It’s been one month since I joined Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) as its new CEO. What an honor, and challenge, it is to lead the nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI).
I recall first learning about Advancing Justice-LA 20+ years ago as a USC undergrad, reading the LA Times front cover stories about Advancing Justice-LA (then Asian Pacific American Legal Center) defending the rights of 72 Thai sweatshop workers who had been held captive behind barbed wire for years in an El Monte compound. I was considering going to law school to pursue a career in social justice and human rights at the time, but I had never seen civil rights advocates who looked like me. It was so reassuring to see Asian lawyers and advocates protecting the rights of vulnerable immigrants in what is now considered the first case of modern-day slavery in America that spearheaded the anti-trafficking movement in the US.
I went to law school at Georgetown University in D.C., knowing that I would become a public interest lawyer. I cut my teeth in civil rights litigation at the ACLU in Chicago and the Housing Rights Center in LA. I got to work on some incredible cases and gain experience trying cases, negotiating deals, and even arguing once in front of the 9th Circuit. But after 7 years, I realized litigation wasn’t for me (I hated wearing a suit to court) and I also missed seeing clients who looked like me. Because no matter how hard I, or my organizations, tried to reach more AANHPI clients by hiring bilingual staff, promoting our work with ethnic media, or connecting to culturally specific organizations, I discovered that AANHPI clients simply weren’t comfortable coming to a dominant organization that was not culturally tailored to serve their specific needs.
So after 7 years, I stopped working as a lawyer and took on the role of Executive Director of Korean American Family Services, Inc. (KFAM). For 11 years, I led a culturally specific social service organization that provided mental health, domestic violence, and child welfare services to Korean American and Asian immigrant families. I learned how valuable it was to work in a culturally specific setting that garnered the trust of our most vulnerable community members who were unaware or unwilling to go to other nonprofits, whether due to language barriers, cultural stigma, or fear around their immigration status.
Joining Advancing Justice-LA allows me to combine my civil rights roots with my commitment to the AANHPI community. As we see a surge in COVID-related anti-Asian sentiment and where we are seeing the public rise through the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and anti-Blackness, I cannot think of a better opportunity to be fighting for social justice and civil rights.
To be honest, it’s daunting leading what is arguably the most prominent and powerful AANHPI civil rights organization in the nation. And it’s hard to imagine I could ever fill the shoes of Stewart Kwoh — founder and leader of Advancing Justice-LA for 37 years, nationally recognized civil rights leader, and recipient of the MacArthur Award (aka, “genius grant”). But Stewart, who has now taken on an advisory role as President Emeritus, has taken me under his wing and become my Yoda (not the baby one), teaching me behind the scenes all his skills in development and leadership.
I am so excited by what Advancing Justice-LA has done in the past, and what opportunities we have in the future. I have seen Advancing Justice-LA use the power of litigation to change legal precedent, influence policy, or insert AANHPIs into public discourse so we are not left out. I am proud of the thousands of clients Advancing Justice-LA serves every year to fight racial/social injustice, ensure their votes are counted, and protect immigrants.There is still so much that needs to be done to promote racial justice, protect immigrants, and fight discrimination in our society. I look forward to the journey ahead.
By: Connie Chung Joe, CEO