The Project

Women, Faith, and Action: Asian Pacific Islander Women and Their Faith-Based Activism

Through interviews, digital archives and public forums this project documents the stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander women who, informed by their spirituality and faith traditions, were engaged in the U.S. movement for civil and human rights from the 1960s through the 1990s.

On this page:

  • Why this Project is Important
  • Methodogy
    • The Community Researchers
    • The Research Questions
    • Process
    • Feminist Methodologies
    • How We Selected the Stories
  • Outcomes

Why this Project is Important

California’s story cannot be complete without more fully understanding the histories and stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) who today comprise 12% of California’s total population. The historical struggles and positive contributions of API communities have indelibly shaped the California story. This project lifts up a story of the engagement of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who did not remain silent, but spoke out, acted and engaged in social change during the 1960s through the 1990s.

Within this narrative of the API social movement, this project focuses on the experience of those who did not separate their religious beliefs from their political actions, but instead saw them as two forces that informed and strengthened each other. Indeed for APIs, our stories cannot be separated from the dimension of religion. In a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 2/3 of Asian Americans said religion plays a very important role in their lives. Among the API populations, approximately 43 percent identify as Christian, while 28 percent identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other faiths long predominant in Asian countries. By lifting up these stories, which illustrate religion and spirituality as a source and inspiration for community engagement and social action, we hope to create space for reflection and encourage the engagement of others in our common life.

In contrast to the awareness of the role of the African American churches and religious leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X played in the civil and human rights movements of 1960s-'70s, little is widely known about the involvement of API voices. Indeed there were API religious leaders, particularly in California where the concentration of the API populations is the highest, who joined and added their voices and actions to the political and social movements of that period. The most visible API clergy voices of faith from that period were Bishop Roy Sano, Rev. Lloyd Wake, and Rev. Paul Nagano, all of whom were active in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were three among many other APIs who wrote, spoke and engaged in keystone moments of the California civil rights movement, such as the demand for Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley, the struggles against gentrification in San Francisco’s Manilatown and Chinatown, against the war in Vietnam, against poverty, against political disenfranchisement. They, along with other clergy, seminarians and laity, informed by their faith and rooted in their religious traditions, also challenged racism and discrimination within their own religious institutions and helped form effective non-profit and advocacy organizations.

Even more absent are the stories of the API religious women who were also involved in the activities of that time. They were writers, teachers, organizers, ministers, and workers behind-the-scenes. Some of them marched alongside their male clergy spouses as partners in ministry. Some engaged in their own ethnic communities or were allies to other communities; others fought to change their own religious institutions. The details and stories of their particular lives, motivations and involvements are not documented. Younger women, students, and the general public know little about the contributions of these women who, inspired by their faith, took bold and creative measures to stand up to the injustices of the day in their own ways. Their lives unfold stories to help us understand better the intersection between faith, culture, gender and politics in API women’s lives.


The Community Researchers:

From 2002-2009, the PANA Insitute (the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion, a center of Pacific School of Religion, a seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California) operated a youth leadership program called Represent to Witness (R2W) that trained over 150 young Asian and Pacific Islanders and other young leaders of color.  R2W was a holistic leadership development program that ran both in the summers and throughout the year to help provide participants with the leadership tools, characteristics, and competencies required to represent their experiences, faith, heritage, and communities for love, peace, and justice. R2W specifically sought to nurture a critical consciousness, values of justice, anti-racism, and class solidarity, and a strong self-representative voice in young leaders. Two-thirds of the R2W youth participants were female; half were working class; together they represented a wide range of API ethnic backgrounds, including strong representation from the often-underrepresented Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian communities. As these young leaders discerned their educational and vocational goals, R2W encouraged them towards the development of praxis and service.

Our Oral History Project research team was built on relationships formed through R2W: our seven Community Researchers (from Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, multiracial, Samoan, and Tongan communities) were selected from among the graduates of the PANA's R2W Summer Youth Leadership Institute. Both our Project Director and our Faculty Advisor had served as R2W adult staff.

The Research Questions:

The participants came together with different questions, curiosities, histories and purposes for this project. As a group we were seeking similarities, differences, faith, survival, motivations, communities, politics — the answers. Some of us felt like we were the only women active in our communities and were seeking other women like us. We decided to trace back the road paved step by step by the footprints of others on this journey.

