5 Asian American Women Who Are Leading and Influencing Social Justice Movements in California

This Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing trailblazing Asian American women who are leading and influencing social justice movements in California. Keep reading to learn more about the California Immigrant Policy Center’s Executive Director Cynthia Buiza, API Equality-LA’s Community Organizer Tanya Edmilao, Deputy Attorney General Bureau of Environmental Justice’s Deputy Attorney General Suma Peesapati, Food Chain Workers Alliance’s Co-Director Joann Lo and artist and Advancing Justice-LA’s Policy Advocate Natalie Bui — and their fights for justice.

Cynthia Buiza, Executive Director, California Immigrant Policy Center

Can you give us some background about what you do?
I am currently the Executive Director of the CA Immigrant Policy Center or CIPC. I provide the vision for the mission of California’s premier immigrant rights organization. I came to this role after successfully managing a statewide capacity building project, involving nine regional coalitions in California, which strengthened their viability through a combination of highly customized training, grant-making and leadership coaching. I have two decades of experience in nonprofit management and human rights advocacy. I worked on international refugee, migration, human rights and civil rights issues in Southeast Asia before working with ACLU as Policy Director for its San Diego regional affiliate. I was also Policy and Advocacy Director at CHIRLA in Los Angeles from 2007–2010. Before moving to the United States, I worked with various international organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Open Society Institute-Burma Education Project in Thailand, and the Jesuit Refugee Service. In June, 2003, I co-authored the book Anywhere But War, about the armed conflict and internal displacement in the Indonesian Province of Aceh.

How did you become involved in social justice and activism?
I grew up in the civil war in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship. My first job was an organizer for a non-profit working to assist families displaced by the civil war. In college, one of our professors was abducted by the military and she was never found again. Growing up poor and under a dictatorial regime was enough to seed a very different consciousness in me, one that was borne of questioning the forces that imposed the hardship meted out on my family and my community. I knew at a very young age that something was terribly wrong with the society I lived in and that questioning and seeking spirit, let me to the path I am in today.

What are you fighting to achieve in this world?
Like many women in the social change movement, I want one fundamental thing: that we can leave a lasting legacy of societies that are better than when we found them. It’s a challenging quest, especially in these times: the right to live with dignity and respect, the right to have opportunities that help us thrive, and most importantly, sustainable communities that makes a complete break with dark legacies of racism, sexism, and inequality.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the social justice movement? Who inspires you? Do you have any idols?
I also grew up in the feminist movement in the Philippines. I was a student activist and I have been marching on the streets for as long as I can remember. However, my mother, my aunts and my sisters did not have the privilege of “wokeness” that I have experienced. In these spaces where we are fully aware of what is needed to truly transform oppressive conditions, are opportunities for women social justice workers to help other women get to a place where we can own our power and if not total freedom, then the ability to make choices that empower us.

To this day, my key inspiration is my dead mother who lived her values of love, courage and compassion without asking for anything in return. I am mostly inspired by other women, mostly the unsung male and female workers in the immigrant rights movement who do the work everyday, without expecting any credit or public adulation. They are the people that shift the current under the iceberg.

I do not have idols, except maybe some really good literary writers and they are too many to mention.

If you could give one piece of advice to any young woman reading this who is hoping to create change one day and lead a movement, what would it be?
I would like her to ask herself: because you decided to do this, think about the one good, powerful legacy you want to leave behind. You are not obligated to finish the work, no one can really finish it, but you can be part of a great movement of women who left something good and lasting in the world, much better than when they found it.

Tanya Edmilao, Community Organizer, API Equality-LA

Can you give us some background about what you do?
When I describe my job to someone I just met, I usually say that my role is a community organizer which means I mobilize QTAPI people to grow, learn and work together to bring racial and social justice. Honestly, I like to describe my role as a host at a party, except the party is a group of individuals who are longing to connect, build meaningful relationships together and create a new world free from oppression and suffering. Also, everyone happens to be Queer Trans Asian Pacific Islander (QTAPI) and there will always be lots of sharing of meals, jokes, stories, and memories.

