Q&A with South Asian Youth Action (SAYA)

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and ECAASU is highlighting movers and shakers today striving to foster change within the Asian American community. We're asking the South Asian Youth Action (SAYA) in New York City why they think community building is important for AAPI youth and how they celebrate APAHM.


Tell us about yourself and the group you're representing.

My name is Sarah Rashid and I run the Young Women's Leadership Program at South Asian Youth Action (SAYA). SAYA is a 501(c)3 youth development organization in New York City for students in elementary school through college. Established in 1996, SAYA has grown into a $3.9 million organization currently running programs at nine NYC schools, our community center in Elmhurst, Queens, and a library in Kensington, Brooklyn. Our holistic and comprehensive programming includes free leadership and identity development, academic support, college preparation, career exploration, sports, arts and STEM instruction. While South Asian-focused, SAYA is secular, inclusive and committed to connecting youth from all backgrounds to opportunities.  

Can you talk about the mission of SAYA and what you advocate?

SAYA's mission is to foster a strong sense of belonging in youth and provide them with the tools to thrive academically, professionally and personally. Specifically in our leadership and identity development work, we advocate self-awareness, social awareness and empowerment. We develop social and emotional intelligence through team building, critical thinking and socially engaging projects. 

Why do you think community building is important for South Asian youth? 

I think that community building is important for everyone, however they identify. Within various cultural and ethnic groups, including South Asian communities, there tend to be certain norms and expectations. Therefore, I think it's important to cultivate spaces among these communities where sensitive issues can be addressed, assumptions can be challenged, and people can feel free to be their authentic selves. From there, youth can develop the confidence to make healthy decisions for themselves and actively engage with the wider world. 

What's your favorite part about working with youth?

There's never a dull moment! I wake up everyday excited to go to work because I am so inspired by our youth. They are so eager and passionate, and I love challenging myself to find new ways to cultivate and direct their energies toward issues they care about. I am grateful for the opportunity to be the kind of mentor for our youth that I wish I had when I was their age. 

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--why is this month important to recognize and celebrate?

In a country as culturally diverse as America, we are constantly aware of our cultural identities. For minorities such as AAPI, that awareness can be exhausting and at times, disheartening. It's important for us to speak openly and connect with each other regarding our collective challenges so that we can share our burdens and help each other thrive. This includes celebrating our heritages, deepening our knowledge about our histories, and sharing our experiences with the wider society.

How do you celebrate APAHM?

Every year we have an annual Young Women's Leadership Conference. This year for the first time, the youth organized and ran the show, and they happened to choose the perfect theme for a conference during APAHM: Cultural exploration, expression and empowerment. For two months we prepared workshops and activities for our participants that would guide them in exploring the intersecting cultural identities with which they identify, expressing pride in their cultures in the face of difficult political times, and empowering them to define their own communities and be voices of positive social change. 

What’s one piece of advice you would give to AAPI students and young professionals striving to more socially conscious? 

I would advise them to join or create a community culture of AAPI students and professionals who are also striving to become more socially conscious. The pressure in many AAPI communities to enter certain fields and achieve a certain standard of living is so strong, that it's difficult not to get swept up in it. We need to create new, alternative cultures that prioritize social justice and that can validate and support those who want to go down non-traditional paths. My transition from the corporate world to non-profit work closely corresponded with my social shift from being around mostly status-conscious people to being around mostly socially-conscious people. These are not mutually exclusive groups, but the latter inspired me to imagine a different life for myself and facilitated my leap into a new career that I find more fulfilling.

Where can keep up with your work?

You can keep up with SAYA on our website, www.saya.org, where we have an active blog to which our youth contribute. You can also follow us on social media: Facebook @southasianyouthaction, Instagram @saya.nyc and Twitter @sayanyc. 

Q&A with the Penn Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and ECAASU is highlighting movers and shakers today striving to foster change within the Asian American community. This week, we're asking the University of Pennsylvania's Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board about their experiences fighting for Asian American Studies on their campus and how they celebrate APAHM.

Tell us about yourself and the group you’re representing.

The Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board (ASAM UAB) at the University of Pennsylvania is a student group that works closely with the academic program to plan various events, conferences, and program-related initiatives. We strive to make the program more accessible and present for students in addition to maximizing the support we receive from the university. Currently, we have 12 students from all years on our UAB led by our wonderful co-chairs, rising seniors, Daniel Chung and Lindsey Lui, and advised by the Associate Director of the ASAM program, Dr. Fariha Khan.

Can you tell us about the mission of UPenn’s ASAM UAB and what you all advocate?

Our ASAM UAB advocates for increased support and resources for all ethnic studies programs at Penn and other universities. We encourage students to enroll in our courses that activists fought tirelessly to provide for us and to learn the history of our people, both academically and independently. In the future, we hope to expand the role of our UAB in engaging with other students and student groups by having book recommendations, student and faculty spotlights, and so much more!

