The ties that bind


MOUNTAIN MOVERS: Student Activism & The Emergence of Asian American Studies

Edited by Russell Jeung, Karen Umemoto, Harvey Dong, Eric Mar, Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani, Arnold Pan (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2019, 276 pp., $22, paperback)

Those of us who are involved in Japanese American and Asian American Pacific Islander causes and organizations may take our collective histories for granted. Groups like the Japanese American Citizens League nationally and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and Kimochi in San Francisco have seemingly always been part of the fabric of our communities. The JACL may have been founded in 1929, but other organizations are relative recent threads in the AAPI tapestry.

This awareness of our separate and shared histories began with the call for Asian American studies departments, courses and faculty in the late 1960s. Until then academia only focused on Asian studies — the history of countries on the opposite side of the globe.

Asian American students at San Francisco State College (now University) were the first to break through. They were inspired by the various movements of the late 1960s that college students embraced, including the anti-war protests and the Black Power movement, and organized with other groups of color, most notably the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front, a loose-knit aggregation of organizations. The students called for a strike in late 1968 and insisted, among other demands, an ethnic studies college at the school that would cover the untold histories of Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Indigenous people in the U.S.

The strike lasted into 1969, with students and eventually faculty staying out of classes. An Asian American Studies program was established as a result of the strike. Students at the University of California Berkeley campus across the Bay were also inspired by the same social justice protests of the time. They were able to establish an Asian American Studies program in 1969. The same year in southern California, the University of California Los Angeles was roiled by the cultural and generational revolution and started its program focused on Asian American Studies.

“Mountain Movers: Student Activism and the Emergence of Asian American Studies” is a moving chronicle of the era that launched not only the idea of Asian American Studies as a legitimate academic concern, but the term Asian American itself, as a replacement for the colonizer vocabulary of “Oriental American.”

The book, edited by Russell Jeung, Karen Umemoto, Harvey Dong, Eric Mar, Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani and Arnold Pan, is an anthology of historical essays of “The Movement,” and how it transformed and established the programs at these three schools. Along with straight historical essays, the book features personal histories written by student leaders who were involved in the original protests and strikes, or have benefitted in more recent years at these institutions. Today, many colleges and universities have Asian American studies programs.

The most important outcome of the wave of Asian American Studies programs was — and still is — the resulting wave of AAPI leaders who came out of these schools and joined or started community organizations. Our communities were woven together by these pioneering programs. The fabric between the university programs and the community was seamless.

The personal stories from a pan-Asian sampling of leaders including Dong (one of the book’s editors), and Irene Dea Collier, Lillian Fabros and Amy Uyematsu are powerful, and underscore the connection between the schools and the communities. To learn about the families of these people who were part of the movement, and their accomplishments since, is inspirational. So are the “New Voices” in the last chapter of three young women of Filipino, Hmong and South Asian heritage who write about their life stories. It’s good to know our communities are in capable hands moving forward, following in the footsteps of the leaders who moved mountains 50 years ago.

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