Student activism creates a new Start for Asian American Center

Ana Sofia Amieva-Wang, '19, poses for a portrait outside the Asian American Center on Apr. 25. Kenar Haratunian / The Tufts Daily

The labor and energies of student activists have been central to the Asian American Center, from its founding in 1983 after racist slurs were used against residents of the Asian American House, to its expansion into the entirety of the Start House that will take effect in the fall. Yet the work to make the Asian American Center a more accessible and community-centered space is far from complete, according to students and administrators who have been involved in this movement.

Rising senior Ana Sofía Amieva-Wang has been at the forefront of the effort to relocate the Asian American House so that the Asian American Center is no longer confined to a single office within a residential building, together with rising seniors Charlie Zhen and Jacqueline Chen, as well as rising junior Shannon Lee. Amieva-Wang, who is a student intern at the center, emphasized that the work that she and other students have put in builds on a greater history of student activism on campus.

The center was created out of student protests in the ’80s after what was essentially a hate crime, and students mobilized around that and demanded a center. From the fact that most of the [Group of Five] centers were also created out of resistance, I do think that it takes community resistance, activism, student voices to bring about these changes,” she said.

Chen, former Asian American Community Senator in 2016–17 and incoming TCU President, shared that a shift in focus and goals allowed the students to achieve the changes that they wanted to see in the center.

“Before, the approach has been that the beds need to stay and there needs to be a locked door so that it separates the residents from the Asian American Center, but since that was structurally impossible in the building, that’s where efforts stopped to make the space more accessible, because it felt like we needed to prioritize the residents. The change that happened this year was that we need to prioritize the community space and take the residents out so that more people can have access to the community space,” Chen said.

Zhen, former Asian American community senator in 2017–18, noted that the changes to the Asian American Center have come about at a time when other communities on campus have also fought for their physical spaces to be improved.

“It was a time when a lot of things were in the works, with discussions about the [F1rst] Center, improvements to the Africana Center basement and sink, Bolles House renovations for the Latino and LGBT centers. So it came about in a moment where I think a lot of students were willing to think about the spaces that they occupied, and the spaces that they wanted to see,” he said.

A success brings greater challenges

According to a Feb. 1 Daily article, in the fall, the Asian American House will be in the 110s suite in Hillside Apartments, and the Start House will be a space devoted in its entirety to the Asian American Center. Zhen explained that the plans for the center include lounges, classrooms, study spaces and meeting spaces for Asian and Asian-American campus groups.

“We’re going to see a class being held there soon … It’s going to be a class revolving around some Asian or Asian-American identity. It’s a chance for Asian and Asian-American students to have a space on campus dedicated to them, that works for them and that can be further improved. It means a space for community building, it means a space for just hanging out,” he said.

After the decision to move the Asian American House was made, the student activists have been working to develop a plan for what the newly expanded physical space of the Asian American Center will look like.

“We started this semester off trying to go to different clubs and hold open meetings to talk about how the community envisions this space being used. I think that one of the goals was to have programming that is accessible and is also meaningful to students,” Amieva-Wang said.

Amieva-Wang shared that with the center’s history of being inaccessible and unwelcoming to students, it took extra effort on the group’s part to engage with Asian and Asian-American students on what they envision for the center’s space.

“Because it has historically been locked and inaccessible for a number of reasons, and because students have not found a sense of community here, even bringing people to the table was hard. It took going to different clubs and we had great meetings — community meetings in which students voiced wanting to have these conversations about how they would use the center within their own spaces, rather than just having open community meetings,” she said.

This group of student activists have also run into difficulties with finding funding to furnish the center.

“We’re trying to figure out how to furnish it in a way that makes it homey, that makes it a place that is comforting and welcoming to people, and that meets the needs of what people have expressed to us that they want in the center,” Zhen said. “We are seeing where the university wants to go in terms of how they want to furnish it and how they want to pay for this.”

According to the students, administrators have been unclear about the budget that will be allocated for refurbishing the Asian American Center, leaving the Asian American Center’s Director Linell Yugawa and student interns like Amieva-Wang to do a lot of work fundraising and building an alumni network, in collaboration with the Office of Alumni Relations.

“The center is in a hard place. This is sort of what we’ve been left to do. It’s not Linell, or the Center, or the interns are choosing not to do programming, but that there is no alternative source of funding for the Center. This fundraising work needs to be done,” Amieva-Wang said.

Amieva-Wang added that despite the additional work, it is extremely valuable for the Center to build good relations with Asian and Asian-American alumni who can support the center in any way, shape or form, including through an open house of the Asian American Center that was held on Saturday.

“We’ve reached out to alumni since we started with the petition, just because we wanted their support, and they’re obviously an important voice. There are specific alumni who reached out to Linell, who Linell is in contact with, who have been really helpful in terms of volunteering to sit in on an alumni group,” she said.

Associate Dean of Student Affairs Christopher Rossi said that some of the concerns over refurbishing stem from the administrators’ and students’ collective decision to relocate the Asian American House starting this, rather than next, fall.

“Part of what the concern has been is that we are building the plane as we’re flying. That was an intentional choice with the students who were asking for the switch,” Rossi said. “We had two options: Start this immediately in September and move the housing into an Hillsides apartment, or wait a year, take a longer process for planning — but that would be another year of continuing the set-up that students largely weren’t in favor of.”

