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A Conversation on Aging and Equity

Category: Creative Aging

A discussion with Daphne Kwok, Vice President of Diversity Equity & Inclusion, Asian American & Pacific Islander Audience Strategy at AARP, Lisa Sasaki, Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and Edward Tepporn, Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station, moderated by Andrew Plumley, Senior Director of Equity and Culture at AAM. The Museum Summit on Creative Aging, July 29, 2021.


Elizabeth Merritt: Daphne will now be joined by Lisa Sasaki, interim director of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and Edward Tepporn executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation for a conversation on aging and equity moderated by Andrew Plumley, AAM’s senior director of equity and culture. This is a live panel. Please submit any questions you have for panelists using the Q&A button at the bottom of your Zoom screen.

Andrew Plumley: Welcome, welcome. Welcome everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. What an absolutely thought provoking keynote by Daphne Kwok and some really, really great resources in the chat box as well. Some great conversation going on. It’s an absolute pleasure to be with you all this afternoon. As Elizabeth Merritt said, my name is Andrew Plumley. I’m the senior director of equity and culture at the American Alliance and Museum. And I’m very excited to be with you all today. I’m joined by three amazing panelists, one of which you should recognize, hi Daphne, as well as the amazing Edward Tepporn and Lisa Sasaki. We don’t have much time in this follow up conversation. So I’ll briefly touch on the amazing bios of these panelists and get right into discussion. I hope you all don’t mind.

Daphne Kwok again is the vice president of diversity equity and inclusion at Asian American & Pacific Islander Audience Strategy at AARP. Edward Tepporn is the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which is the primary nonprofit organization working in partnership with the California state parks to preserve the buildings at the former US Immigration Station at Angel Island and to uplift its histories and stories. And Lisa Sasaki has taken a temporary leave from her position as director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, as she was appointed interim director of the new and very exciting Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum in March of this year.

I encourage you all to read these amazing panelists full bios on today’s summit’s homepage. And hopefully one of my colleagues can put that homepage right in the chat for us. But let’s get started on this wonderful panel and hopefully we can have a stimulating conversation. Lisa, I’ll start with you. Daphne quoted her good friend Helen Zee in our keynote describing Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders as MIH or Missing in History. And as you all are on this panel, you’re all coming to these conversations from in the museum or from different spaces, i.e. in your communities, in other nonprofit and actually museums themselves. And so how do you see opportunities for partnership with museums to make sure that Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are not MIH moving forward? Daphne put some in the chat, but what are your thoughts around that?

Lisa Saskai: I think first of all before I can go in and talk about ideas specifically about how museums can be more inclusive of these communities. I think I first just have to acknowledge that being somebody who’s worked in museums for 25 years now, I just say with love in my heart that museums have some work to do. We all, every person part of this webinar today viewing it or participating in it. We all have some work to do because oftentimes what happens when we do when I think Franklin Odo had mentioned to Daphne, we target communities. When you pull it out and say it like that, doesn’t that sound really harsh. We’ve been targeting communities and telling them about themselves. And instead I think your question Andrew is really first, we have to learn how to be really good partners first.

And in order to be a good partner, you have to be willing to share authority and actually be in partnership, 50/50 partnership ideally with the communities that you want to be visible within your narratives. And I think that’s something that’s been very difficult given the history and background of how museums came into being. We tend to be really academic focused in some cases, but we have a lot of great examples. Community based organizations, many of which Daphne referenced in your talk. The Japanese American National Museum, the Museum Of Chinese in America, the Wing Luke. Shout out to all of these great organizations. I could go on and on and list so many more who have been spending time being and working in that partnership. Being truly community based.

And I think if we can do that work first, then all of the logistical things, all of the programs, all of the things we can do to communities or do with communities in order for them not to be missing in history comes about naturally. But we have to start on that first. And if we forget to do that, it makes all of the other things slide backwards.

Andrew Plumley: Thanks, Lisa. That makes a lot of sense. And when I’m talking to museums across the country, that’s one of the things that is front and center on top of mind is how do we actually build proper partnerships where there’s actually both sides are in it and it’s an actual equitable partnership? Ed, do you have any thoughts about out how we can make sure that these communities are not MIH? What have you done in your museum around this on Angel Island?

