On this page
- Emergent Themes from Our Research
- 1) Redefining “political”: different ways of being
- 2) Negotiating gender; mediating patriarchy
- 3) Transformative faith
- What We Learned From the Project
- Reflection and Discussion Questions
Emergent Themes from Our Research
1) Redefining “political”: different ways of being
Our oral history project was called “Women, Faith, and Action: Asian Pacific Islander Women and Their Faith-Based Activism.” As Community Researchers, we were given the task of finding women of faith in our communities who were involved in political activism. Many women who we viewed as leaders in our communities did not identify as “political” or as “activists.” They described their work as simply “helping people” and “doing what needed to be done in the community.” Talking with these women about their work in the community expanded our definition of “being political.”
For Cheoeng Chuord, Sarou Vong, Sambat Oun, and Vat Nobb, Cambodian Buddhist refugees who live in Long Beach, being political meant surviving the Khmer genocide so that they could raise their children and sending money back to Cambodia. When asked about how she felt about Khmer Rouge being prosecuted, Sarou Vong, said, “I’m not mad at the people that did that to us. We never got to see their faces. If we take their lives, too, it’s not going to bring my family back to life. The only thing we can do is forgive them and move on.”
For Rev. Wako Puanani Burgess on the Wai'anae Coast of O'ahu in Hawaii, being political meant unlearning violent patterns of communication and embracing nonviolent ways of working together for the common good and becoming a mediator: “I think this passage from Eckhart really helped me to understand my passageway: ‘Advocacy chooses to stand by one side for justice’s sake. Mediation is to choose connection to all sides for justice’s sake.’ At one point I was an advocate and now I’m a mediator.”
For Marion Wake, a Japanese American survivor of the Internment, being political meant providing counseling and mental health services in communities of color: “There was no other center that was serving the Asian Americans. There were mental health centers that were serving the Hispanic and the African Americans and so forth, but no one except the ministers and people like that who counseled with people... All the Asian counselors and social workers and psychologists and psychiatrists were working with the general population. They weren’t able to concentrate on their own people.”
For Tofaifaleula Tosi Amosa, it meant becoming the first Samoan woman to be ordained in Congregational Christian Church in American Samoa. For Doreen Der McLeod, it meant fighting to construct parks in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For Jean Ishibashi, it means teaching Women’s Studies at City College of San Francisco.
These women have nurtured their community providing healing, housing, and peace.
Doreen Der McLeod said, “I think it’s a part of Asian culture: you don’t feel the need to stand out and be in front. Our style of leadership is very different. In APW [Asian Presbyterian Women], we would rotate who was chair. It’s something that’s easy for us to do, to have a shared leadership style.”
Unconcerned about individual accomplishment or recognition, these assessed their communities’ needs and responded to them by doing what needed to be done for their communities when no one else was.
2) Negotiating gender; mediating patriarchy
These women boldly confronted gender social norms of their place in society. They exerted their strength, voiced their opinions, and took action. Some were the first women ministers in their communities. Some stood up to sexual harassment. Some were silenced no matter how much they tried to be heard in the face of criticism from their own people. And others exemplified resiliency, surviving war and genocide.
Gender influenced the kinds of paid work and vocations open to them at the time, with quite a few in education and social work. Others expressed their gifts through work in religious or community institutions, though they often had to negotiate dynamics of gender, power and decision-making in those settings.
Another arena in which they mediated patriarchy was in their family life as daughters, wives, and mothers. Some never married. Others married and became mothers. Their choices shaped creative ways they lived out their vocations.
3) Transformative faith
These API women paved paths for their families, communities and future. Their faith was transformative and built bridges to new possibilities and new places.
Faith for these women took on many different forms. For some it was expressed through their lifelong involvement in Christian churches or Theravada Buddhism. For others, their early exposure and formation in institutional religion was a departure point for them to integrate their own spiritual practices. Several of the women practice indigenous and feminist spiritualities. Several of them have become ordained priests or pastors in their traditions. We learned that really vital faith and spiritual formation does not just come through churches or temples, but also through family and other spiritual institutions, like the YWCA or the indigenous communities.
Faith and spirituality shaped who they are and provided a framework for the work that they do in philosophical and very practical ways. Faith and spiritual communities provided leadership skills and opportunities, life-changing mentorship, framework and philosophy, sense of social responsibility, and a community of belonging.
For some of the women, their faith and political convictions are tightly woven and integrated. Faith was a force of motivation that moved them to action. Faith helped them survive pain, stay alive and keep hope. Faith was that resilience, that nudge, that courage that kept them moving, traveling, fighting, praying and hoping for a better world.
What We Learned from the Project
This project provided us with an opportunity to participate together in a revolutionary process. It tapped into many of our passions and provided us with a meaningful way to learn more about things we had always wanted to know. It encouraged us to take time to be present with strong women leaders in our communities. We met new people. These women became our teachers; some of them are now our colleagues. Many of the women we interviewed felt that it was meaningful for them to be interviewed, to review their lives and share the lessons they learned with a new generation of women leaders. At the same time, it was a privilege for us to hear and learn from their stories. We gained a better sense of what happened in our API communities from the 1960s to the 1990s and the roles women played in social movements during this time. Our people’s stories and histories became part of our daily thoughts and concerns. Hearing one woman’s story made us want to hear other women’s stories.