Rossi added that with so many spaces within the Start House and a narrow window of time over the summer for refurbishing, the focus now is on prioritizing the spaces that students deem to need immediate attention.

“What we are going to do is allow students to make choices between what receives investment in the space and what can wait. It’s just because there are so many spaces within Start House that are now changing use — doing it all at once on such a short timeline would be very difficult. But that was something we — not just Student Affairs, but the students as well — all knew going in. It was a pretty intentional choice and one that I agree with,” he said.

Amieva-Wang also expressed her fear that the relocation of the Asian American House would mean the removal of all existing furniture that belongs to the Office of Residential Life and Learning. In response, Rossi clarified that students and staff involved with the Asian American Center will be consulted on whether or not the existing furniture in the space is appropriate for the needs of the community, with a view towards purchasing additional furniture as needed.

“I’m asking [Residential Facilities Manager] Daniela Sousa to pull everything that could work in the center space into a list for student consideration, for Linell to look at. We are going to be putting more stuff in there, with the understanding that eventually, we’re going to be slowly purchasing more stuff that’s not in our existing stock that’s going to be a good use for the space. The Residential Life stuff isn’t going away, and the Residential Life stuff is going to be giving people more options from what we already own,” he said.

Rossi also addressed students’ concerns that repurposing existing furniture reflects a lack of institutional investment in the Asian-American community.

“Because we have to provide so much furniture for that space, for a period of time it’s possible that we are going to use stuff that we already own. But … as we purchase furniture for this place, and as we increase investment, students are going to have a role in selecting what that is,” he said.

Amieva-Wang shared that the additional fundraising work that she and other student interns have taken on has detracted from the core purpose of the center: to build Asian-American community. She called on the university to find more sustainable funding for the Asian American Center.

“Something that’s come up a lot is which students … and what offices on campus end up doing these kinds of labor,” Amieva-Wang said. “Any time spent fundraising could have also been spent creating programs for students and figuring out how to better support students. I hope that this is a temporary situation, because these centers are always going to need funding, and I think there needs to be a better way to support them.”

Moving forward with community building

Earlier this semester on April 19, the Asian American Center hosted an event to celebrate a “new chapter.” Approximately 50 students, faculty and administrators were in attendance, including Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser.

At the event, Chen shared with the Daily that the changes to the Center are part of a broader conversation about spatial inequity on campus.

“I think what we saw from the Student Life [Review] Committee report that was released after what happened with Greek life last semester was that students on campus are really looking for spaces, where they can build community with each other and just have spaces to just hang out,” Chen said. “I think the Asian American Center [has] so much potential to become a really wonderful space for Asian-American students because of its central location on campus … and I think that those types of spaces are things that we really need on campus.”

Zhen, who is a current resident of the Asian American House, said that the energy and enthusiasm that has been generated within the Asian-American community has spurred greater student interest in the house.

“We went from having a house that we could barely fill to having over 40 applicants to fill 10 spots in the suite in Hillsides. We have had a massive surge in interest and engagement with the center and with the house. Just because the housing is now moved to Hillsides doesn’t necessarily mean that they are separate entities,” he said.

Previously, residents of the Asian American House such as Zhen and graduating senior Katy Lee have organized community events and engaged with the broader Asian and Asian-American campus community in the physical space of the Start House. Zhen noted that the new residents will continue to engage with the community in that way, despite no longer being co-located with the center.

“We have a good mix of people who are involved with the center, and people who are not really involved in the center and just looking to explore this aspect of their identity and get involved with the center through the housing. We will see, through the housing, an engagement with a different group of people, a broader group of people of all years,” he said.

Rising junior and student intern at the Asian American Center Thao Ho shared her enthusiasm for the future of student activism within Asian and Asian-American community.

“This is a first step in having more student voices, especially on campus here, where the Asian, Asian-American community is so fragmented and it’s in pockets … It’s a first step in really reconnecting those communities together into one space,” Ho said. “Moving on, it’s important to remember that community is built through active agency, and that you can have this space, but if people don’t use this space, administration won’t see that there is a real need for it to begin with.”

Rossi expressed that administrators will continue to center the voices of students who are advocating for improvements to the Asian American Center, and he stressed that this year’s work was just the start.

“Whenever we talk about Start House, the Asian American Center, how this change came about and how it’s going to continue into the future, I want to make sure that we’re always centering student voices, because I would never want to … co-opt students’ work,” Rossi said. “We’re not going to hit Sept. 1 and go, ‘Okay, Start House is set.’ This is not how that works — you keep going and students are going to keep being involved. We have only completed the first couple of steps, and we’ve got a couple more to come.”

Amieva-Wang, through her work this year, has also found a community in her fellow student activists and in the Asian American Center.

“Looking for some sort of community and thinking about coming to the center and hearing people say, ‘it’s very unfriendly, nobody goes there,’ is one thing. And then to understand maybe why that is, or what has caused that, or affected that in some way and to be able to change that is really meaningful. The amount of alumni support and student support and support from the other directors and staff was like really incredible, and for me, it was very empowering to work with other students on this,” she said.

Arin Kerstein and Shantel Bartolome contributed reporting to this article.


COPYRIGHT 2018 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.