Commencement Speech for the Peoples
A speech I gave last weekend, and I think we could all use, graduating or not.
Welcome to my very much delayed substack #14 - delayed for no reason except I put way too much pressure on myself to write something perfect. So for this substack, I am sharing a commencement speech that I gave last weekend. I have tweaked it a little, just for you. I hope to return to regularly paced stacks soon. Soundtrack to this post: APIHM Takeover Playlist
To the Peoples, congratulations, you have all finally made it. You should all feel so proud of yourselves – these past two and a half years of living in a pandemic have been challenging enough. You all have lived this experience WHILE doing the work to live a life IN a global pandemic. Are you kidding me? You have shown remarkable resilience and stamina to get to this point today. If you can do this, there is no limiting belief that can hold you back from anything.
It feels like it wasn’t that long ago when I too was sitting where you are today. I remember the feelings of anticipation and thrilling fear. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the AAPI community, but I had no clue what shape it would take because I never saw anyone that looked like an older version of me in the Asian American movement. I had to pave my own path. My career in the past 25 years has included organizing Get Out The Vote electoral campaigns in 17 different AAPI languages, to running the largest digital campaigns for the AAPI community, to founding a radical South Asian youth camp, to writing for groundbreaking blogs, books and narrative projects that literally culture shifted our community. Through my podcast and my poetry, I wanted to tell the counternarratives of our community for our community, and I wanted to re-center my stories because I never saw stories like mine growing up.
Listen. I am here to tell you, don’t do what I did. Just trust me on this one. It’s a much more easier life if you become the model minority doctor. Or even an engineer. Nurse. Finance bro? Your parents were right - the conventional capitalist life is so much easier.
But I know that if you are here reading this, you are far too passionate on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues and far too resilient to listen to this first advice.
What brought you to live with these values is this fire that is inside you that this world needs to change. That you are of a people, are interested in the issues of a people, that there are injustices for these people- and that YOUR talented hard work can make the lives better for these people. We do not busy ourselves with Asian American theories, histories, and disparities for the simple joy of it – this is not work of pleasure. We do it because we know in the deepest crevices of our heart that this is our purpose, our duty. We learned about these issues because we can’t imagine a world where this knowledge isn’t accessible to all. And I know, because we are alike like this, you and I. We are passionate in something that not everyone will understand and for this reason, you will not take this advice to have a conventionally easy life. We have far too much passion for that.
I have to admit, I am kind of jealous of what newly graduated people feel. t’s that feeling of being inspired, accomplished and invincible. I wish we could capture that and bottle it. Save it in a hidden memory box and unpack it tenderly when the drama of the movement gets too hard or society dehumanizes you one too many times. Just pause and truly feel this moment, this is important - close your eyes, and remember this feeling of brilliance and accomplishment. These moments are far and few between the older and older you get and it is so urgent that you remember this feeling you have right now saved for future moments. That is my second piece of advice – that as you move forward in your life with the knowledge you carry within you – celebrate the wins, and remember them for when time gets difficult.
After I got my Master in Public Policy degree fifteen years ago from UCLA, my parents had no clue what I got my degree in. They would tell all their friends that their daughter was getting a Masters degree in law, or in voting, or in government. They didn’t really understand what public policy meant.
But my parents were very proud. It’s okay that my parents never understood why I got my MPP. I knew why. My family was my home. My family was the reason I was getting an advance degree- seeing their struggle made me want to fight white supremacy and create an equitable system where racial injustices didn’t exist. When I learned in school that Asians Americans had a higher disparity of heart disease, I thought of all the pills my parents took every night to lower their blood pressure and thin their blood. When I learned that poorer people of color were the ones most likely to live by the freeway and develop respiratory issues, I thought of the asthma attacks that my sister had throughout her life because we lived four doors down from the 60 freeway. When I learned of the 1965 Immigration Act, I thought of how this led to my dad leaving villages of Bangladesh in the midst of a revolutionary uprising for a better opportunity in Los Angeles. And when I connected that my mother’s job at the airport parking lot gave her job security because she was a Teamster, I thought of all the Filipino workers who participated in the Delano grape strike and helped build the Union power we have today. Everything I learned in school made me understand how systems of oppression gave my family a deficit before we even had a chance.
