Month: January 2015


Asian Americans Struggle to ‘See Themselves’ in College Courses

Monica Luhar for NBC News – January 13, 2015alton wang

Photo: Kaitlin Chan/Courtesy Alton Wang

While some students are recovering from a long holiday hiatus, Wesleyan University’s Alton Wang is busy drafting a syllabus for an upcoming student-led course, “History, Gender and Sexuality Through the Lens of Asian American Voices.”

Last semester, Wang and fellow student Jenne He brainstormed ideas for a course highlighting the representation of Asian Americans in pop culture and history through various mediums. After hours of research, planning, and finessing, the course was approved by the university for the spring semester.

“Our curriculum is severely lacking,” said Wang, who is currently a junior. “Only a couple courses exist that explicitly deal with Asian Americans, and they are both literature courses.”

Wang has been at the forefront of the lobbying effort to include more ethnic studies and Asian-American courses at Wesleyan. They’re needed, he says, to help students better explore the stories of historically marginalized and underrepresented communities.

“We are hoping, as of now, not for an entire major course of study,” said Wang, “but simply more courses surrounding Asian Americans on campus.”

Student-led courses or forums help enhance the university experience by handing over the textbooks and classroom to students. For Wang, it’s an opportunity to enhance the dialogue with the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community on campus.

“Your interests are similar, you eat similar foods. There wasn’t anything negative about that, but there was a lot of homogeneity.”

For the 20-year-old, approval for a co-created student forum course brings him one step closer to potentially creating a full-fledged Asian-American Studies program at Wesleyan. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

For now, Wang says, it’s important just to show that there’s a growing interest in this course of study.

Growing up in the ‘626’

Wang, a first generation Taiwanese/Chinese American, grew up in Arcadia, Calif. – a city in the San Gabriel Valley predominantly populated by Asian Americans.

Wang’s parents immigrated to California from Taiwan in the early 1980’s. Over the years, his parents juggled various jobs – everything from selling construction tools, to serving as insurance, loan, and real estate agents.

“Growing up in a place like the San Gabriel Valley, it can get very comfortable because you’re surrounded by people who are literally and culturally like you,” said Wang. “Your interests are similar, you eat similar foods. There wasn’t anything negative about that, but there was a lot of homogeneity.”

The San Gabriel Valley, commonly referred to by its area code – the “626” – is also the birthplace of the popular 626 Night Market, the largest Asian-American night market in the U.S., inspired by night markets in Asia. Since opening in 2012, it’s attracted crowds of locals by offering an abundance of ethnic food, art, and retail booths, and tapping into local talents like comedy and music duo, the Fung Brothers.

“I wish that when I was growing up, I could’ve seen someone that had my skin color on the screen that I could actually look up to.”

At Arcadia High, Wang’s former high school, Asian Americans comprised 69 percent of the student body, and minorities comprised nearly 84 percent of the total population – a stark difference from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Growing up in the Valley, Wang says, there were moments when he felt somewhat alienated and isolated from the mainstream American media and culture he grew up trying to understand. He didn’t see himself represented on the screen or in popular songs. Wang says he felt most comfortable listening to C-Pop (Chinese pop music) or watching Taiwanese television shows. He felt a connection to his culture and his roots.

Wang has blogged about the problem of media representation over the years for the AAPI community. In one post, “Searching for Yellow on the Screen,” he wrote about his frustration.

“Media representation is important, to me, because it means that all children can grow up with their own heroes or role models that look like them.” Wang wrote. “It is important because I wish that when I was growing up, I could’ve seen someone that had my skin color on the screen that I could actually look up to.”

Family trip to Seattle in the summer of 2006. (L-R: Alton Wang, his mother Amy Wang, his sister Vivian, his cousin Bryna, and his father George) COURTESY ALTON WANG
Family trip to Seattle in the summer of 2006. (L-R: Alton Wang, his mother Amy Wang, his sister Vivian, his cousin Bryna, and his father George)
Recent strides in the entertainment industry – casting Asian Americans in lead roles and expanding their visibility – give Wang hope, but the story of the show “Selfie” – a popular network sitcom with John Cho in the lead, cancelled after six episodes – was a reminder that the opportunities for AAPIs on television are often short-lived.