Edward Tepporn: Thanks Andrew. And thank you to AAM and AARP for the opportunity to be part of this panel. Daphne and Lisa, it’s an honor to be in this conversation with you. I do want to just start by acknowledging that Angel Island is located on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Miwok. And so whenever I am on the site, I personally reflect on the continued invisibility and injustices that both Indigenous and immigrant communities continue to experience. Now in her keynote, Daphne had asked us to think about what we learned about Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders histories in school. And I was born in Thailand, but I grew up in Texas, but never learned about Angel Island’s history. So often when we reflect on parts of what’s missing from history when it comes to Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, unfortunately the history of Angel Island isn’t well known and I would venture to guess that many of our participants on today’s webinar might not have been taught about Angel Island as well.

So I just want to take a brief moment to share that Angel Island was a former US immigration station, just like Ellis Island. But unlike Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, which continued to serve as a symbol of our nation’s welcoming our beacon to immigrants, Angel Island has a much darker place in history. So from 1910 to 1940, over 500,000 immigrants primarily from China and Japan but from across 80 different countries, were processed, detained and interrogated at Angel Island due to our country’s exclusionary immigration policies, which started with the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882. But over subsequent decades, continued to expand into other policies that ultimately created an Asiatic barred zone, where anyone from most countries in Asia and the Pacific could not come to the US or naturalize.

And so Angel Island served as this place where immigrants of Asian heritage were treated very differently from European immigrants. Both in terms of the conditions that they were placed in. The cramped unsanitary barracks that Asian immigrants were housed in. The much more intensive medical screenings where Asian immigrants were forced to strip completely naked and to provide blood and stool samples in their attempts to enter this country. And the periods of lengthy interrogation and detention where on average Asian immigrants spent anywhere from three weeks up to two years in detention. And so that’s part of the history that is unfortunately missing in history.

When I think about the responsibility of where it falls to address this, I don’t think it falls solely on the shoulders of museums. But I do think that museums hold an important role. When we think about how Daphne mentioned that our communities constitute 6%, 7% of the US population now, to what degree do we have equitable inclusion in museum staffing and museum leadership and museum programs? Do those percentages look equitable? And so I also just want to end this portion of my comments by saying that it’s not only important to ensure that we’re not missing in history, but it’s also important that museums of all shapes and sizes and all different foci areas help to continue to dispel the harmful stereotypes and narratives, some of which Daphne mentioned in her keynote, that negatively impact our communities in the here and now.

And one particular narrative that I do want to raise up is that of the model minority where Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders communities are universally seen as being wealthy and well educated. That model minority myth is a false myth. We are a very diverse community of 50 different ethnic groups that speak a hundred different languages. And when we perpetuate that myth, it makes it that much harder to bring attention to the true experiences that certain segments of our communities are challenged with.

Andrew Plumley: Really, really, really great points Ed and I’m hoping that we can get back to some of that in the next couple of questions. One thing that I’ve been thinking about is, through these times of the pandemic and really around quarantine, it just brought front and center to us how isolated many of our elders were because we couldn’t go outside, because many aren’t attached to social media during quarantine times. And when thinking about the inequity that was laid there for us all to see, how can museums and the ecosystems that support museums do a better job of galvanizing around the intersections of the AAPI community and our elders? And how we can collaborate with each other with folks in on this panel and participants in lifting up the histories and the current realities in the future as well, as we’re all intertwined in this work. And Daphne, I would love to hear your perspective on this, and then we’ll swing it around to everybody else.

Daphne Kwok: Well, thank you. And I would say that what Lisa and Ed just opened with, I hope that people really take to heart because that is really the heart of what we’re talking about. And as Ed mentioned, the model minority myth, along with a perpetual foreigner issue, those two issues. I’ve been in the field working in Asian community for several decades now. And from day one, that George Takei comment all the way to now, those are the two issues that we keep coming back to having to inform and educate. How can we bring together the AAPI community, the elders and the museum community. I think now, especially as we try to be inclusive, that partnership that Lisa talks about, that 50/50 partnership. Now would be a great opportunity to really reach out into the AAPI community to really try to engage our elders, really to be able to tell the story.

