Coping with a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans and nearly 3.5 million people worldwide has tested us all in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Asian Americans have faced an especially painful time. Against a backdrop of longstanding anti-Asian racism in the U.S., they have been forced to confront a harrowing spike in violence and hate-filled language fueled in large part by former President Trump’s racist rhetoric around the COVID-19 crisis.

A recent analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino revealed that hate crimes targeting Asian people rose by an average of nearly 150% in 16 of the nation’s largest cities in 2020. And the violence continued into 2021, cresting horrifyingly with the March 16 murder of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in Atlanta.

As part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked Asian American leaders on campus how the events of this past year influenced how they approach their work. How do they provide guidance and comfort when they’re affected so deeply on a personal level?

Cindy Fan, vice provost, international studies and global engagement

Two days after the Atlanta shootings, I opened the International Institute Zoom coffee hour by sharing how shaken I was by the brutal murders. We have had these weekly coffee hours since the beginning of remote work in March 2020. These free-flowing times are extremely enjoyable, and one may say, therapeutic, as staff colleagues talk about everything under the sun from their favorite recipes to Korean Zombie movies.

On March 18, 2021, the coffee hour took on a different tone. Perhaps, by choosing to share the pain I felt, I also opened up a space for others to share theirs. Several staff of color, including those of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, spoke about the racism and xenophobia that they had experienced before and during the pandemic. Not only that, participants also talked about their international backgrounds, their concern for international students, and how wonderful it was to be among colleagues from such diverse cultures. I left that coffee hour feeling very grateful to the International Institute family. The events in the past year have shown me that leadership is as much about sharing my own thoughts as it is about listening to, acknowledging and respecting the story and wisdom of every member of the organization.

Jayathi Murthy, Ronald and Valerie Sugar Dean at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

If there is a common thread to all the events of this last tumultuous year, it is that the personal matters. We are so used to shutting the personal out of the workplace — we divide ourselves into the professional half and the personal half, and these are not separate. Who we are at home as parents, spouses, caregivers; who we are in terms of our identities through gender, race and other affiliations; who we are socioeconomically — all this bled into the workplace this last year, and forced us to acknowledge our full humanity. I think this is a very good thing — this humanization of the workplace is long overdue.

As I think about it, it is women who have probably borne greatest brunt of this separation. Though it’s all still evolving, as a result of this intermixing of the professional and the personal, I can see we have all become much more communicative and transparent, and this has helped us navigate a very difficult time. 

At the engineering school, we have tried to put this idea into concrete action in the school through a number of initiatives — “Action in Engineering” student town halls, “Awareness to Action” training to expose our students to diversity issues and setting up a standing committee on diversity to drive equity, diversity and inclusion in our school, for example. All these are intended to facilitate more difficult and candid conversations among our community and to inject the personal into our professional lives.

Karen Umemoto, Helen and Morgan Chu Director of the Asian American Studies Center

This past year has been one of the most challenging of my life. And I’m no spring chicken. As a transformative planning scholar and practitioner, recent events have tested my entire suite of facilitative leadership abilities. The legacy of the Asian American Studies Center rests in its commitment to service and social justice. So as the double pandemic of disease and anti-Asian hatred spread, we at the center thought deeply about how we can make a difference in this moment. Through the vision, commitment and collective capacity among our community of staff, faculty, students and supporters, we launched following initiatives:

  • to get life-saving information to non-English speakers;
  • Inflection Point 2020: Coronavirus, Census And Elections For AAPIs, a special double issue of our AAPI Nexus journal;
  • AAPI Policy Initiative to produce policy research on AAPI’s to inform pandemic recovery efforts;
  • AAPI Storybooks to get Asian American Studies digitally to every home. 

We are a lean staff, so none of this would have been possible without their initiative and dedication, nor without support from donors and supporters. I am humbled by everyone’s commitment to action. And with daily reminders of our mortality, I’m even more cognizant of building the pipeline of collaborative leaders and supporters to make sure the Center’s legacy continues.

Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research and creative activities

First, I have accelerated my attempts to form an EDI cabinet for my office. While I have been deeply disturbed by the Asian hate crimes, I do feel it is important to reach out to all communities in order to engage in thoughtful conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Sadly, the recent incidents can be targeted against any ethnic group. Second, I have used my influence at Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to elevate the importance of diversity and endeavor to institute change at the national level.

David Yoo, vice provost, UCLA Institute of American Cultures

Like so many of us, I have wrestled with heartbreak and loss, along with anger and frustration during this extraordinarily difficult year. What is vividly clear is that the work of our ethnic studies centers that make up the Institute of American Cultures is needed now more than ever. We have been at this work for over fifty years, but I sense how much stronger and more impactful we are together. 

Many of the urgent needs of our communities are shared, and it has been exciting to have the centers pull together to tackle issues like hate crimes, mass incarceration, and health disparities (including COVID) to produce knowledge that advances racial and social justice. 

We have a remarkable legacy and are building upon that foundation to deepen our work together to imagine and to help build a better future. The collective effort of our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community partners is truly inspiring — representing a wellspring of hope, forged in struggle.