In May, the United States marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to celebrate how people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have helped develop the nation and continue to make valuable contributions to society at large. They’ve also engaged in activism against bigotry and hate.
The 2020 census found that 24 million people in the U.S. identify as Asian alone or in combination.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have faced a storm of violent incidents, the latest in a series of discriminatory and unjust actions that have occurred against them for centuries in the U.S.
The AAPI leaders and influencers who are featured below work toward strengthening immigrant justice, union power, community unity, race-conscious college admissions, equality, voting rights, civic equity, cultural pride, truth-telling and even joy attained through the arts.
Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO
May Chen | Sally Chen | John Cho | Cynthia Choi | Cecilia Chung | Jemaine Clement | Auli‘i Cravalho | Ronnie del Carmen | Tammy Duckworth | Mazie Hirono | Dale Ho | Jennifer Ho | Deepa Iyer | Christine Sun Kim | Ang Lee | Yo-Yo Ma | Karen N. Narasaki | Ai-jen Poo | Aarti Shahani | Evelyn Yoshimura | Helen Zia
Helen Zia is a journalist and activist. She writes and speaks on issues of human rights, women’s rights, anti-Asian hate and homophobia.
Her parents emigrated from China.
In the 1980s, she became involved in activism after the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit. Chin, who was Chinese American, was killed by two autoworkers who assumed Chin was Japanese and blamed the Japanese auto industry for the U.S. auto industry’s problems. After their trial, they received a $3,000 fine and no jail time. The leniency angered the Asian community. Zia’s coverage of the case helped to unite the Asian American movement. Zia also helped get federal civil rights charges against the killers.
She wrote Last Boat Out of Shanghai about the people who were forced to flee Shanghai after China’s 1949 Communist Revolution.
She has written two other books focusing on the Asian community in the U.S., and well as many essays and newspaper articles. She was executive editor at Ms. magazine.
She also is a founding board co-chair of the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit that works to empower and raise the visibility of women in media.
In 2008, Zia and her partner were among the first same-sex couples to legally marry in California.
In 2010, she was a witness in the federal marriage equality case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2021, she joined a Washington Post Live conversation on the increase in Asian American hate incidents amid the COVID pandemic. “The pump was primed to blame people who looked Chinese,” she said. “Sadly, it’s going to continue and will probably get worse. And I hate saying that, but that’s what history shows us.”
“Over the years, I’ve been asked why I didn’t hold back as the ‘model minority’ stereotype dictates, to avoid being the nail that sticks out. Here’s why: I’ve always believed that if you can possibly make a positive difference in this world, why wouldn’t any caring person do so? We have the power of our voices. If not now, when?”
— Helen Zia
Community organizer Evelyn Yoshimura started working at Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo Service Center in 1980. She was one of three original staff members.
From the start, she thrived on the social segment of activism. “I was not afraid of going out into the community, talking to people and learning about the community.”
Her early work was for the Japanese American Redress Movement, the effort of Japanese Americans to gain restitution for their confinement during World War II. Her own family had been sent to an internment camp in Arizona when she was young.
She also was a founding editor of Gidra, a newspaper centering on the Asian civil rights movement. She wrote in one article, “We must destroy the stereotypes of Asian women, and Asian people, as a whole, so we can define ourselves, and be free to realize our full and total potential.”
In her community work, she said, she was always careful to make sure that even the often-overlooked people, such as retired people and small-business owners, knew that they need to part of decision-making.
She retired from the service center in 2021.
“We need human beings to go down to talk to people or else they won’t learn.”
— Evelyn Yoshimura
Journalist Aarti Shahani has worked for NPR, Vox, The Washington Post and other media outlets. She spent many of her reporting years covering Big Tech.
She is creator and host of the podcast Art of Power, speaking with accomplished people about power, its advantages and its complications.
She has written about her family’s winding and troublesome path to U.S. citizenship in Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.
Her father fled India, met her mother in Morocco, and the family eventually settled in Queens, New York, in the 1980s. As she writes, the new location was where “so many poor people from so many countries can converge, live alongside neighbors who speak different languages and pray to different gods, and yet tribal warfare does not break out.”