Because as we know that through education, awareness raising history, we can really hopefully break down barriers between the different groups. And so hopefully now, especially as people have been able to, whether in person because they live in the same household or virtually, that families have been able to really unearth a lot of the family issues and history. And so hopefully this can and be the basis of some of the programming going on with your museums as well.

Andrew Plumley: Lisa, any thoughts around what Daphne was talking about or what Ed was saying earlier?

Lisa Saskai: Well, I just wanted to bring to the forefront one thing that I do think is a really interesting intersection between the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities and museums, which is this concept around safety. So just to take a moment, I think we’ve all read or seen online headlines about what was happening over the last two years. And it’s been something that I’ve been watching very carefully but I think we often don’t realize the personal impact of this. So for just a moment, I just want to recognize all of the people who are out there who are actually afraid. Afraid to walk outside, afraid to get on a subway, afraid to simply go on a walk around their neighborhood because they were being attacked viciously to the point of death. To the point of having to fight back to be able to feel safe when you walked around.

That’s something that I think that as Americans, we hope nobody ever has to feel. But because all of those things that Daphne and Ed have already mentioned about being the perpetual foreigner, being the model minority, and yet at moments like this being the eternal scapegoat for something that you had absolutely no control over. But simply because that there was a virus and because you looked the way that you did. And I think that this is really important for us to remember, as we as museum professionals, think about what we’re trying to do within our organizations. We’re trying to create safe spaces for people.

And I know oftentimes in moments of crises, museums have stepped forward, whether they became places where community members could go to have AC during a heat wave or brown outs or places where that they could go to feel comfortable and to see themselves. And I’m just going to ask everybody now to take a moment and think about how can you provide a sense of safety for communities who are really traumatized in this moment? Who can we talk to? What do we need to learn in order that we can truly be those safe spaces for these community members? Because it is very real. It’s very visceral.

And I will say, I’ve had friends, I myself have had that feeling of, do I go out? If I’m wearing a mask, will people assume that I’m infected? Am I going to be looked at differently when I’m in spaces? And as a fourth generation Japanese American, that’s something that I had hoped I would never have to experience. And I did. So I just wanted to give everybody that feeling, because we can talk about the fact and figures, but the reality is, and I think this is what all of us know in our hearts of hearts is we serve people as museums and we have a group of people right now that are really scared.

Andrew Plumley: Lisa, I really appreciate you naming that. And I want to go a little bit off script here and have a conversation, which we all did in the run up to this panel. Just around the broader context of the model minority myth and all of the stereotypes in which you’re talking about because it’s really all under the umbrella of white supremacy. And so when we think about that context and how these things came to be, what I really want ask you and Ed, I’ll start with you. Lisa just asked folks to think about how we can be better allies for when we see things happen around stereotypes, bias, actual physical violence towards any community.

As a Black man, for me, I want to know how I can be a better ally to all communities. But in this time… And Lisa, we were on a panel around stopping racism and xenophobia a year ago at the AAM annual conference. And we’re still seeing the same things a year later. And so Ed, can you just speak about the overall context for which all of this is situated and then maybe some strategies for all of us to better partner to come together to fight racism, to fight xenophobia generally.

Edward Tepporn: Thanks for that question Andrew and a hundred percent agree with what Lisa said, the importance of creating safety. I think the other piece of that is also addressing the invisibility and regardless of how any person identifies or whatever issue or area a museum focuses on, it is as simple as that if you don’t see something, say something. The onus of raising these inequities that Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders and our elders’ communities, the visibility that our communities experience, the onus and responsibility of addressing those pieces does not fall solely on the shoulders of those who identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.

And at the same time as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, we must all continue to speak up and speak out. While there are these very rich traditions of storytelling and sharing our histories within our families, within our communities. There are also cultural norms and taboos about talking about our challenges, our difficulties, the injustices endured. And unless we speak up and share all of these realities that we experience, then what our communities experience continues to go invisible. Also, at the same time for those of us who identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, we have to be just as vocal about speaking out about the inequities and structural barriers impacting our communities as we are about our brothers and sisters in black, indigenous, Latino, Latino Latinx communities, differently abled communities, LGBTQI communities, and other communities that experience inequities and justices.

