‘Critical community’: Looking back on Pomona’s histories of Asian American mentorship and activism

Asian American history month will commence in May, but the history of activism advocating for student spaces has a much more extensive history. (Courtesy: Julia Catolico)

CW: mentions of violence, suicide

The history of Asian American activism at the 7Cs is rich, but not widely known across the student body. Like other affinity groups on campus, Asian American studies and centers were not established in Claremont until after hard fought battles.

According to Mike Manolo-Pedro, the director of Pomona College’s Asian American Resource Center, “One of the main issues [in the way of establishing resources] was just understanding what Asian American students were going through at the time.”

Manalo-Pedro referred to the November 1990 production of “The Mikado” at Big Bridges, which featured yellow-face and exaggerated exoticization of Japanese people, leading to protests organized by Pomona Professor of American Studies, Ethnicity, and Anthropology Dorinne Kondo.

“A lot of students absorbed it as racist and stereotypical, [but] I don’t think [other] people knew that … I think everyone at the time on campus was just like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know this was a thing,’” Manalo-Pedro said. 

Getting the 7Cs to rally support around Asian students did not come easily, but progress eventually came as the product of efforts that spanned the course of several decades. One only has to look through the timeline compiled by AARC to learn the extent of APIDA activism in the 7Cs community. 

Asian Pacific Islander Desi American activism at the 5Cs gained traction following the suicide of an Asian American Pitzer student in April 1987.

As a result, four Pomona seniors submitted a proposal calling for the creation of a 5C student center for Asian American studies that same year, but the request was denied. In response to the denial, the Asian American Mentorship Program was established in August 1989 and the Asian American Resource Center was operational by the fall 1991 semester. 

When “Asian American experiences” — the first Asian American studies course in over a decade — was offered in spring 1991, nearly 50 students from across the 5Cs enrolled.

However, events like the defacing of a mural on Walker Wall the following spring proved to show there was a long way to go in supporting Asian American students. The initial painting, which was intended to bolster support for a more robust department, was altered from “Asian American Studies Now” into “Asian Americans Die Now.” The death threat only continued to motivate the APIDA community to push for inclusion. 

Continued efforts included a sit-in at Alexander Hall in February 1993, a teach-in at Balch Hall for an Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies in 1997 and a rally for an Asian American student center by Pitzer students from 1997 to 2001, among other instances of activism. These cumulative efforts eventually led to the formation of the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies in 1998, as well as a mentor program at each of the 5Cs, but the fight was far from over. 

Students pushed for a 5C Asian American Student Center once more in 2002 and in 2007, but motions failed again. In 2002, Adboard, a 7C program, compromised with administrators and was allowed to both fund mentor groups and help them grow.  

Groups like South Asian Mentorship Program and Indigenous Peer Mentoring Program weren’t established until spring 2016.

“It’s kind of crazy … Asian rhetoric in the 1980s that caused the formation of AAMP and AARC [is] in parallel to the anti-Asian racism that’s going on today … It’s always been around for sure,” Manolo-Pedro said. “Almost 35-40 years later, I think those larger racisms and stereotypes still persist. So it’s kind of almost cyclical in that way.” 

The AARC is a Pomona organization, with AAMP serving as a student-driven mentorship program under the center’s guidance. Each of the 5Cs’ Asian American student sponsor program report to their respective culture center. All the programs are brought together by the 7Cs program, the Asian American Advisory Board. 

Both the AARC and AAMP are very community based organizations, led by students who volunteer their time and at the moment, do not receive compensation. 

Manolo-Pedro makes a distinction between critical mass, which can come across as transactional instances of support versus that of fostering a sense of community with advocacy centered around community. 

“I think critical community is really focusing on how we can’t get people in the same room on the same page without building relationships first,” Manolo-Pedro said.

As AAMP mentors and AARC interns, Saomai Nguyen PO ’23 and Kano Cheng PO ’22 have learned meaningful insights in their journey to helping their communities.

Having joined AAMP with intentions to streamline the support the program’s efforts, as well as to ensure the mentees are more self-aware of the white narratives that predominate college campuses, both see AAMP as a way to create a stronger sense of inclusivity towards underrepresented communities at the 5Cs. 

“For events where we talk about mental health, do we always want to believe in things like intergenerational conflict – how we don’t get along with our parents, perpetuating this idea that like Asian parents are strict or conservative, blah, blah, blah. And how does that play into dominant white narratives about what immigrant or Asian communities are like?” Nguyen said.

Nguyen highlighted AAMP’s history of focusing on east Asian culture and issues as “one of the reasons I didn’t feel as comfortable first year.”

“The people who show up to AAMP are people who have a very clear and comfortable sense of what it means to them to be Asian American … I just didn’t,” Nguyen said. “That was in my experience from where I grew up, from being Southeast Asian, also from being a child of refugees, having that history.” 

According to Manolo-Pedro, the mission of AARC is to uplift underrepresented Asian students, especially intersectionalities of identities like Asian American and gender queer and Asian American and undocumented. He invites people to attend the events they have about uplifting underrepresented communities.

“Folks who had that comfort, you know, they had that idea, being Asian American is like doing this and that and like going to these places to eat and like even like a certain type of dress or way of talk or music that I listen to that. I just was like, wait, I don’t know, am I not Asian American?” asks Nguyen. 

Cheng said that to her, being Asian American is more about caring about others and organizing around others’ concerns, and not an identity based on shared culture or experiences. 

AAMP has grown to accommodate the needs of the community, but the safe space still came under attack by the administration’s recent restructuring proposal for mentor groups. Luckily, Adboard funds AAMP, so they are financially sound.

“It was kind of weird because the AAMP mentors stopped getting invited to meetings with Dean Jackson and like all the mentorship groups. The beginning of, I think this semester, we just did not get those emails anymore. So we’re not invited to be in the room anymore,”  Cheng said. 

Instead of fostering discussion between the student leaders, Cheng said, Jackson simply gave a PowerPoint presentation of his plans.

“The closest we got to collaboration was working together on the town hall actively against administration. It was really nice to be able to build something together, even though it was like a high stress situation,” Cheng said.

Manolo-Pedro said he’s proud of his students and the legacy they’ve build this year.

“Having come back from the pandemic, they really built strong foundations of what it means to be in a trusting and loving community with each other,” he said. “So I really want to give a shout out to the students and our staff for pushing them forward.” 

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