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Replenishing the Ranks: Raising Critical Consciousness Among

Asian Americans
Keith Osajima

Journal of Asian American Studies, Volume 10, Number 1, February


2007, pp. 59-83 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2007.0006

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jaas/summary/v010/10.1osajima.html

Access provided by Johns Hopkins University (10 Oct 2013 20:10 GMT)

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Replenishing the Ranks


Raising Critical Consciousness Among Asian
Americans

keith osajima
Introduction

n the winter of 1968, Asian American students at San Francisco State


College, together with their Black, Chicano, and Native American
counterparts, embarked on the longest student strike in U.S. history with
the goal of transforming higher education. The students demanded an
open admissions policy to counter increasingly elitist admissions policies.
They demanded a College of Ethnic Studies to provide a relevant
education that critically examined the experiences of Third World people
within a context of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. They also insisted
on a curriculum that included their histories, cultures, heritages, and
contributions.1
As Glenn Omatsu notes, involvement in the strike deeply affected
Asian American consciousness.2 Students redefined racial and ethnic
identity, promoted new ways of thinking about communities, and challenged prevailing notions of power and authority.3 Under the emergent
pan-Asian banner of Yellow Power, this new identity and critical consciousness represented a rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and
symbolize(d) the birth of a new Asianone who will recognize and deal
with injustices.4
While the political conditions that gave rise to the Asian American
movement have largely faded under the weight of political conservatism
and backlash, the goals of Asian American activists have persisted. Indeed,
jaas february 2007 5983
the johns hopkins university press

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in the 35-plus years since their movements inception, Asian Americans


have made significant progress toward the goal of transforming higher
education. A new interdisciplinary field of knowledge has been established.
Asian American Studies has been institutionalized in programs and courses
across the country. The 2003 Cornell University Directory lists 50 Asian
American Studies Programs.5 Asian American student activism has played
a central role in the formation of many of these programs.
It is evident that young Asian Americans, like their 1960s counterparts,
have continued to develop an Asian American critical consciousness and
commitment to working for social change. What is less obvious is how
those Asian Americans develop such a critical consciousness. What leads
them to become interested in Asian American issues and activism?
Some answers can be found scattered in the literature. Autobiographies and biographies of Asian American activists offer one source
of information, often revealing how individuals arrived at their understanding of and commitment to political activity on behalf of Asian
Americans. Helen Zia, for example, in her book Asian American Dreams,
tells of how she went against the wishes of her Confucian father to go to
Princeton, where, in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s, she became an
Asian American activist.6
The literature on pedagogy in Asian American Studies offers indirect
insights into the process of consciousness-development by identifying key
teaching practices and course content that can help to change the minds of
students. Diane Fujinos chapter on integrating feminist pedagogy in Asian
American classrooms is a good example. She shows how experiential learning activities, combined with personal and academic-oriented reflection,
can help to move students toward an Asian American consciousness.7
Within the realm of social science research, the best discussion of
how Asian Americans develop a pan-Asian identity and consciousness
is in Nazli Kibrias Becoming Asian American.8 Based on interviews with
second-generation Chinese and Koreans, Kibrias study often found that
most respondents developed a pan-Asian consciousness in college, where
a notable individual or class had provided them with the decisive push.9
Involvement in pan-Asian campus organizations, in Ethnic Studies classes,
and in pan-Asian social groups was a significant influence for many.

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This article builds upon and extends the existing literature. Based on
interviews with 30 Asian Americans who professed a pan-Asian American
critical consciousness and commitment to social action, the article looks
specifically at the process by which these respondents developed their
interests, a process to which Brazilian educator Paulo Freire refers as conscientization.10 The central purpose is to identify key factors, conditions,
and processes that contribute to their critical consciousness. The article
begins with a description of the research methods and analytic strategies.
The main body of the article presents the analyses of the interviews. The
article concludes with a discussion of how the research findings can inform
those activists and educators who work to bring new generations of Asian
Americans into the movement to replenish the ranks.

The Study
The studys focus on the process of Asian American conscientization
emerged, somewhat serendipitously, from a larger interview study of Asian
Americans in higher education that began in 1988. Between 1988 and
1992, I conducted fifty-three in-depth interviews with Asian American
college students. The goal was to collect general life stories that explored
the issues of family, identity, education, and racism. In that first group of
respondents, twelve students described themselves as having a strong panAsian American identity. They were involved in Asian American Studies
or student activities on campus. Though conscientization was not part of
my original research focus, their stories sparked an interest that I pursued
more directly in a second wave of interviews.
In 1998, I set out to follow up my interest in learning more about the
process of conscientization. Unlike the first set of interviews, where the
sampling goal was to produce as diverse a pool of respondents as possible,
in the second wave of interviews I was more purposeful in the development
of interview subjects.11 Interested in interviewing Asian Americans who
were actively involved in pan-Asian American activities, I identified several
respondents through contacts with Asian American cultural and resource
centers on college campuses in Southern California. Other subjects were
found through a snowball sampling method, where interviewees put me

