I was asked by APASU at UO campus to speak as a founding member of their organization on campus for their Wednesday Dinner before the Multicultural Alumni week for Homecoming. Dedicated to John Beckwith with "You were right! Everything is their fault!"
For APASU's event before the Multicultural Alum Event, Gerlinger, 10/24/12
Forty some years ago, I moved to Eugene. It was the Year of the Rooster. I was 24 and never so alone and so alienated in my life. Even on campus, I remember having whip lash whenever I sighted black hair. No one like me. Imagine this campus without anything, no OMAS, no MCC, no Diversity Vice Presidents, faculty, no Ethnic Studies and definitely no student unions. The year was 1969. As the Winds of Change on the West Coast at San Francisco State and, on the East Coast, at Columbia U, with student strikes shutting down their campus for Ethnic Studies, for their histories, poets, writers to be included in the curriculum, for the right to have student unions, for the right to have staff of color, and when the concept Third World Peoples was first used and heard, we were on the verge of the same kind of change at the University of Oregon.
The UO was not going to mess with student strikes so in the summer of '69, I was able to sign up for a Black Literature class taught by a Columbia professor!! He was not African American; however, he often encouraged the leadership of two African American students in his class. Turning the class over to students was a first to me. It was exciting! I even remember the first insight one of the students gave us. William Faulkner cannot write the Black Experience. In Faulkner's books, Black characters only come alive when a White person is in the room.
It was not until fall of 1972, when I left teaching to pursue my Fifth Year certification, that I caught a small article in the newspaper which was to change everything for me. A class called Asian American Experience was being offered and I signed up, excited to meet other Asians in this "city of people" where I was the only brown spot. I loved the sound of it -- Asian American -- because that time was the first time, Asian American was used and heard by many of us -- when the idea that we have the right and the responsibility and the self-determination to decide for ourselves what we called ourselves, not oriental, not foreign, not "other " was powerful. In naming ourselves, we left nothing at the door and we brought our ancestors' stories and our own poetry and songs on our backs into these ivory tower. But I get ahead of myself because something else came first.
The Asian American Experience class was taught by John Beckwith, Chinese American from the Seattle area, who is now a lawyer in Seattle -- who may even be a retired lawyer in Seattle. That first day, there he stood in front of his motley crew of Asian students, jeans, white t-shirt, red bandana tied around his head pacing, wide gestures, huge voice. We took notice! San Francisco State Student Strike was in this room as far as we were concerned!!
John Beckwith's lectures were exciting. His invitation to lively, high pitched, passionate argument was exciting. We didn't read books, but every day there were handouts pushing us to respond, rethink, remove brainwashed stereotyping, hardly ever agreeing completely but completely engaged. We wrote. Where there was a lack of material, we wrote the material. During that hour and a half, twice a week, it was all about CREATING a movement. We had to FIND our literature, UNEARTH our history, COMPOSE our own songs and bring the beat of the Taiko Drum to America. When we did the first organizing, you know what I mean, we were cooking it, we were sharing, we were arguing, we were laughing a movement into shape in the homes of community people. Community would drive to campus, pick up the students and head for the coast to spend the day at Strawberry Hill. All the while we were talking about issues carried up and down I-5 from L.A. to British Columbia across to NYC -- reunification of Korea, the American war in Viet Nam from an Asian perspective, -- identity, always identity, Asian Men and Asian Women dynamics, and, of course, our two class projects.
Our class project was to start two clubs -- one on campus and the other in the community. For a decade, the two organizations were really just branches of the same. On campus, we worked through the bureaucracy with the help of community to win our room, the Asian American Student Union, or AASU, and were crammed into a long narrow space resembling one of the alleys of the EMU Bowling Alley right next door. Aren't we always crammed by some bowling alley? We had the smallest room, but we did not have the least people. The Community Group was called Asian American Community Group. Very plain and inoffensive. We still exist, but understandably we changed our name, now PACAlliance -- Pacific Asian Community Alliance and AASU has become APASU, Asian Pacific American Student Union.
