council.
In April, Song introduced to council a resolution condemning anti-Asian hate crimes, mirroring one passed by the Michigan legislature
after Michigan Sen. Stephanie Chang introduced it in March. Although Song's resolution passed unanimously, she says she was taken aback when some council members expressed discomfort
with the resolution's references to condemning white supremacy and white terrorism.
"I had to explain that we are not condemning white people, and that we need white allies," she says. "I came to the city council with the mindset that we can't just push out policy. We must actually reform ourselves internally."
Song says making a statement to help the AAPI community feel recognized and cared for is the bare minimum that must be done. And she understands all too well the need to feel safe.
Song's parents were refugees from Laos and Vietnam, fleeing in the mid-'70s. Growing up in Michigan, she remembers her mother cutting out newspaper pictures of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death by two white men in Highland Park in 1982.
"My mom was scared because she said my father's face looked like [Chin's]. And today she and my dad are scared again," Song says. "Looking at the last year and what we have to do now is painful. But we have no choice but to hold a mirror up to what has happened before, what is happening now, and what will continue to happen — unless we confront this sickness."
Ypsilanti resident Linette Lao is the founder of Invisible Engines
, a design studio that serves nonprofit organizations. She teaches in the creative writing program at Eastern Michigan University, and serves on the boards of the Association of Businesses of Color
and Hero Nation
. She was born in Michigan and is of Chinese heritage.
Lao grew up in Livonia, which she says might have been "the whitest town in Michigan at the time." She says she was, in some ways, "shaped by a sense of otherness early on." However, her family didn't have many conversations about racism while she was growing up.
"But at the start of [the COVID-19 pandemic], when things were heating up around the Trump presidency, something really struck me. I'd talk to my mother and she was scared for me moving around in the world, and I was really scared for her," Lao says.
She confesses that sometimes it's been hard for her to articulate her feelings about violence against the AAPI community because "it all feels really raw." But Lao has found solace in digesting it all with Asian friends "in a beautiful way despite the fear and pain."
"One thing that has been on my mind is how there has been so much casual racism and sexism, but it's been tolerated until now," she says. "It took the murders in Atlanta to generate a wider sense of outrage. I guess that there is always a tipping point."
Komal Doshi's husband was walking in Ann Arbor recently when someone in a passing car suddenly yelled out that he should go back to his own country.
The Ann Arbor resident, who was born in India and serves as Ann Arbor SPARK
's director of mobility programs, says "it was a very rude shock and so hurtful, because he was also with some of his colleagues at the time."
"We weren't born here, but neither the person in the car, or anyone else for that matter, could tell if that is the case or not," she says. "We love Ann Arbor. We've been in the country for over 10 years and we consider it home."
Luckily, she says incidents like what happened to her husband have been isolated rather than the norm. But she's unsuprised that anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise since the Trump administration did nothing to quell the negative sentiments.
Doshi says her husband went back to his office after the racist encounter and was supported by his colleagues, who rallied to support him. She says healing can happen when everyone, not just people of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage, stands together against injustice — whether it's on the street or in the workplace.
At SPARK, Doshi has felt this type of communal uplift via monthly diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)-focused staff meetings.
"People are not asked to share credentials or things like that. We share our experiences and what has shaped us," she says. "Just having a space to share struggles goes a long way toward validating that we are all people. We are peers and equals, not adversaries."
Ji Hye Kim
Ji Hye Kim, the namesake of Ann Arbor Korean restaurant Miss Kim
, says it's no coincidence that she ended up working for Zingerman's
Ji Hye Kim.
"Zingerman's was the first place in the United States that didn't try to assign me a different first name or a nickname," the Ann Arbor resident says. "They volunteered to learn to say my name properly before I could even think of asking."
For the record: The J in "Ji" should sound like a hard capital G and "Hye" is pronounced like hay.
Kim says it's important to her to know that people are making an effort to respect her — which has not always been the case. Halfway through eighth grade, her guidance counselor told her that “Ji Hye” was too hard to pronounce and that school staff would call her Jennifer.
"It was just assumed that would be okay and I was supposed to go tell everyone about my new name," she says. "And I was like, 'I don't know about that.'"
Describing her overall feelings about anti-AAPI racism since COVID-19, Kim says that while being appalled and disgusted — particularly at incidents harming the elderly and defenseless — she has found some inroads to healing. Specifically, she remembers people in the AAPI community taking to Instagram to cast off the easier-to-pronounce Western names that were given to them.
"People were announcing their real names with the right pronunciations and essentially reclaiming themselves. I felt sad and empathic that they didn't feel empowered to do that before this time in history," she says.
Kim understands that people might mispronounce her name, but every and any effort makes a difference.
"We can't just see what is happening in the world as this grand evil that we have to fight and gather an army against. Let's look at defeating it in our everyday practices and interactions," she says.
Lori Saginaw stresses that anti-Asian hate and violence against Asian-Americans is not new. The Ann Arbor-based community volunteer, activist, organizer and DEI consultant holds up her own family's history as "just a tiny piece of a long history of xenophobia in this country."
Born six years after World War II, Saginaw's perspective is far-reaching. Her parents and her grandparents were all incarcerated because of their Japanese ancestry.
"My parents were American citizens, which was true for two-thirds of the 120,000 people who were put into prison camps," she says. "My feeling is that this past year put a much more intense light on things that have been problematic for centuries. And the light is not a happy spotlight, but more like the light above the dentist's chair."
When the Atlanta massacre happened, Saginaw found herself flooded with support from her African-American friends.
"It was so moving and meaningful to be acknowledged by a group that really understands what it means to be targeted," she says.
Saginaw says she plans to continue to direct her energy toward what she's become very involved in over the past few years: working toward building solidarity across groups. One area she plans to address is the anti-Black racism within the Japanese-American community.
"So often, there's a kind of closer proximity to whiteness and special designation that has been given to Asians. We all know about the insidious model minority myth," Saginaw says. "That's a very intentional form of manipulation to pit one group against the other and to further oppress one group by giving token recognition to another."
Saginaw is adamant that there's still much to be unravelled and explored in regards to our whole history as a country, and that every single person needs to take an interest.
"Everyone needs to ask themselves who they invite to dinner, who they discuss politics with, who they go on walks with," she says. "And if those people look just like them, then they should set an intention to create meaningful relationships with people who don't look like them."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.