“Following the 2016 election, many Americans were asking themselves, ‘What am I doing for my country besides complaining?’ Well, I’m a writer, and, whether or not I wanted to admit it, I had become a person of some privilege, with a megaphone I never could have imagined having. How did I want to use it?”
— Aarti Shahani
Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit organization seeking to bring quality work, dignity and fairness to workers who clean homes.
Her parents emigrated from China. Her father had been a pro-democracy activist in Taiwan.
While she was a student at Columbia University, she joined students in an occupation to demand more professors in ethnic studies and a broader curriculum. The pressure led to the school’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
In the early 2000s, she worked for years so that New York state would pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The law guaranteed these unprecedented benefits:
- At least three paid days off per year.
- At least one day off per week.
- Overtime pay for workweeks of more than 40 hours.
In 2011, she helped to launch Caring Across Generations, which advocates for long-term care for a rapidly aging U.S. population.
“I believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world. I often compare great campaigns to great love affairs because they’re an incredible container for transformation. You can change policy, but you also change relationships and people in the process.”
Karen K. Narasaki is a national civil and human rights leader of Japanese heritage. She was appointed by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2014 to 2019. That fact-finding federal agency works to guide aspects of the national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws.
She was president of the Asian American Justice Center, a premier civil rights organization that seeks to empower Asian Americans. While there, she led efforts to revive the Voting Rights Act, defend race-conscious admissions policies and expand the federal hate crimes law to include people with disabilities, LGBTQ and women.
Also, she worked to assure fair counts of minorities in the U.S. Census, increase the visibility of minorities on TV and keep immigrant families together.
She has been the chair of Comcast NBCUniversal’s Asian American Diversity Advisory Council. She has worked with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, National Immigration Law Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“If not for the women and minorities who went before me in the struggle for equality, I would never have had the opportunity to study at Yale or become a civil rights attorney. So, I knew it was my turn to help move our democracy forward.”
— Karen N. Narasaki
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma reminded people trapped inside during the pandemic that music can bring joy. He offered live and video concerts online.
“During [the coronavirus], how much we respond to touch has been taken away from us,” he told The Washington Post. “You can’t touch, you can’t hug, you can’t shake hands. But what music does, its sound moves air molecules. So, when air floats across your skin and touches the hairs of your skin, that’s touch. That’s the closest thing to someone actually touching you.”
This is just one example of Ma’s selfless, expansive, generous work around the world.
- In Chicago, on a Day of Action, he joined a tree planting using shovels made from donated weapons.
- In Korea, he visited an elementary school with a kite maker. Participants decorated their kites to reflect their hopes for the future.
- Ma extended support to SukkhaCitta, a nonprofit that supports textile artists in Indonesia. He invited its founder, Denica Flesch, to take over his Instagram account to tell his 370,000 followers about the cause.
- He has worked with the United Nations to bring music to young people and explain U.N. work.
- In the 1990s, he created the Silkroad project to inspire the study of cultural, artistic and intellectual pursuits along the Silk Road trade route.
Ma is involved in many environmental causes. During a visit to Cape Town, South Africa, Ma performed with other Bach Project musicians to call attention to the Sea Change Project, an environmental group that works to save the kelp forest on South Africa’s coast.
In a National Geographic interview, he compared his involvement with the Bach Project to a children’s story about villagers each adding to a pot of soup.
“It’s my version of Stone Soup,” Ma said. “I play the cello. This is the best of what I can bring to you. What would you like to put in the pot? How would you like to start a conversation? What are things you’re thinking about? What are your needs — what is it that you’re struggling with?”
“[It’s our job,] from the littlest person to the oldest person everywhere, to say, ‘We treasure this, this is our home, this is what gives us sustenance, this is what gives us meaning.’ ”
— Yo-Yo Ma
Ang Lee is a film director born in Taiwan.
He moved to the U.S. in 1978 to study theater and cinema. After trying unsuccessfully to make films for Hollywood studios, he found independent studios to finance his work. The films, including The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, brought him international praise.
Over the next decades, he made award-winning, popular films that have elevated him to one of today’s greatest filmmakers. Among these: Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“Sometimes films ignore other points of view because it's simpler to tell the story that way, but the more genuine and sympathetic you are to different points of view and situations, the more real the story is.”
— Ang Lee
Christine Sun Kim is an American artist based in Berlin and an activist for the Deaf community.