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into contact with other people across the country whom they knew to be
involved in Asian American activism. A total of eighteen interviews were
conducted between 1998 and 2002.
Bringing the two sets of interviews together yields a sample of 30 Asian
Americans, representing a wide range of constituencies and involvement
in Asian American activities. A table presenting demographic characteristics of all respondents appears in the Appendix. Of the 30 respondents,
17 were female. There were 9 Koreans, 6 Chinese, 5 Japanese, 3 Filipinos,
1 Indian, and 3 respondents of mixed-heritage. Eight of the interviewees
were second-generation, born to immigrant parents. Six were born outside of the United States, and all had immigrated before the age of six.
Three were either third- or fourth-generation, and one had parents from
different generations.
The respondents were active in a number of Asian American related
activities, and were often involved in multiple activities. 12 All had taken
at least one Asian American Studies course. Four had majored in Asian
American Studies, and one had minored in the field. Five were in or had
completed a graduate program in Asian American Studies, or in another
discipline with a primary focus on Asian Americans. Seven respondents
were involved or worked in offices that provided social, cultural, and political programming on Asian American issues. Eighteen of the thirty were
involved in Asian American student organizations. Two had participated
in statewide or regional Asian American groups. Four respondents had
worked in an Asian American community-based organization.
Interviews with respondents lasted between one and three hours. I followed what Norman Denzin calls a nonstructured, scheduled interview
format.13 This method facilitates comparability across cases by defining
common areas of inquiry, but does not impose a fixed order to the questioning which may restrict responses. In each interview, general areas of
education, family, and race and racism were covered. When references
to conscientization surfaced in the interviews, follow-up questions were
asked to elicit more detailed information.
The overarching purpose of the study shaped the data analysis strategy. My goal was to understand the process by which respondents had
developed their critical consciousness. I wanted to identify the conditions,
influences, processes, and experiences that had contributed to conscienti-

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zation. This objective meant taking an inductive approach to the analysis of


interviews, which allows important analytic dimensions to emerge from
patterns found in the cases without presupposing in advance what the
important dimensions will be.14 Interview transcripts were first analyzed
individually, paying close attention to those passages where respondents
described how their critical consciousness had developed. Then, interviews
were analyzed across cases, developing codes and categories that captured
patterns and themes grounded in the data.15 What follows is an analysis of
the process of conscientization as it emerged from the interviews.16

Conscientization as a Transformative Possibility


For the vast majority of respondents, developing an Asian American
critical consciousness involved a process that was transformative, where
knowledge of and commitment to Asian American concerns represented
a significant change from earlier views they had held in their lives. Most
had paid little attention of being Asian or to racism against Asians while
growing up. With the exception of two respondents, all were first-generation Asian American activists, in that they were the first in their family
to develop a critical awareness of issues.
David Chan,17 for example, had grown up in a predominantly white
neighborhood in Southern California. He had thought of himself as an
ultra-American while growing up. In high school, he had clowned
around, done drugs, dropped out, and dove heavily into the graffiti art
scene. After a less than illustrious academic start, David had found his way
to a community college, then to a university, and had ended up getting a
masters degree in Asian American Studies.
Margaret Eu also had grown up in Southern California, in a traditional
middle-class household where her Korean immigrant father worked in
various entrepreneurial enterprises while her mother stayed home to raise
the children. Through the seventh grade, the most significant influence
in Margarets life had been the Christian church. Later, she had been a
super-active high school student, involved in activities like cheerleading,
student government, mock trial, and drama. She had gone to college with
little awareness of Asian American issues. She now has a masters degree in
student development and is working in Asian American student affairs.

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Pearl Cruz, raised in affluent Marin County, California, described


herself as mega-apolitical and very, very, very apathetic while growing
up. She had been very into my own little Marin lifestyle. She had gone to
a private elementary school and later to a private high school. Pearl had
attended an Ivy League university for two years, where she got involved
in feminist student activities, and then had transferred to the University
of California where she majored in Asian American Studies.
Raj Kapur was born and raised in the Washington D.C. area. Growing
up, Raj described himself as shy and quiet. In high school, he had felt that
he had a real low self-esteem problem at the time, so that kind of caused
some degree of low achievement. He was not active in extra-curricular
activities and pretty much stayed to himself. In college, Raj had become
actively involved in Asian American student organizations and was one of
the most articulate and outspoken members of the community.
The fact that these young Asian Americans, from widely varying
class, geographic, political, and ethnic backgrounds, could find their
way to Asian American activism speaks to the real possibility that young
people can become critically conscious and politically active. Their active
involvement is especially noteworthy given the post-Civil Rights climate
that surrounds them, where the political momentum has shifted to the
right and hopes for student activism are often drowned in a sea of apathy
or hopelessness. These Asian Americans had gone against the grain and
had become politically involved. They had realized what Cornell West
calls the politics of conversion, where the tendency toward nihilism is
countered by a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the
future and a meaning to struggle.18 So, what had happened to change
and shape their views? What had contributed to the development of their
critical consciousness? Analysis of the interviews reveals common patterns
of factors and conditions that contribute to the development of an Asian
American critical consciousness.