As a student union/community group unit, we were able to accomplish many things through the next decade. Remember, we didn't really have a decent budget from IFC. A lot of our activities were done in community homes. My house became the motel for guests, and party site. In those days, there was a steady stream of people going up and down I-5 carrying in backpacks, books and anthologies they wrote and published themselves, stopping at APASU's all along the way. There was always an audience, food, a place to sleep and a party wherever you stopped. Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, Janice Mirikitani, Political Prisoners Movement, Free Cho Sul Lee Movement, Reparation and Redress Movement, The Tule Lake and Manzanar Pilgrimage organizers, Unity, an Asian American Socialist Organization, Seattle Taiko, the Noh Buddies musicians, "Chop Suey" the first Asian American Musical, Shasta Taiko, they all stopped in Eugene, hosted by APASU and in the homes of community members.
More than often we'd get a carful or two and head off for a pilgrimage, a conference, an Obon, a Filipino I-District pig barbecue, an opening, a rally and represent, forming an I-5 family which lasts today. Our first major conference attracted Asians from all over -- and they came to share their own projects. We called the conference "A Tribute to John Okada" the first true authentic Asian American voice who died an unappreciated genius, resisting editors of publishing companies and their efforts to whitewash his novel, No No Boy, an honest portrayal of the pain and betrayal of being Japanese American during WW2. The Asian American Ethnic Pride Movement was alive and well in Eugene too, and the heart of it was APASU and the community group, now called PACAlliance
Exciting as the AASU was, everyone will tell you the most transformational and the most treasured gift which came out of our Student Union in the late 60's through the 80's were the strong alliances -- make that friendships -- make that family -- we built across student union lines with BSU, NASU, MEChA and ourselves and the political movements of that time we were part of. We were part of the Free South Africa Movement and everyone helped with Reparation and Redress. We worked the pow wows, making sandwiches and lemonade for the drums, and NASU was there to help us host our traveling guests. We supported the HEP program, and all of us ended up at the Longhouse over coffee, beading, and conversation. We stood with NASU to support a Longhouse, the first in the nation, to be on a college campus. We joined other student union women and LGBTQ for a parallel women's conference in support of Jan Oliver, First Black ASUO Student Body President who questioned why the UO Women's Conference appeared to be about White Heterosexual Feminism only. Not everything was direct action. In between lots of celebrations, pow wows, potlucks, parties. We went to IFC meetings together, supporting each other, and you know how important that is to crowd the room.
We changed the landscape of the university when we were here. Some of us taught the first ethnic studies, although no credit was given in the beginning. Together we unearthed those federal funds earmarked for students of color finding them buried in remediation classes and fought alongside our faculty allies to have them appropriately administered which began the Council for Minority Education, CME. The CME had an Asian American as its first administrator, Gary Kim, who had led the charge in the first place. The CME legacy is OMAS, MCC, and all the culturally relevant classes on campus. The CME legacy is OMAS, MCC, and all the culturally relevant classes on campus. Although gutted, enough of CME remains to make the difference between the campus we experienced, no recognizable point of entry or support to what Students of Color coming to this campus experience today. I want you to know that from the beginning , APASU and APASU members were in leadership positions in making this campus work for everyone so that you understand that we belong in all parts of any diversity design on this campus today.
These multicultural relationships still last today. The skills we learned working together as well as the network of influence we now have all around the country with one another is the greatest gift gained at the UO. It made me a better teacher. I hear that same testimony from tribal leaders, judges, CEO's, community organizers, business people, artists -- that these multicultural networks and the work we did together, made us better and more successful than anything we gained at the University of Oregon.
I support you APASU. I am very proud of you for carrying on a great legacy. Your work makes this campus safer and richer. Granted, it may be a little different in terms of issues, the role you play in the history of movements, but what remains the same is that you contribute, you represent, and you endure. APASU's historical roots is the message I leave with you tonight, and that is "We cannot do anything alone, and together, we can do anything we Dream."