In her art, she evokes the idea of sound through new media. Ocula Magazine wrote, “Over the course of developing her own visual language, Kim explores and employs elements from various information systems. By combining aspects of graphic and musical notation, body language, and [American Sign Language], she uses these systems as a means to expand what each is able to communicate and to invent a new grammar and structure for her compositions.”
She and others in the Deaf community push for social media posts that are accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Some tech companies have offered more features that increase accessibility. But many are still falling short.
“I want the privilege of being able to experiment, say, with butterflies and flowers. But I do have a strong connection with political issues and social issues because it impacts my very basic human rights, and I can’t not talk about that in my work.”
— Christine Sun Kim
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American activist involved in numerous social justice organizations.
She works with Solidarity Is, whose goal is training activists and organizations in methods to create social change.
The organization is part of the Building Movement Project, where Iyer is the director of strategic initiatives. She offers expertise on experiences of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants after 9/11. She also trains others on how to help immigrants, attain civil rights and racial equity, and methods for sustaining an organization.
Iyer has also worked at South Asian Americans Leading Together, Race Forward, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center and the Asian American Justice Center.
Her book We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future won a 2016 American Book Award. And she hosts the podcast “Solidarity Is This.”
“Authentic and sustainable solidarity efforts must be on this broader understanding of why Black lives matter, why they have not mattered historically, and why they still do not matter today as they should. Centralizing Black communities in the current moment is how genuine solidarity begins.”
— Deepa Iyer
Jennifer Ho is the director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder. She also teaches classes on Asian American literature and culture and critical race theory.
She just finished a term as president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
She has written three books on Asian American studies, including Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture.
She also does workshops and talks about anti-racism.
Her father was a Chinese and her mother was Jamaican.
“Inspiration for what you will work on will come in many different forms.”
— Jennifer Ho
Dale Ho is one of the top civil rights attorneys in the U.S.
Ho has spent his career fighting for key constitutional rights and legal protections.
He is director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
He successfully argued before the Supreme Court in Department of Commerce v. New York, which challenged including a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.
He was lead counsel in Fish v. Kobach, an important voting rights case that succeeded in challenging a Kansas law that required people to show a birth certificate or passport when registering to vote.
In September 2021, President Biden nominated Ho to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. A tie vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee meant his confirmation could not get a vote before the full Senate. He is still awaiting a vote to discharge the nomination from the committee so the Senate can consider Ho’s nomination.
“While [Election Day registration] and other reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout are absolutely essential to fighting back against voter suppression, they are insufficient to cure all that ails our democracy today. The very structures of our political system are conspiring to prevent the will of the majority from translating into representative self-government.”
— Dale Ho
Mazie Hirono, a U.S. senator from Hawaii, was born in Japan and moved to Hawaii with her mother.
She has been a public servant for decades, as a state representative for Hawaii, a lieutenant governor and U.S. House member. She joined the U.S. Senate in 2013, becoming its first elected Asian American woman and its first Buddhist.
In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, she described how women get things done in Congress.
“Women are very strategic. We came together, saying: ‘We’re going to form a bipartisan women’s caucus.’ The men became quickly concerned because they knew that when people come together, you can get more done. They said, ‘Why do you want to set yourself apart from us? We all should be working together.’ So, I thought OK; we’ll give that a try. But pretty soon, it became obvious that that wasn’t working, so we formed the caucus, and we had a slate of bills that we wanted to pass. And pretty much, the men went along with it because they didn’t want to be seen as totally misogynist. So, I think women in politics have to be very strategic in achieving our goals.”
“There are people in our country, in our communities, who are being marginalized and discriminated against every single day. I fight for them.”
— Mazie Hirono
Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois. She was the first senator born in Thailand (her father was American, and her mother was Thai and of Chinese descent).
In the Iraq War, she was among the first group of Army women to fly combat missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
She was flying a Black Hawk helicopter in 2004 when she was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and lost her legs.
She was the reason the U.S. Senate in 2018 changed policy to allow a baby on the Senate floor during a vote. Duckworth, who had already become the first senator to give birth while in office, inspired the end to the “baby ban.” Soon after, with newborn in tow, she headed to the Capitol to vote against a NASA administrator’s nomination.