The Importance of a Meaningful Education


In talking about how they had become interested in Asian American issues,
respondents invariably pointed to moments when new information and
perspectives profoundly affected their thinking by helping them to see how

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their lives, as Asian Americans, were shaped by larger historical and social
forces. In this way, the information had carried significant meaning and
relevance, helping them to understand their lives in new ways.
For Brian Kim, for example, conscientization had begun in an Asian
American history course. It really changed my view on how this society
works and where we fit in. He said, I just never thought of what our history is here or what my, say our ancestors came here for, the first generation. I just never knew. That first class had inspired Brian to switch out
of his pre-med studies and declare a major in Asian American Studies.
Echoing Cornell Wests notion of conversion, Brian says, So thats where
I am now. So you see Im a converted Asian.
An Asian American psychology class had exerted a transformative
impact on Margaret Eus thinking. Information about the Asian American
experience was meaningful because it had helped her to make sense of
experiences in her life and family. It had offered language and concepts
that explained why and how racism and sexism operated:
That was the first time that academically I was reading something that
was so relevant to my experience and my identity. . . .[E]verything made
so much sense. It was like somebody was explaining my life history, my
life pattern on paper, and in theory and in literature.19

David Tan echoes Margarets comments. Like many of his peers, David
Tan had not been interested in political activism when he graduated from
high school. He was all about having fun. When he had entered college,
he said, I was paying attention more to the women than to the professors.
But, information in an Asian American Studies class had resonated deeply
with David; his professor had offered insights that not only helped him to
understand his life experiences, but also inspired him to learn more:
He went into the issues of family relations, generational conflicts, the
model minority, anti-Asian violence. Just everything that happened in
my life, he explained it. Thats when I realized, this is what I want to do.
I need to learn more.20

While formal Asian American courses had played pivotal roles in


conscientization, the classroom was not the only place where respondents
had been exposed to life-altering perspectives and information. David
Tans critical consciousness had deepened through his participation in a

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student group. The group had showed the movie, Who Killed Vincent
Chin, about the 1982 slaying of a Chinese American man by two unemployed, white auto workers. It had struck a deep nerve. As David had
watched Vincent Chins mother fight to win justice for her son, David had
thought of his grandmother and the struggles she faced as an immigrant,
non-English-speaker woman. Here, the content of the movie and articles
had intersected with Davids life and led him to make new connections:
Thats an example of that sort of connection, of seeing things and
knowing how race played a part and seeing how those kinds of elements
played itself out in my life and my familys life, especially for my
grandmother.21

Pearl Cruz had begun to change when a friend invited her to attend a
meeting to organize a campus protest. Watching and listening to powerful
and articulate women of color speak out about racism and sexism had
inspired Pearl:
I went home that summer and devoured every piece of feminist literature
I could get my hands on. So Im just sitting there reading like a maniac
all summer long, just digesting what had happened that year. . . . It was
really something, it hit me all at once.22

Ryan Suzukis interest in issues of oppression had first been piqued


in diversity training workshops he took as a resident advisor. Later, in
graduate school, a key mentor, Ricardo Munoz, had helped Ryan to develop
his conceptual and analytic understanding. Munoz had pushed Ryan to
do more reading about the systematic nature of oppression in the United
States. Ryan describes Munozs influence as follows:
He really put a much more intellectual analysis to things. . . . It was
more about the systematic things that were going on, about changing
structures, about resources, those kinds of things, rather than just that
a person needs to be sensitized.23

In these cases, we begin to see more precisely what it means to have


a relevant and meaningful education. For Joe, Ryan, and David, conscientization meant being able to see themselves in larger social structural
contexts, not simply as individuals but as people whose lives intersect with
and are shaped by race and racism.

