This past Sunday, King students attended the virtual Asian American Footsteps Conference, this year hosted by Phillips Exeter Academy. The all-day event brought together Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander students of New England independent schools to an environment where they could foster a community within the independent school network to share experiences and ideas. Stimulating speakers and workshops served to educate students and inspire them to embrace their identity and culture.
Founded in 2011, the conference has been hosted at different independent schools throughout New England each year. Usually in person, it was cancelled last year due to Covid-19, and this year took place over Zoom. Different events and workshops discussed issues surrounding identity, social justice, and cultural phenomena. The conference also welcomed guest speakers Pauline Park and Liza Talusan, and Keynote Speaker Helen Zia.
Park, a transgender rights activist, is the chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), a transgender advocacy organization that she co-founded. She is also the president of the board of directors at Queens Pride House, and led campaigns for transgender rights in both the United States and South Korea. In her workshop, she brought LGBTQ+ Asian history to the forefront, as those stories are frequently neglected or erased in the conversation of LGBTQ+ rights.
Talusan is an educator, writer, leadership coach, and strategic change partner who has been invited to over 250 organizations to speak on creating more inclusive organizations, environments, and communities. Her cumulative research regarding the experiences of underrepresented populations brought an open and honest environment to the conference.
Zia is a journalist, activist, and scholar whose work on the 1980s civil rights case of anti-Asian violence is featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? She also served as the founding co-chair on the board of the Women's Media Center and a director of Equality Now, as well as the Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine. As the keynote speaker, she closed out the conference with a reckoning of the history of anti-Asian violence. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to modern day Covid-related hate crimes, the origins of the hate and ignorance that has long permeated our society were laid front and center.
King students Griffin Cho ‘24, Alexandra Oxenstierna '23, Meredith Joo ‘23, Ellie Goudie ‘22, and Nick Jiang ‘22 attended the digital summit. This opportunity was introduced by King faculty member Rebaca Varghese.
“There are many DEI conferences designed for students; AAFC stood out in that it was designed for students who identify as Asian.” affirmed Ms. Varghese. “I wanted to bring this opportunity to King students as a resource to be affirmed in their identities and engage in a familiar but new learning experience.”
“The conference gave us the choice and an opportunity to help each other and know that we are not alone facing different challenges,” said Nick Jiang. “I feel it was important to students since it makes us feel like we are included and gives us opportunities to connect with each other.” Students could speak freely on their experiences as Asians living in America today, especially regarding the unprecedented burden of the Coronavirus pandemic. “The Weight of Wearing two Masks'', a workshop Jiang attended, shed light on the additional stress the pandemic put on Asian individuals. The virus’ stigmatization of “the China virus” has sparked a new wave of anti-Asian prejudice, and it has taken a toll on people of Asian descent everywhere.
“I chose to attend this conference because as an Asian American who recognizes the rise of hate towards Asian Americans, it is so important to bring attention to this topic in order to start a change,” said Alexandra Oxenstierna, another attendee. “I don't have a lot of Asian American peers,” she continued. Independent schools are much more often than not PWIs, (predominantly white institutions) so AAFC provided another opportunity for Asian students to be in an environment where they are not alone in their racial identities. With the rise in hateful violence against Asian people, it matters now more than ever for the AAPI community to show solidarity with one another.
The spike in hate crimes has struck fear and distress into the hearts of Asian individuals across the nation. Asian voices must be heard to combat prejudice and keep an ongoing conversation on how we all work together to act against hate wherever we encounter it. “I believe that the conference was a great way to empower and amplify the Asian voices of our generation,” King student Meredith Joo stated. The conference provided students with a space to share affirmations and support each other in a time of the epidemic of racist hate. Asian student leaders could come together and connect over shared experience, and collaborate on how they can lead change at their own schools.