By Reappropriate Intern: V. Huynh
“This conference on November 3rd is essentially the launch of a larger movement,” says Jenny Wun, co-founder of AAPI Women Lead and 2018’s #ImReady conference. “It’s our first gathering, so we still intend to host more gatherings across the country. It’s also a gathering of some of our most important community leaders; some of them will be on the stage, some will be in the audience. They’re here to tell us what are the issues that impact our communities? They’re our first wave of community leaders that we want to celebrate.
“First wave? This is just the first round.”
“I think it’s really important that when we made the ask for folks to come participate, nobody declined,” Jenny says. “If they can donate, sponsor, sign up for newsletter to be apart of the movement.”
“If there are any collectives who want to be a part of that — we want to join forces with everyone we can — and that’s huge. It’s intergenerational, inter-fields — we want everybody,” Dr. Connie Wun adds.
I’m in a video call with Jenny and Connie Wun, the powerhouse organizers behind AAPI Women Lead. Jenny and Connie are in the midst of organizing AAPI Women Lead’s first-ever conference; yet they have given me some of their time as we dig into their journey in founding the organization and movement. In a separate call, Celine Jusuf, amidst her final year in her undergraduate career, lends me a few hours as she and I encircle the topic of her feminism.
Two weeks later on November 3rd, I was seated in a large hall at the Ed Roberts campus in Berkeley, California. I glance behind me to face the hundreds of AAPI womxn and womxn of color; they look up as Dr. Connie Wun grabs the microphone and opens the conference. Jenny Wun is ready on standby with the other volunteers.
The morning of November 3rd is chaos. Traffic in Oakland, California is intense and flights had been delayed. Behind the scenes of the conference, volunteers are hurriedly putting together booths and tables, registering guests, configuring the shifty Wi-Fi and tech, and plating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with dessert and comfort food. Organizers were tenderly assembling a Healing Room in an upstairs hideaway.
But all of that intense energy seemed to settle into place as Connie Wun trustingly approached the podium and smiled; she began to detail the emergence of what she and her co-organizers are building into a movement for self-identified AAPI womxn and girls everywhere.
I spent the day volunteering my time with Celine Jusuf, Communications Associate and Youth Leader of AAPI Women Lead. We were busy putting together social media posts, and as I listened to her share bits of herself on behalf of the young folx in the audience, I realized that Connie was right: this was intergenerational.
The day was packed with conversations, tears, laughter, and powerful speeches by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, five-times MMA Champion Bee “Killer Bi” Nguyen and her mother, and Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act writer Amanda Nguyen — just to name a few. Professors, domestic workers, teachers, mothers, organizers, survivors, listeners, and more gathered to lend their ears and their thoughts.
In describing what she’d like the world to look like, AAPI Women Lead’s co-founder Jenny Wun said, “I just want to be fully liberated.”
“#ImReady is a feminist movement. We’re at the center. Women and girls are at the center. We’re not hiding. We accept our allies and supporters, but we’re at the center,” Dr. Connie Wun continues.
I’m remembering the #ImReady Conference and the movement and what it reminds me of– there was as much power in what was not said as is what was said. In between the speeches there were pauses for intense thought, and space for tears that came from a deep-seated place within. I speak with Jenny and Connie — two sisters who have invested so much energy into making such a movement possible. They are motivated in no small part by the normalization of AAPI women’s experiences in relation to violence and trauma, and they want AAPI Women Lead to recognize and embody what so many AAPI women feel forced to carry like a secret.
For Jenny and Connie, the AAPI Women Lead movement is very much intertwined with their own lives. Growing up in East Oakland as children of Vietnamese refugees, their lives were shaped by trauma and violence, both outside and inside their homes. A major influence on their feminism is also their mother, whom they call Mama Wun. Later, I also spoke to Celine Jusuf.
The following conversations have been combined into a single interview, and edited for clarity and length.
What obstacles have you across, and how have you become who you are today in relation to who you were?
Connie: I was born in Oakland, California in 1977. I’d say we’re the first wave of Vietnamese kids born in the US, so that meant that weren’t many of us even here in the Bay Area. There was a lot of domestic violence in the household, and our parents were young. My mom was 22 and she didn’t know anything about the US, either. As a survivor of abuse, our mom suffered from PTSD.
Jenny: My mom’s PTSD really impacted us. The trauma from the war and her being a survivor — both has really had a significant impact on my life. Especially after my grandparents died, she was — gone.
Connie: I’m also a survivor of gender-based violence myself, but I didn’t always know how to survive. I ended up also being on the streets a lot, and I ended up becoming one of the few Vietnamese American sex workers out there. It sucked having to deal with the racism in that industry — but that’s a topic for a different interview!
