AAPIP Voices

Guest Post: Storytelling for Change at the CHANGE Philanthropy 2017 Unity Summit


By Stephen Gong, Executive Director, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In September, I participated in the Storytelling for Change panel at the CHANGE Philanthropy 2017 UNITY Summit in New Orleans, a national conference of more than 700 community activists, thought leaders, and philanthropy professionals dedicated to advancing equity – including AAPIP as an organizing partner. Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) is a member of National Minority Consortia (NMC), a group of affinity-based media organizations that partner with PBS stations to present engaging, authentic, and vital stories to the American public that celebrate diversity and encourage empathy, equity, and social change.

The National Minority Consortia partners shared our current storytelling projects—from short form interactive web content (such as the web series Black Folk Don’t presented by National Black Programming Consortium), to long-form documentaries (like Dolores presented by Latino Public Broadcasting). We shared how community partners can utilize these media programs and projects for advocacy and empowerment. CAAM’s presentation was on The Chinese Exclusion Act, a two-hour documentary directed by acclaimed filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu, which will have its broadcast premiere on the acclaimed PBS series American Experience in May 2018. This film documents in fascinating detail the events leading to, causes of, consequences, and continuing impact of the only federal legislation in United States history ever to target a specific race and nationality for exclusion from immigration and citizenship. CAAM is the co-producer of the film, and has undertaken the lead on an extensive community and educational engagement initiative that includes community conversation kits, educational DVDs and curricula, and community and educational screenings.  

Our community and educational engagement initiative is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as more than 300 individual donors who responded to our crowd-funding campaign. To date we have received more than 350 requests for DVD’s, community screenings, community conversation kits, and curricula, and we expect the requests to double in the months leading up to the May 18 television broadcast.

Because the conference site this year was in New Orleans, many sessions were designed to foreground individuals and organizations working in this region for progressive social and cultural change. From formal presentations to hallway conversations alike, references were made to the historical divides of race, class and inequality in the region and connections made to the way in which these divisions have been exploited for political gain.

It was because of this too that I wanted to be in New Orleans for the UNITY Summit, sharing a new project at CAAM on Asian American stories and storytellers in the American South. Although the South is not thought of as a region with a significant Asian American population, the reality is very different and one goal of the project will be to shift this misconception and explore the implications of what these communities mean to the redefinition of American identity. Asian Americans have been in the South since before the United States was founded, and the region contains key sub-communities with deep ties, such as the Mississippi Delta Chinese, or, more recently, the Vietnamese American communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Even this brief overview of the project sparked a very positive response and we made numerous good connections for the work ahead on this project.

The South is particularly important to America’s multicultural future precisely because it is a region that has resisted a more authentic narrative, and for which mainstream, bi-coastal media has been complicit in over-simplifying the cultural black-white narrative, as the presence/absence of Asian Americans in the South exemplifies. Our goal is to develop the network for commentators, storytellers, and thought leaders—across different social and cultural communities—who are bringing new perspectives into the most pressing cultural debates of our time. The narrative changes we seek are within the region itself but apply equally to all Americans.

All in all, we were happy to attend the UNITY Summit and share ideas and positive energy with so many dedicated fellow citizens in these troubling times. Plus the gumbo and beignets were fabulous.

Stephen Gong is Executive Director at Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). His previous positions in arts administration include: Deputy Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, Program Officer in the Media Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Associate Director of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute.  He is the Board Chair of the Center for Rural Strategies.