I also feel like a shapeshifter who can instantly become a grant writer, facilitator, fundraiser and anything in between since I am one of two full-time staff members in our organization. Every week is different, but I can expect meetings with volunteers and community partners working on anything from fundraising, campaign and policy work, community and political education programs and more. I am always meeting new people and learning new ways to uplift our experiences to be seen and heard to influence the media, legislators and the greater community to see our humanity and to include us. Sometimes, I strongly feel that I work just as hard (if not harder) in my own API community to remind folks that just because I’m not straight or cisgender it doesn’t mean I’m no longer API.

How did you become involved in social justice and activism?
This is a lifestyle! I say that because I don’t think I can carry a conversation without talking about social justice or oppression. It’s my life not because I want to carry a badge of honor that says I am a martyr to my people or my work (eww that is productivity culture at its finest). I always had an interest in understanding why and how some people feel the need to police others and it started with my experiences as a child growing up in an abusive home. My parents split up when I was three and I was raised primarily by my mother’s ex-husband for most of my formative years. His racist and homophobic views remind me of our current administration and their followers. My resilience grew from there. I began looking for a community and ultimately a home that I found in organizing. I started with becoming a youth leader at my local Catholic church and I would spend 5 days out of the week trying to bring in more young people to join. I also came out as bisexual around that same time and quickly realized that the church was not the place for me. Then, I started to really discover my API identity and how to navigate being a Pilipinx person in college at USC. My exposure to wealth during those years was traumatic, I never realized what poor felt like until people with or without intention made me feel that I had less. It made me power hungry, to be honest and I wanted to dedicate my energy to find out how to gain equity in a world where the disparity is normalized and sometimes glorified.

What are you fighting to achieve in this world?
This is a beautiful question and I ask myself this almost every day (I’m not even kidding). The core vision stays the same; liberation for all which means creating a world that systemically, culturally and spiritually nourishes every member of the community. A world that promotes interconnectedness, the undeniable truth that each and every person and action is a conversation with and informing each other. The words “fight to achieve” implicitly and accurately describes the struggle of wanting to embody and imagine a world that does not exist yet. I believe that by transforming the ways I think, act and impact those around me is already making this new world a reality. On a micro level, I choose to be out and that in itself is a political act. I recently ran into a soul who shared a quote that has been giving me life in this movement work, which is “to be seen and visibly queer is choosing happiness over safety.” Hearing this has reminded me that there is power that everyone holds in their capacity to choose to be happy. It also reminds me that we have the power to treat ourselves and each other with dignity and honor (even towards the ones who don’t do the same for us). Choosing to relate to each other through joy versus oppression is the kind of world that we deserve.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the social justice movement?
Although I don’t identify as a woman, I do identify politically with women being a person who is a non-binary femme and is cisgender and straight passing. There is an endless list of evil that women are subjected to and normalized because the world is conditioned to accept that change is impossible. To fight this conditioning, there is an even longer list of triumphs, successes and miracles that countless people have created to make our dreams of justice, equity and liberation a reality. And the fight continues. Being involved is not even a question because being complicit is hurting all of us. The most important part of this movement is that every voice is heard and the voices of women and femmes need to be centered because we live in a patriarchal mess. It is beyond important for women to join in on this fun because this is the best time to rise and shine and drink that big cup of social justice and we have a lot to celebrate! We are seeing a rise of leadership in all sectors and this is just the beginning.

