To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors. We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.
Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn, Co-founder, Pre-Health Dreamers
1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities, in particular undocumented youth and students?
For me, I think that there are two layers to that. The first of which is within the undocumented community and immigrant rights movement. When I first got involved with different groups like ASPIRE and E4FC, that was really the beginning of me meeting other folks who were undocumented, and who were not only accepting of their identities of being undocumented, but were also taking ownership of it. They were becoming involved to really reclaim their identity, create agency in order to do something about immigration policies that were affecting their lives.
I started off with ASPIRE, meeting other folks who looked like me and came from similar communities like myself. They could really understand the core barriers that I faced, not only about being undocumented but also the cultural stigma we faced. As I slowly pushed myself to learn, understand, and talk about immigration, I began to envision myself speaking up and sharing my story. It was then that I saw existing API, undocumented leaders like Ju Hong as my role models when it came down to deciding whether or not I could also be out there, speaking up and sharing my story. Speaking up for my community, and still– at that time – face deportation because there was no protection like DACA on the mass scale. I looked up to him and was inspired by how he not only spoke out, but also received support from the community because he stepped out of silence. Grappling with the feelings of isolation and helplessness was a process for me.
This is why within the immigrant rights movement, it is important for the undocumented community to share our stories. From my experience, it is the only way to find community support. It’s something that may seem counterintuitive for some people who are at that place of isolation, I know because I, like millions of other, have been there.
The second layer revolves around the visibility of API communities within the immigrant rights movement, which has been limited because there have not enough of us speaking out. It’s definitely progressed within the recent years, especially the increased support for undocumented youth and efforts to build across communities. But there is still work to be done within the immigrants rights movement as well as within the AAPI community. The cultural stigma is a huge barrier to build greater understanding even within our own families. It is ironic that as community activists, we often forget to unpack the very issues we are fighting out there—processing questions about our identities and the trauma that we have experienced as undocumented immigrants, along the journey to become empowered, politicized, and conscious—with our own families.
2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?
Of course, immigration reform is a critical issue that cuts across many AAPI communities. And as I mentioned there has been some progress on how immigration is understood within AAPI communities over the recent years. The formation of local groups like ASPIRE (Bay Area and Los Angeles chapters) as well as RAISE, along with how they are able to represent API voices when working with national groups like United We Dream is telling of the progress that we’ve made within the undocumented youth movement.
In terms of what has not been worked on as much, I would like to see is more culturally competent, accessible mental health resources and supportive social services for undocumented families. We have to acknowledge that our families have been and are living with trauma. We need more family friendly spaces that enable them to feel empowered and part of a supportive community. How can we use the same public engagement skills/tools we have learned to talk with our parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles? Of course it is more complicated because it is personal and there is the risk of creating conflict but the silence—I would offer—can be more destructive. It is powerful to think of building a network of individuals thriving within their family units, as we all work towards more just and equitable immigration policies.
3. Can you share a little bit about your family situation and how they reacted to you speaking out?
For me, the very first step towards becoming politicized was when I went to an E4FC scholarship ceremony along with my family: my parents, and my brother and sister. When we were there at the ceremony, we turned and looked around and wondered if everyone else in the room was undocumented as well. I clearly remember asking that question because that was the first time we were in a room with people who were not our family members but also were undocumented. E4FC’s creative writing program was where I wrote about my immigration story and processed a lot of very deep, personal transformational questions, emotions, and trauma that was uncovered. I had found community through E4FC. It would also be my personal gateway to meeting my future friends, colleagues, and inspirations, some of whom were also involved in ASPIRE. While I was at UC Berkeley, I became politicized through ASPIRE. I think ASPIRE was a space for me to put these thoughts into action and really mobilize AAPI communities along with everyone else who I identified with.
I started going out to talk to news media, and my parents did not know about the first article that came out, which is probably not unlike many other folks. A memorable experience was when I was interviewed for Mercury News when DACA came out, and was asked about what the effects of DACA on healthcare access at the time. I wasn’t really aware that my interview was going to come out as a part of the Sunday newspaper, covering half of the front page. I remember that Sunday, I was at a retreat and at 8 in the morning, I got a call from my dad who sounded really panicked and flustered, asking why I didn’t tell him about the newspaper. At first, I was really confused, but then he said that there was a huge picture of me on the front page, and that his co-worker at the Thai restaurant recognized me. Previous to that moment, my dad had told his colleagues that we had green cards and status, and so he was in this panic, not only because that was a lie and they would find out, but they would find out that we were undocumented.
The hours after that call were some of the toughest I’ve ever had because I knew exactly what he was feeling. I knew the exact feelings of fear and panic. I never ever meant to put him in this situation as a result of all these things that I was doing in terms of being out there and advocating, speaking out. It was the total opposite of what I intended to do. It was really difficult when it happened. After a whole day, I went home and got ready to approach and apologize to him with the help of some friends and mentors. When he came home at 11 PM, I asked him how things went his co-workers. He said that he told them about our situation—that we were undocumented, and they understood – and then he said that we should frame the newspaper article!
