|Walkway between Taft and Burnham Halls|
Every morning when I enter campus and at the end of the day when I’m leaving, I look up at the portraits of the “I Define Myself: Undocumented and Unafraid” exhibit currently displayed on the walkways connecting Addams, Burnham, and Taft. I especially notice Kim’s portrait because she’s a student who I know personally at AARCC. Daily, I have been looking up at the faces of these courageous individuals and remembering how there are still so many institutional actions we need to take to make our centers and the campus fully supportive of undocumented students.
At the Advancing Justice Conference recently held here in Chicago on Sept. 27-28, 2012 I heard a strong message that it is important to let those who are most affected by something provide leadership, to lift up their leadership. The message was about the phenomenal work of undocumented immigrant youth activists. I heard youth activists express how important to is to support their work, so that they can connect with other undocumented youth to create safe spaces, push strategies forward, and that they have the experiences and perspectives that make a difference. It was helpful to hear about how organizations and universities can offer support to them – for instance, providing spaces to meet can make a difference so youth leaders can connect directly with other undocumented youth to create their own support networks.
It was inspiring to take in the tremendous achievements of so many immigrant youth activists from around the country and from right here in Chicago (many leaders from our very own campus, many of whom are the people in these portraits overhead). They have done so much to move immigration reform forward. They have not only dared to come out of the shadows to proclaim they are undocumented and unafraid, to tell their stories, to protest, to be arrested, to organize a growing movement, and to challenge the ways that organizing and strategizing are done. I was moved by their strong acknowledgement of queer activist leadership, I was moved by their refusal to blame their own parents, by their unwavering message that the problem is a broken immigration system.
There was a second message I heard at the conference: that organizations and groups must not leave it up to those who are most affected by something to make needed change. In this case the message was that the burden of addressing heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia shouldn’t only be left up to LGBT people – that it is up to everyone to ensure that climate and practices are inclusive. So, for instance, the Asian Women’s Shelter set up ways in which both clients and staff of the shelter were aware and enacted practices that supported both clients and staff who are lesbian, bi, or trans. Organizations can by design create an organizational culture that takes the presence of LGBT people as a given, not as an exception. On this same panel, it was also inspiring to hear about founding members of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum who made sure that the organization was inclusive of lesbian and bisexual women from the beginning. And I heard about the leadership of queer activists within the undocumented immigrant youth movement – undocuqueer activists – who have been on the forefront of driving the actions and the leadership development program to support their work: Queer DREAM Summer.
These two impulses – to let those most affected by something lead and to make sure it’s not up to those most affected to make change – momentarily seemed contradictory. I wondered how to balance them. But they are not contradictory at all. Both are necessary. When those who are most affected by something take action and lead, it’s important to support their leadership and honor the unique and significant perspectives that they bring to bear on an organization or movement. On the other hand, it’s important not to wait and depend on the leadership of those who can most benefit from organizational changes for inclusion.
This hit home for me at the Advancing Justice Conference when I heard Carla Navoa, who was on a plenary panel on the DREAM Act and immigration reform say, “I’m tired of telling my story.” A UIC student who has been an AARCC "regular," Carla has been prominent in the undocumented youth activist movement with the Immigrant Youth Justice League and is a youth organizer at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center in the past few years. She has been on the forefront in the city and nationally. She was arrested with the Chicago Six. And I’ve personally seen her on countless panels and workshops at UIC, at Northwestern, in the city, sharing her story, raising awareness, raising her voice, taking action. She has been invited over and over to be the Filipino American voice, the Asian American voice – to share her story and say there are many more Asian American undocumented youth who need to be supported. When colleagues coordinate panels and ask me for Asian American students to invite as panelists, Carla’s been the one student name I can forward. But I heard her tell us, “I’m tired.” I’ve seen her posts on Facebook that she wishes she could just do her homework. Be a student. Amidst the many urgent points she made on the plenary, what I took most to heart was Carla expressing the hope that others would come forth as well and join her so she wouldn’t always be the one up on the panel. As she was saying this on the panel, I thought back to how Carla had just been on yet another UIC campus panel only a week before the plenary.
Then back on campus a couple of weeks later at the October 18, 2012 AARCChat to reflect on Helen Zia’s talk, I listened to another student’s experience about being a single voice to a college administration on another campus. Following up with new UIC transfer student, Vicky Tai, I learned a little bit more about how she served as a one-person liaison between an LGBT alum organization and a college administration. She had to be an "undercover" liaison because the organization was not officially affiliated with the college because LGBT groups were not permitted to be established on that campus. She advocated for more resources by telling her story over and over again and articulating the need for groups and spaces of support. Her efforts led to the college finally providing some resources for the "mental health" of LGBTQ students. But she was a lone student liaison who made herself vulnerable in a hostile environment.
I’m always inspired to hear about the impact one person can make even as I know that a movement needs as many people to get involved as possible. But as I walk beneath the walkways of these larger than life portraits every day, the urgency to more quickly create campus and societal infrastructures of support and inclusiveness for more students presses upon me – no one should have to be a one-person bridge.
Do LGBT students feel included and supported at AARCC and in UIC programs? How well are we supporting the many undocumented students we work with at AARCC and at UIC? How can we create more inclusive spaces of support that many students need?
I think about how AARCC and Asian American Studies came about (not only at UIC but also on almost every campus where Asian American studies and/or centers and services for Asian American students exist). Yes, it was Asian American students who pushed for these programs. And then yes, allies joined them. But the ideal would have been for the institutional leadership to pursue practices and provide curriculum and services in such a way that certain groups are not excluded, underrepresented, underserved, or marginalized in the first place.
The portraits on the walkway bridges challenge us to remember that institutions need to make sure all of its community members are supported and not depend on singularly brave individuals to become our bridges to justice.
I'm looking forward to our discussion later this afternoon on Monday, Nov. 12th as we continue exploring how to advance our community and campus support for not only African and Asian immigrant communities in Chicago, but also for the UIC community here.
I DEFINE MYSELF: UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID Portrait Project
The current exhibit presented by the UIC African-American Cultural Center, Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, and Latino Cultural Center is on view through December 7th outside of Lecture Center B-2 and the overhead bridges connecting Addams, Taft, and Burnham Halls. This is a collaborative project between the Centers for Cultural Understanding & Social Change, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and members of the immigrant campaign Coming Out of the Shadows, INSIDE OUT.
Details for the MONDAY NOV. 12th PANEL