This is a conversation between Sohan Gade ‘23 and the Asian American Initiative’s (AAI) five co-founders and co-organizers: Yashita Kandhari ‘22, Cathy Xu ‘21, Raven Hudson ‘21, Sanzari Aranyak ‘22, and Ashley Ip ‘22. AAI was formed in 2018 out of a “need for a space to build community, as well as visibility, for Asian American students.” Their current demands include the hiring of Asian American specialists and the establishment of an Asian American Studies major and minor. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sohan Gade: What is the current process that you all have set in place for advocating for hiring of additional Asian American Studies faculty?
Cathy Xu: We definitely [talked to] a lot of past students and current students who are doing similar things or did some more things and then got their advice. In the past, before the Asian American Initiative, there was a group called ExpectAsian, who tried to get Asian American specialists on campus. Their approach was very much talking to faculty departments and admin first, and that didn’t work out really well, just because they ended up having to go in circles a lot and go back and forth to different people. So then we took their advice, and we decided to go from the students up. We did some research with peer institutions and their Asian American Studies departments to show Davidson what type of structures they have in place. Then we also started a dialogue series, where we hosted guest lectures. We also did reading discussions. And we kept notes all the time. Every event that we had, [we took notes on] how many people showed up, to show that there was interest. We also did a survey to gather interest. So by the time we actually went to the admin, we had already talked to a lot of faculty departments who expressed interest in Asian American Studies, and [we] also had the numbers of expressed interest by students.
SG: What are your current plans? What are your plans for the near future?
Raven Hudson: In terms of future plans, we have our demands, which is the blueprint. We were hoping that by, I think we said 2021, that there’d be several positions. I think it’s difficult just because right now, [our operation] is pretty decentralized [with us all being in different places]. There’s just so much else that people are worrying about right now, that it is not really the moment to be pushing our demands. We have been able to get several hires for this year and next year. That’s kind of where we are in terms of process: just kind of waiting for another, more opportune moment.
Sanzari Aranyak: We basically spent all of Fall 2019 trying really hard to get AAPI [Asian-American/Pacific Islander] professors to come to campus. The way that we did that was just through talking to basically every department on campus. We also talked to students, which is what we focused a lot on in Spring 2019, and then in Fall 2019. That’s how Dr. Heidi Hong, who’s an Asian American English professor, is coming next semester. That’s how we got the Humanities program to start thinking about what it meant to get Dr. Diego Luis here. So, we really focused on a bottom-up approach, because in the past, going to admin first has not worked.
SG: Now that you all have made a lot of groundwork in hiring, how would you address concerns about not having Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) faculty retained?
Ashley Ip: Well, I think the first thing we are trying to do, especially for this upcoming semester, is to have these classes filled and have it at the max capacity of students. This shows the administration that it’s not just the five of us that want to take these classes, that there’s a bigger and greater interest. It’s also that we have to continue bringing younger students in, for example, because [in] two years, all of us are about to graduate. A key part of student activism is that the four-year turnaround that happens, right? All the current positions that we have right now are visiting professorships. And so it’s really hard, because you also don’t want to stifle the aspirations that those professors have in terms of their career. Davidson, for some people, is going to be just a stepping stone in going somewhere else. Davidson’s tenured faculty is largely white. A lot of colleges at this point are just doing visiting professorships, and that’s kind of their main way of hiring people. It’s just generally really hard.
SA: It’s hard to work within all of that. I mean, for one example, Dr. [Sarah] Waheed is the entire South Asian Studies department right now. She’s leaving after this year, and we won’t even have a South Asian Studies program at that point. So that’s really tough. Retention is hard, as we’ve seen with the Africana Studies department. The institution at large isn’t willing to give people tenure. You either have visiting professors that just have a certain amount of contract, or ones like our assistant professors. [That’s] why part of our push originally in our advance demands for tenure track positions. We know that Davidson and every other institution has a pattern of just giving visiting assistant professorships to professors from marginalized communities, and then just letting them go.
SG: What would you cite as your biggest achievements in all this?
CX: I mean, within the year, we’ve been able to extend Dr. Yurika Tamura’s contract, and we have two visiting Asian American specialists for this academic year. I think it was important for us to show that Asian American Studies is an interdisciplinary major and that it can benefit people from different departments, which is also why we suggest that Asian American Studies could be established through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. It’s been cool to have specialists in different fields like Dr. Tamura. We extended her contract, and she’s in the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. Also, we have [Dr.] Diego Luis, who’s currently teaching Asian Diasporas to Latin America.
SG: How would you ensure the AAI can continue this work? How would you ensure that it is continued by future classes?
Yashita Kandhari: We’re trying to get more people involved, like sophomores and first-years, so it isn’t just us doing the work. We’re trying to get better at delegating, because it ends up being us doing work most of the time. So there’s that. We have a new website. Ashley and I are also doing a “Stories Yet to be Told” project, and we’re adding that. It’s all there in one place, so that people who come after us can see the work that’s already been done and hear about our experiences and have a blueprint so don’t have to start all over again. Sanzari discovered the ExpectAsian website just by chance on Twitter. We had no idea that they existed or that there was a precedent for this. I guess even just having social media and word of mouth will be important to make sure the same thing won’t happen to us where people kind of just forget about our work.
RH: I think one thing that we have had to continue to realize, as other people have pointed out to us, [such as] Dr. Fuji Lozada: we often don’t really think that we’ve been able to do that much. He said that we’re the reason that Dr. Tamura is still here and that Dr. Diego Luis and Dr. Heidi Hong are coming here. I like bringing that up to just say that everything has had to be student-led. Academic departments and faculty are willing to work with students. I think that the students are moving things forward. We have talked to administration; they’ve been really closed-off to us, and basically said that there just aren’t the resources to do what we want to do.
YK: I also think that yes, students are the ones that do all this work. We also get a lot of support from faculty who are here like Dr. Lozada, like Dr. Tamura, like Dr. Luis now. I also feel there’s no labor or no recognition or compensation for faculty who do so much for students, especially visiting professors. It’s really hard, because their contracts are limited, and they have to do their own research and apply for more jobs. In other ways, Davidson just pushes people out and makes life so much more difficult for students and for faculty. When faculty get here, there’s no real resources or no support for the things that they do. I mean, this is not the official terminology, but you should get recognition from the college or if you put in a certain amount of work, whether it’s meetings with students, or participation in different faculty groups, things like that. Why isn’t there a system for faculty to get compensated for all of this emotional labor?
RH:. Cathy and I are just so incredibly fortunate that Dr. Tamura is still here, because I wouldn’t be doing my thesis on what I’m doing if she wasn’t here, and I don’t know who would be advising me. It definitely wouldn’t be an Asian person.
SG: What would you say to people on campus who might be interested in helping out?
AI: I guess we can just say, if anyone is interested, we’re definitely looking for people. Yes, this is kind of our baby, and we definitely want it to be in good hands when we all leave, and also we want it to not just be our project anymore; we want all of the sophomores and freshmen to be involved. I think we just want more people to feel like they can get involved and to get involved. We’re all benefiting from these professors.