Who inspires you? Do you have any idols?
OH MY GOODNESS, my community, leaders and my mom inspire me! I’m so honest right now, I meet so many sincere, passionate and motivating forces in this work that give me chills for different reasons. When I was searching for the words and ideas that described what liberation could look like, I fell in love with Audre Lorde and her understanding that we need to work in solidarity to win, instead of working as if there is a finite amount of liberation and we all have to compete for our slice of the pie. Also, it is pretty cool being able to learn from folks like Norma Wong, a Zen master and former political leader, who has an ability to shake you to your core with her wisdom. I’ve been running around telling anyone who would listen about how she views the administration’s resistance to change as proof that progress is always met with opposition but it doesn’t mean that it can be reversed. The truth is that no one can go back in time, that this longing to revert back is already admitting defeat and that the world will and is continuing to change. I needed to hear this and it keeps me patient and smiling. Lastly, my mom is one fierce woman who taught me the value of staying present. I will never forget how stressed out I was when we were sitting in my brother’s hospital room because he had another seizure and she said, “Why do you worry? You only need to focus on today and keep doing that.” Those are simple words to live by but they mean everything to me because anything can happen within 24 hours.

If you could give one piece of advice to any young woman reading this who is hoping to create change one day and lead a movement, what would it be?
There is some deeply rooted magic in your veins because your ancestors brought you here for a reason and you get to decide what that means for yourself. I say this because there are going to be moments that can distract a young woman from seeing the power and wisdom that lies within and that’s ok. Life sometimes chooses to give us these moments because we get the chance to rise above, learn and share that knowledge to everyone around us. Also, please know that this work is never done alone and that there will always be a community there to uplift you. If this means anything, I’ll always be there rooting for you! ❤

Suma Peesapati, Deputy Attorney General, Bureau of Environmental Justice

Can you give us some background about what you do?
I am an environmental justice lawyer. That means I focus on the disparate impact of pollution on communities of color and low-income communities. I have spent much of my career fighting to reduce pollution from large industrial facilities, such as oil refineries and coal plants.

How did you become involved in social justice and activism?
I became more politically aware and activated during my college years at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) That activism grew while I attended law school at UC Hastings, in the wake of Props 187 and 209, and when I was surrounded by more conservative peer group. That said, my public interest law school friends were a mighty bunch, and remain so today. Those social justice warriors remain some of my best friends.

What are you fighting to achieve in this world?
Racial and environmental justice.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the social justice movement?
It is important for women to be fairly represented in the social justice movement because we comprise half of the population! Social justice also includes gender justice, especially for women of color, who experience intersectional discrimination.

Who inspires you? Do you have any idols?
Reshma, Bhavna, and Sriram Shamasunder. J I’m also inspired by the fearless and tireless community members I have the privilege of working with.

If you could give one piece of advice to any young woman reading this who is hoping to create change one day and lead a movement, what would it be?
Find good mentors and nurture those relationships. Mine have been invaluable to me throughout my career.

Joann Lo, Co-Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance

Can you give us some background about what you do?
I am co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a bi-national coalition of 33 unions, workers centers, and advocacy organizations representing over 370,000 workers throughout the food system. I work with my co-workers and leaders from our member groups to provide leadership development trainings for food workers; support food workers’ organizing campaigns; advocate for policies that protect and improve wages and working conditions for food workers and that support a healthy, just, and sustainable food system; and collaborate with other organizations to build a strong and vibrant movement for social, economic, and racial justice.

How did you become involved in social justice and activism?
My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and I grew up in a small town in Ohio. That experience showed me what racism is like in this country. And then when I was in college, the two unions representing the university employees were negotiating for pay increases and job protections in their new contract. I got involved in a student group to support them. Many of the workers reminded me of my parents and why they came to the U.S. — the workers were united for a better contact to provide a better life for their families. From that contract campaign, I learned about the power of organizing and uniting together in struggle. I became a union organizer after that.