“Why don’t these opportunities for Asian Americans on TV last?” Wang wondered. “I think it’s important because for me, I felt alienated as a kid from this culture I grew up in. Not everyone felt that way. But I couldn’t see myself in the American culture.”

In the San Gabriel Valley, Wang recalls, there was always an understanding that Asian Americans and their voices mattered. But in Connecticut, the dynamic was different. There was student activism, but little visibility.

“I wanted to leave Arcadia not because I didn’t love my hometown, but mostly because I wanted to go to an environment that was a complete 180-degree of what it was like growing up here,” said Wang.

He wanted, Wang says, to make an impact in a place where minorities were not the majority.

Creating a new community at college

After moving to Connecticut, Wang became increasingly interested in AAPI civil rights issues as a government and sociology double major. Approximately 22 percent of his fellow first-year students were Asian American. He realized quickly, his voice carried less weight in this new balance.

“What brought me into the Asian-American world was going to Wesleyan and being exposed and thrust into race, social justice, inclusion, and diversity,” said Wang. “I felt it was a hole in my college experience. I was so used to growing up with Asian Americans who faced similar experiences.”

During his junior year, he worked with friends and peers to create more visibility for the school’s Asian-Americans, organizing campaigns and outreach efforts.

“how I can personally find a space where people think like me, that look like me, and come together and have a safe space to have a conversation”

He also became actively involved at the Asian American Student Collective, a student-led organization established in 2000 dedicated to enhancing and creating visibility for their community on campus.

“For me, it was thinking about how I can personally find a space where people think like me, that look like me, and come together and have a safe space to have a conversation,” said Wang, who currently serves as the chair of the organization.

Through the Collective, Wang brought Asian-American artist Awkwafina to campus, and launched a photo essay campaign entitled “So Where Are You Really From” – an in-depth look at the stereotypes that sometimes surround a first impression.

“The campaign was meant to spark dialogue about the issue of the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype,” said Wang, “where Asian Americans are constantly seen as individuals that do not belong in this country—that people automatically assume that we are foreigners.”

The Growing Interest in Ethnic Studies

Wesleyan does not currently offer an Asian American Studies program or major, though a few courses relating to Asian America do exist. On its website, the university lists a series of departments, programs, and centers dedicated to specific ethnic or racial fields of study, including African American Studies, American Studies, Center for Jewish Studies, College of East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, Jewish and Israel Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies, among others.

Wang and his fellow members at the Student Collective continue to work to add Asian American studies to that list. Last semester, they arranged a meeting across different academic departments, student groups, and professors — many of whom support the inclusion of more Asian-American course offerings on campus.

The university confirmed to NBC News that it has received a proposal from the American Studies department, spurred by Wang and the student body, to hire a visiting faculty member specializing in Asian-American history in order to further enhance the department’s already robust offerings.

“We also received a letter in support of this proposal, signed by more than 120 students. This request is currently under consideration,” a spokesperson told NBC News.

For his part, Wang says he won’t give up the fight. He wants his fellow classmates, and the students who come after him to better understand the stories of racism and discrimination woven in the fabric of Asian-American history. These courses would help people better understand their roots in America, Wang says, to better understand who they are.

“We believe that it should be the right of every student to be able to not only see themselves in the curriculum,” said Wang, “but learn their own histories.”

Pandit Chitresh Das, World-Renowned Kathak Master, Dies

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – Jan. 6, 2015

chitresh das

Pandit Chitresh Das, arguably one of the most influential Indian classical artists in the world, passed away January 4th at the age of 70, according to the director of Das’ dance school, who said his death was due to “acute aortic dissection.”

Das was a world-renowned Kathak dancer — a centuries-old dance form that translates to “the art of storytelling” — as well as a choreographer and instructor who elevated the classical Indian art form in the U.S. and around the world.

 His dedication to the dance bloomed in India — he began studying Kathak at the age of nine — and followed him to the U.S. In 1970, Das received a University of Maryland fellowship to teach Kathak to students, and later established the first accredited Kathak course in the country at San Francisco State University.