While serving in the U.S. House, she pursued:
- Help for working families.
- Job creation.
- A law giving new mothers access to lactation rooms in airports.
- A law to track and help lower veteran suicides.
In the U.S. Senate, she worked to:
- Update infrastructure.
- Prevent lead poisoning in Illinois.
- Invest in neglected communities.
- Keep promises to veterans.
- Form the first Environmental Justice Caucus.
“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] is the living testament to our nation’s commitment that we will always stand up for our neighbors’ right to live fulfilling lives.”
— Tammy Duckworth
Ronnie del Carmen grew up in the Philippines, where his parents encouraged him to pursue a lucrative career, which they didn’t expect the arts to be.
Del Carmen began in films by painting sets for Apocalypse Now, which was being filmed in the Philippines. When he moved to the United States, he worked for Warner Bros. Animation as a storyboard artist and character designer for Batman: The Animated Series. He then directed the studio’s series Freakazoid!
Moving on to DreamWorks, then Pixar, del Carmen worked on features including The Prince of Egypt, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Finding Nemo, Up, Coco, and Toy Story 4.
He was co-director of Inside Out, for which he also has a story credit. He was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay. The film won best animated feature.
“This is what we are doomed to be: to have what we are going through in life show up in what we make. No matter what we’re making. It can feature toys come to life, invisible guardians in our heads, or what have you — but at the heart of it is the story that we are living through. Our lives are in our movies. If you’re any good at this, then this will be your curse.”
— Ronnie del Carmen
Actress Auli‘i Cravalho was born in Hawaii. Her mother is of Native Hawaiian descent. She first gained fame as a teen, voicing the title character in Disney’s 2016 animated film Moana.
She’s now on the Hulu show Crush.
On TikTok in 2020, she came out as bisexual.
In an interview with Teen Vogue about Crush, Cravalho said she looks forward to “honest representation,” or more roles in which the storyline isn’t simply about a person coming out.
“I hope to see characters that are happy and aren’t left with residual trauma and aren’t forced into a box. I just hope to see myself, as well, play women who are the women that I see in my everyday life, who are intelligent and speak their minds and [believe] ‘no’ is a whole sentence in itself.”
Cravalho is now attending Columbia University, studying environmental science.
“I hope we see more films that just portray everyday life of a queer person. Because it might be boring, it might be interesting, but it’s real. And that’s beautiful.”
— Auli‘i Cravalho
Actor Jemaine Clement was born in New Zealand. His heritage is Ngāti Kahungunu, a group within New Zealand’s Indigenous Māori people.
Clement is a descendant of Wairarapa chief Iraia Te Whaiti, who established a printing press and school even while Māori were restricted from owning businesses.
Clement is probably best known for his role on Flight of the Conchords, a TV show about two New Zealand musicians trying to succeed in New York. He received six Emmy nominations for his role.
As a 21-year-old, he starred in a New Zealand sketch comedy show called Skitz that, because of his Māori heritage, cast him as characters such as “street kids and glue sniffers. … I’ve never sniffed glue. I find the whole idea of drugs horrible. I would always insist on having a hood because I was so ashamed to be taking down my race like that.”
He has collaborated on films and TV shows with fellow New Zealander Taika Waititi, including a film then a TV series called What We Do in the Shadows, about the everyday lives of vampires.
“In real life I’m very low-key. A wallflower. One of the reasons I went into comedy and acting was that I was sick of being shy.”
— Jemaine Clement
Cecilia Chung is a Chinese American transgender woman who advocates for a range of causes. She is director of strategic initiatives and evaluation at Transgender Law Center. The center’s goal is to change “law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression.”
Chung lives openly with HIV, working to educate people about HIV/AIDS.
In 2004, with Trans March, she helped organize one of the world’s largest annual transgender events. It inspired many such events in other cities across the country.
In 2011, she joined the Civil Rights Enforcement Working Group of then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
She is portrayed in an ABC miniseries called When We Rise, an examination of gay and women’s rights over three decades and how their missions conflicted then merged.
“When I was coming into the [trans rights] movement, transgender people were dying left and right — not just because of violence, but because of what we later found out was HIV. We weren’t just fighting for our rights, we were fighting for our lives by demanding treatment and more research. We were also demanding to be seen as human beings.”
