Confronting Power, Considering Possibilities: Why Asian American Cornell students have no excuse not to be at ECAASU 2018
Last year at this exact time, I was immersed in dynamic crowds of Asian American college students from every campus imaginable on the East Coast. Forty years ago, a collective of Asian American college students came together at Yale University and decided that a conference led by and for Asian American college students on the East Coast was necessary for mobilizing a scattered Asian American community. Along with other Cornell University students, I traveled to North Carolina for the 2017 East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) Conference, where I found a space dedicated to examining a multitude of issues related to racism, transnational and transracial adoption, representation, invisibility, and history. It was not until I witnessed the on-the-grounds work of the 2018 ECAASU Conference Team, to be held at Cornell on March 2nd, that I truly realized how much intense imagination, work, and commitment was required to create that very space I attended last year.
I try to imagine how much cumulative passion and effort were put into the now 41 ECAASU conferences, how many hundreds of thousands of young Asian Americans came together to envision better futures, and I am overwhelmed by the sheer collective energy these 41 years of conferences must have channeled into the world. Although the vision underlying the ECAASU conference and unimaginable possibilities that will inevitably come out of the conference truly are powerful, I know that it takes daily hands-on-work for months leading up to the conference by my fellow peers. And so I set out to interview the core, soul, and base of the 2018 ECAASU Conference team to understand the challenges and deep reflection required in planning such an immense cross-campus event. I talked candidly with Conference Director Jeremiah Kim ’19, Co-Directors of Programming Michelle Zhao ’19 and Eunnuri Yi ’20, and Programming Team Member Alice Li ’18, learning not only about the vigorous work required to make the conference happen but also why the 2018 ECAASU Conference is one that students will truly regret missing if they so choose not to attend.
Cognizance of continuum
Asian American Studies Program: Most people would say that the hardest parts of planning an ECAASU conference are 1) logistics and 2) theme. Tell us about your process of brainstorming and choosing a theme. What was important to you all in choosing the 2018 theme of "Continuum: Power Through Perspective”?
Jeremiah Kim: The conversation during which we chose the 2018 theme included 1 or 2 members of former 2008 ECAASU Conference Team members/Cornell alumni. We were mindful of these longstanding legacies of organizing and community-based education at Cornell, especially given the tradition of hosting ECAASU every 10 years. It was fruitful, then, to think of ourselves and our conference as a continuation of past conferences. We're also building the foundations for future conferences! It's all connected. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump was looming over a lot of us as this big, terrible, inconceivable thing; we realized how crucial it was *not* to divorce ourselves from history. If we took Trump seriously, we also had to take all that he represented—racism, xenophobia, capitalism, sexism, materialism, imperialism—as immanent to US history. These are structural problems that Asian Americans have dealt with before 2018, and they'll continue to deal with them long after 2018.
AASP: Like Jeremiah just mentioned, a big part of this year's conference identity stems from the fact that Cornell University is bringing ECAASU back to this campus for the 4th time. How has that influenced the decisions that you all make and the pressures that you all face?
Alice Li: The conference directors have done a great job at shielding team members from the immense responsibility that comes from the history between Cornell and ECAASU. Logistically, they have broken down large abstract concepts into manageable tasks for the whole conference team. In facing the pressures of meeting deadlines and maintaining quality, it has been important for me to look towards my team members for support and guidance.
Eunnuri “Nuri" Yi: I think we (or at least I) feel a little bit of pressure to live up to the past, especially since the 2008 conference was so successful— over 1200 students attended, the Cornell Asian and Asian American Center (A3C) was born. How could 1200 extra students fit on Cornell's campus? Where did the conference team even put them?! Because of this strong precedent, I really want the conference to be grounded in that history. At the same time, instead of only being weighed down by the legacy, I think that I take strength in looking towards the future. Ten years from now, I take hope from imagining that a new generation of Cornell students will be panicking about this conference. Michelle [Zhao] and I decided that Google Drive will hopefully still be around, so we're documenting the process and our thinking the best we can. We’re whimsically hoping to carefully archive our work for this imagined future generation of Cornell kids to find, since it was so fun for us to dig up the 2008 ECAASU Push Forward t-shirts, banners, and floppy disks. We’re taking strength and excitement from continuing this legacy so that future students just like us will be able to build off from our own work.
AASP: You all emphasize the long history of ECAASU conferences— how do you feel ECAASU 2018 is different from all of the other infinite ECAASU conferences that have been hosted in the past 40 years? And how do you want ECAASU 2018 to be different?
Jeremiah: I've only been to one other ECAASU conference before, so the biggest difference that I anticipate is that it'll be a lot colder than 2017's conference [in North Carolina]. Also, our conference will have opportunities to explore certain topics that I *feel* haven't been fully fleshed out at past conferences, thanks to our creative committee's incredible research and selection process, the marketing/outreach committee's excellent job of motivating people to come, and the logistics committee's awe-inspiring ability for making all of this possible.
