Intergenerational solidarity within the Asian-Canadian community
In September, Cultivating Growth and Solidarity was quietly released into the world. Created collaboratively by the UVic community, the 35-page digital zine is designed to give youth tools to understand and work against racism. Designed with Asian youth in mind, the zine condenses the heavy intellectual and pedagogical work of anti-racism academia into leaflets that have now been shared by neighbourhood associations and educators in Victoria and Vancouver.
Officially, the project was led by Assistant Professor Fred Chou, and funded by the UVic Faculty of Education’s COVID-19 Emergency Research Fund. The project is designed to support the mental health of individuals of Asian ancestry in Canada. But behind the finalized project lies a story of community resiliency and deeper change.
The zine is a reflection of the current climate. It does not shy away from pandemic-related anti-Asian racism, the Black Lives Matter uprisings of this summer, or the continued efforts of Indigenous land and water defenders to assert their rights and sovereignty. Hidden beneath the pages is a story of challenges overcome through intergenerational collaboration. Asian academics are nurturing a movement within the university system to foster awareness, reflection, healing, and solidarity against racism.
Facing anti-Asian racism
Qwisun Yoon-Potkins and Macalya Yan are the main authors of zine. Yan is currently studying counselling psychology at UVic as a graduate student, and Yoon-Potkins just recently finished her undergraduate sociology degree at UVic.
Jin-Sun Yoon is a senior faculty in UVic’s School of Child and Youth Care. Yoon helped supervise the zine along with Chou and found the project was a great way to meet like-minded people.
The pandemic has brought on an ugly re-emergence of anti-Asian racism. Yoon, along with many others of East Asian or perceived Asian descent, began facing an uptick in explicitly racist encounters. Yoon recalls one particularly violent incident, where a man blamed her for the pandemic, tried to spit in her face, and threatened to kill her.
Yoon was upset, but this wasn’t her first rodeo with racist old white men. But then she asked herself: if that’s what’s happening to me, what’s happening to my students? She soon found out that some international students in her community were too scared to even go outside. Some had never opened their blinds.
When Chou heard about this, he approached Yoon to build a team and create something to support the mental health of Asian youth.
Yoon spent 15 years as the only visibly racialized faculty member in her department, along with two Indigenous colleagues. As one of the first non-white faculty member in her department, she recalls her years of being tokenized and pushing the department for change. Now, half of her colleagues are BIPOC. “And I’m super proud of that,” said Yoon, who jokingly calls herself a snow plow that plows a path through whiteness. She uses her experience to support racialized early-career academics and students alike.
“I’ve been on this journey a long time,” said Yoon.
Yoon says her childhood experiences of Canada were foundational to where she is now. When she was five-and-a-half, Yoon stayed silent for six months, experiencing what she now knows as selective mutism, brought on by her sudden relocation from Korea to Canada.
When she spoke again, it was solely in flawless English. “Clearly, I had interpreted who gets rewarded,” said Yoon. “I very quickly learned … the pecking order, the racial hierarchy [of Canadian society].”
In the context of Canada, Asians, and particularly East Asians, currently hold substantial privilege compared to Black and Indigenous people, said Yoon-Potkins. The uneasy, often contentious relationships between Asian people, Indigenous people, and other racialized folks — imposed upon labels that erase the diversity within — is an enormous subject to tackle. For Yoon-Potkins, acknowledging these tensions is critical to this project’s success.
“The more we can understand our own ancestral roots and honour them, rather than swallowing the myth that we’re all somehow the same … I think we have a beautiful way of having that solidarity with our Black and Indigenous family,” said Yoon. “There has been loss all over the place, including so-called white people who don’t even know what their own culture means. They don’t know their own indigenous roots.”
“The zine’s intention is to mend some of the harm perpetuated towards and by Asian people,” said Yoon-Potkins.
Yoon-Potkins hopes that this zine empowers youth to build up their own communities by breaking down the barriers to knowledge.
“Academia seems exclusive. It seems like only people in higher education can access it. What we did with our project was make it accessible to everyone,” said Yoon-Potkins.
Prior to this experience, she had been dreading the prospect of grad school. But spending her summer in an intergenerational environment, where she worked with youth, senior academics, and peers has changed her perspective. She is now seeking further education at UBC.
While there wasn’t enough funding for the zine to be marketed professionally — as Chou and Yoon chose to properly compensate their research assistants — it has been shared informally through their personal networks.
The team isn’t in a rush. With the pandemic, Yoon recognizes that many people are doing what they can do instead of what they want to do. The information is out there. Wherever it takes root, solidarity will bloom.