AFT launches historic AAPI task force

The first meeting of the AFT’s new task force for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders kicked off earlier this month, its 14 members drawn from local affiliates all over the nation and across AFT constituencies. AFT President Randi Weingarten announced the task force at convention last July and attended the Feb. 9 meeting, where she said the representation of AAPI people must go beyond celebrating the Lunar New Year and teaching about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

API zoom

The mission of the AFT Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force is to raise the visibility of urgent issues impacting AAPI members and their communities—issues like the rise of anti-Asian racism, including vicious attempts to blame Chinese Americans for the coronavirus pandemic. Task force members aim to provide national leadership in addressing these issues wherever AFT members live and work: in schools, public institutions, hospitals, colleges and universities.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union and an AFT vice president, decided to champion the task force while attending a meeting of the AFT’s Hispanic Task Force and realizing their issues were similar. As task force chair, Tang, together with AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, hopes to build a community of AAPI members within our union, strengthen their commitment to activism, bring an AAPI perspective to the unions agenda and call our members’ attention to issues facing the AAPI community that the whole union can address.

DeJesus expressed delight in serving as the task force’s presiding officer. She recalled teaching in New York City’s Chinatown for decades and noted that her grandkids are half Puerto Rican and half Chinese American. Giving a shoutout to fellow United Federation of Teachers activist and task force member Helen Chin, DeJesus called this moment an “opportunity to build a movement that embodies the needs of the 26 million-member AAPI community in the United States.”

Stopping hate

Tang introduced Kent Wong, a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers and founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. APALA is the constituency group of the AFL-CIO representing the interests of AAPI union workers and their families. The AFT was one of its founding unions. Wong said he is working on a book about the first 30 years of APALA, which has enlisted support from dozens of unions and the AFL-CIO. Recently, the alliance expanded its board by 20 seats to bring on more women and regional representation.

Wong takes pride in the increasingly progressive leanings of the AAPI community, “reversing the ugly legacy of the former president,” Donald Trump, who fomented a myth about the “China virus” that Wong himself stepped up to counteract early in the pandemic. Writing in AFT Voices, he pointed out that many AAPI people were working on the frontlines, fighting COVID-19 in healthcare and other professions, while at the same time enduring public hostility and scorn.

PPE committee

Hateful incidents targeting AAPI are nothing new in American history, but have risen due to the association of the coronavirus with Asian people, according to an AAPI task force at the University of Michigan, where our union represents lecturers and graduate students as well as healthcare workers at the university hospital. The Stop AAPI Hate Center reported that from March 19, 2020, through the end of the year, it received more than 2,800 reports of anti-Asian coronavirus-related racism and discrimination, including verbal harassment, shunning and physical attacks. As early as a year ago, the FBI was warning of a rise in hate crimes targeting Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

Much more needs to be done to combat the rise of anti-Asian attacks. Interventions can address the root causes of violence and provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services for victims and their families.

Wong noted that multiracial and multigenerational unity has grown in response to these attacks, just as Americans band together to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community. For the first time in more than a decade, he said, national immigration reform is back on the table.

Our union’s AAPI task force will add its clout to those fights, and will make sure the voices of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are heard.

“We have a special obligation to expand rights for AAPI in our communities,” Wong said, adding that Tang, as task force chair, “will keep us on a forward-looking path and make sure we have a role to play in the future of the AFT.”

That role already has been fruitful. Task force members learned about the Committee of 100, a national leadership development organization made up of prominent Chinese Americans who donated 100,000 N95 masks to help protect AFT members last year, and then gave an additional 10,000 N95s this year. AFT convention delegates have approved resolutions on fighting xenophobia and confronting racism. Two AFT powerhouses for classroom resources—Share My Lesson and Colorín Colorado—offer a wealth of material on AAPI history and culture.

Now the task force is planning events for AAPI Heritage Month in May; it already has begun circulating a video featuring task force leaders. Future opportunities for raising cultural awareness include the AFT’s TEACH conference this summer, divisional conferences and our next convention in 2022.

In the meantime, task force members like Roger “Rogie” Legaspi, a science teacher and activist in the Baltimore Teachers Union, want to help the AFT continue stepping up its assistance for teachers recruited from the Philippines and elsewhere whose labor in the United States more closely resembles indentured servitude than a profession. The most recent example of unscrupulous labor recruitment practices emerged in New Mexico, where AFT New Mexico stepped in to stop the exploitation of teachers. Legaspi wants to engage fellow Filipino teachers as they become citizens, union members and voters.

Maria Angala, a member of the Washington Teachers’ Union, “piggybacked” on Legaspi’s goals for immigrant teachers.

“The AFT is there for us, to make sure we are treated with dignity and respect,” she said, observing that teachers recruited from other countries “have no clue about what may happen to them, and we need to push for broader reforms.”

Our country and our union stand at critical points in our histories, DeJesus said. We are in the middle of a racial reckoning that presents an opportunity to build a truly multiracial, multiethnic union, she added, providing leadership for the entire labor movement.

[Annette Licitra]