In 1980, he founded the Chitresh Das Dance Company & Chhandam School of Kathak in San Francisco, currently recognized as the largest Indian classical dance school in North America. According to the dance company, 700 students are enrolled worldwide at Das’ schools across California, and in Boston, Mumbai, and Kolkata.

“His contribution to Kathak, to dance, to art, to India, to community, to humanity, and to life stretch across the globe and beyond,” said school director Rachna Nivas in a statement. “In his words, ‘Life and death are the only reality. You come alone, you go alone. Only thing to do in between is practice and do whatever you do with love.'”

First published January 6th 2015, 4:21 am

New California Laws of Note That Take Effect in 2015

Monica Luhar for KCET – Dec. 29, 2014

From LGBT rights and cracking down on gun violence to protecting victims of human trafficking, January 1 will signal the beginning of hundreds of new laws in California. We’ve sifted through the long list of bills to pull out select ones to discuss below, some of them resulting from big news topics — like the Isla Vista shooting — and others representing important issues to California. (For environmental laws, check out KCET’s Redefine project, and for food laws, go to KCET Food).

AB 60: Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants in the state of California will be able to apply for driver’s licenses starting in 2015. Applicants will be required to provide proof of identity and California residency to the Department of Motor Vehicles, along with a list of other requirements. But they won’t be required to provide a social security number, proof of legal status, or other exhaustive requirements in order to apply for a driver’s license.

Seth Ronquilo, immigration policy consultant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA, is hoping for a big turnout for the Asian Pacific undocumented immigrant community in terms of applying for AB 60 driver’s licenses.

“Something as simple as going to work, going to school, sometimes people will be stopped by cops for something as small as broken taillights or traffic light violations. If they don’t have a driver’s license, it could sometimes lead to as big as a deportation or arrest. That happens all too often in the undocumented community,” he explained. “AB 60 will surely help undocumented Californians to drive legally and make our roads safer.”

Prospective drivers can make an appointment at the DMV starting January 2.

AB 1014: Gun Violence Restraining Orders

At-risk individuals more likely to commit violent crimes will be denied the right to possess and purchase firearms. The bill — authored by Assembly members Das Williams and Nancy Skinner — would also go one step further by requiring a judge to sign a special Gun Violence Restraining Order to temporarily put a hold on the person’s right to own a firearm.

“This law was created in response to the Isla Vista massacre and was designed to apply to only the most extreme circumstances,” said Kaile Shilling, of the Violence Prevention Coalition, which supported the bill. “By providing a temporary action, AB 1014 enables those close to someone who shows signs of being a danger to themselves or others a means to prevent tragedies that many see as foreseeable, but where loved ones did not have any recourse to protect public safety.”

AB 2308: Identification Cards for Recently Released Inmates

Introduced by Assembly member Mark Stone, this bill would ensure that eligible inmates from state prisons will have a valid driver’s license upon release. Eligible inmates include those with prior California driver’s licenses or identification cards. The bill also aims to reduce the recidivism rate by issuing driver’s licenses and other services to provide a better transition. Over $2 million has been set aside by the state budget to fund the bill.

Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness in California have supported AB 2308 to better assist recently released inmates reintegrate within their communities and thus halt the recidivism rate.

“We supported AB 2308 because identification cards for released inmates living with a mental illness is essential to their reintegration within their communities,” Jessica Cruz, executive director for NAMI California told KCET.

“For many reasons, including timely access to treatment, accessing housing, employment and other benefits and services that require proper identification. Without identification, someone living with a mental illness who may need to apply for Medi-Cal benefits after being released would not have the timely access to treatment and/or medication that they need,” she added.

AB 1512: County Jails and Inmate Transfers

To address issues of overcrowding, this bill would allow county jails to transfer inmates to other counties. The bill helps jails currently undergoing changes to their facilities to send inmates to other updated facilities to ensure that inmates receive the services they need. Additionally, the bill would extend these inmate transfer agreements until July 1, 2018.