Jenny: My life has been a lot quieter than Connie’s but I think I’ve also been quietly living and trying to figure out how to undo the trauma. So Connie may have been out there and super vocal, while I just became very reserved, nervous, and anxious about a lot of things. Over the years, it’s been about undoing a lot of that.
What does Asian American feminism and then feminism as a whole mean to both of you?
Connie: We’ve been taught to be very appreciative to be here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to resist fucked up things. For example, we’re supposed to be appreciative that our parents took care of us, but if they’re abusive, I’m not going to take the abuse. I’m going to fight back.
Jenny: A lot of the women that we’ve met don’t even recognize their own power or even acknowledge that they come from the legacies of kings and queens.
Connie: They forget because it’s so traumatic to remember. And the reality is: trauma will always catch up to you. So you should sit with it and take its reins when you can. I think because we’re immigrants, we’re busy just trying to make ends meet. It’s so difficult to feel as though we have the capacity to feel powerful in this country or this world because we’re busy surviving. But survival should also mean claiming our positions, claiming who we are, claiming our history, and claiming our power.
Claiming who we are has to be a part of it. When you see all these white acupuncturists — that shit is Chinese as fuck! Like, hold up! We’re going to reclaim acupuncture! You see yoga classes, or these crystals shop, or a Korean spa — all of these things are from Asian cultures; and yet somehow we’ve become removed from that as a part of how we’re surviving trauma. It’s about reclaiming things that are so trendy; yet, they’re ours.
Jenny: We have to recognize that those things are ours. We have to move that to the forefront and take it back.
Connie: We also have to think about what’s happening in Vietnam now, and to wish for more. We don’t just have to be grateful for our histories; we also are upset about slavery, about genocide, about ongoing anti-immigration stuff.
Celine: Feminism as a whole is a bare minimum of cognizance that I think we’re obligated to have. I think we’re obligated to do emotional labor for others and the world and just work for others. It just seems really toxic to not do that.
Feminism means constantly challenging and changing and actively breaking down all the implicit and toxic understandings you have. I’s constantly working to change yourself so that you impact others more equitably. It’s always working, and it’s knowing you can’t be doing anything else. But it’s also all self-love at the same time. It’s healing to others. It’s a commitment to being your best self. I think that’s how I hold it.
In creating AAPI Women Lead, how do you imagine a society where we do have those voices and these resources, and what do you think that would look like?
Celine: It means brilliance and power and healing all at once. It means community even if I know — and this has been true for me — that AAPI communities, or Asian-ness, has been the most intimidating thing in the world to me. Creating this community is creating the kinds of spaces that are kind to every identity, and to every heart, and to everyone wherever they are with their language, and to how you hold your identity. It’s about uplifting people, and witnessing and listening to others, which can end up being some of the best experiences of our whole life. It’s an extremely important thing to do.
Jenny: In addition to being accountable, we also need to be sensitive, and be more emotional and honest with our feelings. Our answers are very simple, but there’s something powerful in being authentic as the daughter of immigrants. If you strip those authenticities away to fit in I think you lose a large part of yourself. In my ideal world, we would never have lost anything at all — instead, all of those things would still be intact.
I was envisioning AAPI Women Lead as a way to create a space and a community for AAPI women, where we can come together to talk about the issues that are impacting AAPI communities. That’s really important because a lot of us don’t study these things. A lot of Asian American women don’t go into ethnic studies; instead they go into things like computer science, law, and tech. My hope is that AAPI women from all walks of life can learn about what’s happening in our communities to 1) relate, and 2) support each other. I hope to empower attendees with the resources, the language,and the tools to talk about it.
Connie: AAPI women lead was created to tell these stories and to show that this stuff happens to us and we’re not going to take it. It’s also essentially a selfish project— we need backup before we can all come out and tell our stories. I’m calling for back-up, in colloquial terms. *laughs*
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Connie: I think culturally and in a gendered way, a lot of women and girls — and even boys — aren’t taught to embrace an authentic power from within. I also think we really need to own our families and our cultures’ legacy. When I think of Vietnamese folks — no matter what side you were on, you were a survivor of war. To own that means to know our communities were survivors and that they fought,even if for politics I may not believe in. So own that legacy, and don’t be afraid to own your own position in this country, be it gendered or otherwise, and in all the intersections.
And do that work in solidarity with other people of color — that’s huge. Because we are here on other people’s land, and because of slavery; our relationship with other communities has to be respectful.
Jenny: I would tell my 18-year-old self, that you are enough as you are. You are powerful and brilliant in your own right. Do not dull your shine for anyone.