My mother called me once a few months after the twin towers fell. I was living in DC at the time, in my first job out of undergrad. She said, something happened and I don’t want to tell you because it will make you mad. And I said what? Tell me. She said the FBI had come by our home and asked if my male cousin was born in America. We had been born in the same hospital, and I knew how easy it was to get birth records. The FBI was just trying to get in our house, see how Muslim we were, what kind of a threat we were. My mother in that convo said, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived in this country, I will always feel like a second class citizen. And I vowed to never let people like my mom feel like a second class citizen ever again.
Living our lives the way we live it means we are learning skills that will help make people like our parents live with dignity. This life isn’t a luxury – living this way is a necessity. Here is my third piece of advice – always keep in mind why you do what you do and where you came from – no matter how the world tries to distract you.
After I had that conversation with my mother, in 2004 I went on to start a civic engagement organization for South Asian American youth. I knew the first step to combatting the racial backlash, hate crimes, surveillance and islamophobia was to create political power for all South Asians and Muslim Americans. I didn’t have money, but I did have the power to register these communities to vote. By building up the electoral power of the South Asian American community, I could fight surveillance and anti-Muslim hate. I could prove to Politicians that they couldn’t treat us terribly anymore because we would vote them out. After the 2004 elections, people kept trying to tell me that registering South Asians to vote didn’t matter if I didn’t have the data that said they voted. That the work of organizing South Asian Americans to participate in democracy was insignificant because the population was too small. That people like me didn’t matter. So I went to grad school. I learned how to collect the data points to prove that Asian Americans, South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans were significant. That we mattered. Which brings me to my fourth piece of advice – when people tell you that AAPIs are too small of a group and an insignificant population – prove them wrong. We know that our population is significant. You just need to re-imagine a solution outside of the construct of white supremacy.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen how East Asians have been cruelly targeted in vicious hate crimes as a scapegoat for the so-called “China” virus. From the Atlanta spa shooting last year where eight people died at the hands of a shooter to the numerous women being pushed in front of trains to the brutal attacks against of elders walking on the street. We know none of this is new – from as far back as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s xenophobia has always been deeply embedded the White exceptionalism narratives – it’s just that in 2022 it is happening again, fueled by the fear mongering around the coronavirus. It has been over a decade since my mother passed away and sometimes I wonder how I would have kept her safe from the dangers attacks if she were alive today.
Your job today is crucially important given the times we live in. I’m not talking about the job that you are going to get to pay your rent and food. I mean your role as a citizen of this nation holding the Asian American knowledge of that you do that you’ve gained from the past lifetime.
In the land from which my people come from – the land of Bengal – there were traveling minstrels called “Bauls”. They would go from village to village singing songs of the latest news, literature and history. Before people could read, it was these traveling minstrels who distributed the knowledge and culture of the time. You are all now the Bauls of Asian Americana. As cultural navigators, your job in the real world is to culture shift, to be a holder of history, and to disrupt the stereotypes boxing you in. It is time for you to spread your knowledge – in culturally competent and multilingual ways.
You are well positioned now to know how the racially biased murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 is a historical shadow of last week’s spa shooting rampage of three Korean women in Dallas. You know uniquely so how the 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 which sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to incarceration camps is directly related to 2017 The Muslim Ban. You know that last weekend when the only grocery store in a food desert serving the Black community had a mass shooting, killing ten people - that this is an issue relevant to all Asian Americans, and to all people of color. Because you know, more than most, why we need to deeply dismantle the anti-blackness that exists in the Asian American space. You know how our liberations are tied up in each other. And you have the skill sets you’ve gained in your life that puts you in the unique position to work for that culture shift.
That is my fourth piece of advice – take the knowledge you’ve gained for these past few years on Asian American legacy, history and critique and relate that to the contemporary movement that we must build moving forward. You have access to beautiful knowledge and it is time to kindly and compassionately share it with those who may not know these things.
In moments like these, it is so easy to get lost in the fear and pull back to simply focus on survival. If anything, these past few years have taught us resilience and perseverance. But we often forget that we must also self-care and show each other love. It is easy to forget that we must also have joy. Experiencing joy is act of revolution, especially when fear-mongering is being used as tool to keep us oppressed. We deserve to thrive, not just survive.
This future needs need a re-creation, it needs to be re-imagined so that we can have a world where everyone has the capacity to have their humanity honored and we can all have a liberation where no one is left on the margins.
So here is my final advice before I send you back out into the real world – re-imagine the future and re-imagine a future with radical love. Look for joy in the most improbable situations. Let’s create a new system of living where we don’t replicate the same hateful toxicity of power – but where power belongs to all the people. You are ready. And this world is ready for you, now more than ever before.
Congratulations, Peoples. It’s time to make your mark on the world.