Hundreds of students from across the nation descended on the Elm City on Thursday to discuss the future of the Asian-American community in the United States and encourage student political activism.
The annual East Coast Asian-American Students Union conference, described by its student organizers as the premier Asian-American collegiate conference in the United States, has returned to the site of its founding to commemorate its 30th birthday. More than 900 students from over 100 colleges — some hailing from as far as Florida and Georgia — arrived on campus late Thursday evening to attend the three-day event. Organizers said the conference theme, “Breaking Through,” is a tribute to members of the Asian community who have overcome cultural and professional barriers in the U.S.
“This is about embracing cultural identity and urging political activism,” ECAASU director Allen Pan ’08 said.
Pan said the weekend’s events are not limited to Asian-American students, and the attendees represent a wealth of different ethnic groups.
During the conference, which runs from Feb. 8 to Feb. 10, students will attend workshops on topics ranging from immigration policy to affirmative action and hear from a variety of speakers including Nina Elgo, the first Asian-American judge on the Connecticut Superior Court, Jon Iwata, senior vice president of communications of IBM, and Jin, a well-known Asian-American rap artist.
ECAASU promotions chair William Wong ’09 said he hopes the weekend not only offers students from other colleges a glimpse of the University’s Asian-American community, but also encourages Yale students to be more politically active on the national level. He described the Yale cultural community as being less interested in voicing its concerns on national issues, such as an off-color remark by Rosie O’Donnell on “The View,” and more focused on examining on-campus incidents, such as last fall’s proliferation of allegedly racist messages in student publications.
“Other schools seem to be more invested in addressing the broader picture of Asian American politics,” he said. “Yale is bit more reactionary.”
Brian Redondo, voting rights public education coordinator for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, will lead a workshop on political power Saturday afternoon. Redondo said his workshop will teach college students methods to combat what he called the widespread but erroneous perception of Asian Americans as “apathetic and apolitical.” He said he has seen the impact of this misconception in his work conducting exit polls for the 2006 Congressional elections, where he observed many exit polling stations bypassing Asian American voters.
“ECAASU provides a forum and space for dialogue, where students can organize themselves into some sort of growing political movement,” Redondo said. “It is one of few places where students can discuss issues relevant to Asian Americans that are not being discussed in mainstream debates.”
In 1977, Asian American students gathered at Yale to build an inter-collegiate network to provide mutual support to Asian-American student organizations spanning the nation. The group rallied against the Supreme Court decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the court ruled against quota systems in college admissions but upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action programs. ECAASU was thereafter formed from an Asian Student Unity conference at Princeton.
Jason Lam, a senior at West Point Military Academy, said he decided to participate in ECAASU for the first time this year in order to meet a diverse body of students who share his interest in political engagement.
“I don’t know too much about the Asian American issues, so I came here to learn,” he said. “The more you know the more you can do about overcoming challenges like the presumptions that people make about the culture.”
Director of the Asian-American Cultural Center Saveena Dhall and Law School professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 will deliver welcoming addresses at today’s opening ceremony, and Yale Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel will moderate a panel on affirmative action. The weekend’s events will culminate in a gala banquet with Dean Salovey and a concert featuring Jin, spoken-word performer Giles Li and R&B singer Vudoo Soul.