As with any social justice-oriented movement in history, change becomes enacted through a coordination between a network of people. With the current spotlight on the SFFA v. Harvard case, I conducted a series of interviews with three key organizers—Jane Sujen Bock of Coalition for a Diverse Harvard; Nicole Gon Ochi of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA (AAJ-LA); and Sally Chen a current Harvard senior—over the past couple of weeks. They share their entry points into this work, insights, setbacks, and successes in doing this work. In sharing their stories, it is my hope that this too can fuel forward the momentum behind greater goals of increased inclusion, diversity, and equity in elite private institutions. I hope these small insights on the history of that this can serve as a beginning of an archive for documenting how these groups have been organizing for AA and committing themselves to the cause in concerted ways. newcomers to the issue can take this post as a starting point to dive into the question of AA and discussions on access, equity, and inclusion in a wider range of areas from college admission to workplace discrimination.
I asked my interviewees to address the following questions (with some flexibility on questions depending on interviewee).
- Is it alright if we record this conversation?
If yes, we will proceed with the interview.
If no, Soyoon will type out notes during the interview or take notes by hand.
- Who are you? (a brief introduction; could include your name, your affiliation with Harvard / this case, etc.)
- How were you first introduced to this work / the concept of AA?
- What motivated you to take part in this work?
- What work have you been involved with AA (on campus, off campus)?
- What challenges have you come across in doing this work, and how have you dealt with backlash?
- What about doing this work has been affirming? (Specific moments, gains, etc.)
- How has the response been from other campus organizers about the Blum case?
- How have other organizations and advocacies groups aligned in this movement?
- Anything upcoming that you’d like us to know about (actions, next-steps)?
- Any advice that you’d like to give to potential Asian-American applicants?
- How can folks unfamiliar with this movement get plugged in / get introduced to doing this work?
General interview take-aways
The synergistic energy between the organizers, despite the independent format of their interviews, was deeply felt throughout the interview process. It was without a doubt that these women had found each other and collaborated in critical ways. And though the entry-points into their work differ and despite the differences in their day-to-day lives, what rang true for all of these organizers were the power that real-life narratives played in helping inform the public about this case and the importance of AA. All three organizers also united on the point that though this was a case bound specifically to Harvard—an elite, private institution—that the repercussion of this case’s outcome would be far-reaching. In alignment with the individual narratives presented here, I hope that readers can find hope and strength in the combined connections between these organizers.
Interviews (condensed and edited for clarity)
JANE SUJEN BOCK: Harvard Alumna ’81, currently lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project in New York City.
About Jane: Jane was president of the Harvard Asian American Association and co-founder of the Radcliffe Asian Women s Group. Her 1981 sociology thesis, The Model Minority in the Meritocracy: Asian Americans in the Harvard/Radcliffe Admissions Process, prompted the U.S Dept. of Justice inquiry into and examination of the treatment of Asian-American applicants at colleges across the country. (Source)
How did she get started in this work?
I started the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard with four other friends (all Harvard alumni) due to what happened in 2016. The New York Times had reported on the five men petitioning to be elected into the Harvard Overseers (the second-highest elected body before Harvard’s Corporation). They (including Stuart Taylor of Mismatched fame, and Ron Unz, a Harvard alumus with deep ties to conservative orgs) ran under the platform of “Fair Harvard/Free Harvard,” or which Ralph Nader was a prominent member. They claimed that Harvard was discriminating against Asian Americans and advocated for free tuition for all (regardless of family income), but despite these seemingly progressive claims, four fifths of these men have written or testified against AA and one of the leaders said they were counting on Asian American alumni to vote them in. My friends and I fought hard for Asian American diversity put into Harvard’s new affirmative action program (along with others who have studied and worked on these issues for a long time. But soon we realized how deeply tied we were to the Ed Blum lawsuit, too.
So we did a huge amount of homework (for the current Harvard case). We interviewed experts: statisticians, economists, etc. We came to the conclusion that we wanted to argue that Asian Americans—especially low-income and more marginalized groups—are benefitting from AA. We reserved judgement for Harvard and went ahead and supported AA by becoming amicus in the lawsuit.
On considering who would best represent us, we had choices since the Coalition had grown enough and had become respected enough that there were lawyers who were willing to represent us pro bono. So we interviewed a number of different options and finally went with the NAAPC’s Legal Defense Fund. They have deep experience with these issues and the capacity to execute these task so the Coalition eventually retained them. And over the past few years, we’ve developed ties to alumni and student groups who are involved too in the fight for Ethnic Studies at Harvard and advocating for better faculty hiring of people of color. Given these ties, we had 25 different groups sign onto the NAACP amicus brief including 10 Asian American groups. This was incredibly exciting, and not something that we had expected.