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For Brian, information about the history of Asian Americans had


prompted critical reflections on two levels. First, because he had never
known about the history of Asian Americans, the class had given him new
information that had helped him to understand his family history. Second,
it had led him to critically reflect upon his previous education. He questioned why he hadnt learned any of this before? Why was his experience
absent from U.S. history courses? This process had led him to think more
critically about the racism embedded in his educational experiences.
Margaret had experienced a similar reaction. She had realized that
her education had only taught her about European American history,
prompting her to ask, how many students were out there who never
would take this class. . . and would never really know more than one version of history? Her Asian American courses had provided the analytic
tools and language needed to see the reason and logic of racism, sexism,
and heterosexism.
Conscientization for these respondents meant being able to name
their world. That is, a meaningful education had helped them to recognize and understand the impact that societal conditions and forces of
oppression have on their lives and the lives of others. As Freire writes,
the process of conscientization, or education for critical consciousness,
involves a constant clarification of what remains hidden within us while
we move about in the world, and it provokes recognition of the world,
not as a given world, but as a world dynamically in the making.24 Such
recognition often inspires people to work against that oppression, thus
beginning their active efforts to transform the world.25 Naming the world
was an important step toward actively changing it.

Conscientization as Social Process - Breaking Isolation


While the respondents identified relevant information as a key to their
development, exposure to information on racism and Asian Americans
is not the only element of an education for critical consciousness. The
interviews reveal that conscientization is a social process, where connections, support and encouragement from others play a critical facilitative
role. For many respondents, the development of their critical consciousness had not happened in isolation, working or studying on their own.

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Instead, relationships with other people had contributed to their growth


in a variety of ways.
First, contact and conversation with others had helped respondents
to break a sense of isolation in their lives. The chance to talk to other
Asians about their lives and experiences with discrimination had helped
respondents to see that their individual experiences were not unique. As
they had seen similarities and patterns, it was easier for them to see how
broader forces, like racism, shaped their individual lives. Their descriptions of this process were quite consistent and similar.
Joe Yamamoto, a third-generation Japanese American, had grown up
in central California. In high school, Joe had liked to party and had come
close to not graduating. After working a series of jobs, he had decided to
head back into school, first at a community college and then at a University
of California campus, to pursue his interest in math. Joe had not identified
as a Japanese American. He had been aware that things happened to him,
perhaps because he was Japanese, but did not make any connections to
racial discrimination.
At the University of California, Joe had enrolled in an Asian American
Studies course, mainly because it fulfilled a general education requirement. During the class, interactions with fellow Asian students, along with
information on racism against Asians in the United States, had led Joe
to realize, for the first time, that he was treated differently because of his
race. Describing an in-class interactive activity where students were put
in pairs and asked to interview each other about their lives, Joe articulated
this process of self-discovery:
We found a lot of similarities between ourselves. . . . That was the first
time I got a chance to hear other people say the exact same things that
I had gone through. . . its because Im Asian, because Im Japanese that
I run into different kinds of experiences than my Caucasian friends do.
And its because of my race. Its not because I wear blue jeans or anything
else, its because of how I look.26

Pearl Cruzs understanding of Asian American womens issues had


been formed largely in conversation with other women in an Asian
American Studies class:

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It was like therapy, group therapy to sit around and swap stories
about when I was growing up. So that was great, sharing things that
everybody had experienced and thought they were the only ones who
had experienced.27

Soon Park had developed a stronger understanding of racism through


her interactions with others in an Asian American student organization. I
asked her what it was about being in the student group or being in classes
that had helped her to develop a commitment to working in the Asian
American community, Soon offered the following response:
I think more understanding how other Asians have the same experiences
as I do, and Im not the only one. I remember going to one of my first
meetings and theres maybe 10 people, and it was more like a rap session.
I remember people talking about their experiences about racism, what
happened to them and thinking thats really awful. I cant believe thats
happened to that person and thinking all these things happened to me.
Were all in the situation where we all share this common kind of pain
and experience.28

In the context of American society, it is understandable how breaking


through the sense of isolation can facilitate the development of critical
consciousness. Isolation is closely tied to the powerful ideological emphasis
on individualism in the United States. Andrew Barlow notes that Americans are told that their well-being is up to them, that people must fend for
themselves as far as their personal welfare is concerned.29 A consequence
of growing up with this view is implicit in the interviews. Respondents had
interpreted their experiences, good and bad, through individual lenses,
as events that happened, in isolation, only to them. Through interactions
with other Asian Americans, they had realized they were not alone, that
others had similar family and cultural experiences, and experiences with
racial discrimination. This discovery had led them to question their individualistic interpretations and had opened the possibility that their lives
could be understood as part of an Asian American experience.

Non-Judgmental Support
Connections with others not only helped respondents to break through
isolation, but also provided important support for conscientization.