Because ultimately we are all rooted together. We are all bounded together by the impact of white supremacy. We are all bound together by the impact of being othered. And I just want to take a moment to lift up the work of John Powell and his team at the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute for the work that they’re doing to help us as a country move from exclusion to inclusion. And so if you haven’t had a chance to see the work that they’re doing, I think that their work really spans museum sectors, public health sectors, educational sectors.

Andrew Plumley: Yes, absolutely. The Othering and Belonging Institute does fantastic work. So thanks for mentioning them. As we think about all marginalized communities, but specifically the AAPI community… And actually I will speak to the Black community as well in this. When we think about different generations, there’s different thoughts about what should be shared, how we talk about oppression, how we talk about our past, present and future. And I think every community has its own way of doing that both within marginalized communities and then inter generationally as well. And so when we think about different generations having different ideas and comfortability speaking about these topics, how might we do a better job of bridging generations and having conversations from elders down to younger folks, both within the museum field and then again, in the broader context of sharing stories?

And Daphne, I’m not sure, do you have any examples of that going on? I know that you told a really great story about you and your father, and actually recording some of those stories. But could you speak a little bit to that?

Daphne Kwok: I think in the AAPI community, there’s been a lot of trying to capture those stories. But I think what would be really important now, as we talked about the younger generation too, is that how can we get let’s say African American youth to interview the Japanese American community? How can we get the Hispanic American community to interview the Chinese American community? One of the things I’ll just throw out there, but it can be also used in the museum world too, is when I was leading OCA, the Organization of Chinese American, a civil rights organization. Of course, we had summer internships, we were based in DC. We’re part of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. So I was placing interns, Asian American interns, college students in the NAACP Washington DC lobbying office. What a tremendous opportunity. I was so jealous. I wish I could have been one of those interns to work there with the tremendous work that the NAACP is doing. So I think more of those cross sectional opportunities would be great. So I would challenge everybody to take interns or take this next round from another community.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you, Daphne. Lisa, thoughts on that?

Lisa Saskai: I just wanted to share some work that the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has been doing because I think its an interesting model. So I’m just sharing the link right now in the chat with everybody. But the curator of Hawaii and Pacific, Kālewa Correa has been leading our stories, which is a digital storytelling initiative for the center in Hawaii and across the Pacific, running with this idea of leveraging the idea of talk story, but also modern technology. Today, just even within our hands, I’m going to show my iPhone there. We have so much more capacity and like what Daphne did, recording her father during the walks. But what we don’t realize is that we now have a generation that can put together a TikTok video that goes viral to millions of people just on their phone.

And so how do we leverage that? How are we able to connect youth to the stories of their elders? And there’s really great examples of the work that Kālewa has been doing. Anything from getting a group of students to go to the Mauna Kea protectors encampment to have them do a film, produce a film that records elders speaking about their experiences and why it’s so important and to protect that land. And during that point in time, we were able to have them film the first director of an astronomy laboratory from the Smithsonian going up to meet with the elders there. So that’s an example of opening up and allowing technology to go into the hands of people who, first of all, know it so much more better than I do. But getting them the opportunity to tell their community stories and then utilizing platforms like the Smithsonian or any museum to then be able to get those stories out there. So that’s just one example that I wanted to share with everybody.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you Lisa. And Ed, any thoughts on that, that Daphne and Lisa haven’t mentioned?

Edward Tepporn: I think what Daphne and Lisa mentioned are all really great examples. Just to add some additional examples. At the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, we’ve partnered with Angel Island State Park to continue to create opportunities for families to come together to visit the historic buildings at Angel Island. And we know that for many of the former detainees, unfortunately, they’re not that many who are still left alive. And we’ve heard time and time again from many of these families that those detainee experiences on Angel Island was so traumatic that they never talked about it with their own families or that these family members found out that their grandfather, their grandmother, their mother, father were detained on Angel Island after that person had passed away. And that’s why I feel so fortunate that three weeks ago, I had the opportunity and the privilege to be part of a family trip out to Angel Island that was taken by Calvin Ong who spent four months in detention as a 10 year old boy at Angel Island.

And three weeks ago had the privilege of accompanying his family out. And there’s this very iconic photo that we placed on our social media that shows Calvin now as a 90 something year old sitting on the stairwell where he sat as a 10 year old boy, along with his three grandchildren. And it’s those moments of opportunity to be physically in that space or to be virtually in that space if people are not able to come out to Angel Island. To spark that dialogue, to remember that history and to think about how we are unfortunately in so many ways repeating history. From the unjust immigration policies, to the family detention and separation, to the children’s detention that happened at Angel Island that is happening now along our Southern border.

