Blacks, Browns, and Indigenous people do environmental justice, so what made you do it?

It’s a question I often get from classmates and colleagues in my environmental studies graduate program. While this may seem like a harmless question, as an Asian American, I understand the assumption upon which the question was formed: Asian Americans have never been involved in the movement for a clean and safe environment.

The problem with this assumption, however, is that it’s not true.

Take my grandmother, Soo Boon Kim, for example. She was one of a generation of young Korean women who survived the Korean War and then fled to the United States. Eventually, she ended up working alongside many other Asian immigrant women in the sweatshops of the Los Angeles garment industry. There, she and other workers were exposed to toxins that poisoned their bodies. But these Asian immigrant women protested their working conditions and, together, became some of the most influential people in the environmental justice movement in the 1920sthcentury.

Why don’t more Americans know about them and other Asian-American environmental justice advocates? Because our country has long ignored and written off the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including in the environmental justice movement.

For example, many history books mention that Chinese immigrants built about 90% of the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, but what is often overlooked is that many of those workers also protested the dangers they were exposed to by jumping across the mountains to lay the trail by launching the largest workers’ strike of the time.

Similarly, Filipino immigrants helped drive the farm worker movement, even launching the 1965 Delano grape strike for better wages and working conditions, which included a ban on dangerous pesticides such as DDT, in union contracts. But, in many of the official stories of the United Farm Workers, Filipinos are missing: school children in California learn about CesarChavez and Dolores Huerta, as they should, but not about Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, who were integral to that fight as GOOD.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Asian immigrants were recruited into the United States as cheap labor and put to work in poor or dangerous conditions. Asian immigrant women stereotyped as docile and apolitical workers who would not protest were intentionally sought out for jobs where they would be exposed to toxic chemicals. But whether it’s electronics, clothing or textile factories, these individuals have organized themselves to achieve safer working conditions in every sector they enter. They, along with farm workers, have made the American workplace a place for environmental justice by expanding and building the movement.

Asian American women were also at the forefront of drawing public attention to these occupational hazards. Young Hi Shin of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates and Pam Tau Lee of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program were among Asian Americans at the first National Summit on Environmental Leadership of Black People in 1991. The movement through an analysis of environmental justice: America’s wars in Asia have exposed Asian populations to toxins, such as Agent Orange, and caused them to seek refuge in the United States. American employers then exposed them to toxic workplace environments. These two activists have helped us bridge experiences in Asia and the United States, linking war, jobs and environmental justice.

At the 1991 summit, Asian immigrant women supported the eighth principle of environmental justice, which affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy working environment. Under their leadership, the delegates also voted to include this statement: We call for an end to war, violence and militarism, because these are among the most environmentally and ecologically destructive phenomena known to mankind, as millions of people of color they died because of the war.

These activists have offered powerful ways to understand the international dimensions of violence within discussions of environmental injustice.

Even though my grandmother died a year before I was born, I see how her life was shaped by the war and then supposed opportunities in America that ultimately shortened her life.

Decades after his death, Asian Americans continue to be racialized and stereotyped alike: hardworking, docile, and apolitical. We are asked whether people like us belong to the environmental justice movement.

If we are ever truly to reckon with our country’s past, we must honor the lives, contributions and legacies of people like my grandmother who helped make this country a better place. We will have to reject the dominant practice of intentional forgetting. Asian Americans are and always have been part of the multiracial struggle for equality and dignity, for a future of love and care, and for clean, safe, and peaceful environments for all. Ignoring or deleting those contributions only makes the movement weaker.

Zoe Lee-Park is a graduate student at the Yale School of the Environment.

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