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  • Writer's pictureRachel Poonsiriwong

Sowing Agency from the Grassroots Up: Recognizing Asian American Environmental Justice Leaders

Originally Published on Asian American Women Artists' Association

To celebrate Asian American leaders in environmental justice, the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) is partnering with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour to work on two art projects for the upcoming exhibition, Sowing Agency. We are seeking artists to represent and recognize activists within these communities, who are fighting for the right to breathe clean air. Asian and Black residents living near the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, have been organizing for greater corporate accountability on toxic emissions since the 1990s. When Asian immigrants grow and eat food from toxic soil that has absorbed these emissions, they are ingesting contaminants that could harm them. Nonetheless, like in many other domains, Asian and Asian American voices fighting for environmental justice are not yet heard enough. This is because they often face language barriers, and the model minority myth wrongfully assumes all Asians are well-off. APEN, founded in 1993, is an environmental justice organization focused on making Asian American communities healthier. With roots in California, its membership base is made up of Laotian refugees in Richmond and Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Through organizing in refugee and Asian American communities, APEN has won groundbreaking policies that put working-class communities of color first. The legacy of APEN is best seen in the improvements that it has made to its members’ lives. Lipo and Saeng are Laotian refugees that lived near to the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California in 1991. After an explosion happened at the refinery, the couple was taking their children to school when they smelled what seemed like burning pepper in the air. Saeng was incapacitated by the pollutant that was emitted, and had to crawl up the stairs in her home. Motivated to make a difference, Lipo and Saeng joined APEN, where they found support for their fight against urban pollution. Lipo marvels, “APEN has a program for us poor people to fight”, mentioning that they had successfully urged five city council members to reject money from large corporations. The couple also learned about solar energy as a renewable and affordable option, which they thought was very “important to poor people like us”. From Lipo and Saeng’s story, we see how important environmental justice improves the well-being of working-class Asian communities.

Another community member, Pan Hai Bo, started organizing with APEN after experiencing the harmful effects of coal first-hand. He was a locomotive engineer in China for 50 years, where he saw railway workers suffer from coal dust exposure. He remarks that these railway workers started to cough uncontrollably when they were in their thirties, because they had breathed in the coal dust for such a long time. When he immigrated to Oakland in 1991, he was thrilled with the fresh air, but dismayed that a big developer was building a coal export facility in Oakland in 2015. Understanding the importance of protecting community health through the environment, Pan Hai Bo joined APEN to share his knowledge and experience with policy makers and APEN members. When community members like Pan Hai Bo join APEN to fight back against corporations, they fight for their communities’ futures and sow agency into their lives. AAWAA is also partnering with the Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour, led by community historians Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee. The Walking Tour brings four generations of South Asian American history to life through stories and visiting original sites. As community historians and activists, Ghosh and Chatterjee use the histories and stories of resistance to ground new activism. In their tours, they recognize how global elements of colonialism and climate injustice so often play out locally. Proceeds from these tours benefit groups like Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). One South Asian activist that the Walking Tour highlights is Varshini Prakash, the activist leading change for the Green New Deal. Prakash co-founded the Sunrise movement, a new generation of youth-led climate change movements that emerged out of the political system’s failure of addressing the climate crisis. A child of two South Indian immigrants, Prakash fell in love with social movements while attending college and emceeing a demonstration against fossil fuel infrastructure in western Massachusetts. Moved by the presence of a community that believed in the same future as Prakash did, they started the Sunrise movement that built a large vocal active base of public support for the Green New Deal. Prakash illustrates how Asian Americans can leverage their voices in environmental justice to push for active change instead of passive support. During the 2014 People’s Climate March, Ghosh and Chatterjee joined 150 members and 11 South Asian community groups in New York to protest climate change. According to Syed Rahman from the Bangladesh Environmental Network, greenhouse gas polluted by the United States and Europe has affected climate refugees of Bangladesh. Devika Ghai of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action also spoke up about how climate crisis was akin to colonialism, where “much of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon has been monopolized by a small group of industrialized nations, while residents of the most vulnerable communities around the world pay the price”. This large movement was testament to Asian American communities’ passion against climate change, and opens up greater possibilities for reform when environmental justice groups band together. To recognize the monumental work of these environmental justice leaders and more, AAWAA is seeking two artists to help with the following projects:

  1. A series of paintings documenting environmental justice activists in the Richmond Lao community, who have been involved in long-standing organizing against Chevron. For this show we’re requesting an artist from the community, in partnership with Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

  2. One drawing, painting or photograph representing South Asian environmental activists, in partnership with Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.

Take a look at our Call-for-Entries for the upcoming Sowing Agency exhibition linked here.

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