Cynthia Choi is the co-executive director of the civil rights organization Chinese for Affirmative Action. She was previously the vice president of philanthropic partnerships at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and has worked as a community organizer for over 25 years. Before joining a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute panel, “Does a New Wave of Anti-Asian American Racism Require New Ways of Fighting Back?,” she called into the virtual green room to reflect on her own journey in community activism, the teacher who asked her if she could be president someday, and the importance of questioning why things are the way they are.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I’ve only had coffee this morning. And I just read an article about how you shouldn’t have coffee before breakfast, that it has health consequences. So I’m really bummed about that.
What is your worst social media habit?
Oh gosh. We’ve been talking a lot about the doomscroll, I think is the term [coined by Quartz reporter Karen Ho]. A big part of my job is to know what is happening, in particular with regard to race relations and the disturbing issues around racial justice, policing, community safety and justice issues, and of course, the real concern around denialism, around structural racism. I have to be in tune—as you know, things change on a dime. The [first presidential] debate, for example; it’s just very alarming that the president insists on calling [COVID] the “China flu” and “China virus”; “China plague” I think is what he said. So, it is part of my job to be up to date about all of those things. But I have to say it’s been very unhealthy. It affects my sleep and it has a direct consequence to the work that I do.
You’ve spent much of your career working as a community organizer. What was your first job in that field?
Right out of college I worked at the Asian Law Caucus. Now it's formally called the Asian Law Caucus: Asian American Advancing Justice, the affiliate in San Francisco. I worked in the area of development and communications. So not specifically as an organizer, but that work supported incredible work around advancing racial justice. That’s where I learned about anti-Asian violence, the history of it, and how we as a community were organizing around it. And it wasn’t at the level that we’re experiencing today, but, as a young person coming out of college, that was certainly a wake-up call that this continues to happen.
Had you already exposed to or engaged in social justice issues before you started studying ethnic studies at UC Berkeley?
I was born and raised in Southern California and, as a child of immigrants and as a person who grew up in very multiracial neighborhoods and schools, it’s hard not to notice things. I’d always had a sense of curiosity in terms of why are things the way they are? Why do we have homeless people? Why do certain neighborhoods look the way that they do in terms of lack of resources?
My own parents’ experiences of having to navigate our education system, etcetera, without the ability to speak fluent English and just the vivid memories of moving into a predominantly white neighborhood and being welcomed by having our home vandalized and our tires slashed. And so I think about those experiences really kind of shaping the questioning, right? Things like teachers telling me, “You're not like the other Asian kids,” because I was very, I guess, talkative.
I think these experiences, this accumulation of experiences, again had me questioning. And one of the reasons why I went into studying ethnic studies was just to develop my critical thinking, to understand history, its application today. And again, much to disappointment from my parents who just thought, “What is ethnic studies and how are you going to get a job?” But those early years really shaped who I am today.
Is there a teacher who’s had a big impact on your life?
I had taken a class when I was in high school at a city college, and his name was Mr. Gardener and he was really into discussion and engagement, and he had my full attention just because he was so interesting. He was an African American teacher, and we had a discussion about who can become president of the United States. I think he was trying to get at the fact that, at that time of course, there had only been white men. So I remember him sitting in the classroom pointing to each of us—do you think you can become president? Do you think you can? And he pointed it at me and I was, of course, startled, and I answered and I said, “Yes!” And I remember him doing—literally, if you can imagine this—he kicked his legs up in the air, cracking up. Laughing out loud. He did that big theatrical thing after everybody answered.
And then we launched into this discussion about structural racism. Why did we only have white men as presidents? I just remember that so vividly because here was a teacher who broke it down, who was very engaging, and got me interested in asking questions and not accepting the way things are. There’s that whole adage, I think the president of the United States has made it very popular these days, “It is what it is.” And we have to ask, “Why is it the way it is and what can we do to change it and to not accept the conditions?”
Where do you go or what do you do to decompress during quarantine?
I’m very fortunate because I have a tiny backyard with just a tiny little garden and bird feeders. I get to look at birds, watch birds, and be out in fresh air. I also live very close to the beach. So that’s just been such a gift because I don’t have to get in my car, and I can walk out and just breathe in the fresh ocean air. It’s something that we try to do every day.
Given your experience as an organizer and activist, is there anything that you wish young people engaging in today's social justice movements understood?
I can only offer anything by just reflecting on my own journey. I remember as a younger person, how disappointed I was about systemic racism and sexism and patriarchy. I was just very disappointed and angry. And I think in my formative years, I didn't necessarily know how to channel that. I had very, very strong opinions and one might even say I was dogmatic. I like to say I was passionate. I think a lot has changed because today we have social media, we have so many different ways to access information that shapes and influences the way that we think.
But back then, for me, it was really the multi-generational community that I was a part of. And I think that young people or younger activists are carving out their own ways that are brilliant, that are conscious and informed. And I’m just so inspired by that. And also, I see that within our movement, we have to struggle with how to build, share value, and to do it in ways that are radical and inclusive, and can hold that complexity.
I think that a lot of us, including myself, we kind of romanticize the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, international movements, but I’m reminded by the elders that I talk with that they often struggled with these very fundamental issues, right? Of how to be intersectional, how to be welcoming, how to be inclusive in ways that don’t feel like we’re compromising our values. Those are things that I think about in terms of my own journey.
When do you wake up in the morning and what do you wake up to?
I’m an early morning person. So I wake up around 6:30 a.m. Usually I wake up on my own, but sometimes, like last night, I needed an alarm.
You lead Chinese for Affirmative Action, which has developed the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center in partnership with A3PCON and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University as a response to COVID harassment and discrimination. Have any of the takeaways from that project surprised you?
When we started it on March 19, we started it precisely because we knew, from history, and we also knew that in this current environment, that it was going to get really bad quickly. We knew that Asian Americans would be targeted, that there would be a backlash. We knew that much. We had no idea that it was going to be at the levels that we’ve been able to document.
So, surprised? No. Disheartened, angry, and motivated to respond to this time, to respond both at the policy level and to be a resource for people who are being directly impacted. And, to give a nod to the upcoming program, we have to rethink how we traditionally respond to hate and hate crimes and the vilification of any community. In the wake of George Floyd, in the wake of the exposure of structural racism, including in our policing and criminal justice system, we have to, as a community, look at these systems and ask ourselves, how can we expect these institutions to save us when they’re brutalizing Black people? As long as any group is being brutalized, no one is safe.
It seems like it takes a certain level of numbness in order to get through just the everyday headlines that we’re faced with. What was the last piece of news, good or bad, that really got to you?
There’s been lots of articles talking about the fact that white supremacist groups are successfully recruiting and growing, and they’re coming from people who work in law enforcement. We know that there’s been a history of people who are in law enforcement who are also part of white supremacist groups—but there's been this dramatic rise of recruitment from law enforcement. So that really is disturbing, and something that really should alarm all of us. That, I think, has been on top of my mind.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
The fact that within the AAPI community we are having important conversations about community safety and justice. We're having important conversations about how we strengthen our relationships with other communities of color. We are having important conversations about reimagining what will make our communities whole and safe. And what would our vision of the kinds of reinvestments that we need to make in our communities look like? To me, regardless of the outcomes of the election, we will continue to defend our communities, we will continue to work with those most impacted by these issues.
It’s upon us. We make ourselves safe, we will lead this change. And if you think back historically on any significant progress that we’ve made as a country, it’s not one elected official. It’s not whoever’s in office. It's been because the community has demanded for our dignity and for our rights. And that, I believe, will be the case moving forward.