The ACLU of California opposed AB 1512, after weighing evidence that inmates are more likely to successfully reintegrate into the community after release if they are kept close to home during incarceration.

“Authorizing counties to transfer inmates out of county is contrary to the goals of realignment and may fundamentally interfere with the defendant’s access to his or her counsel,” Natasha Minsker, center director of the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy, said in an email to KCET.

Instead of addressing the root causes of overcrowding, the bill provides temporary relief at high financial costs, which does not necessarily lead to long-term and sustainable reduction in jail populations, explained Minsker.

AB 1523: Liability Insurance for Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly

This bill — authored by Assembly members Toni Atkins and Shirley Weber — would require residential care facilities (California assisted living facilities) to purchase and maintain liability insurance in the event of possible negligence cases or injuries sustained by residents. According to the bill’s language, the liability insurance amount would be approximately $1 million per incident and $3,000,000 to cover injuries.

Eric Carlson, spokesperson for the National Senior Citizens Law Center, says substandard care in residential care facilities for the elderly can lead to serious injuries.

“In the worst cases, vulnerable residents are abused or neglected, resulting in malnutrition, bed sores, and sometimes death,” said Carlson.

AB 1523 works toward accountability and providing quality care. Without this law, oftentimes victims have no way of receiving compensation from an offending facility, due in part because a facility carries little or no liability insurance, explained Carlson.

“This is an important step to ensure justice for the vulnerable older persons living in residential care facilities for the elderly,” says Carlson.

AB 1585: Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

Introduced by Assembly members Luis Alejo and Nora Campos, this bill protects victims of human trafficking forced into illegal acts like prostitution by allowing them to prove that they were a victim themselves. The victim would be allowed to petition the court and seek relief if they are able to prove that a conviction occurred — again, such as for prostitution — as result of his/her involvement as a victim of human trafficking and solicitation. The defendant would have to initially complete probation sentences before providing evidence to the court on whether his/her conviction can be dropped. The bill would assist victims of human trafficking by working to clear a conviction that may halt and serve as a detriment to their transition in becoming employed or seeking basic rights.

“In its framework, we applaud the effort, however we felt like some of the provisions in the bill were high standards for trafficking victims,” explained Stephanie Richard of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), which took a neutral position for this bill.

Richard said that some of the provisions are problematic because there is a high standard of proof required that serves to re-burden and re-traumatize survivors of human trafficking by having them provide oral testimony. “Small modifications that would have made the bill usable weren’t included. They require clear and convincing standards which we thought was a high standard of proof.”

AB 1610: Human Trafficking Witnesses

This bill, introduced by Assembly member Rob Bonta, extends protections for victims of human trafficking that are called upon to be a witness in a case against the trafficker. The bill — sponsored by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office — requires a thorough examination of the victim to iron out any possible biases, intimidation, or threats that may play a role in dissuading the witness from testifying.

“We do see a lot of times: Survivors make statements and either are too scared to continue the law enforcement process, or simply disappear. So if there’s a way this could be a way that more traffickers are brought to justice, it could be helpful,” Richard of CAST told KCET.

AB 2089: Preventing Recurring Cases of Domestic Violence

This bill, authored by Assembly member Bill Quirk, would help prevent recurring cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse by issuing a restraining order after a notice and hearing. “That is, victims don’t have to wait until they’re in the hospital to ask for protection,” as a Daily News editorial put it.

Peace Over Violence, one of the oldest domestic violence rape crisis centers in California, supported this bill. Emily Austin, director of policy and evaluation, told KCET that in the past, there have been cases in California where a judge would deny or grant a petition on the basis of the length of time in which abuse occurred. With this bill, that would no longer be the case.

“Under 2089, if the court denies the petition to issue a protective order, it must provide a brief statement for why it did so — either in writing or verbally on the record so that it gives a petitioner and advocates something to appeal or gain some insight as to why it was denied, versus complete silence,” Austin added.

