Speaking up and standing out were the main messages for students at the first Asian American Student Leadership Conference, co-hosted by Madison School & Community Recreation and American Family Insurance through the Madison Public School Foundation’s Adopt-A-School Program. Students with the United Asian Club and Consortium from Madison East High School, along with the Asian Student Association from the Verona Area School District and students from Sun Prairie East High School, were able to spend the day hearing speakers from diverse AAPI backgrounds while also engaging in leadership and well-being activities.
Students took part in an invaluable opportunity on April 10 at the American Family Insurance’s Spark Building in Madison to both gather with fellow AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) students from different Madison-area schools and hear from AAPI leaders about issues of social justice, being visible, and caring for your own well-being.
Wisconsin State Rep. Francesca Hong gave the opening keynote address recalling her story of obstacles and overcoming as an Asian American growing up in Madison, and her experiences now as the only Asian American representative on the State Assembly.
“I will say with utmost confidence that our diversity is our greatest strength,” Rep. Hong said to the students. “It’s important to remember that as a community, as a demographic, we are more than a monolith. There are so many stories that make up who we are. It’s true that many of us don’t share the same experiences, expertise, or beliefs, but this is what allows us to bring so many unique and wonderful perspectives to the table.”
Praise for the political push and drive to be engaged was given by Rep. Hong who spoke to youth leadership as “…relentless, unapologetic, ambitious, and really channeling the energy that’s in our minds and our hearts.” Students were able to reflect on their own experiences and identities as feelings of being overlooked and unheard were shared. In a leadership panel moderated by student Grace Ly Tong Pao, these feelings were negotiated as panelists Jessica Boling, Kabby Hong, and Tony DelaRosa discussed what leadership means to them and leadership skills.
The recounting of conflict around the Muskego-Norway School Board’s choice earlier this year to not approve a book based on Japanese internment camps during World War 2 served as an example of moments where leadership is important. Kabby Hong, a local educator and 2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, reflected on how combating ignorance and taking a stand was successful in exposing deeper issues in the Muskego-Norway school district, and continuously doing so will be of utmost importance for AAPI individuals and communities to receive rightful recognition.
“You, as young people, also need to be engaged and involved, and try and fight for your rights as well,” Kabby Hong advised. “Know how critical it is that advocacy is something that all of you are thinking about as you move forward in your lives. I’ll just end with this quick note. When I was growing up, my parents taught me to be small and quiet, because they thought it would keep us safe. What I realized is that that thinking will not keep us safe anymore. In fact, it actually brings us into danger. We need to be loud and visible in order for us to actually be safe in this country.”
This sentiment was not lost on students who were invigorated with an energy to get active not only in their outer community, but also within their families and themselves. Tony DelaRosa, a UW-Madison Ph.D. student with experience in racial education and leadership development, spoke to the fight for understanding starting at home. Regarding the belief that Asian Americans are less likely to stand up for social justice beliefs, DelaRosa both challenged the notion itself while also challenging students to actively push against the notion by engaging with social issues, even in familial settings.
“For Asian Americans, the stereotype is that we don’t like conflict,” said DelaRosa. “That’s not true, some of us do. Some of us in this room like to do it. I know it and I’ve seen that when I used to teach. I love that, embrace that, but also for those who don’t like it, embrace it. It’s generative, it’s natural. We’re taught to make it unnatural, to shrink ourselves. When there’s tension in your body, just sit with it, and then engage and see what happens.”
Besides the deeply entrenched stereotypes around Asian Americans, the often under-discussed issues such as xenophobia and hate for Asian Americans were discussed without minimizing them or ignoring the roots of the problem. While speakers and panelists were hopeful for the coming generations, attention was also paid to a more contemporary approach to mental health and well-being. Boling, who is the assistant deputy executive director at Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, reminded the students of how vital it is to enjoy the victories when you can as the closing sentiments for the panel.
“What keeps me going, and what advice I have for people in this space as something that I did not learn until more recently, is to celebrate your wins,” Boling said in closing. “We don’t take time to internalize our win and feel like we actually deserve the recognition and celebration for what we did. Take the time to celebrate that thing. This was a lot of work and we did a good thing.”
A pushback against learned behaviors to ignore or downplay mental health struggles served as a point of praise for youth present in the room. Students were also able to hear and engage with an AAPI career panel moderated by student Angelina Xiong and composed of Emma Lai, Maysee Herr, Mee Soon Langohr, and Sheeso Moua. Breakout sessions with fellow students allowed reflection and connection among youth to round out the day. With leadership and mental well-being as the main focuses of the day, Milwaukee psychologist Dr. Lauren Mascari also spoke to students on managing mental health, especially as many of them gear up to head into higher education.
“I just want to normalize that because you’re teenagers and there’s a lot of pressure to figure it out, it’s okay to feel like, ‘I just want support.’ That’s the other function of therapy, too,” Dr. Mascari explained, assuring the students that needing support is a normal human experience.
“If you don’t want to go to therapy, there’s other stuff you can do. Therapy is not for everyone. Maybe talking is not the way for you. Maybe it’s movement, maybe it’s connected with nature, and maybe it’s socializing. It doesn’t have to only look one way for you to feel well.”