I also just wanted to quickly lift up the work that the Japanese American National Museum is doing with their Queer Nikkei Stories project, as well as The Dragon Fruit Project by Asian Pacific Islander at Equality Northern California. And both of those projects are trying to spark dialogue and to use interviews to spark conversations so that the queer youth of today have the opportunity to learn and also teach our queer elders.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you so much Ed and panelists for this fantastic conversation. I’m going to shift this over. We have one question in the Q&A box, and we do have a couple more minutes. I want to get to as many questions as we can. Redmond Barnett asks the question, given the diversity in the AANHPI communities, should museums partner with narrower communities, e.g. Filipino Americans rather than imagining that some group speaks for all AANHPI people? Thoughts on that? I’ll open it up for anyone.

Lisa Saskai: I’ll kick it off first. And I guess first I’ll say, hi Redmond. It’s good to have your here. I can’t see you, but it’s good to have you here. That’s a really good question. And I think one of the things that you recognize, which I hope everybody will, is that we are not monolithic. As Ed pointed out, over 50 communities, over a hundred different languages spoken. So to imagine that there is a singular monolithic community, singular is not actually accurate and can be really detrimental. And on the other hand though, there is a flip side to that. With over 50 communities, I also would caution everybody against doing what I would call the rotating ship of engagement and abandonment. So in other words, you work with the Filipino American community, and then you realize, whoops, you haven’t done enough attention to Hmong Americans.

And so you drop the Filipino American community, and then you switch over to the next ethnicity, rinse and repeat. And then by the time you wrap back around to the Filipino American community, they’re angry at you because you’ve been ignoring them even after you told them how important their stories are. So that’s the other side. I think that there’s a middle ground in here where we can have really good conversations. That doesn’t mean that we only limit it to a particular community. What I say is, could we have conversations with communities about their similarities and then also their differences? And that’s really the best way to break down this idea of all Asian Americans are the same, let alone let’s forget about Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians within that designation. So I just think it’s about consciousness. It’s about being deliberate and thinking about how we engage with people and just even recognizing that they’re all not the same is a good first step in the right direction.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you Lisa. Ed, Daphne, any final thoughts before we wrap this amazing conversation? I always wish we had more time.

Edward Tepporn: Just a hundred percent to what Lisa just said and that as we think about these opportunities to bring people together, one of the pieces that I did want to draw attention to was the American Journal of Public Health published a study about two years ago that talked about how we can combat anti ageism. And one of the things that they noted in their study was that their opportunities for us to do educational programs, to provide opportunities for intergenerational dialogue or have programs that do both. And so I think that those are important reminders. But then also for myself, speaking from a very personal standpoint, as someone who identifies as a gay Asian man who spent years overcoming my own internalized racism and homophobia. I wonder how museums could also help to support those individual level efforts to support our elders in overcoming any internalized ageism that they might have internalized over the years.

And that onus of doing that, the onus of working with multiple diverse communities within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander diaspora, I get it that that’s not easy to do. And I get it, especially given that the foundation, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, we’re a small museum. We are 1.5 FTE staff. And to Lisa’s point, I do think that there’s this both [inaudible 00:30:26] opportunity where in our social media and our communications, how can we be inclusive? And then also in our programs and other efforts, is there an opportunity to look at the census data for our cities or for our states to identify within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander diaspora, what are the communities or ethnic enclaves that are most populous? What are their rates of limited English proficiency if applicable? And to be able to fine tune and tailor some of our programs to some of those specific pockets of communities.

Daphne Kwok: And I would just say in closing too, that we’re all resources and I’m sure I speak for Lisa and Ed and all of our colleagues out there that please, if you have questions or if we can be helpful to connect you to the AAPI community in your locale, I’m sure that we would be happy to as well. Thank you.

Andrew Plumley: I couldn’t have said it better myself as Daphne started us off and wrapped us up as well. Thank you so much to the panelists for this thought provoking conversation today. I really hope that we can continue these conversations into the future as well. And thanks for the people that participated and for the great questions. Thanks so much everybody. Enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

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