By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Getting Blacks and Asian Americans to come together, in art and in activism, isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But Seattle’s Kristin Leong, an author, activist, and KUOW radio producer, has a long history with both practices.
She felt a cultural and political need for the two sides to come together, to complete the collection of works she calls “#AZNxBLM.” The resulting collaborations will roll out through the Slants Foundation website, theslants.org/aznxblm, #AZNxBLM—The Slants Foundation; and also Leong’s own website, RockPaperRadio.com.
“When I published the call for #AZNxBLM proposals, we were one year into surging anti-Asian hate crimes around the world, and one week ahead of the Atlanta spa shooting in March,” said Leong. “I was feeling like I had been shouting in the wind for a year trying to draw attention to the fact that our Asian community—especially our elders—were facing real fear and danger in the wake of the then-president’s ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘China Virus’ rhetoric.”
She learned a few painful truths from interviewing her own father.
“My dad’s a tough guy—he was a boxer and prone to fights and troublemaking in general in his youth. So it was especially heartbreaking to interview him, and learn that he was feeling afraid for himself when he went grocery shopping, and also for me because much of my public-facing work is focused on race and equity.”
Leong was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Chinese father and a white mother. Moving to Washington state in elementary school proved quite a culture shock. She wasn’t used to a mostly-white suburb. Her sister and herself made two of the very few biracial kids in the entire community.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college, completing her undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence college in Yonkers, New York, and a graduate degree at Seattle’s Antioch University. Settling in Seattle, she taught for seven years, joined Town Hall Seattle as curator and residency program manager, then went to KUOW as a producer.
The #AZNxBLM project started off with funding from a surprising source, to Leong, at least.
“I found out in early February that I was one of 300 people from seven different countries who had been selected by TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conferences) to receive $10,000, no strings attached, as part of their ‘Mystery Experiment.’
“I knew from the start that I wanted to use a significant part of this money to give back to the community, and support values I believe in. Amplifying underrepresented voices is at the heart of all of my work, and I knew that a creative community can always accomplish more than any individual, so developing a project that brought together artists around a shared mission made sense to me… I was determined to use my voice and these resources, to try to make the world a little safer—not just for individuals experiencing fear, discrimination, and racism, but also safer for complex conversations around solidary and equity.”
The project mission statement Leong created reads, “#AZNxBLM is calling for solidarity and collaboration between members and allies of our Asian community and the Black Lives Matter movement. We are pro-community and anti-racist. We believe in the power of art and the insights of outsiders. We are cautiously but fiercely optimistic.”
The finished results gather together artists from all across America, but local faces include writer Mellina White, visual artist Sophia Trinh, mixed media artist Moses Sun, communication designer Tân Nguyen, radio producer Diana Opong, photo essayist B Merikle, and writer/photographer/editor Shin Yu Pai in collaboration with poet and musician Ibrahim Arsalan.
Asked about the future of such collaborations, Leong elaborated, “My hope is that this first round of 14 #AZNxBLM projects for 2021’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is just one part of the start of a much larger conversation about Asian and Black solidarity. My hope is also that this project ends up supporting not just the #StopAAPIHate and #BlackLivesMatter movements, but also that it serves as an invitation and entry point into active allyship for people who are not part of our API or Black communities.
“I believe in the power of art to bring people together around hard conversations. I also believe that those hard conversations are the first step to taking action.”
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.