CW: mentions of violence, suicide
The history of Asian American activism in the 7Cs is rich, but little known to the student body. Like other affinity groups on campus, Asian American Studies and Centers were only established in Claremont after hard fought battles.
According to Mike Manolo-Pedro, director of the Asian American Resource Center at Pomona College, “One of the main problems [in the way of establishing resources] was fair to understand what Asian American students were going through at the time.
Manalo-Pedro referenced the November 1990 production of “The Mikado” in Big Bridges, which featured a yellow face and exaggerated exoticism of the Japanese, leading to organized demonstrations by Pomona Professor of American Studies, Ethnicity and Anthropology Dorinne Kondo.
“A lot of students took it as racist and stereotypical, [but] I do not think so [other] people knew that… I think everyone at the time on campus was like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know that was a thing,’” Manalo-Pedro said.
Gaining support for the 7Cs around Asian students was not easy, but ultimately progress was the result of efforts spanning decades. Just look through chronology compiled by the AARC to learn about the extent of APIDA’s activism in the 7C community.
Asian Desi American Pacific Islander activism within the 5Cs gained momentum after the suicide of an Asian American Pitzer student in April 1987.
As a result, four Pomona seniors submitted a proposal calling for a 5C Student Center for Asian American Studies that same year, but the request was denied. In response to the rejection, the Asian American Mentorship Program was established in August 1989, and the Asian American Resource Center was operational by the fall semester of 1991.
When “Asian American experiences”—the first Asian American studies course in more than a decade—was offered in the spring of 1991, nearly 50 5C students enrolled.
However, events like the defacement of a mural on Walker Wall the following spring showed that there was a long way to go in supporting Asian American students. The initial painting, which was intended to build support for a more robust department, was changed from “Asian American Studies Now” to “Asian Americans Die Now”. The death threat only continued to motivate the APIDA community to push for inclusion.
Ongoing efforts included a sit-in at Alexander Hall in February 1993, a seminar at Balch Hall for a Interuniversity Department of Asian American Studies in 1997 and a rally for an Asian American student center by Pitzer students from 1997 to 2001, among other examples of activism. These cumulative efforts ultimately resulted in the formation of the Interuniversity Department of Asian American Studies in 1998, as well as a mentorship program at each of the 5Cs, but the fight was far from over.
Students pushed for a 5C Asian American Student Center again in 2002 and 2007, but the motions again failed. In 2002, Adboard, a 7C program, reached a compromise with administrators and was allowed to both fund mentor groups and help them grow.
Groups like the South Asian Mentorship Program and the Indigenous Peer Mentorship Program were only created in the spring of 2016.
“It’s kinda crazy… The Asian rhetoric in the 1980s that caused the formation of the AAMP and the AARC [is] alongside the anti-Asian racism that is rampant today… It has always existed, that’s for sure,” Manolo-Pedro said. “Nearly 35 to 40 years later, I think those broader racisms and stereotypes still persist. So it’s kind of almost cyclical that way.
AARC is a Pomona organization, with AAMP serving as a student-led mentorship program under the direction of the center. Each of the 5C’s Asian American student sponsorship programs falls under their respective cultural center. All programs are brought together by the 7Cs program, the Asian American Advisory Board.
AARC and AAMP are very community-based, student-run, volunteer organizations that currently receive no compensation.
Manolo-Pedro distinguishes between critical mass, which can appear as transactional instances of support, and fostering a sense of community with community-focused advocacy.
“I think the critical community is really focused on how we can’t get people in the same room on the same page without building relationships first,” Manolo-Pedro said.
As AAMP mentors and AARC trainees, Saomai Nguyen PO ’23 and Kano Cheng PO ’22 learned meaningful insights in their journey to help their communities.
Having joined AAMP with the intention of streamlining support for the program’s efforts, as well as ensuring mentees are more aware of the white narratives prevalent on college campuses, the two see AAMP as a way to create a stronger sense of inclusiveness towards underrepresented communities. at 5C.
“For events where we talk about mental health, do we still want to believe in things like intergenerational conflict – how we don’t get along with our parents, perpetuating this idea that as Asian parents are strict or conservative, blah, blah , blah . And how does that play into mainstream white narratives of what immigrant or Asian communities look like?” Nguyen says.
Nguyen pointed to AAMP’s history focusing on East Asian culture and issues as “one of the reasons I didn’t feel so comfortable in the first year.” .
“People who show up for AAMP are people who have a very clear and comfortable idea of what it means to them to be Asian American…I just didn’t,” Nguyen said. “It was in my experience of where I grew up, being Southeast Asian, also being a child of refugees, having that story.”
According to Manolo-Pedro, AARC’s mission is to uplift underrepresented Asian students, especially the intersectionalities of identities such as Asian American and gay and Asian American and undocumented. He invites people to attend the events they organize to uplift underrepresented communities.
“People who had this comfort, you know, they had this idea, being Asian American is like doing this and that and liking going to these places to eat and even liking a certain type of dress or way to talk or music that I listen to that. I was just like, wait, I don’t know, am I not Asian American? asks Nguyen.
Cheng said that for her, being Asian American is more about caring about others and organizing around other people’s concerns, not an identity based on shared culture or experiences.
AAMP grew to meet the needs of the community, but the safe space was still attacked by the the recent proposal to restructure the administration for groups of mentors. Luckily, Adboard funds AAMP, so they’re financially strong.
“It was kind of weird because AAMP mentors stopped being invited to meetings with Dean Jackson and like all mentoring groups. At the start, I think of this semester, we just didn’t have any more received these emails, so we are no longer invited to be in the room,” Cheng said.
Instead of fostering discussion among student leaders, Cheng said, Jackson simply gave a PowerPoint presentation of his plans.
“The closest thing to collaboration was working together at the town hall actively against the administration. It was really nice to be able to build something together, even though it was like a high stress situation,” Cheng said.
Manolo-Pedro said he was proud of his students and the legacy they built this year.
“Coming back from the pandemic, they’ve really built a strong foundation on what it means to be in a community of trust and love with each other,” he said. “So I really want to thank the students and our staff for pushing them forward.”