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Supportive non-judgmental relationships with friends, mentors, and


professors had played a critical role in facilitating conscientization. They
had minimized risks and had given respondents permission to try on new
ideas and identities. The chance to talk openly with someone who listened
and communicated that they understood the stories had been vital for
respondents. With support, they had been able to raise questions, express
doubts, and process information they received.
Cheryl Hamada, for example, had thrived in an Asian Pacific Islander
student group. The chance to open up with others, and to have others open
up to her, had created a safe environment that had a powerful effect:
They were willing to talk to you, listen to you, give you advice, listen to
your problems. That really appealed to me. I could express my opinions
and actually get out my frustration there. I like the group cause I can
talk to them, where if I talk to my roommate, its not the same. Shes
really understanding, but she doesnt understand.30

For Gloria Park, living on an all-female, Asian Pacific Islander floor


in a residence hall had provided a supportive environment that allowed
her to get close with other Asians and explore the new ideas she often
developed in classes:
I wouldnt worry about keeping kim chee in my refrigerator, the smell
of garlic in the halls. I spent a lot of time with the RA and another close
friend of mine. Eating rice, kim chee and cuttle fish and just talking about
the issues and what were seeing and that kind of thing.31

Steffi Castro had found that an open, non-judgmental environment


in a Filipino student group was the most important factor in her conscientization. Steffi had taken an Asian American studies course, but was
turned off by what she had perceived to be close-mindedness among her
fellow Asian students. She had felt that her classmates were rigidly antiwhite and saw all Asians as victims. They would be impatient or critical
of anyone raising other perspectives. In this context, Steffi had not spoken
out and had not been open to the course material.
The Filipino student group was much more open and had allowed
Steffi to learn on her own terms and at her own pace:
They didnt force me to be like them . . . Thats what I valued was that they
didnt pressure me. They didnt pressure me into what I didnt want to
do. I think that is important. Really letting a person grow and learn.32

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Soon Park talked of her conscientization in similar ways. She described


herself as a very quiet student, as someone who had felt uncomfortable
and terrified speaking in class. With support from her peers in an Asian
American student group, however, Soon had broken through this silence
and actually participated on a panel of speakers during Asian Pacific
Islander Week events. When I asked how she was able to speak in a large
public setting, Soon echoed Steffi Castros experience. The fact that she
was not forced to speak, but was given a choice to make the decision on
her own, had proved to be empowering:
I think one of the things, in terms of my own personal experiences
about breaking silence is not being forced to, but being given a choice.
I think thats what is needed to be given a choice. In API week, I was
given a choice whether to be a panelist and because I knew that I had
that choice, I knew that I didnt have to. . . . Having encouragement, a
lot of people encouraged me.33

In looking over the impact that supportive relations had exerted


on the development of critical consciousness, two points are worth emphasizing. First, support took a variety of forms but shared a common
effecthelping people to feel enthusiastic, interested, and excited about
learning, and to feel willing to take some risks to explore new identities
and ideas. Conscientization, then, has an intellectual, cognitive element
and an affective one as well, forged largely in social settings.
Second, the support that respondents received had helped them to
feel connected to a larger community of people. This sense of belonging
affirms Kenyon Changs call for a broader conceptualization of community. Moving beyond a notion of community as a geographical site, where
concentrations of Asians reside, Chan argues that colleges and universities
should be considered an important site for community, since for many
Asian Americans the college campus is the first opportunity for them to
interact with large numbers of Asian Americans.34

Combining ElementsPraxis and Conscientization


To this point, for analytic clarity key factors contributing to conscientization have been discussed one at a time. In actuality, however, critical
consciousness often had not arisen though a single course, person, or event.

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Instead, several interlocking and reinforcing influences had combined


over time to shape respondents thinking and development. Reviewing
respondents experiences holistically reveals that conscientization had
emerged when cognitive information about oppression and the Asian
American experience combined with positive support to spark an interest
in learning. The information and experiences had led respondents to reflect
upon their lives and consider new explanatory perspectives. As students
understanding developed, a corresponding interest in taking action on
behalf of Asian Americans had ensued. These actions had deepened their
knowledge, had widened connections, and had given them new experiences
from which to reflect and learn. Conscientization, then, was an iterative
process combining new knowledge and perspectives, social action or
practice, and reflection, what Freire calls praxis.
An overview of respondents stories of conscientization illustrates
how the iterative process unfolds. Rather than a single linear formula for
conscientization, the respondents combined key elements in a variety of
ways. For example, Pearl Cruzs critical consciousness was first sparked
by her involvement in protest actions against sexism, which inspired her
to read about feminism. Her interest in feminism led her to an Asian
American womens class, which fostered her interest in anti-racism. Similar
elements combined to help David Tans development, but took place in a
different order. His initial interest in Asian American issues was sparked
by an influential professor and by his involvement in a student organization. Later, his commitment to activism was deepened when he helped to
organize statewide protests against budget cuts in higher education.
Ryan Suzukis early understanding of oppression was developed as a
resident assistant. He then formed a student organization that provided
diversity training in residence halls and for student groups. Seeing the
positive impact of this work, Ryan pursued a graduate degree in student
affairs. There, he struggled with racism in the graduate program and
in the residence halls where he worked. Meeting Ricardo Munoz was a
pivotal moment. Munoz offered Ryan an internship in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and moved him in new directions. Ryan admitted that
as an undergraduate he did not put much effort into course work or into
developing a strong analysis of issues. Munoz pushed Ryan to do more

