Yale’s Asian American Student Alliance reignites its activist roots
In 1969, when the Asian American Students Alliance (AASA) was cofounded by Rocky Chin ’71 M.C.P., Lowell Chun-Hoon ’71 B.A., Don Nakanishi ’71 B.A., and Alice Young ’71 B.A., there were fewer than 60 Asian American students at Yale College, and no courses devoted to Asian American studies. The group came into being with a clear mandate: to serve as a hub for Asian American students of all nationalities, and to advocate on behalf of its members for greater academic and social inclusion.
One of their most memorable efforts came in the 1980s when the group lobbied then-Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti to create a permanent Asian American Cultural Center on campus. “They gathered all these students in the basement of Bingham Hall where they’d been meeting,” says Lillian Hua ’21 B.A., current co-moderator of AASA with Brandon Lu ’21 B.A. “Over 100 showed up. And when the President came, he saw the huge pile of shoes outside the basement door.” The President approved the creation of a cultural center on Crown Street, which now sponsors some 50 affiliate groups, from AASA, to the Alliance for Southeast Asian Students, to Yale Queer + Asian.
The AASA celebrated its 50th anniversary this past weekend with a series of talks and events, and Hua and Lu say they are focused on bringing the organization back to its activist roots. “My high school had a large Asian population,” says Lu, who, like Hua, is Chinese American. “When I came to Yale, I wanted to explore that identity more critically, and how we can use it to create change.”
A key issue for the AASA chairs is the deportation of Southeast Asian refugees — a recent focus of the government’s anti-immigrant crackdown. “We’re doing donation drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, and documentary screenings,” says Lu. “As co-moderators, we want to draw more Asian American students to care about these issues.”
AASA co-founder Chun-Hoon is was of many featured alumni speakers at the weekend conference, as part of an “Immigration and Civil Rights” panel. Based in Hawaii, he’s now a prominent labor advocacy and civil rights lawyer. There was also a panel on “Asian American Womxn” and “50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies.” Keynote speaker Young, founder and principal at Alice Young Advisory, was a trailblazer — one of the first Asian American women at both Yale College and Harvard Law School, and the first woman, minority, and youngest partner to head a New York branch law office.
Although 21% of Yale’s undergraduates now identify as Asian — around 1,143 students — Lu And Hua say that there is still work to be done in making all pan-Asian identities feel included and to elevate the concerns of Asian Americans beyond Yale’s campus. Already, they say, the connections they’ve made through the group and at the cultural center have been a defining part of their Yale experience. “The AACC is a site of immense personal growth for me,” says Hua. “I’ve had lots of challenging conversations and love and support in that place.”
Video: Alice Young ’71 remembers AASA’s beginnings
Young, a co-founder of AASA and a member of the first class of women to graduate from Yale Callege, discusses her experiences at Yale at the 2014 Yale Asian American Alumni Reunion.