That’s one of the stories I think back to and try to remind myself. Yes, there are very real legal risks for many in the undocumented community, but at the same time, some amount of that fear is internalized, and comes from a place of not knowing and the uncertainty of what could happen. Sometimes people do understand when you open up because they also know someone who is undocumented. There’s this lie we tell ourselves, at least for the Thai immigrant communities, that it’s not okay to talk about it because someone may report us to the authorities – yet at the same time we know friends or family friends who are undocumented. This reminds me that through all of that smoke screen and fear, it’s worth speaking up and sharing our stories because then you start finding a community after that.
4. The theme you keep raising is about visibility of speaking out and finding community as a way to advance this work. You are a team member at Pre-Health Dreamers, and you’re doing that while you’re a full-time student! Can you talk about how you are working towards addressing some of these needs that you so eloquently spoke about? What is your role in it? How do you work to address the unmet needs that you identified prior?
I co-founded Pre-Health Dreamers three years ago with two other colleagues, Denisse Rojas and Angel Ku, who were also finishing their undergraduate education as pre-med or pre-research (graduate school). We felt similar needs and had all these questions, but we decided to come together and share answers. If we didn’t have answers then we would share the questions and find out together. One of our first documents – we operate on Google Docs so we had to thank Google for that! – was titled “We are going to med school.” That was our title! It had all these questions and contacts of who we knew and who we didn’t know and we started from there. It was just recognizing that even if there’s a lot of uncertainty, going through something together as a community was so much better than dealing with it alone.
That led to many things – we found other folks who were much further along to applying to med school and had been reapplying and had been doing some of this work, so we connected with them. We then met one of the first few undocumented people in med school. We joked that they were unicorns because we couldn’t find them! But we eventually we found them and learned how they did it. All this stemmed from having the hope and trusting that we were going to achieve this together, even though it seemed so impossible at times.
When I first got accepted and had the white coat ceremony at the beginning of medical school, we worked as Pre-Health Dreamers to elevate that story to the mainstream media and get the word out, again in the interests of reaching other undocumented folks. That’s our priority – to let other folks know that getting into health professional and graduate school is possible. Every single one of us in Pre-Health Dreamers know what that moment was like when we were uncertain if we could become who we envisioned ourselves becoming in the future: that doctor, nurse, scientist, or any profession. We knew that feeling of isolation. I’m taking what I have learned through the process and am using that to get the word out.
Thinking about how I can extend that to more sustainable long-term change, we are thinking about what can I do at UCSF to get the whole school as an institution involved. I am leveraging the fact that I am the first known undocumented medical school student at UCSF. For example, we have been working to put up a welcoming admissions statement for all of the different programs under the university for undocumented students. That’s pretty exciting, and is coming up soon. Here, I’m also trying to do what I can to build a student group of other undocumented folks. I’m the only one in the med school so far, but there are a handful of others who are in the School of Pharmacy, Dentistry, and Graduate Division. Even though I have been able to use my story at the beginning to get the word out and raise awareness, I believe that my responsibility does not stop there. There IS a danger in a single story and as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a part of my commitment to build leadership in all these other folks so their stories are also lifted and it’s not all just about New. I hope that my story may serve as an entry point for many, but more, different types of stories should be out there as well.
4. What keeps you inspired?
It’s a mix of everything. For me, a big part of it is just the word, “community.” I realized that in college that I couldn’t do this alone. I had never done it alone, right, but there’s that point when you realize it yourself and accept that. My community is my immediate family, the undocumented community that have been doing work for so long, friends and my mentors who really offered a lot of emotional support throughout. These are the people I hold with me as I go to class or every time I see patients, knowing that they are the reason I am in medical school today, but also remembering my purpose: that I am also here for them.
Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn, 25, graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Molecular and Cell Biology three years ago. He came to the United States with his parents as an undocumented 9-year-old immigrant from Thailand. Jirayut (New) has experienced first-hand the alienation and confusion immigrant families face during health crises, resulting in his passion to become a physician. Last year he became the first undocumented immigrant to be accepted into medical school at UCSF. With his awareness of how cultural humility affects health disparities, he became committed to bridging that distance between patients and their medical care. Given his life experiences, New became active in the immigrant rights movement, speaking publicly and writing of his experiences. He felt that “helping millions like myself made the risk of deportation worth taking”. New has served as Co-Chair of ASPIRE, the first pan-Asian undocumented organization, where he’s been an extremely effective advocate for immigrants rights working on federal and state legislation. He, along with two other colleagues, Denisse Rojas and Angel Ku co-founded Pre-Health Dreamers, a national network founded as a community and advocacy platform to support undocumented students pursuing careers in the health sciences in order to impact health disparities. New was awarded the 2015 UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Service and the Thomas N. Burbridge Award; both awards recognize students for their work in public service that goes beyond their area of training. He currently serves as an appointee on President Napolitano’s Advisory Council on Undocumented Students and as a Board of Director for Asian Health Services.