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reading. He also encouraged him to learn more about Asian American


experiences. Like Gloria, Ryans description of his development illustrates
the elements of praxis:
So it was happening at once, the analysis, and seeing it all played out at
the university. And then having the position where I had to respond to
it. It was Freire at its finest. You know, it was intellectual and practical,
and all that at the same time.35

Jennie Fongs story follows the common line of her peers. The one
distinguishing feature of Jennies conscientization is that it had happened
in a setting relatively devoid of Asians. Jennie had grown up in the Midwest in predominantly white neighborhoods. She had attended to a large
state university in the Midwest, where there were few Asian students and
no established Asian American Studies courses. A decision to live in an
alternative living-learning residence hall had been fortuitous. One of the
experimental courses offered in connection with the residence hall was on
Asian Americans. Jennie had done some important learning in this class.
Later, the Midwest Asian American Student Union had held a conference
on another campus, which Jennie attended. Contact with other Asian
American student activists was inspiring, and Jennie had returned to her
campus and helped to develop events for Asian American Heritage Month.
Later, she had become a resident advisor on a multi-racial womens hall,
an experience which had helped to broaden her understanding of race
relations. All of these activities had led Jennie to alter her goals, shifting
away from an interest in medicine to a pursuit of graduate degrees in
Asian American Studies and history.
Gloria Parks critical consciousness had first been sparked on her
Asian womens residence floor. An introductory course on feminism
had generated a profound impact on her. In that course she had written
poems and stories about her family, which had enabled her to make a
connection between the materials and issues in class, with the larger perspective of whats going on with the world or in my life. She later helped
to put on events for the Asian Pacific Heritage month, which honed her
organizing skills.
Gloria captures the interlocking, iterative process of conscientization
that applies to many of her peers in the following quote:

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Yeah, the whole holistic education thing. I had the classes to contextualize
real life. I had the living environment that was supportive, and then I
became active in an Asian Pacific Islander student group that gave me
the space to empower myself and to feel like I could do something about
what I was learning. From there it just snowballed. I became active in
a statewide student group and got involved in on-campus organizing
and programming.36

Conclusion and Implications


Given the profound change that conscientization had effected in the lives
of respondents, it is not surprising that many of them wanted to be in positions where they could help to create for others the educational experiences
that were so meaningful to them. They took leadership positions in student
organizations; they helped to organize and put on educational programs;
they worked in community organizations; they pursued graduate studies; and they took positions in student affairs to work closely with new
cohorts of Asian American students. Pamela Kim, who wanted to become
a professor of Asian American studies, best expresses their desire:
One of the reasons why I want to be a professor of Asian American
Studies is because I want to help these kids who are going through the
same things that I did. I want to help them figure things out, to help
educate them about these issues because I had no idea about them while
I was growing up. I could see what these kids are all going through in
college, and it helps to be where you can pop those bubbles that they
have around themselves.37

As they go about the task of trying to replenish the ranks by raising


critical consciousness amongst new groups of Asians, a number of lessons learned from their collective experiences may provide helpful guides.
From the interviews, we can identify critical elements that contribute to
conscientization. While these elements do not guarantee that conscientization will follow, incorporating them into ones practice may enhance
the possibility that efforts will be successful.
First, respondents described the importance of obtaining information
and conceptual tools that helped them to cognitively understand how
their lives and the lives of others are shaped by larger historical and social-

Replenishing the Ranks

osajima

structural forces. An Asian American Studies course on a college campus


was the most common source of relevant information, but as we have seen
exposure can take place in many venues. People can learn from reading on
their own, from student groups, and from multimedia sources.
Second, breaking through isolation and interrupting the tendency
to explain their life experiences solely in individual terms reflects a social
dimension to conscientization. Contact and conversation with other Asian
Americans was often the most effective way to help respondents make connections between their lives, the experiences of others, and information
on the Asian American experience. Connections to key mentors and peers
provided a safe environment in which to think and question further.
Third, respondents described important affective aspects of conscientization. When respondents talked about important moments in their
education or key social support that made a difference, invariably they
referred to how they felt about these experiences. They were angered by
the realization that their schooling had not taught them about racism or
the Asian American experience. They felt inspired by the experiences of
other Asian Americans who struggled to overcome harsh conditions. They
were excited to learn more.
Fourth, respondents commitment to Asian American issues was
deepened when they transformed understanding into action. Involvement in protests, organizing, programming, teaching, and research gave
respondents a chance to extend their knowledge and learn from efforts
to make change.
Finally, the study indicates that conscientization occurs when the
discrete elements work in combination. No respondent described his or
her conscientization in terms of a single element. It was not a purely intellectual or cognitive experience in a classroom, absent of social or affective
elements. Nor was it a purely social or affective experience without information and conceptual tools. Instead, respondents described multifaceted
and interrelated experiences that reinforced each other, inspiring further
thinking and commitment to action.
For activists seeking to raise the critical consciousness of Asian
Americans, the studys findings carry implications for practice. For some,
combining elements in a single venue, like an introductory course or a