How the work has been going so far?
In the summer of 2018, we wanted to set up education and outreach so we worked with AAJ-LA and many other organizations and advocates to do a week of action, a week of social media outreach. We shared a lot of op-eds and articles and graphics online to petition in defense of AA. I, for one, had to learn how to tweet this fall for our #DefendDiversity campaign. I was constantly tweeting out relevant pieces onto our feed and we worked with a ton of different reporters to try to raise their awareness of the issues. Diverse Harvard’s founders and board members have been on the airwaves through radio, TV, podcasts and other media engagements. This is how we tried to get the word out about the work that we were doing.
We also rallied in Boston before the trial (and as with any rally, we were met with our share of counter rallies as well). It was important to rally because of the very tired singular point of view (against AA) that was receiving attention in the press. The rally was one of the most exciting things we did; it brought together many student and community orgs as a multiracial coalition. We had union reps, students from the graduate school, community orgs, civil rights orgs… We got a huge amount of press. All of that activity makes people want to find out about the issue.
We noticed that some of the language being used by SFFA and their allies mirrors that of alt-right Trump supporters. At the rally in Boston held by the Ed Blum allies, there were actually physical altercations between groups (which you can see on social media accounts). Some SFFA supporters said that they were actually supported affirmative action (despite Blum’s goals); that they want to take us back to a time when race wasn’t accounted for in admissions.
But if Blum was really had Asian Americans’ best interests in mind, he ought to be doing something along the lines of asking for an injunction, asking for relief to the problem. In the trial, SFFA and Blum do not tie the alleged claims of discrimination with Affirmative Action policy. They’ve managed to successfully mix those things up.
What has been the most affirming?
Students have shared such incredible stories, especially with their testimonies at the trial. I mean the students were amazing. And beyond this, it was affirming to see the educational work that other organizations were doing as well. The Fordham Education Law Alliance held a forum, Columbia too had a forum which was excellent. I definitively think that the organizing is spreading. For example, a Bonner student wrote a great op-ed after attending the rally in Boston.
Any more thoughts / advice for future applicants?
Apparently there are a cadre of paid college consultants that are telling Asian Americans students to exclude discussion about ethnicity in their applications. This is very much aligned with Blum’s stance. This is a huge disservice to the students. I’ve heard of students changing their names. I really think that this is just a terrible thing. A terrible message to be sending to students and counter-productive. It may actually hurt them. It’s so psychologically damaging.
NICOLE GON OCHI: Nicole Gon Ochi is the supervising attorney at Advancing Justice-LA’s (AAJ-LA) Impact Litigation unit. She joined Advancing Justice as a Skadden Fellow in 2010 and has taken a lead role in litigating and providing advocacy on matters involving employment discrimination, education, workers’ rights, affordable housing preservation, language access, and civil rights. Prior to joining Advancing Justice-LA, Nicole was a judicial clerk for the Honorable Harry Pregerson in the United States Court Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. During law school, she was a law clerk with Advancing Justice-LA as well as Public Counsel’s Children’s Rights Project, Schonbrun De Simone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, the Law Office of Carol Sobel, and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Nicole received her J.D. summa cum laude from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles in 2009. During law school, she was the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Public Interest Law Journal and the chief developments editor of the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. She published four articles, including on undocumented students, emancipated foster youth benefits, and the effect of the foreclosure crisis on renters. (Source)
I am a supervising attorney in the Impact litigation unit at AAJ-LA office. My role is to work on and supervise cases in court that are designed to have a significant social impact. Lead attorneys from our office represented diverse prospective current alumni students in the Harvard Case. We represent four students who testified at the Harvard trial. We are co-counsel with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in DC and the pro bono law firm Arnold and Porter.
Why are you doing this work (in defense of AA)?
I am in defense of AA because in the 1990s the first proposition passed in California to ban AA in public education and employee contracting. AAJ-LA was not successful in this campaign but we ended up doing a great lawsuit against Berkeley which resulted in the holistic review process that we know today. I was involved in Supreme Court cases involving AA, filed amicus briefs, was personally involved in drafting and mobilizing the AAPI organizers on the Fischer brief.
On her inspiration
I’m passionate about AA work because of how Asian Americans have been used as a wedge in this debate since the 80s. As an Asian American and as someone who works at an Asian American civil rights org, it’s important to use our relative racial privilege to push back against harmful narratives that harm all communities. Another source of motivation for engagement is that I see the progressive AA work as ground zero for Asian American solidarity and identity with other groups. It may sound silly because Harvard is such an elite case, but I think that it is a metaphor for something much larger about combatting anti-blackness in Asian American communities and recognizing white supremacy in society; understanding how this impacts Asian Americans differently than other groups.
