OC Hosts Biennial A/PA Conference
“We need to draw our marginalized struggles and issues to the center of academic and political consciousness.” This mission statement opened Oberlin’s 14th Biennial Asian/Pacific American Midwest Student Conference, which began last weekend. It seemed to respond particularly to this fall’s controversy over the near elimination of an Asian -American history faculty position.
Last weekend, professors, specialists, filmmakers and students convened in Wilder Hall to engage in discussions on immigration, human trafficking, militarization and the environment issues that affect Asian and Pacific Islanders, Asian immigrants and descendants of immigrants living in America.
Saturday’s first event brought in a diverse group of panelists to discuss immigration. University of California at Berkeley Professor Pam Lee began by outlining how the field of ethnic studies can relate to real world problems.
“How can the goals and mission of ethnic studies be applied to... making lives better?” Lee asked. “How can ethnic studies be applied to making social, economic and political change in North America? How can ethnic studies be applied to dismantling what is wrong with globalization? How can ethnic studies be applied to individual and collective searches for identity?”
Lee went on to describe her work with hotel room attendants in eight North American cities over the past seven years, the majority of whom were female immigrants. She gave a litany of statistics revealing high rates of job-related poor health among these workers, including the fact that 46 percent of the room attendants she worked with who took time off work for illness returned to work before recovering.
“We have a handful of wealthy and we have billions of poor and shut out, and we have millions of what I call the duped and the manipulated and so, which category do you think you guys are?” Lee said.
Panelist Sun-Hee Park’s presentation focused on work she had done with approximately 100 students who are children of Asian immigrants. Specifically, she took issue with the fact that most previous studies on immigrant assimilation focus on economic upward mobility.
“It seems to me that one can be just as well-adjusted living in a low-income housing projects as those living in suburban tract homes with meticulously manicured lawns,” she said.
Park examined the presence of what she called “consumptive fantasies,” which are the dreams Asian immigrant youth maintain of materially repaying the sacrifice made by their entrepreneur parents.
Arizona State University Professor John Rosa followed by discussing his study of A/PA near Phoenix, AZ.
“I take a look at how people establish culture, history and a sense of place,” he said. According to his findings, the main reasons A/PA-identified people move to that area are for education, employment, affordable housing, affordable transportation and proximity to other A/PA people.
Dean Saranillio, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s Program in American Culture, concluded the panel by discussing a painting, titled “Benocide,” by the Hawaiian artist Kewaikaliko. The work depicted a dark body hanging from a tree, apparently lynched by the caricatures of several white men. Saranillio explained how the work was rich with symbolism, telling the story of native Hawaiians’ struggle for self-determination.
Another panel focused on the intersection of ethnicity and gender in human trafficking. Human trafficking is a phenomenon dominated specifically by bride trafficking.
Nora Timbang, a private consultant for grassroots social change organizations, discussed anti-trafficking legislation and ethnicity issues in the state of Washington.
“The idea of race [as related to] trafficking took a back burner, potentially impacting trafficked persons directly,” she said.
During the question and answer period, Gabriela Villareal, a coordinator for a New York City-based organization Safe Horizons Anti-Trafficking Program, encouraged the audience to think about the root causes of human trafficking.
“We need to take a look at demand, our consumer behavior here in the US and why is there a need for sweatshop labor,” she said. “Why [is there demand for] cheap restaurant labor? For agricultural slavery? Why is there such a need for nannies who are underpaid?”
The militarization panel featured a presentation on Hawaii’s militarization by David Keanu Sai, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is currently teaching politics at Oberlin. Sai outlined the history of the United States’ military involvement in Hawaii and native Hawaiians’ reactions from the late 19th century through theend of the 20th.
“Hawaii’s view is starting to shift where they look at the military up to this point...as a nuisance...as an occupier,” he said.
Saturday’s fourth panel focused on environmental issues specific to Asian Pacific Islands. Stephanie Fried, a specialist at the Hawaii office of Environmental Defense, gave the first presentation, “The Impact of Public Finance on Ecosystems and Peoples of the Asia-Pacific Region.” She talked about Export Credit Agencies, which she described as “highly secretive entities” that often bring an increase in militarization in the Asian and Pacific countries they inhabit. In regards to making successful social change, Fried said following the money on large projects is a “crucial leverage point.”
At one point, the question and answer session steered students towards uncovering whether or not Oberlin had investments in Export Credit Agencies. Ben Wisner, an Oberlin environmental studies professor and the panel’s chair, mentioned that Oberlin faculty members belong to TIAA Cref, a nationwide pension plan.
Though he was certain the organization was very open with their records and involvements, he pointed out that even if they weren’t, Oberlin professors weren’t able to choose their individual financial plans. Fried said this shouldn’t deter students from investigating the school’s financial involvements.
“When you put a spotlight on it, you’d be amazed at how you develop control over things that seemed totally external,” she said.
For the keynote address, the Conference’s focus again returned to Hawaii. Anne Keala Kelly, a native Hawaiian journalist and filmmaker, gave a speech titled “Globalizing the Native,” which focused on sovereignty politics and other issues concerning indigenous peoples in the state.
Kelly said that globalization — the international expansion of companies — has played an intrinsic role in dispossessing Hawaiians of their land. She specified that the United States military, which owns 25 percent of the land in Hawaii, surpasses tourism as the state’s largest source of revenue. She also spoke of the “spiritual reality” that molds so much of what Hawaiians do.
“I don’t think academic or political analysis or transnationalism or globalization takes into account the spiritual,” she said.
Near the end of her address, Kelly described a conflict she had had with a non-native Japanese man who had lived his entire life in Hawaii. When she had suggested to him that if two Hawaiians were arguing, he should stay out of it, he had called her a “two-way racist bitch.”
While her mother is Hawaiian and her father Irish, and Kelly herself spent most of her life in California, Kelly still felt the man was overlooking the ties she had to the land: “Non-native allies don’t share the same burden that the native has,” she said, specifying higher rates of cancer and the government’s dispossession of natives’ lands as a few examples.
Kelly reiterated a need for activism to be genuine in her final address to
students: “Your activism on this campus needs to be real,” she said.
“It needs to come from who you are, and part of that is who your ancestors