75

76

JAAS

10:1

training program, will be the main focus. In these cases, the study suggests
that the course or program should offer substantive content and concepts
to lay the cognitive foundation needed for people to see themselves in
relation to the world. It also should include social activities to break isolation and opportunities for people to share stories with each other in a
non-judgmental, safe environment.
On a broader level, the study suggests that there is a value in and need
to offer a range of experiences across campus and community to increase
the likelihood that students will combine, on their own, elements that
contribute to conscientization. Pressure to have one person, course, or
program that single-handedly transforms students lives subsides when we
recognize that the interrelated process of conscientization benefits from
contributions across diverse segments of the community.
The importance of combining influences also casts new light on how
different parts of the campus and community can work collaboratively
to raise critical consciousness. Breaking from binary constructions that
often pit academic programs against student life activities, or divide
academe from community, the study shows how conscientization arises
when people are exposed to and combine lessons learned from a variety
of sources. This process implies that increased appreciation for the work
done across campus and community, along with greater coordination of
influences, is an important dimension of conscientization.

Ethnicity

Parents Occupation
(where known)
F Father
M - Mother

Where Raised

Asian
American
Involvement

2nd gen
Filipino

F- Military

5 Paul Wu
3rd gen
Chinese
F Engineer
San Jose area AA studies

M teacher
courses
AA student

group

4 Lisa Veracruz
age 1
Filipino
F- Merchant Marine S.F. Bay Area AA student

M - CPA
group

Filipino
Student

group


M - clerical S.F Area AA minor
AA student

group

3 Steffi Castro

2 Pearl Cruz
2nd gen
Filipino
F - Architect S.F Area AA Major
AA womens

group

1
Brian Kim
age 6 Korean Small Business San Francisco AA Major

owners Area

U.S. Born/
Generation

Born Outside
U.S. Age
at Arrival

Pseudonym

APPENDIX: Characteristics of Respondents

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77

Ethnicity

Parents Occupation
(where known)
F Father
M - Mother

Where Raised

Asian
American
Involvement

F- 3rd gen Korean


F Housing Inspector LA area AA student
M- 2nd gen
group

12 William Kim
age 3 Korean Small business
Michigan AA student

group

Regional AA

student

group

11 James Woo Hong Kong


Chinese
F Janitor S.F. Area AA student

age 6
M - seamstress
group

Chinatown

community

group

10 Soon Park
age 1 Korean
F Chef Hawaii, AA student
San Jose area
group

9
Julie Pak

8
Rose Lee
age 1 Korean
F- Minister S.F area AA student

group

JAAS

7 Cheryl Hamada
4th gen
Japanese
F engineer S.F. area AA student

group

6 Joe Yamamoto
3rd gen
Japanese
F farmer
CA central valley AA Studies

major

U.S. Born/
Generation

Born Outside
U.S. Age
at Arrival

Pseudonym

78
10:1

2nd gen
Filipino

Unknown So. Calif. AA student

osajima

19 Frank Lim
F 1st gen
F Chinese
F Sales So. Calif AA grad

M 3rd gen
M - Japanese
M Teacher
program
AA com
munity org

18 Roger Mendoza
2nd gen
Filipino
Unknown So. Calif. AA resource

center
Student

government

17 Scott Kato
4th gen
Japanese
Unknown Hawaii AA resource

center

Chinese Small Family business So. Calif. AA resource


16 Julie Woo
2nd gen

center
AA student

group

Student government

15 Kathy Rodriguez
programming office

14 Stacy Nakano
4th gen
Japanese
F Insurance LA AA grad

program
AA com
munity org

Filipino
F Postal Worker S.F. Area AA student
13 Paul Espinoza
2nd

org

Multi-racial

mens org

Second Interview Wave 1998-2002

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79

Ethnicity

Parents Occupation
(where known)
F Father
M - Mother

Where Raised

Asian
American
Involvement

24 Ryan Suzuki
4th gen
Japanese
F teacher So. Calif AA resource

center

23 Pam Kim
2nd gen Korean
F Small Business So. Calif. AA grad

program,
AA com
munity org

22 Gloria Park
age 2 Korean
F Small Business L.A. AA student

org
AA program
ming

JAAS

21 Jennie Fong
2nd gen
Chinese
F Professor Indiana AA grad

program,
AA student

org
AA regional

student org

20 Margaret Eu
age 6 Korea
F Small business So. Calif. AA major, AA

student

affairs

U.S. Born/
Generation

Born Outside
U.S. Age
at Arrival

Pseudonym

80
10:1


osajima

30 Karen Shin Hong Kong


Chinese
F Professional So. Calif. AA student

age 6
group, AA

legal org

29 Kevin Man
2nd gen
Burmese
F Janitor S.F. area AA leader
Chinese
M data entry
ship

program,
AA student

group

28 Kristin Oh
age 5 Korean
F Small Business
Oregon AA student

group,
Korean

student

group

27 Raj Kapur
age 2 Indian
F Professor
Wash. D.C. AA student

org
AA student

programming

26 Thuy Vo
age 3
Vietnamese
F security guard
Florida Grad

Chinese
M technician So. Calif.
program
Indian
with AA

emphasis

