"Because you are young and have dreams and want to do something meaningful, that in itself, makes you our future and our hope."
- Yuri Kochiyama
My name is Jess. I am third-generation Chinese American. I was born and raised in San Francisco. I attended Lowell High School, where over 56% of the student population identifies as Asian.
Despite our high school demographics, our history books focused on the white person's narrative. Rarely, if ever, did we highlight the history of Asian American issues and struggles. I've only started learning about the history of Asian American activists. And I'm still learning.
Today, I'm sharing a list of sixteen inspirational Asian American activists. For those alive today, they continue to spur radical change in their communities. For others, their legacy lives on in textbooks and stories. I hope this tool will inspire you to share this knowledge with others, and continue to seek out more information on Asian American activists and activism.
Learn their names. Learn their stories. Learn allyship.
Sixteen Inspiring Asian American Activists
Click on an actvist to see their bio
Civil Rights Activist
Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) was a Japanese American civil rights activist. As the daughter of immigrants, she
demanded reparations for Japanese American internees and advocated for anti-war movements and Ethnic Studies
programs. In 1942, Yuri dedicated herself exposing the truth behind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order
9066, which removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and interned them in camps across the country.
After her release, she befriended Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams and with them championed black liberation.
Her enduring legacy lives on in young activist circles, especially Asian American activists.
Simon Tam (b. 1981) is an author, musician, and activist. He is a founding member
and bassist of the all Asian American rock band, the Slants. In the landmark case Matal v. Tam
clarified First Amendment Rights in trademark law, Simon affirmed his right to name his band The Slants
"as a way of seizing control of a racial slur, turning it on its head and draining its venom."
He founded The Slants Foundation to provide mentorship and funding to young Asian American artists
combining art and activism. In 2019, Simon published his memoir Slanted: How an Asian American
Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court
Affirmative Action Activist
Sally Chen (b. 1997) is a Chinese American activist who supports Ethnic Studies
programs and affirmative action. They recently graduated from Harvard College in
2019 with a degree in History & Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
Sally has testified in the SFFA v Harvard
admissions trial, arguing in favor of
affirmative action and #DefendDiversity. In their current role as the Economic Justice
Program Manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action, Sally hopes to strengthen support
for AAPIs and immigrants adjusting to life in the United States.
Human Rights and Uyghur Activist
Nury Turkel is a U.S. based humans rights activist and attorney. Since growing up in a
re-education camp in China’s Xinjiang province, Nury has been advocating for the rights
of Uygher people. As the first U.S. educated Uyghur lawyer, he served a term as president
of the Uyghur American Association. Now, as the chairman for the Uyghur Human Rights
Project, which he co-founded in 2003, Nury elevates Uyghur voices and stories in the
United States and advocates against the internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China.
Labor Activist and Social Theorist
Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) was a prominent activist, labor rights organizer, and
social theorist. After graduating with a PhD in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr, she struggled to find jobs that
would hire ‘Orientals.’ Eventually in 1952, she decided to move to Detroit where she met her husband James
Boggs. Grace and James rose to prominence in Detroit while advocating for labor and civil rights, feminism,
and the environment. After James’ death in 1993, Grace continued her activism and authorship in Detroit.
She wrote a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen and penned four books; one with her husband and one
with Scott Kurashige. To this day, her radical work ripples in many community organizations around the country.
Musician and Activist
Once called “a musician who joins a protean range of talents” by The New Yorker
, Fred Ho
found unique ways to combine his love for loud jazz baritone music with his love for activism
and leftist political ideology. Fred’s music draws from African and Asian cultures, whether it be
Chinese folk songs or Duke Ellington swings, and was showcased as a part of the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.
His music still reverberates today in jazz and activist circles. “All music is political,”
Fred explains, “whether the artist is conscious of it or not. I subscribe to the interpretation
of ideas and material life. I talk the walk.”
Urban Planner and Human Rights Actvist
Chanchanit Martorell is an educator, urban planner and
leader in the Thai American community. She founded the
Thai Community Development Center in 1994 to assist Thai immigrants in obtaining
economic self-sufficiency and helped shape the development of Thai Town in
Los Angeles. Chanchanit’s most prominent contributions come from exposing
the human trafficking of Thai victims, many of whom worked under conditions
of slavery. Sensing a lack of Thai American literature, she has also
researched and written the book Thais in America
, which tells of the history of
Thai migration in the Los Angeles metropolis.
Politician and Woman's Rights Activist
A third-generation Japanese American and Hawaii resident,
Patsy Mink (1927-2002) dedicated her life to challenging sexist and
racial stereotypes at the highest levels of office. She became the
first woman to serve in the territorial Senate and the first woman of
color to be elected to Congress. Patsy’s work as a U.S. House of
Representative should not go unnoticed: she was the first person to
oppose a Supreme Court nominee on the basis of discrimination against
women and his history of white supremacy and introduced the Early
Childhood Education Act of 1965, among many other civil rights acts.
