READ: We redistributed $3 million to 68 organizations and $600,000 to the Emergency Victims and Survivors Fund in Georgia

Q&A: Yuri Kochiyama’s Legacy Carries Forward

May 19, 2022 Perspective

Author

Aarti Kohli

Aarti Kohli

Executive Director

Aarti Kohli

Executive Director

Aarti Kohli is the Executive Director of Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, the first organization in the country to represent and promote the legal and civil rights of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Aarti leads ALC with a vision of increasing the power of low-income immigrant communities to help advance economic and racial justice in our democracy. She currently leads a national table of Asian American leaders addressing anti-Asian hate with a focus on policy, messaging, and solidarity work. Aarti is committed to advancing local, state, and federal policy solutions that recognize and address the needs of Asian American and Pacifc Islander communities.

Aarti is an experienced leader with over twenty years of experience working at the intersections of immigration, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic equity, and national security. Prior to joining Advancing Justice – ALC, Aarti led her own consulting practice where she advised philanthropy and managed a project on the politics of demographic change and immigration reform at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Aarti also served as the Director of Immigration Policy at the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law where she led the institute’s immigration initiative on issues of equity for immigrant families. Formerly, she worked on a range of issues, from bankruptcy to voting rights, as Judiciary Committee counsel to Representative Howard Berman (D-CA). Before working for Congress she served as Assistant Legislative Director at UNITE union in Washington, DC where she lobbied on behalf of low-income garment workers.

Chanthon Bun

Chanthon Bun

Community Advocate, Immigrant Rights

Chanthon Bun

Community Advocate, Immigrant Rights

As a 1.5 generation immigrant from Cambodia with lots of traumas and fears, acculturating to this society was hard. At the age of 18, I was a father of two and convicted of a robbery with no one physically harmed and sentenced to 49 years.

While incarcerated, I learned and understood my history. After 23 years I won my freedom through the parole board and now I'm honored to join ALC as the Kuri Kuchiyama Fellow, and now as a community advocate.

Nashwah Akhtar

Nashwah Akhtar

Digital Communications Associate

Nashwah Akhtar

Digital Communications Associate

Nashwah has been part of mobilizing grassroots movements on issues including racial justice and civil rights. She was most recently on Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, conducting digital organizing and fundraising on their digital team. Previously, she was also a Communications Associate at Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) in Washington, DC, where she led social media initiatives to promote programs and events to get more AAPIs into elected office. She was also at Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as their Communications Coordinator, where she registered Bay Area community members to vote.

She holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, as well as a Masters of Public Diplomacy.

This year, we celebrate our 50th anniversary with the theme, “Tomorrow’s World is Ours to Build,” inspired by Yuri Kochiyama’s powerful call to action.

To help mark our 50th year, artist Natalie Bui created a visual representation of our approach to protecting and strengthening civil and human rights of underserved Asian American, Pacific Islander, Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern communities.

Illustration highlights the 3 pronged approach of ALC, the organization's 6 program areas, and features the clients we serve, often those impacted by several systemic issues--immigrant communities and low income families. The illustration includes quote by Yuri Kochiyama, "tomorrow is ours to build."

Illustration by Natalie Bui

Throughout this work, we seek to build and center the leadership of directly impacted community members. Too often, without these voices at the forefront of advocacy and organizing campaigns, public policy is limited in its capacity to address root causes and bring justice to families and communities.

In 2016, we created the Yuri Kochiyama Fellowship to support the leadership of formerly incarcerated Asian Americans in leading advocacy campaigns at the intersection of the U.S. carceral system and immigration enforcement. Since then, four fellows have completed the program, including Danny Thongsy, the campaign coordinator with the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County, and Ny Nourn, co-director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.

On May 19, we celebrate Yuri Kochiyama’s birthday. In honor of that day, we spoke with Aarti Kohli, Asian Law Caucus executive director, and Chanthon Bun, a former Yuri Kochiyama Fellow and now a community advocate in our Immigrant Rights program.

Why did we start the Yuri Kochiyama fellowship at ALC? Why is it important in the movement?

Chanthon Bun (CB):
The idea behind it is, who else can be a champion of incarcerated immigrants besides those who have been through it? Through the fellowship, we can show the trauma that the prison-to-deportation pipeline causes to both the incarcerated person and their families – and we can share these stories to change hearts and minds.

I never thought that I had the ability or the courage to do this work, but the Yuri Kochiyama Fellowship that I was formerly in, and the staff members that I worked with, empowered me to empower others. The process is unique, and now that it’s been done by ALC, other organizations are following that lead and seeing that this is what was missing from the fight for immigrant rights.