— Cecilia Chung
Cynthia Choi is co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. The organization works to support civil and political rights of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Its website says, “We advocate for systemic change that protects immigrant rights, promotes language diversity, and remedies racial and social injustice.”
Choi is also a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. The group compiles data on acts of hate, violence and discrimination against the AAPI community. It also responds to the trends, creates violence prevention efforts and helps survivors.
• Anti-AAPI Hate: A Conversation With Dr. Jennifer Lee
The coalition had anticipated a wave of anti-Asian incidents once COVID-19 began spreading and quickly organized.
“I do feel as though social media and the hyper-focus on these horrific interpersonal attacks has skewed the issue a bit. On one hand, we’re finally getting some attention around this issue. On the other hand, there are concerns that we need to not be reactive, that we need to understand all this within a broader context. But nobody wants to hear that in the wake of another elder being killed or violently assaulted.”
She is a former vice president of Philanthropic Partnerships at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, where she worked to find programs that support AAPI social justice issues and philanthropic investments.
“There are no quick fixes or a single piece of legislation that will address structural racism. We need a holistic approach that addresses the needs of victims and survivors, violence prevention and to invest in our education system.”
— Cynthia Choi
John Cho is a Korean American actor known for his roles in the recent “Star Trek” movies and the “Harold & Kumar” series, and in a number of TV shows.
After the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and the rise of anti-Asian activity, Cho wrote the youth novel Troublemaker. It’s about a 12-year-old Korean American immigrant trying to figure out life, fitting in and other weighty issues amid the L.A. riots in the 1990s.
Cho wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in 2020, saying: “Asian Americans are experiencing such a moment right now. The pandemic is reminding us that our belonging is conditional. One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who ‘brought’ the virus here.”
In the same piece, Cho encouraged people to act amid clearly wrong situations: “Please don’t minimize the hate or assume it’s somewhere far away. It’s happening close to you. If you see it on the street, say something. If you hear it at work, say something. If you sense it in your family, say something. Stand up for your fellow Americans.”
“I think many Asian Americans feel the way I do, which is we pay our taxes. We’ve been here. ... And in the case of the ’92 riots, we’ve spilt blood in this country. So, I think we have as much of a stake to being American as anyone else, and it is a — it is a tragedy that because of the way we look, we would be denied that citizenship.”
— John Cho
Sally Chen is among Harvard University-affiliated people of color who have been fighting to keep race-conscious admissions policies in colleges. Harvard and other colleges had been sued by Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum. (Blum also founded the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks to end racial classifications in education, employment, redistricting and voting laws.) The lawsuits claim that race-conscious admissions policies disproportionately harm Asian Americans.
Chen and other multiracial and multiethnic students sided with Harvard, filing an amicus brief.
“Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans like myself, benefit from affirmative action,” said Chen, a Harvard graduate. “Every applicant has a different story to tell, and race can be a part of that story. Students deserve the opportunity to be recognized for it.”
The Supreme Court has said it will hear oral arguments in the case this October.
Chen is now an education equity program manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action.
“Race-conscious admissions for me meant acknowledging the full human dignity of my story and my achievements in context. I will never forget the diversity of perspectives and experiences that my peers bravely shared on campus and in this trial, all of which are incredible assets in this multiracial world we will go on to work and live in.”
— Sally Chen
May Chen is a labor organizer who worked for decades for immigrant workers.
In New York in the 1980s, she joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and worked on its Immigrant Project. That effort was the first time a union did advocacy work for immigrant workers.
She worked in numerous unions, including AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, which she co-founded.
Even in retirement, she advocates for social justice and is involved in the AAPI community. She says she’s both “an activist and storyteller.”
“My core perspectives stem from a deep belief in the promise of democracy and our rights to sit at the table and express our views and needs. This cannot happen if the people/community are not educated and organized with you. AAPIs should not be invisible, silent or marginalized!”
— May Chen
Top picture: From left: Jennifer Ho, Dale Ho, Cecilia Chung, Sen. Mazie Hinoro, Yo-Yo Ma, Auli‘i Cravalho, Jemaine Clement and Deepa Iyer. (Photo illustration by SPLC)