Yuri Kochiyama said, “ Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another.” As we celebrate the many amazing women who have made history this month, I am reflecting on my own journey with feminisms and what it’s meant to root our work at Asian Pacific Environmental Network in feminisms.
My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Mollan, was the first woman I knew who used Ms. instead of Mrs. (which was radical for me in 1984). One of her assignments was putting together a collection of short stories and journal entries. I found my 10-year-old’s essay about a debate that we had in school about U.S. politics. I was a speaker for the Democratic Party on Women’s Issues and had to speak about our platform and candidates Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate of a major political party.
Despite the glimpses of change, my childhood was still steeped in the rigid gender binary. My dad was the authority figure and decision-maker in the family. I was told that girls are supposed to be sweet and happy, not angry. That girls shouldn’t challenge people in positions of power. That girls had to be thin and dressed up to be beautiful. That we had to be crazy about boys. That we should play clapping games with racist chants. It led me to be shy, quiet, fearful, a rule-follower. I plastered a smile on my face, tried lots of dieting, and found myself in unsafe situations because I didn’t want to make a scene.
In my 20s, I started with providing services and support — ranging from educating patients on sexual violence as a prenatal health advocate to supporting the complexity of people’s situations in a domestic violence shelter. Wanting large scale policy changes, I moved to Sacramento to lobby for more funding for women’s health programs in the California state budget, social services for immigrant survivors of human trafficking, and language access for family law cases. However, even as a policy changed, there was no analysis of the root causes that were creating all these challenges in the first place. Even as we tried to be intersectional, there was often a bifurcation between women’s issues and Asian American issues, immigrant spaces and people of color spaces.
Having come up against the limitations of policy advocacy, I came to APEN because I wanted to be working with Asian immigrants and refugees, organizing for systemic change, and building power for long-term impact. I had a yearning to be who I am, to belong, and to be part of creating a world that upholds everyone’s dignity and worth. So many of the struggles I and my immigrant communities have experienced around race, gender, and injustice need change that is both the fight against the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism of the extractive economy, but also the creation of systems that are intersectional, anti-imperialist, and liberatory — for ourselves, our culture, our communities and in service to a healthy and just ecosystem (See the just transition framework of the Climate Justice Alliance as well as the grassroots feminism framework of Grassroots Global Justice).
When #MeToo shined a light on all the ways that patriarchy infiltrates our institutions, relationships, and ourselves, it spurred many of us at APEN to reflect on our own organization. Although we are an organization with an Executive Director and a majority of staff being gender oppressed folks, unsurprisingly, we found that we were not immune to patriarchy’s impacts.
We had already been in a movement partnership with generative somatics for a couple of years where we collectively had been going through a process of politicized healing and transformation. It was only fitting that the stories of pain and oppression from the hands of patriarchy emerged from our practices of bringing our full selves, finding alignment throughout our bodies, and extending towards our deepest longings.
What surfaced was a collective reckoning about the way power was distributed within the organization, how cis-gender men disproportionately held power both internally and externally, and how each of us could better hold the power we do have. It presented itself within supervisor-supervisee relationships, who holds the care labor in the organization, whose voices have more influence, who gets interrupted, and who gets recognition.
Whether it was in campaign coalitions, movement gatherings, or the halls of the Capitol, cis-men did the talking and received the visibility while women who did the actual work behind the scenes — facilitating inclusive meeting spaces, getting collective buy-in for the campaign demands, supporting community members with what they needed (food, interpretation, coaching, etc), synthesizing and writing what the collective had agreed upon, etc. — went unseen.
I shared about a particularly rough professional moment for me as a young woman of color working in Sacramento where I was kicked out of a meeting with a Governor’s staff person as I was trying to advocate for a bill that would address harassment based on race and queer identity in schools (very ironic). In that moment, this man wanted to demonstrate his power through an attack on mine. It was not only about the crushing of my dignity and my worth in that moment, but was so representative of the whole lifetime of attacks that I had witnessed against my immigrant parents and immigrant women in general. I couldn’t mount any response for the fear that it would jeopardize our bill’s ability to be signed into law.
Facing this issue meant that we needed to develop a deeper analysis of feminisms and intersectionality within our organization and work and not simply rely on representation.
Teams of staff came together, first as Fly Girl Feminists and then our current Gender Justice League, to hold organization-wide assessments that lift up our strengths and areas for improvement, to advance our collective political development, and to support feminisms priorities.
We held all staff political education sessions about everything from mental load and emotional labor to feminist political economy to international campaigns. Following the learnings from World March of Women, we used the plural form of feminisms to recognize that there is not just one feminism movement, but a diversity of feminisms. We created feminist collectives where groups of staff could get together to discuss, engage, and deepen their knowledge on a particular issue and receive mutual support about challenges. We started a Men’s Caucus for cisgender men to be in learning and accountability around patriarchy. We initiated work crews to collectivize care labor for organizational events. We brought this topic for member discussions and assessed our legislative agenda through a feminisms lens. We talked about why feminisms are critical to the regenerative economy we want to build:
“The regenerative economy is built on a governance of deep democracy, a worldview of caring and sacredness, and work done in a cooperative manner. We will not achieve this regenerative economy simply through winning policy campaigns or building alternatives. We must be rooting our work in the advancement of an organizational and movement culture of feminist principles, practices, and leadership that transforms not only what we achieve but how we achieve it.”
Throughout APEN’s journey to deepen, strengthen, and transform, there have been advancements on both individual and collective levels. While we still have much more to do, as an organization, we have created change and shifted our culture.
We are much more explicit about feminisms, from questions in our hiring process to identified feminisms priorities in each of our teams. We collectively have more knowledge and understanding of the topic, with a common language to facilitate discussion. We are better at naming dynamics, leaning into generative conflict, sharing power, and spreading care labor.
In this process, I have also grown so much in my own political development, with sharper clarity about power and its manifestations in our systems and relationships. Being of the generation that came into a feminism that was still firmly rooted in the gender binary, I also had a lot of my own learning and apologizing for my mistakes around queer identity, including being more practiced at pronouns, having a deeper awareness of issues facing trans communities, and understanding the different concepts and politics of the gender unicorn and gender elephant.
For 2020, our theme is to “Visibilize the Invisible.” We will be assessing our organizational policies, salary structure, and supervision practices. Externally, we want to lift up feminisms in coalition and campaign spaces. We also now have an all-women leadership team, with a number of us who have been through the full history of these conversations. We will be talking about how that impacts people’s working experience and how patriarchy shows up in a women-led space that may be similar or different than spaces led by cisgender men.
Our lives are touched by everyone and every experience that entered it. In the process of transforming the system, we are also transforming others and being transformed ourselves. In 2020, I foresee further transformation as I’m hopeful I’ll finally be a parent after many years. With little ones, I especially feel the urgency and necessity for us to create a future that is more joyful, loving, and collectively powerful beyond our wildest dreams. Our movements have created glimpses of what a world of feminisms could look like, and it up to all of us to make this future real.
Vivian Huang is Deputy Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) where she organizes with Asian immigrants and refugees to develop collective power and leadership for a thriving economy. She teaches public health policy at San Francisco State University and advises AYPAL.