What are you fighting to achieve in this world?
I am fighting for a healthy, just, and sustainable world in which we the people have true democratic (democracy with a small “d”) control over our communities and our workplaces. Everyone should be paid a living wage, be able to afford healthy fresh food that is culturally appropriate for them, have free childcare, education, and healthcare, and have free time to spend with their family and friends. People should be free to choose where they want to live, and we need to end the unjust criminal immigration system that the U.S. has imposed on the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the social justice movement?
I know that some may think I’m stereotyping women, but I really do believe and have experienced it myself that women bring more love, caring, and nurturing to the social justice movement and that love and caring is the kind of world I want all of us, especially my two children, to have. Our movement should reflect the kind of world that we want so I believe women should be leading our movement.

Who inspires you? Do you have any idols?
I am inspired by the food workers who I meet through my work with the Food Chain Workers Alliance. They are the people we all depend on for the food we have every day — Ruth, a black organizer who was a farmworker in upstate NY as a child and who now organizes and support farmworkers; Hortencia, a single mother who works in a pork processing plant in rural Missouri; Dwayne, who works in a warehouse at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that is super hot in the summer and cold in the winter; Gemma, a young mother and a restaurant worker in New York City who has suffered through sexual harassment and being paid a subminimum wage because the law allows tipped workers to be paid less; and Daniel, who has been organizing for years for better pay and hours at Walmart. You can see and listen directly to some of these workers in a video we produced a few years ago called Voices of the Food Chain.

If you could give one piece of advice to any young woman reading this who is hoping to create change one day and lead a movement, what would it be?
Listen — listen to and learn from the people around you. A lot of people think that a movement leader has to give fiery speeches and chant loudly, but you learn a lot more if you listen to people and make a connection by listening to their stories and what their hopes and dreams are.

Natalie Bui, Illustrator and Policy Advocate, Advancing Justice — Los Angeles

Can you give us some background about what you do?
On top of my ever constantly changing role at Advancing Justice Los Angeles, I aim for my work to be deeply rooted in community. I am an illustrator, I’ve had clients like 18MR, Advancing Justice- ALC, and the United State of Women. It’s important for me to draw diverse voices and uplift marginalized communities under the AANHPI umbrella term. In addition, I also own a diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment prevention consulting company, known as SHIFT. We go into university and work spaces to facilitate workshops on understanding why diversity work should matter to them, and have those really uncomfortable, challenging conversations.

How did you become involved in social justice and activism?
I got involved as I was questioning what it meant for me to be Vietnamese American. For the longest time, I ignored that part of my identity and even rejected it. But when I first encountered what it meant to be different, especially when I entered predominantly white spaces, it made me question why wasn’t my community here. Why weren’t they showing up, and what spaces were they actually fighting in? So as I was trying to unpack my Vietnamese American identity, I knew one of the best ways to do learn more about it was to work for the community.

What are you fighting to achieve in this world?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. I am fighting for those who still need to be seen and reflected in the spaces and communities they are supposed to call home. I am fighting for equity, not equality — and am fighting for us to move from empowerment to power.

Why is it important for women to be involved in the social justice movement?
It’s important for women, especially AANHPI women — because we can provide an intersectional lens to the different views, issues, and strategies on how to approach it. When we participate, we know how to uplift and advocate for one another to be in these spaces so we don’t marginalize our own communities further. It’s important for women to be involved in the social justice movement space because it gives an opportunity for folks to understand the language and tools in which to advocate for oneself. And when you work for yourself, you are working for your community as a whole.

Who inspires you? Do you have any idols?
Idolizing someone is something I try to avoid doing. But I get inspired by the women in my life who enter predominantly white spaces and are fighting for equitable representation. They fight different battles that are so emotionally laborious, and since they may be the only POCs in the room, are paving the way for other folks to enter to continue fighting for those equitable spaces.

If you could give one piece of advice to any young woman reading this who is hoping to create change one day and lead a movement, what would it be?
The process of understanding your cultural background and history is a painful but empowering lifelong journey, but once you uncover it, it will anchor you and guide you in everything that you do.

Advancing Justice-LA is the nation's largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community