Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which is an opportunity to celebrate AAPI communities. Reactions to COVID-19 over the past year have exacerbated harassment and violence against AAPIs nationwide. Now, and always, there is a critical need to fight anti-Asian hate. Building a sense of environmental community around heritage months can help uphold solidarity in an era where people of color are under attack. This May, we not only reflect on the many achievements of AAPIs, but also on centuries of struggle.
Persecution against AAPIs in the United States is not new. There have been reports of historical injustices including: the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the murder of Vincent Chin, the mass shooting of Southeast Asian refugee children in 1989, and the targeting of South Asian Americans. Marginalization continues today with AAPIs still encountering barriers to economic, environmental, and social justice. We must recognize a record of racial trauma and exclusion to look forward.
From an environment and sustainability perspective, AAPIs are more likely to bear the brunt of living near hazards like pollution. Research has shown that AAPI communities in the United States are significantly more at risk of cancer from harmful air pollutants than Whites. Inequitable exposure is no coincidence and stems from documented environmental racism and segregation. Pacific Islanders in particular are disproportionately affected by dangerous climate change burdens. They face unpredictable threats like rising sea levels, flooding, and cyclones. Despite being least responsible for these problems, Pacific Islanders have risen as leaders in their climate adaptation efforts and commitment to sustainable living.
Miya Yoshitani, executive director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), has been on the frontlines of the environmental justice movement since its beginning. Yoshitani was a part of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that drafted the original “Principles of Environmental Justice” document in 1991. Today, she uplifts hundreds of AAPI immigrants and refugees in California's Bay Area to have their voices heard in decision-making that promotes green economies. Part of this role includes increasing voter engagement amongst the AAPI community to ensure fair representation in the electorate.
At the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), AAPI faculty and staff are inspiring change in the climate and sustainability movement. Li Yong has been a member of the SEAS Administrative Services staff for more than eight years. Her role focuses on helping faculty, staff, and students develop aspects of grant proposals like preparing budgets, interpreting guidelines, and meeting deadlines. After securing a grant, she assists with post-award tasks to ensure effective fund use. Yong says that this process is important because “the grant funding we receive will help researchers tackle a broad range of environmental issues.”
Dr. Ming Xu is a SEAS faculty member and industrial ecologist who studies life cycle analysis. His research considers the role that consumption plays in exacerbating environmental pressures based on the life cycle of goods and services. Life cycle thinking is a key component of Xu’s research, and he defines it as “a product system in its whole life cycle from raw material acquisition to end-of-life disposal.” Xu uses this framework to examine society’s environmental footprint of consumption and life cycle impacts of emerging technologies. These are just two individuals in our community whose work we highlight. We recognize that there are many other voices that can be elevated.
Even though many AAPIs are leaders of their respective fields, marginalization still persists and demonstrates the strength, resilience, and conditions under which AAPI work. Honoring AAPI Heritage Month is a reminder that a long road still lies ahead to combat legacies of inequity. In our environmental community, acknowledging AAPI achievements is important for upholding the invaluable contributions of people of color in a movement popularly centered on Whiteness. We can honor AAPI Heritage Month through both reflecting on the past and looking ahead to a more inclusive future.
Although we use the terms Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), we also recognize that there is a wide range of people and cultures within the Asian American community. We in no way intend to homogenize these experiences into one monolithic body and acknowledge the group’s unique diversity.