Michelle: I'd like to believe our conference is more ~radical~, but I'm not sure how to measure that in comparison to past conferences. I just know that Nuri and I have been dedicated to pushing the content of this 2018 conference, confronting systems of power that students may not be familiar with challenging, and more widely expanding our imaginations of what kind of justice can be achieved.
Alice: Like Jeremiah and Michelle said, with every year, certain issues are brought to the forefront and others lost. ECAASU 2018 is different because of the set of events that have gained prominence within the last year. Large amounts of individuals from Asian American communities and other communities of Color are beginning to recognize the work that needs to be done and are seeking to learn from those who have been doing immensely important work within our communities. ECAASU 2018 is a place to form these connections.
My goal is to get people to start questioning the conventional values, norms, and stories that we usually assume are "common sense."
- Jeremiah Kim, 2018 ECAASU Conference Director
AASP: We’ve been intrigued by what exactly your logo and branding mean. What's up with the wave logo? What's up with the designs similar to the “THANK YOU” Asian takeout food plastic bags?
Jeremiah: The wave! When we envision a wave, we can choose to look at it either as a single event, or as one moment captured out of an endless cycle of events taking place in an infinite plane of many, many events colliding, intersecting, overlapping, and mingling. Basically, a wave is evidence of a pattern; it's only in relation to other waves that one wave begins to make sense. And it's the same way with our conference! In a sense, we don't want to single ourselves out; we're simply furthering and expanding the framework that has already been set by previous generations.
About the THANK YOU plastic bag motif: If I'm going to be honest, this was sort of an accident (ie, the result of messing around on Photoshop). BUT, sometimes accidents can lead to good things! One interpretation of the motif is that the repeated ECAASU's represent the succession of conferences at Cornell — so three outlined ECAASU's before the filled in ECAASU, and three ECAASU's after. Another not mutually exclusive interpretation is that the design harkens to Asian takeout plastic bags. Asian Americans have historically been racialized and classed as a disposable or surrogate labor force. Rather than refute these narratives by trying to prove our instrumentality to mainstream American culture, what if we chose instead to dwell at the margins of society? What if we chose to see trash as beautiful? And I don't mean that in a metaphoric sense.
Activating a wave
AASP: W.E.B. DuBois starts his incredible work The World and Africa by saying that even if his whole book ends up with false conclusions and inevitable factual mistakes, he will feel good to know that he stated a history that proves Black people of the world are just as human as all other people. So now we turn this question to you all. Even if this ECAASU conference inevitably has small and big hiccups, maybe some devastating mishaps, what exactly are you intent on making sure is communicated to attendees, and what do you want all attendees to walk away thinking?
Nuri: I haven't started reading The World and Africa yet! I really want attendees to walk away thinking: “Dang, these people cared, and they really tried!” We are trying to put on a conference with integrity, to congregate people in a space to learn and discuss — and I think that's reflected in the choice of speakers and performers, in the structure of workshops and caucuses, and in our conference theme.Even if there are false conclusions or mistakes within our political message, more than anything, I want people to leave caring about each other because of all of the hard work everyone on the conference team has put in. I'd want more than anything for our work to stimulate growth in ourselves and attendees through this conference to be respected and appreciated.
Jeremiah: Given ECAASU's apparent reputation as a social event, our number one goal is to simply get people thinking in the first place! But to go even further, my goal is to get people to start questioning the conventional values, norms, and stories that we usually assume are "common sense." This goes from how we participate in the current educational system in the US, to how we approach gender, to how we formulate our hopes for the future, to how we see ourselves (people vs students? individuals vs members of a community?). In an ideal world, every attendee will walk away from the conference thinking to themselves, "What are some issues that I can teach others about based on my own experiences? What are some issues that I can learn from others about based on their experiences? How can we work together to create something out of our shared struggle that's bigger than any one of us as mere individuals?"
Alice: This goes along with what everyone else said, but I want to make sure that attendees know that there are people out there that care about the world and the problems various communities are facing. These people are actively taking steps to improve conditions for all of humanity and any attendee can be a part of the relationship and community building that is necessary to change conditions.
AASP: Choosing to be a core part of planning ECAASU is a serious commitment. Seeing you all go to all these meetings and send innumerable emails make planning seem like an unpaid full-time job. What drives you all to push through and plan the conference?
Nuri: To be honest I've realized some time in this process that I mostly hate meetings and emails, so I've actually formulated a response to this before you even asked this question — which is that though it's easy to get lost in the murkiness of logistical detail, I've grown to really care about everyone else who's also working on this conference. I believe in these fellow people also putting in time and energy into ECAASU, and so it's a positive feedback loop. Seeing other people's commitment to this conference and its ideals, their investment in fulfilling all of its potential — that gives me a lot of motivation when I'm tired or if I don't believe in myself.
