They say that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It is heartening to see a renewed sense of activism in young Asian Americans, albeit a result of an uptick in violence against Asian Americans, especially against the elderly.

This new activism and a willingness to speak out is allowing an “invisible community” to be heard. Many of those who are speaking out are in their 20s.

Recent events have made me reflect on myself as an idealistic young man in my 20s working in the Asian American community and in particular with Chinese Americans.

As a student at Berkeley in the ’70s, many of my friends shunned materialism and the establishment and wanted to make a difference. We didn’t want to sell out to the man! Today, we call it working for social justice. Many of us went into social services. We became social workers, counselors, lawyers, and teachers.

In my case, I wanted to be a teacher. My big brother Benny, who was much older, questioned why I wanted to be a history teacher. He said, “You are going to be poor your entire life.” Well, at that point in time, a house in the suburbs and the two-car garage were not my goal.

He told me to major in business and get a real job. Well, during that period business was not a popular major. In fact, there was a joke that if you did poorly as a pre-med or engineering major, your fall-back was getting into business school.

Today the Berkeley Haas School of Business is very difficult to get into because I guess everyone wants a real job. And unfortunately, there are a lot of history, English, psychology, and sociology majors making a living at Starbucks.  

The initial cause of the new activism was the massive immigration as a result of the liberalized immigration quota from Hong Kong in the 1960s that created problems not addressed by the Chinatown power structure. Later, the end of the Vietnam War and the coming of what we referred to as the “boat people” would strain the social fabric of the Asian American community.

It was a catalyst for students at San Francisco State pushing for ethnic studies programs in the late ’60s. Many of these student activists were inspired by the civil rights movement and were the children of working-class immigrant parents.

A great documentary on this movement was recently done by Rev. Harry Chuck, a retired minister out of Cameron House in San Francisco. It is called “Chinatown Rising” (2019). I highly recommend it to my readers.

For many these Asian American activists, the ’70s were a fertile time in the creation of social agencies to address the needs of immigrants. Just to name a few agencies and the years they were established, Asian Law Caucus (1972, co-founded by Dale Minami), On Lok Senior Center (1971), Kimochi (1971, JA community agency serving the elderly), Chinese for Affirmative Action (1969), Oakland Chinese Community Council (1968), and Chinatown Youth Center (1970).

These agencies provided much needed social services and addressed such important issues as redress, rights of senior citizens and bilingual education (Lau v. Nichols, 1974).

In my 20s, I too had the opportunity work in two of the agencies listed above! After losing my teaching job in the SFUSD due to Proposition 13 and having difficulty getting a new teaching job, I turned to working for community agencies.

My first job was with the Oakland Chinese Community Council. I was a job developer trying to place recent immigrants (many were boat people who had fled Vietnam) into entry level manufacturing and office jobs. We taught them work-related vocabulary, how to dress and how to interview for a job.

It was a great experience because I got the opportunity to network with other agencies and employers. One of my favorite employers was the Granny Goose factory. After every visit with the plant foreman, I got two bags of potato chips!

It also gave me an opportunity to work on my skill set as a salesperson and a job counselor. It was a sales pitch we would have to give in order for employers to give us job listings and I had to brush up on my conversational Cantonese.

My co-workers were pretty much the same age, so we did a lot of socializing, i.e. lunches and dinners. 

My second community agency job was working at the Chinatown Youth Center in San Francisco. The mission of the CYC was to address the youth gang problem that was plaguing the Chinese community. We had a drug treatment and diversion program and also an employment and training program.

I managed the employment and training program and was the development officer. Some of the skills I learned were writing grants, monitoring and creating budgets, employee relations, and dealing with government agencies and politicians.

I was an eye-opening experience to work with City Hall and some of the movers and shakers in San Francisco at that time. One of our board members was Garrick Lew, a well-known defense attorney who counted Wendy Yoshimura of the Patty Hearst case among his clients.

As a testimony to activism of the period, all of the agencies that I listed have continued their missions for 50 years or more.

It was a great time in my life and I had unforgettable experiences. I did return to my career as an educator in 1981. I am still an idealist who believes we can solve the problems of our society. I hope that I made a difference with a few of my students. Did I sell out my idealism? I guess a little bit — I do have the wife and two kids with the two-car garage in the suburbs.

Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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