AK:
Absolutely. I’ve worked with undocumented folks, especially undocumented youth, who were similarly very fearful of talking about their status and demanding change. But so many of them are in the leadership of the immigrant justice movement now, and the movement is so much more powerful when directly impacted folks are leading the fight.

I do see it as our job as the first AAPI legal civil rights organization to help support and foster leadership because, for immigration issues in particular, the needs of marginalized communities are often invisible. And I'm so honored and humbled that we are able to do this. It makes me proud of our team, particularly the staff of the immigrant rights and the criminal justice reform teams who asked me if we could do this, and we made it happen.

At ALC, we connect community empowerment, legal services, and policy advocacy. How do they work together in the Yuri Kochiyama Fellowship?


CB:
In terms of community empowerment, our teams work together to address a lot of the fears that our community members have. Many say they live in the shadows so they will not be harmed by law enforcement, and many of their narratives do not get heard. It takes someone like me, who has gone through this system, to speak with the community members and address their fears. We tell them that they have the support of our community and organizations like ALC and our partners.

Then, we get attorneys involved, who can explain the law to them and the legal aspect and risk factors. With that, together with the community, we advocate for policy changes like the VISION Act, which involves a lot of narrative and storytelling campaigns that show the need for the bill and how incarceration and detention/deportation keeps a lot of families apart.

Fellows, including Chanthon, have been leading advocates for the VISION Act (AB 937). Can you tell us more about that?


CB:
The VISION Act is legislation that would stop all transfers from prison and jails to ICE detentions centers. It doesn’t stop ICE from deporting people, but it does stop that direct transfer of people to the detention centers after they have served their time, earned parole, or had charges dropped.

The VISION Act would allow people a second chance, and a chance to reunite with their families and find community resources they need. A lot of community members and their families are punished and traumatized again by ICE detention and deportation. When my mom heard I may be deported to Cambodia, she thought I was going to die, because all she knew about the place was war, violence.

"The VISION Act can help heal family members that have been separated for decades. It helps people like me think about life again."

Chanthon Bun
Chanthon Bun and Tith Ton stand side by side, each holding a flyer that reads "Pass the VISION Act" and highlights the story of an incarcerated community member.

Chanthon Bun and Tith Ton at a VISION Act rally in September 2021 (SEARAC)

AK: I do think that the leadership of directly impacted people provides more motivation and passion in a movement space because people see the urgent need. I think it fuels our partners in a way that just having policy folks doing the work wouldn't. It's that constant reminder that the lives of real people are at issue and I think that's really important in the campaign work, in the coalition work.

I have heard from colleagues about how incredibly impactful it is in the advocacy with political leaders, with legislative leaders, because having folks go into a meeting and talking about their own journey and their own story really challenges some of the myths of incarcerated people that political leaders may have.

It's really hard to disregard the full humanity of immigrants and incarcerated community members when you're talking to someone who's telling you their story of trauma and harm and redemption. It’s incredibly impactful that the Yuri Kochiyama Fellows are part of and leading the fight for the VISION Act.

CB:
It has really been a learning experience and an honor and pleasure to lead through the ICE Out of CA coalition. I think about what Yuri said, that we have to have unity to have justice. I see justice in the making. The VISION Act is not just an AAPI issue, and I really appreciate learning from other communities.

AK:
I would also add that in California, we have been having a conversation about our values. If we understand that we as a state are over incarcerating, and we want to shift away from punishment as the answer to people becoming whole, then we must also recognize that one of the injustices of the U.S. immigration system is double punishment. You are incarcerated for decades and then exiled again.

The ultimate fix is through Congress, but until we get there, California needs to lead the way.

"Our values are not about double punishment, they are about rehabilitation."

The impact is not just on the individual, but the family that's left behind. The VISION Act is really a cutting edge piece of legislation, and if you say you're committed to criminal justice reform, you have to support the VISION Act.

What is a teaching of Yuri's that inspires or resonates with you?


CB:
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s her call for unity that resonates with me. She spoke a lot about the Black experience and how it coincides with our experience in America. Our community needs to be united with others to change the laws that affect us the most. Whenever I see Yuri speak, that’s the message I hold deep: that the unity between our communities makes us stronger.

AK:
Yuri once said that the legacy she wants to leave behind is for people to build bridges, not walls. She really embodied that, she showed up for the struggle of others. We all need each other. It’s the same system harming each of our communities, just playing out in different ways. We need to reimagine safety and accountability. We all deserve these things. And we have to fight for them together; we will not be able to achieve it alone.

Black and white image shows Yuri at a labor protest holding a sign that reads "131 hour workweek, we fight back".

Yuri at a labor protest in Manhattan in the late 1990s. (Asian Americans Writers' Workshop)