I see a parallel between anti-AA and a rise of general conservatism in Asian American groups. This is a big concern, and I want to work towards providing a more balanced narrative on this issue to stop conservative stances from being forwarded (such as defeating data disaggregation bills and sanctuary city bills).
Reaction to challenges?
It has been hard. We have been trying to strategically change public opinion and narrative. AAJ-LA did a comprehensive infographic (downloadable version can be found here) in advance of the trial and translated it to Chinese and distributed it through WeChat. This document became popular and became something that folks who are more progressive on WeChat can share. Through this platform we found allies; there are some really influential people and so we’ve been working with some of.
What really led in part to a very successful diversity action the day before the trial. One of our concerns was that the Blum was planning a counter-rally, but it was effective to work with students, and spread the word through WeChat to mobilize people. We were able to neutralize the dominant narrative and get student voices out there as our dominant strategy. They shared how they see their Asian American identity. This was so meaningful. Students wrote op-eds, testified, and responded to media as a strategy to expand the conversation. Our strategy has also centered the conversation around AA to something bigger around inclusion, beyond just reaching for pieces of the pie but expanding the pie. A lot of our California-based policy work is about that. AAJ-LA has a coalition of 80 orgs, a multi-racial coalition, and in California we led several bills to expand funding to the UCs and provide tips in the admissions process who are low-income, English Learners. Generally trying to expand access to all communities of color is another thing that we’ve done.
What has been most affirming?
I’m sure there’s more than this, but the day of student testimony at the trial was super great. Super great, super affirming. Inspiring. The students really brought together all the themes that were discussed in the briefs, they brought alive principles of the case and the case law.
I wrote the Letter to the Class of 2023 as part of our digital week of action that AAJ worked on to support student organizers. Initially one of the activities was going to be an open letter directed at Ed Blum, but then people on the communications team didn’t want to draw more attention to him. We wanted to do something more positive and affirming and trying to speak to the people most affected by the issues (folks who are applying to college right now). This is how the framing of the letter changed; the tone changed. We tried to share our shared history, to put this debate into the larger context of racial history and reveal how this issue extends beyond admission to Harvard.
How can folks unfamiliar with this movement get plugged in / get introduced to doing this work?
We want to invite people into the conversation: some easy things to do are to participate in any of the things we’re planning to do. We’re having another webinar on the case in January, we’ll have more digital organizing for the closing statements in February.
Perhaps more specifically folks can think about the question of movement-building as an open question: how do we build a movement? How do we build a movement that is student-centered? There is a lot of conversation that will be happening this coming year about this question. One issue is that it is hard to figure out how to coordinate with students, if there is one intercollegiate group as opposed to a string tangential friendships. Are there any more formal networks of student leaders? If people interested in going deeper; I’d love to know which student leaders would be interested in a longer conversation
SALLY CHEN, Harvard ’19
Sally work as the current outgoing co-coordinator on the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies (TAPAS) whose goals are to establish Asian American and Ethnic Studies department and educate the campus on issues in Ethnic Studies. Sally is also part Phillips Brooks House Association which serves the greater Boston area through a number of programs of which Sally takes action through Chinatown Citizenship Program, which offers ESL and naturalization programs for Chinese immigrants. (from interview)
How she got involved
Through my involvement with TAPAS, I met with one of the lawyers from AAJ last year as they wanted to get a sense of the campus climate of AA. But I didn’t really get involved until the following December since one of my friends, Thang, had gotten more involved. Then the Lawyer Committee of Civil Rights, AAJ, and Arnold and Porter got the go to write an amicus brief (for individual students) and another brief was filed by the NAACP legal defense fund (for organizations). I was involved with both of these briefs and signed on as individual to submit individual statements.
What was your involvement?
Over the summer, we worked on drafting more language for the brief, and found out that students were allowed to testify in court. Things picked up real quick from there around October. This is when I got involved with more of the on-campus education, especially as we found out that there was going to be a lot of counter organizing (especially with SFFA and their counter-rally). We wanted to use the case to see how the community could be doing educational and advocacy work beyond the case. media coverage picked up, I worked mainly through AAJ (which has been grounding and vital in supporting the on-campus organizing), was involved in the planning committee for the student rally (our Week of Action called #DefendDiversity). Thang was really important in coordinating the social media side of things (the video, open letter). I did work on-campus events including events with the Pan Asian Coalition for Education (PACE), a panel with the Harvard College Democrats with the lawyers who were involved with the case, another teach-in with Asian Americans Women’s Association, a sign-making party. In terms of the rally, lots of awesome women of color alums, grad students were involved in the coordinating these things from the tech, the marching route, permits. I helped with the logistical stuff on was pleased to hear feedback from someone who said that “it was one of the most organized rallies that they had been to.” We had buttons, stickers, t-shirts… People had contacted alum Daniel Liu, whose mother was involved in getting 50 older Chinese Americans from the suburbs to come out to the rally and help out with bilingual recording). It was all kind of wild. We had a total of 30-40 publications in terms of media hits; more than we expected.