We chose in this project to pursue these research questions:

How do faith practices and spiritual beliefs shape Pacific Islander and Asian American women’s political engagement? How does political engagement impact Pacific Islander and Asian American women’s faith practices and spiritual beliefs? What is the impact of feminist oral historiography on perceptions of internal and external political efficacy?

The participants decided to ask the women leaders these questions:

What kicked them off on this path?
Where did their framework come from?
What were their experiences of being in social movements or engaged in community issues?
Did they have spaces to question?
How did their faith play out? What parts were restricting or liberating?
How did they navigate their family expectation/obligations as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and the path they chose?
What was their experience of resisting protocols or culture?
How did they relate with their own ethnic community?
How did they balance their personal and political life?
What are the challenges they face as “political” women?
What motivates them to keep going?

The Process:

The Community Researchers participated in a workshop on oral historiography in August 2009,  led by project director Deborah Lee and faculty advisor Kathleen S. Yep, during which they generated potential interviewees, research question areas and interview questions for the project.

The project director met monthly for a year with the Community Researchers to discuss the interview process, reflect on interviews, and learn how to transcribe interviews. Interviews lasting roughly 90 minutes were conducted between December 2009 and August 2010. After the interviewing, coding and transcribing were completed, the entire project team met for a two-day residential working retreat in August 2010 to reflect on analytical themes and to write web page content.

Feminist Methodologies:

The community oral history project not only mapped feminist politics but also practiced feminist research methodologies (Geiger, Gluck & Patai, Reisman, Smith, Anderson & Armitage 1987). Rather than using a traditional model of researcher as subject and interviewee as object responding to our questions, we recognized that we were in dialogue with the interviewees, where both had a say in the nature and flow of the conversations. In this way, the research process co-creates the narratives with the respondents rather than researcher solely dictating the interview. (Ishibashi)

How We Selected the Stories:

Using semi-structured interview guides that included open-ended and close-ended questions, our Community Researchers conducted interviews in English at a location of the sources’ choosing. Using the "snowball" method of sampling, we were able to interview fourteen women leaders from Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Samoan, and Tongan communities, selected for diversity of API ethnicity, religion, and forms of engagement. The strength of the snowball sampling was being able to access this population: Asian American and Pacific Islander women community activists and faith-based organizers are hard to locate and contact. Weaknesses of this non-random method of sampling may be the lack of generalizability and the inability to comprehensively compare different perspectives on the same set of historical events and community experiences. The ethnicities present in the Community Researchers were mirrored in the overall sample; as such, gaps in the sample include Korean and Pilipin@ women.


There were two layers of outcome for this project. One was the deepening of our understanding of social movements: the stories expand the API social movement narrative by documenting oral histories of API women informed by their faith who engaged in the social movements. New themes about social movement participation emerged from the stories. The challenges and openings that patriarchy and heteronormativity create, both within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and in the mainstream American society, influenced the silencing and empowerment of feminists. Because of the rugged political terrain, our API women activists created a range of ways of being “political.” Their stories shed light on a broader range of possibilities in political engagement. And within their narratives, social justice work and faith both collide and cohere to create a liminal space of belonging, nourishment, tension, and discomfort.

A second outcome of the project was that the young Pacific Islander and Asian American women participants became empowered to create knowledge and learn qualitative research skills in order for them to imagine their own social documentation projects.

Drawing from R2W's background of critical thinking and social action, our community oral history project continued Freirian and feminist threads of fostering critical consciousness. The collaborative research process was based on dialogue, co-generating the sample and themes based on the researchers’ lived experiences. All aspects of the project (e.g. interview guide, coding, interpretation, and writing results) were shaped by feminist pedagogies of dialogue, drawing from what participants know, and destabilizing power and privileges. The interviews enhanced intergenerational and cross-ethnic and interreligious understanding among and about the API community by showcasing stories from women of different API communities and walks of life. After witnessing their elders’ stories, many of the Community Researchers reflected on how their own feelings of isolation as young women integrating faith practices and activism were ruptured. During the 2010 retreat, many expressed how they were inspired to continue their own faith-based activism. Through written and oral reflections, Community Researchers articulated an increased internal and external political efficacy through having learned oral history methodologies.

Public presentation, November 7, 2010