UCLA is home to over a thousand student organizations. Of these, there exists a collection that works to foster a sense of support and belonging within the APIDA community. Culture organizations, clubs, and unions allow APIDA students to carve themselves a place within the greater UCLA body.
These organizations surround students with a community of those who have gone through similar experiences or challenges. They provide students opportunities to learn about their ancestral cultures, volunteer within APIDA communities, and connect with parts of their identity lacking representation in general education.
Apart from producing cultural events and organizing socials, a handful of these organizations have taken on an active role in establishing a space for political and social discussion.
UCLA culture clubs have historically played a large role in social justice on and off campus. UCLA’s Vietnamese Student Union website details when the organization was initially known as the UCLA Vietnamese Student Association and established the Refugee Aid Project in 1978 to support the transition of political refugees from Vietnam to America. The UCLA Association of Hmong Students, established in 1966, would advocate for and establish the university’s first Hmong course. This accomplishment accompanies other historical feats written on the organization’s website.
In a 2019 interview with the South Pacific Islander Organization, president Karla Blessing Sāvaliolefilemū Thomas spoke about UCLA’s Pacific Islands’ Student Association dedication to increasing access to higher education. In the 80s and 90s, members drove out to high schools and junior colleges in Los Angeles to tutor and mentor Pacific Islander students, establishing roots for the Pacific Islander Education & Retention (PIER) program.
Today, UCLA’s APIDA organizations continue to be a space for students to be politically active.
One of these organizations is the Association for Indonesian Americans. AIA was founded to provide a space for Indonesian American students, particularly those of second and third generation, to learn and discuss their culture and identities. AIA has grown to include raising awareness of social and political issues.
“We try to focus a lot of our work on just trying to be politically active, culturally active… to try and expose our general membership to not just being Indonesian American, but what [it says] about our own political identity,” said Sonia Liu, current president of AIA and fourth-year Public Affairs and Asian American studies double major.
Jason Sutedja, internal vice president of AIA and fourth-year Sociology and Public Affairs double major, discussed what has been done to keep the conversation going. Sutedja spoke on how general meetings act as a time not only to socialize, but to discuss issues that pertain to the APIDA community.
“We have these 1969 riots that caused a lot of us to immigrate over here, so every year when it gets to around that time, we provide space to talk about that and how it’s impacted us and each of our families,” he added.
The United Khmer Students at UCLA offered their view of the role their campus organization plays in social justice.
“Taking up that space is also an act of social justice, and, you know, not silencing ourselves and making our culture known… taking the steps to be proudly Khmer are things that are inherently political too,” said Dahlia Keo, one of the UKS co-presidents and a fourth year biochemistry major.
Keo expressed the importance of sharing Khmer history with those who are not part of the Khmer community. For UKS, that includes remembering the Cambodian genocide and educating others on Cambodian refugees.
“Another event that we have… is Cambodian Genocide Rememberance Day, and we usually invite a speaker to come talk about it and invite people from all of UCLA – we always do that, but especially for this event it’s really important for us to have people outside of the Khmer community to learn, and have a discussion, and talk more about what happened … why there are Cambodian refugees in America and what the cause was for that and stuff of that nature,” Keo added.
Both organizations placed an emphasis on their respective student-led culture nights as a means of combining performance with raising awareness. These culture nights are a significant event for APIDA organizations, such as Taiwanese Culture Night hosted by the Taiwanese American Student Association at UCLA or Samahang Pilipino Cultural Night hosted by Samahang Pilipino at UCLA. There are even culture nights that are not necessarily hosted by an organization, but instead are collectively produced by community members, such as Korean Culture Night.
“Through this performance, we try to portray our stories, as well as issues pertaining to the Indonesian community,” said Sutedja of AIA’s Indonesian Culture Night.
In regard to UKS’s Khmer Student Culture Night, Keo said, “I feel like it’s a big pillar of telling Khmer stories and expressing the issues that affect our community but also the triumphs that our community has faced as well.”.
AIA and UKS highlighted the importance of coalition building with not only other APIDA organizations, but with external communities as well. A majority of a culture organization’s dedication to social justice comes in the form of starting the conversation to raise awareness of issues outside of their own community and encouraging members to stand in solidarity with efforts of other organizations.
Athena Tea, UKS internal vice president and third year cognitive science major, talked about her role in organization, emphasizing her effort to inform members on how to get involved with outside issues. “I really do try my best to make members know – UKS members know – about events or rallies that will be hosted and how they can participate,” she said.
Tea hopes that if more individuals get involved within the APIDA community, more change will be made.
“I think standing together is really important; power is being together, with numbers. If you think about it, the Asian community makes up a large population, a large percentage of the student population here, and if we were all, like, to stand together and just stand in solidarity,” Tea added, “it could raise a lot of awareness and make a lot of noise – and actually create the change we’d like to see.”
Both organizations expressed high hopes in future plans to continue creating opportunities for UCLA students to educate themselves and take action within the realm of social justice. They also hoped that students realize the importance of actively participating in not just their respective organizations, but the community as a whole.
“In a perfect world we all care about what’s happening to different communities, because even when we think they don’t affect us, they do affect us,” Keo said. “I think that when we have big events – not just we as in UKS but as Asian American organizations here at UCLA – it’s important for us to build ties, do coalition building and show up for each other’s events.”
Photo Credit: Sasha Paago (AIA)