Alice: Many of my comrades on the ECAASU 2018 team are my friends and seeing them trudge through the often never-ending cycle of tasks to be done despite existential crises and seemingly unending nights reminds me that we're all in this together.
Jeremiah: We're all carrying this load together. We're all stressed together. We hold each other accountable, but we also hold each other up when one person loses their footing.
Michelle: I don’t want to quit on the conference directors, the other members, and myself. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed about club commitments or jaded by other people’s lack of gratitude and appreciation, but we all continue to keep chugging along. ECAASU has been a faith-restoring experience. It has reminded me of the goodness that we can all feel when everyone pulls together as a team. I also really want to get Bambu [the rapper] here, and even though there are logistical challenges, I am darn committed to seeing Bambu in Ithaca!
AASP: Why is ECAASU meaningful to you?
Michelle: Wow, you’ve got me in the reflecting mood. ECAASU straight up was the gateway to everything that I really love about college: I met Emily [Dong] through it, then Jeremiah, got closer to Alex [Ma, Co-Director of Logistics], met Nuri, got a little more involved in Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA), and became so good at writing e-mails (I don't love this about college, but it is a side-outcome). I have met all these people who are acting with an underlying motivation of self-improvement and education that is refreshing. I don't think that my path would have necessarily crossed with all of these different crowds under the Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union (CAPSU) umbrella if not for ECAASU. Also, joining the conference team and saying that I'm a part of it out loud for the 1.5 years have shaped my coursework trajectory. Look at me! I’m in deep with the Asian American Studies Program (AASP)— that’s a big one. ECAASU anchored me to this space and brought me out of labor-focused classes at ILR for once. ECAASU widened my road here and has brought me closer to some kind of alignment of values and actions. I think it's pushed me to be more reflective, decisive, intentional, and proud of myself. Michelle! Zhao!
AASP: What has been the biggest challenge of planning and executing ECAASU?
Nuri: I'm a sophomore, and technically this is my first college leadership position, so I've had a lot to learn. There’s an unimaginable amount of logistics and coordination required as well as leadership, so I think it took me some time to grow used to this level of work.
Jeremiah: The pressure only builds. It never decreases. There's always more to do, more to keep track of, more check off the to-do list, more to add to the to-do list.
Michelle: Time management. Overcoming anxiety about tasks ahead and just pushing forward. I’ve needed to overcome shyness and instead develop some sense of assertiveness. Believe me, one big thing is discovering diligence— I have always struggled with diligence.
AASP: As we reach the one week left mark for ECAASU 2018, what has been an assumption you've made about planning ECAASU that was proven wrong?
Jeremiah: That we would have [insert task] done by [insert date].
Michelle: That I would get contracts signed by 2018.
AASP: On the other hand, what has been the biggest lesson that you've learned from planning ECAASU?
Nuri: Accept that some things are kind of out of your own control because they're bigger than you. You just have to find ways to adapt, make do, or improvise... or just cope!
Jeremiah: Don't be afraid to ask others for help. Alternatively, don't be so conceited as to not ask others for help.
Michelle: STRONG, SUPPORTIVE, GROUPWORK - accountability to other people - respond to your messages heh.
Alice: It's an immense amount of work planning a conference! There's so many gears moving at a single moment. I'm always amazed by how much everyone is doing!
AASP: Lastly, wow! You all have done so much work just to make this conference happen. How do you all manage to be students, humans with human needs, and a core part of planning such a large conference?
Nuri: At least so far this semester, I've been sleeping fairly early and consistently (before 2:00 AM!), because I realized I have to take care of my body and absolutely can't afford to get sick before March 3rd. If I don't force myself to be intentional about it, the stress could take toll. I think a big part that helps is that we're pretty good friends, too. Michelle and I keep each other in the loop about everything in Creative and usually bounce thoughts off of each other about what we need to do. We support each other with everything else in our life, which always makes me feel better. Inevitably, ECAASU is our life now, so at least it's something that's shared among us. Also, I think that I have many good humans around me who are all very supportive and funny.
Michelle: I get a lot of support, reassurance, and life-affirming motivation from the people on the conference team. Nuri and I have grown especially close, I never fail to appreciate how quickly Alex responds to my frantic messages on fb messenger, Anna [Tedijanto, Co-Director of Marketing and Outreach]’s optimism, Juliana [Hong, Co-Director of Marketing and Outreach’s inquisitive nature, Becca [Lee, Co-Director of Logistics]’s responsibility and good humor, and Jeremiah's care and attention to this whole shindig. So much care. He also makes killer graphics. ECAASU has made me appreciate other human beings even more than before, and I just want to celebrate them.