AB 2501: Preventing Defendants from using Gay, Trans Panic Defenses

AB 2501, authored by Assembly member Susan Bonilla, would prohibit the use of gay or trans panic defenses – a set of defenses that are used as reasons in provoking a defendant to commit a crime. Under this bill, defendants would not be able to use a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense to get out of charges for a serious crime. This is the first bill of its kind that would eliminate the “panic defense” — according to the bill’s sponsor, Equality California.

The Williams Institute, a respected legal group that specializing in studying and litigating LGBT issues, says AB 2051 is the first law of its kind in the nation and will create a model for other states to follow and eliminate the use of gay and transgender panic defenses.

“The gay and transgender panic defenses did not appear until the late 1960s, and rely on outdated ideas that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are mental diseases. Since then, the defense has appeared in court opinions in approximately one-third of the states,” said a representative from the Williams Institute.

More: LGBT, Minority Rights Focus of Several Bills Signed in Last Legislative Session

AB 496: LGBT Cultural Competency for Healthcare Providers

Authored by Assembly member Richard Gordon, this bill works to develop standards and provide LGBT cultural competency for healthcare providers in the state of California. The bill works to provide better care for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities patients and therefore enhance the quality and communication flow from patient to physician. Healthcare providers would be required to update and develop standards for the cultural competency requirement.

A representative from the Williams Institute says that the passage of AB 496 into law will help ensure that physicians and surgeons are provided with continuing medical education that will include information relating to the provision of care and services to the LGBT community.

“Through an expanded definition of cultural competency, associations engaged in accrediting CME for healthcare professionals can update their standards and provide training aimed to meet the unique healthcare needs of the LGBT and intersex community.”

AB 1557: Gender Identity and Death Certificates

Authored by Assembly member Atkins, the Respect After Death Act would ensure that an individual’s preferred gender identity will be preserved after death.

“AB 1577 will ensure that a person’s gender identity is accurately reported and maintained after death, by requiring death certificates to reflect the gender that the decedent identified with during his or her life,” said a representative from the Williams Institute.

Previously on KCET: Bill to Respect Transgender Identity After Death Moves Forward

SB 396: Removing Shameful Language from State’s Law Books

Introduced by Senator Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), this bill works to undo the provisions of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative which passed in 1994 denying basic rights and public services like health care, public education, and other services to undocumented immigrants. SB 396 would eliminate the provisions of Prop 187 from state laws in California.

Previously on KCET: Lawmakers, Immigrant Rights Activists Push to Close Chapter on Prop 187

AB 2288: Child Labor Protection Act of 2014

AB 2288, also known as the Child Labor Protection Act of 2014, was introduced by Assembly member Roger Hernandez. The bill strengthens child labor laws against abuses by extending the statute of limitations, significantly increasing the civil penalty and entitling victims to three times the amount of financial losses suffered.

“Some of earliest labor laws in our nation were designed to protect child laborers from exploitation and abusive working conditions. However, child labor violations continue to be rampant across many industries,” Hernandez addressed the assembly last May.

AB 1147: Massage Therapy

This bill would make it mandatory for massage therapists to show proof of certification by the California Massage Therapy Council. Certificates awarded to massage therapists would need to be renewed every two years. The bill would also strike down on offenders and violators who use massage parlors as a way to conduct illegal activity such as prostitution. The bill would also grant cities and counties the ability to enforce local ordinances for business establishments and other entities. According to the California Massage Therapy Council, applicants for Certification as a Certified Massage Therapist must have 500 hours of education from an approved school and pass a CAMTC exam effective Jan. 1.

Ahmos Netanel, the CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council, says the council has been in support of the state bill which extends the provisions of the previous law which expires Dec. 31, 2014. He says the mission of the CMTC is to protect and help the public by certifying qualified massage professionals. Any changes in legislation will make it easier to protect the public, he says.

“What this law does is raise professional standards required to be certified by the CMTC. A person will have to have 500 hours, plus they have to take an exam approved by the CMTC. In addition to that, they have to go through a complete background check.”

“We are working hard in getting all the protocols in place to implement the law Jan. 1 and we are looking forward to working with state, local officials, local business, and other professionals to protect the public,” says Netanel.

More: Massaging the Law: The Rise of Illicit Massage Parlors in SoCal