25 David Tan
2nd gen
Chinese
F gas station S.F. Area AA student

owner
group
State-wide
AA student

group

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81

82

JAAS

10:1

Notes
1. Karen Umemoto, On Strike! San Francisco State College Strike, 19681969:
The Role of Asian American Students, in Contemporary Asian AmericaA
Multidisciplinary Reader, ed. by Min Zhou and James Gatewood (New York:
New York University Press, 2000).
2. Glenn Omatsu, The Four Prisons and the Movements of Liberation: Asian
American Activism from the 1960s to the 1990s, in Contemporary Asian,
80.
3. Ibid., 80.
4. Amy Uyematsu, The Emergence of Yellow Power in America, in Roots: An
Asian American Reader, eds. Amy Tachiki, Eddie Wong, and Franklin Odo
(Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1971).
5. Cornel University Directory of Asian American Studies, www.aaastudies.
org/directory/aasprgrms_directory.html
6. See especially, Chapter 1, From Nothing, A Consciousness, in Helen Zia,
Asian American Dreams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
7. Diane Fujino, Unity of Theory and Practice: Integrating Feminist Pedagogy
into Asian American Studies, in Teaching Asian AmericanDiversity and
the Problem of Community, ed. by Lane Hirabayshi (Lanham, MD: Rowman
and Littlefield Publishers, 1998).
8. Nazli Kabria, Becoming Asian American (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2002).
9. Ibid., 111.
10. Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education (South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey,
1986).
11. Silverman says that purposive sampling allows us to choose a case because it
illustrates some feature or process in which we are interested. David Silverman, Interpreting Qualitative Data, 2nd edition (London: Sage, 2001), 250.
12. In this article, I take a broad view of what it means to be an Asian American
activist. The respondents were involved in a range of Asian American related
activities, mainly on their college campuses, with a few in the community
(see Appendix A). They were also involved in varying degrees, some fully
immersed and fully identified as activists, others less active by comparison.
Analytically, I am less concerned with the degree and nature of their activity
than I am with understanding how they developed an interest in pursuing
some involvement in Asian American activities.
13. Norman Denzin, The Research Act: A Theoretical Introduction to Sociological
Methods, 2nd edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1978), 125
14. Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods, 3rd edition
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 56.
15. Ibid., 57
16. Placing priority on identifying the general process of conscientization meant
that other avenues of inquiry were not pursued. For example, the two separate
waves of interviews suggest the possibility of a comparative analysis to see

Replenishing the Ranks

17.
18.
19.
20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.
28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.

35.
36.
37.

osajima

if Asian Americans, in different time periods, experienced similar or different processes of conscientization. I decided not to pursue this possibility, in
part because the data did not lend itself to such an analysis, and because my
main focus was to look for common patterns, across all thirty cases, to their
development of critical consciousness.
Note that the names of those interviewed have been changed to protect their
identities.
Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993), 18.
Brian Kim (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Berkeley, CA, January 4,
1989.
David Tan (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Claremont, CA, May 10,
2000.
Ibid.
Pearl Cruz (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Berkeley, CA, January 10,
1989.
Ryan Suzuki (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Claremont, CA, May 10,
2000.
Freire, The Politics of Education, 10607.
Ibid., 85.
Joe Yamamoto (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Santa Cruz, CA, January
11, 1989.
Pearl Cruz, January 10, 1989.
Soon Park (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Berkeley, CA, January 9,
1989.
Andrew Barlow, Between Fear and Hope Globalization and Race in the United
States (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers 2003), 109.
Cheryl Hamada (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Berkeley, CA, May 8,
1989.
Gloria Park (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Santa Cruz, CA, July 16,
1999.
Steffi Castro (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, Berkeley, CA, January 13,
1989.
Soon Park, January 9, 1989.
Kenyon Chan, Rethinking the Asian American Studies Project: Bridging the
Divide Between Campus and Community, Journal of Asian American Studies
3:1 (2000), 20.
Ryan Suzuki, May 10, 2000.
Gloria Park, July 16, 2000.
Pamela Kim (Pseudonym), Interview with Author, June 15, 1999.

83