At the start of the summer, Lance Tran (’19), a student in the Political Engagement Pilot Project, wrote this of his impending internship with the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice: “I’m most excited about being able to work in community organizing, something entirely new and challenging to me.”
He never could have imagined that, less than a month after that, he would in fact be the one leading a major community organizing event.
A first generation American born to immigrant parents, Lance had always been interested in increasing political engagement in Asian-American communities. Asian-Americans have commonly lagged behind other ethnic groups, such as Caucasians, African Americans, and Hispanics, in voter registration and turnout, and have traditionally not mobilized around any particular issue. However, they often share common policy concerns, such as immigration or education, which can be addressed through political action.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), a national nonprofit, has sought to remedy this lack of engagement, stating their mission as “to advance civil and human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all.” Though Lance worked at their Chicago chapter, AAAJ also has offices in DC, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. They use a variety of methods to achieve their goals, such as engaging in policy advocacy, providing direct legal services, and using community organizing to mobilize people on issues important to the Asian American community.
For his internship, Lance worked primarily with the community organizing team at AAAJ – Chicago. One of the team’s major events for the summer was the “State of Emergency: Communities Under Attack” demonstration, which centered around Illinois’ state budget impasse. Lance describes:
Illinois had had no state budget for over a year, meaning that social services and schools were being deprived of vital funding. To name just a few consequences of many, this meant that students were dropping out, schools were closing, and AIDS patients couldn’t afford the medicine their lives depended on. In response to the long-term deliberate efforts to privatize social services that led to these consequences, organizations of all backgrounds came together to organize an action. The community education aspect of the action would happen during the train “takeover,” where teams of 5-6 would occupy different trains and speak to passengers about the consequences of the budget impasse.
The event took place on June 30th, a little under a month after Lance had started his internship. However, despite his relative lack of experience organizing, his supervisor put him in charge of leading one of the train takeover teams:
As I boarded the train with my team, I felt pretty nervous. I felt positive that we would be talking to walls and that passengers would find us only as an annoyance in their busy lives. I was to lead the first “mic check,” where I would recite the basic messaging to the whole train before our team would split off to speak with passengers one on one. As I read the lines as loud as I could muster, I felt many eyes upon us.
But he soon realized that his worries were unfounded. The people on the trains were very receptive to his team’s messages and helped to take part in their protest:
But the train takeovers were only a small part of the demonstration. The main event was for all the teams to join together and, along with other community members and organizers, stage a large-scale march towards the governor’s office:
After riding for about an hour and refining our message by trial and error, we left the train at the downtown stop and started the march towards the Thompson Center, where the governor’s office was held. When I arrived, I was met by the sight of over a thousand people of all backgrounds together.
Getting to be a part of this event and experiencing the powerful solidarity of political mobilization greatly deepened Lance’s knowledge and passion for community organizing:
The experience of participating in such a large action was both personally and politically memorable for me. Coming from a person who doesn’t particularly enjoy speaking to complete strangers, yelling on a train was a good challenge. But beyond that, seeing political power demonstrated in a form outside of the voting booth and electoral politics was extremely valuable. This action was the fruits of the labors of community organizers dedicated to advocating for communities through political means in ways that I had been totally unfamiliar with.
Taking the skills that he had learned at AAAJ, Lance created a guide for community organizing on college campuses for his PEPP final product. He highlighted seven key areas for students to keep in mind in order to increase their chances of making progress on their cause or issue. Specifically, he recommended that students try to fit their organizing efforts into a larger framework and be clear about their goals—whether that be helping to ease symptoms of a problem, or trying to push for lasting systemic change.