What and how is the general campus climate like for Asian American student groups / the Asian American student community?
A lot of our Asian American organizations on campus are fairly apolitical (they’ll throw cultural events, but they might not be as comfortable taking political stances, they’re more about community building). By March there was a sense of to have more internal organization and conversation between groups since we were being contacted by media, requested by folks to sign onto things. Students seemed to be scared to initiate conversations because there was a fear that these conversations might be divisive. There was increased pressure to take a stance due to the approaching date of the trial. AAPI student leaders took many phone calls with lawyers. But with TAPAS, as we already had an overtly political stance, we were contacted early on with our solidified stance on AA already (in defense of it). The thing that pushed groups to broach these conversations was that there was a sense that if one didn’t make statement, that would be a statement in and of itself. For example the Black Students Assoc. signed on, La Fuerza Latina signed on, so it seemed to channel that if you are not in support, you are not signing on.
Perhaps the most damaging thing about the case was that it was upsetting to know about how discrimination happens to Asian students on campus while taking into account our stances on AA and the bigger stakes of this case. Few of us believe that Harvard is perfect, and there are many things to push Harvard on. We want to keep doing that but don’t want our anger to fuel Blum’s push to stop AA. It’s complicated here distinguishing these thought-processes (discrimination against Asian Americans and AA being different discussions). Another thing is that we’re are at Harvard, an elite institution. We want to push these conversations further than within this institution; we want to talk about not just about higher-ed but how this can have multiple effects anywhere (from workplaces to local colleges, etc). It’s more about wanting to uphold certain standards.
What’s been challenging?
Our first event was the roughest. We also fell into that fear that if we have a discussion there might be divisive disagreement. So we went for a lecture and left very little time for Q&A, so understandably people came away from it with more questions and more personal experiences that they wanted to talk through. All in all, not super effective, but we felt that it was still important to recognize and host people equipped to answer these questions.
What’s been affirming and helpful throughout this organizing?
It was helpful share the case itself with others and to draw on the history of Ed Blum and his agenda. It was easier for people to come around to the case once they knew about his agenda and ulterior motives. It was important for us to acknowledge that the anger we feel is justified; people are angered by opaque admissions policies, frustrated by the different messages in admissions (to deny or embrace identity). So it’s been important to talk through trying to arrive at place where folks stand in terms of fighting white supremacy, with other people of color. This is a harder thing to work through, but what was helpful in our deeper conversations were discussions about how this case is a starting point, that we want to see this case succeed because we want to defend AA. We want to make this a starting point to have discussions about how we can build more power in pushing for beyond the bare minimum. This was very comforting. Being able to talk about next steps was really helpful, too. People often get wrapped up in how they want to expose Harvard and change Harvard and make them see the kind of discrimination that exists while ignoring what the direct impact of this case could be (out of anger) rather than envisioning the long term effects.
Has Harvard been using this case to leverage progress on diversity and inclusion?
Though they didn’t prompt it, Harvard did benefit from how student orgs went up to bat for Harvard, even though students all have beef with diversity and inclusion on campus. With all the media attention, perhaps Harvard knows that they need to put money where their mouth is…. There is a lot of student anger around wanting to have Harvard act on these things that they are talking about. For example there is a big failure for mental health services for students of color, failure for how university police handle students of color, and many continuing concerns. Hopefully students and faculty will hold onto these things and continue to hold Harvard accountable.
What are the next steps?
An immediate next step would be to gather everyone back up again to talk about demands and direct priorities that a lot of organizations have brought forward (including issues of mental health services, the multicultural center, mobilization for Ethnic Studies dept). I’m plugged into mostly Ethnic Studies stuff and am in conversation with Thang to issue some statement to the university about our priorities. We’d definitely be back in stages of reflecting on our priorities.
On intercollegiate work
We know that Ed Blum will be bringing lawsuits to other schools so it could be pretty cool to see what collaborations can happen between schools. Hope we can have more conversations about the pervasive model minority myth, talk through the toxic propriety found in admissions.
Bock, Jane Sujen. Personal Interview. 5 Dec. 2018.
Chen, Sally. Personal Interview. 14 Dec. 2018
Gon Ochi, Nicole. Personal Interview. 13 Dec. 2018.