What’s happening right now with Asian American Studies at UPenn?

Founding faculty member of the ASAM program, Dr. Grace Kao has recently taken a new position at Yale University, leaving a vacancy within our program for an instructor in sociology to teach one of the three core ASAM courses. With Dr. Kao’s departure, faltering support from the University, and insufficient administrative support for Associate Director Dr. Khan, our program has been in danger of dissolving. This has been shocking for many of our students, who have feared that they may be unable to complete, or even begin their minor in Asian American Studies. As a result, our UAB organized a petition that accrued more than 1,200 signatures from around the world, multiple articles in our student newspaper (The Daily Pennsylvanian), and a rally attended by more than 60 students demanding more support from the University for our program.

What struggles have you faced in advocating for Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania? 

One of our biggest struggles in advocating for our ASAM program at Penn has been navigating the complex bureaucracy of the university. As students, we’re so much less familiar with the inner workings of university hiring, budgeting, and administration, so figuring out the most effective methods and times to make our demands required a lot of planning. Additionally, it’s hard to coordinate meetings with high-level academic officers and administrators as a board of 12 people, so we’ve all had to stay up to date with our program’s issues while juggling classes, other extracurriculars, and our personal lives. As a board, we had very minimal practical experience in activism and organizing, making us all very uncertain about the effectiveness of our methods, but we think that we’ve won some great victories so far. Funny enough, some of our board members learned activism and organizing techniques from Asian American studies and other ethnic studies courses.

What are your hopes for ASAM at UPenn in the future?

We hope that we can find more administrative support for our program, more physical space for our students and faculty, an increase in our course offerings, a sociologist to take over for Dr. Kao in our ASAM program, a more active community, and an expanded program.

How can the community support your mission?

Please support us by signing our petition, liking our Facebook page, and keeping up to date with our program and our actions. If you’re a college student or staff/faculty member, please get involved with your local Asian American studies program or task force and support other ethnic studies programs on your campus.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--why is this month important to recognize and celebrate?

APAHM is important in recognizing APAs as legitimate in a country that doesn’t always do the same. It’s not just about celebrating our successes and contributions to the United States, but includes acknowledging the struggles and hardships that our community has gone through and continues to experience. We are fortunate to have a dedicated period of time to learn about our histories of resistance as a minoritized and underprivileged community in the United States, but we should be mindful to not limit ourselves to one government-sanctioned month of celebration! 

How do you celebrate APAHM?

We celebrate APAHM by celebrating our APA heroes. We celebrate not just those who are immortalized in history books, but also those who have been forgotten. We celebrate those close to us―our families, our friends, our mentors―who don’t always get the appreciation they deserve. We celebrate by learning and sharing our history, a history that usually goes untold in traditional American history books. And lastly, we celebrate by being unapologetically APA.

Asian Americans in the South

By Kim Hoang, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but my family moved to North Carolina when I was two years old. By the time I graduated from high school, I was ready to leave the state and move to New England or California, where I thought I would escape the racism of the South.

The South is seen as the center and primary perpetrator of historical systemic racism in the form of slavery and Jim Crow. Although racism is undoubtedly steeped in the history of all regions of the United States, it seems, according to the dominant American narrative, that only the South has retained remnants of this “antiquated” racism. It has been made into an “other,” a region unlike the rest of the U.S. because of its backwardness in an inability to move on from past racial trauma.

When looking at the histories of the West and Northeast, one can find a rich history of Asian Americans while it’s assumed that no such history has existed where I live.  Although the study of this population is still a relatively new field, we should be paying attention. Éduoard Glissant, a Martinican writer and cultural theorist, explained that history as we know it is not linear or even captures the whole picture. Rather, it is filled with gaps and erasures:

“History (with a capital H) ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together.”

History with a capital “H” has been shaped by dominant groups whose best interest is to write it as they see fit. The prevalent assumption today is that the South is only black and white, but AAPI migration to this region has been growing rapidly. If we continue to accept the way we see the South and reject this region as a whole, we will also fail to see the vibrancy of AAPI communities who reside there. This is why the push for Asian American studies is important everywhere; right now these efforts are especially needed in the South.  

I learned to embrace the South as part of my identity once I learned that while it is a site of struggle, it’s also a site of resistance and resilience. While folks outside of the South have boycotted North Carolina, I’ve seen amazing organizing work, including and led by Asian Americans, take place across the state in defiance to unjust policies. 

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I invite you to learn more about emerging AAPI history in the South. One book I recommend is Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, edited by Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai. Not only does this collection of essays address the complexities of gender, immigration, racialization, and religion within AAPI communities, but it also examines how the communities themselves have ultimately shaped the South.