What’s more, the next nominated Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun
would go on to pen the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade
Journalist and Community Activist
Helen Zia (b. 1952) is a Chinese American journalist and activist for Asian American, LGBTQ, and women’s rights.
Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Helen attended Princeton and graduated as a part of its first class of
women. Soon after, she enrolled in Tufts University medical school, but quit two years later to join the Detroit
construction laborers and community activists. Her work in Detroit coincided with the murder of Vincent Chin in
1982, and her journalism helped rally the Asian American community to speak up. Since her journalist days,
Helen has also authored a diverse array of books including Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an
and more recently Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who
Fled Mao's Revolution
Musician and Khmer Rouge Survivor
Arn Chorn-Pond (b. 1966) works at the intersection of music and activism. As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime,
Arn learned early on how to stand up and fight for his life. His experiences led him to co-found Children of
War, an organization committed to helping people overcome war trauma such as child abuse, poverty, and racism.
As the youngest Cambodian advocating for reconciliation at a diplomatic level, he worked with war victims to
ease back into regular life. His childhood musical training stayed with him for many years, and ultimately
influenced his decision to establish Cambodian Living Arts. To this day, Arn attempts to revive, perform,
and sustain endangered traditional performing within his communities.
Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) was an astronaut, engineer, and first woman of Indian descent to fly to space.
Raised in India and fascinated by flying and space shuttles, she immigrated to the United States to
complete her engineering and astronaut education. In 2003, Kalpana was one of the seven Space Shuttle
Columbia members who perished when the spacecraft disintegrated while attempting re-entry to Earth. Still,
her legacy in space and women in engineering circles thrives to this day. Kalpana posthumously received
the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and will be featured in an upcoming National Geographic Documentary
series Mega Icons
Eqbal Ahmad (1933-1999) was a Pakistani political scientist and academic
specializing in anti-war activism. While a PhD student at Princeton, Eqbal researched advocacy
and progressive voices in Tunesia trade unions. After graduating, he became one of the most
fervent opponents of the U.S. Vietnam war and champion of Palestianian rights during the 1967
Arab Israeli War, which resulted in his academic isolation. In 1972, he was charged as a part
of the Harrisburg Seven, a group of religious activists on trial for plotting to kidnap Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger as a tactic to end the Vietnam War, but the jury declared a mistrial.
Eqbal joined faculty at Hampshire College in 1982 where he taught politics and Middle Eastern Studies
until his retirement fifteen years later.
Punjabi Hindu leader Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) only spent five years in the
United States, but his influence on American thought leaders and activists
cannot be understated. After his arrival in the United States in 1918,
he founded the New York publication Young India, which Mahatma Gandhi
eventually used to spread his ideology. He also fostered a strong connection
with W.E.B. Du Bois and convinced him of the importance of complete liberation
rather than integration for black people. When Du Bois wrote his book Dark Princess
he made sure to dedicate it to Rai.
Larry Itliong (1913 - 1977) arrived in the United States when he was 15 years old. Driven by hopes
to become an attorney, he initially picked up work as a farm laborer in Alaska and Stockton, California.
Farm work was supposed to be a temporary job, but it soon turned into a life-long passion. Recruited by some
friends, Larry traveled to Delano in Central Valley California, where he instantly became a respected labor
leader among Filipino grape workers, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), and the United Farm
Workers. On September 7, 1965, Larry mobilized Filipino and Mexican farmworkers, along with Cesar Chevez,
to demand minimum wage and the right to unionize. In what would later be known as the five-year Delano
Grape Strike, Larry Itliong’s leadership has become an effective model for union organizing and joining
forces with other marginalized workers.
May Chen (b. 1948) Chen is a labor organizer and immigration reform activist.
She was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and graduated from Radcliffe College. After college,
May taught English and Civics classes, founded a day care, and started working as an Asian and Asian American
studies professor at California State University, Long Beach. In 1982, May rallied 20,000 garment factory
workers in the New York Chinatown Strike to demand higher wages and improved working conditions.
She remarked at the time, "The Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to
get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken." After 1982,
May carried her activism to ILGWU Local 23-25 and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the first
national organization for Asian Pacific American union members.
John Cho (b. 1972) is an actor best known for roles in Harold & Kumar
, and the
reboot. He immigrated to the United States in 1978, at the age of six, and grew up
in Los Angeles. After accepting small acting gigs in Los Angeles, he caught his first big break
starring in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
. In 2018, his leading role in the Hollywood
made him the first Asian American actor to star in a mainstream thriller.
And when it comes to diversity in Hollywood or coronavirus racism against Asian Americans, John Cho
never hesitates to speak up. #StarringJohnCho
Many thanks to Emily Hong, Artemisia Luk, Alice Wu, Amy Zhou, John Cooper, Jules Eng, and many others for design advice and feedback during this process!
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