We learned that women before us have taken great risks to do good in their communities. We learned that if you want someone to share their own experiences with you, sometimes you just have to ask. They may just not realize you don’t know what to them is common knowledge about their lives. We learned that people’s lives are so much more complex than what they appear to be on the surface. Oral history is a way to empower our people. We need to see the significance in our own life stories. We learned that while talking about death, genocide and pain you sometimes need to laugh. We learned it’s hard to balance a vocation with motherhood, and it takes a supportive community to do both. We learned how important language is and how much more deeply we can connect with people if we speak in their native tongue.
We want to pass these stories down to future generations so that girls can learn from the bold women before them and boys can understand and respect the experiences of their sisters, aunties, mothers and grandmothers.
Quotes from Community Researchers on what we learned:
“The process of finding people to talk was very hard. My mom called around the Cambodian community to find women to talk. I got to share something that I was passionate about and cared about with my mom. I learned so much from all the women that I had seen growing up. Before I just knew superficial things about their life. To see these women in this light showed strength. Sometimes I saw mischievous looks on the faces of the women I interviewed. In the middle of talking about death and genocide and pain, they needed to laugh. I learned about humor and how difficult that could be. It was unleashing and liberating.” —Sophay
“I have often felt isolated in the progressive spaces that i move in. I needed to find other samoan sisters. I needed to know that i wasn't walking, fighting, speaking, pushing and teaching alone. I needed to hear stories that i could relate to. I wanted to understand mine. I wanted connection.” —Crystal
“I was determined to interview a Tongan woman because I wanted to understand a different generation, one that was older, wiser, and experienced. I realized how important faith is in community work. I learned that women like Mele broke barriers and created new ways of being in the world as strong and humble leaders. I was inspired to learn my native language because there is a deeper understanding of telling a story that does not hold the same meaning in English. I was happy my younger sister was with me during the interview to witness this experience.” —Sina
“I wanted to help non-Samoans to understand the struggle of Samoan women, how sometimes the barriers and obstacles are your own people. I did this project because I want my kids to have a better life. I want my nephews to grow up to be understanding and respecting their sisters, women. I fear that this project will stir up trouble and I'm a part of it, and at the same time, I can't wait to see the changes it will bring.” —Siou
“I wanted to fill in the gaps of the names of the women who were involved in the past. What I learned is that they were doing so many of the same things that we are doing now...educating, doing fundraisers, walking with communities, asking what is our dream? People criticized them. They took big risks. It meant that not everyone is going to like you. But people did what they thought was right in particular moments. I learned how women followed their vocation and were mothers too. It was hard and it could not have been done without a lot of support.” —Deborah
“I was humbled by the challenges these women faced throughout their lives and the vision they have had to better their communities. It was an extremely valuable experience to learn what motivated them to do the courageous work that they did despite the obstacles they faced because of their gender, race and class.” —Jun
“I learned that sometimes you just have to ask if you want to know your community's history. Sometimes, it's not that elders don't want to talk about their history, but they don't realize that you don't know it because it was such common knowledge for their generation. ... During the interview, I learned that my parents' and elder generations' experience being an Asian American activist was similar to mine – they too felt conflicted about getting involved in activism in college because they wanted to respect the sacrifices that their parents had made, too.” —Lauren
It wasn’t easy—we faced a few challenges along the way. We started out with a very wide focus: Asian Pacific Islander women, faith, and action. Doing community research required learning new skills and being present with interviewees in a different way than we were used to. Many of the women were very busy people—raising children, doing community activism, and being working professionals. As a result, many of our interviews were conducted in the midst of their busy lives—we had to carve out spaces in tiny cottages, public libraries, and noisy parsonages. There was no time to develop relationships with the interviewees, so sometimes it was hard to know what questions to ask. Sometimes the conversations didn’t flow as hoped; other times the interviews became very intense and emotional.
Some of us faced language barriers. Some of the women of older generations spoke little English and some of us spoke little of our ethnic languages. In the process of language translation, we learned that sometimes there are no English words that can articulate the essence of what was shared.
It was challenging to find people who identified as “political” and “religious.” We had to translate “political activism” to our communities because they called it something else. Often women didn’t identify as “political” or as “activists,” but as people who “helped other people,” people who did “community work,” or people who “just did what needed to be done in the community.” Some women whom we wanted to interview didn’t think their stories were relevant or significant enough to share.
Interviewing people from our own communities made it easier and harder at the same time. Some women were concerned about the implications of what they were saying and the repercussions of their interviews being made public.
After having gone through the process once, we reflected on some things would have made it easier: Meet often and set interim goals to keep momentum. Watch documentaries and other good examples of oral historiography to stay in the zone. Make sure all Community Researchers can be present for the entire process or make sure that someone’s taking really good notes to document and share the process.
Reflection and Discussion Questions
- Who are the women in your own communities who may not be publicly recognized for the work that they do?
- Can you think about women in your own communities who have resisted gender oppression?
- This project expanded our notion of what “being political” means. What does “being political” mean to you?
- How does your faith or spirituality relate to the way you are “political”?
- How do you see ethnicity and gender affecting the ways in which people are political?
If you would like, you can post your reflections our website's Comments page.