Penn State’s Asian community holds conference to promote solidarity and social justice
Over the weekend, the Penn State Asian Pacific Islander Desi American, or APIDA, Caucus and the South Asian Law Student Association hosted its first community conference. Community members and leaders gathered to discuss how their different Asian identities have impacted them and how the perception of their community can be improved locally.
The APIDA conference kicked off with small group discussions about discrimination and intersectionality. Conference attendees shared personal anecdotes and connected with each other's shared experiences. APIDA Caucus President Steven Zhang said bringing these various Asian communities together inspired organizers to host the conference.
“We kind of talked and expressed concerns about how APIDA students felt invisible, or a lot of APIDA communities feel disconnected from one another. So, we thought it would be really cool to create a conference,” Zhang said.
The conference included a variety of events to facilitate conversation about the APIDA experience including workshops, a panel and a lantern-making session. Zhang said the lanterns were chosen to allow people to be expressive about their unique experiences.
“Having the big lanterns gives us the opportunity to create works of art that are collaborative, that showcases experiences. But at the same time, you can glance at it and see how different everyone’s experiences are on one lantern,” Zhang said.
Zhang said lanterns have a special significance in the APIDA community.
“Light also, I think, has a very symbolic meaning in a lot of Asian cultures. And I think that was also a really big consideration that we put into it, ‘how do we make sure that what we’re doing is meaningful?’” Zhang said.
The conference also featured a panel that discussed APIDA stereotypes. The panelists discussed the “Asian Monolith” myth and how all Asians are viewed similarly despite the wide variety of cultures. Panelist Nalini Krishnankutty is a founding member of the PanAPIDA Circle. She said it is important for people to recognize that the Asian community is not a monolith.
“It’s such an externally constructed identity, right? So, kind of observe closely just to understand the community more, the huge diversity that’s there,” Krishnankutty said.
The panelists also discussed the term “model minority” which is commonly used to describe Asian Americans. Panelist Donald Hahn is a longtime member of the State College community. The judge and former mayor said as a Korean American, he has heard the term “model minority” used as a “backhanded compliment.”
“It’s like, you’re not a model human being. That would be a nice compliment. ‘Model minority’ is really, in my opinion, exactly an attempt to divide and conquer,” Hahn said.
The panelists also addressed the important role allies play in advocating for the APIDA community. Hahn said allies can make an impact by recognizing discrimination and connecting with those who may feel isolated or suppressed.
“My worst years were in junior high school. I would say that the feeling of aloneness is probably the worst. The idea that you’re basically, you’re the only one out there who’s being attacked. And I think that the important thing is, try to develop a connection,” Hahn said.
The panel ended with closing remarks about how organized efforts like the APIDA conference can raise awareness and inspire action. Panelist Selena Gou is a senior at Penn State. She said she is optimistic about working towards solidarity and the bright future for the APIDA Caucus at Penn State.
“It’s just the beginning. There’s so much more that we could potentially do in the future. So, I think, for the students, just because we’re young, doesn’t mean we can’t achieve anything” Gou said.
Zhang, who is also a senior, said he’s happy the event came together the way it did. He said it’s uplifting to see the APIDA Caucus will continue to make an impact after he graduates.