Climate Organizing in Asian American Communities: An Interview with Andrea Chu

We sat down with Andrea Chu to discuss how she teaches about the impact of climate change on Asian Americans, the mainstream climate movement’s failure to acknowledge it, and what change could look like.

Photo of Chicago’s Chinatown by  Marco Forsten .

Photo of Chicago’s Chinatown by Marco Forsten.

As part of The Trouble’s commitment to analyzing political strategies to make progress on climate policy, we are launching a series of interviews with people in the climate movement and facilitated dialogues between people with different roles in the movement. To kick off the series, we interviewed Andrea “Chuey” Chu, who is a regional organizer with Food & Water Watch and organizes with Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Asian American Midwest Progressives. Chu, who is also involved in the broader Taiwanese-American community, hosts regular workshops on Asian Americans and environmental justice. We sat down with her to discuss how she teaches about the impact of climate change on Asian Americans, the mainstream climate movement’s failure to acknowledge it, and what change could look like.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Stovicek (interviewer): Tell me about your organizing in Chicago—what work are you doing right now?

Andrea Chu: I originally came to Chicago and did a year with Asian Americans Advancing Justice. I was doing some programmatic work, some base-building, and pitching in with policy advocacy whenever we needed to. A lot of that was around immigrant justice, racial justice stuff: things like the Trust Act. Now I’m working with Food and Water Watch as a regional organizer, focused on mostly Ohio and Minnesota, and I’m also involved with Asian American Midwest Progressives.

What I’m most interested in, in my outside-of-work work, is the intersection between Asian American and racial justice and environmental justice, because a lot of the environmental work that I’ve been involved in—or have purposely not been involved in—has been really white. I did my undergrad at Ohio State, and I majored in environmental science... But even though in my life I’ve been interested and academically involved in environmental issues, outside of that, all the organizing and cultural work that I did was always in the Asian-American or Taiwanese-American community, and almost never did the two meet. What I’m working on is making the two meet, because there are a lot of places in which it makes sense for us to be looking at environmental issues and climate justice issues through a racial lens, particularly as Asian Americans. The workshop that I do is mostly geared at Asian Americans, saying, “Look, this issue matters to us in these really specific ways, and it has probably never been framed to you in this way.”

I focus on two main points in that workshop. One is that like other POC communities in the US, we also suffer from environmental injustice; pollution and segregation impact our community as well. Then there’s also language access. We don’t have access to information in the same way that Latinx communities don’t always have access to information. One example that I talk about is Richmond, California: there’s a big Lao population, and they also have a lot of factories and refineries and manufacturing in that area. The soil is full of lead, and the water is full of God knows what. But if you can’t read the signs that say “Don’t fish here” when you come from a subsistence fishing country... So that was a big issue, where people were growing vegetables in their backyard, and people were fishing in the streams that were very bad.

In Chicago, I’m like, “Where are the highest concentrations of Asian-American people?” People say Argyle, we could also say Chinatown. I’m like, “Tell me about Chinatown, and tell me about Bridgeport. Is it bounded by highways on three sides? It is. Is it built on top of rail yards? Is that soil chock-full of lead? Is that air full of nitrogen dioxide?” Those are clear footprints on our landscape. You can say the same about McKinley Park, and Pilsen, and Little Village—these are industrial areas. Then I ask, “What does that say about who gets to live where?”

The other part of the workshop is where I turn to a more global lens in terms of Asian Americans and climate justice. Almost every country in Asia has a coastline. Almost every Asian country is going to experience sea level rise.

Asian Americans often still have ties to family in Asia, since many of us are more recent immigrants. What does that mean for us? It means being at the epicenter of global capitalism, but then also having family in areas that are going to be hard hit by things like typhoons and changing seasons, and drought and sea level rise, in a way that we aren’t as vulnerable to here in the Midwest. Meanwhile we also know that those countries didn’t contribute to climate change in the way that Western countries have, and are being asked not to develop for the sake of saving the world.

There are very few people having this conversation. APEN (Asian-Pacific Environmental Network) in California is having this conversation, APANO (Asian-Pacific American Network of Oregon) is having this conversation, a few South Asian organizations, but very few other Asian-American organizations are. Mainstream environmental organizations are just starting to understand environmental injustice, but this doesn’t usually include Asian-American communities. I think there’s still a lot of confusion among white mainstream environmentalists, like, “Why aren’t POC getting on board, because you’re most impacted?” They use that talking point a lot, but they’re not really putting in the work to build ties with those communities and show up for those communities.

Folks have been really receptive to the workshops: “Oh, wow, I haven’t thought about it this way,” or, “I already work in our community, but I didn't know that environmental justice was actually going to impact us differently than other groups.” All of the issues that we have as Asian Americans come into how we interact with environmental issues: language access, the model minority myth, invisibility in general, and all of the rest of those things. It’s not a far leap, if you have that base knowledge already. I’m just trying to take people one step further.

O: What kind of things do you hope people will do with this understanding or this framework? Or what kind of changes are you looking for, in the climate movement or in Asian-American activism?

A: In my experience, it has always been easier to come to the table with a block of Asian Americans that are already organized than to try and approach a white organization as Asian Americans and try and get them to care about Asian-American issues. So I don’t usually encourage people to go to their white-ass workplace and try to get them to care about Asian issues, because that doesn’t tend to go well for anybody. It tends to go better if you go to your Asian-American organization that you volunteer for, or work at, and say, “Look, maybe climate change is also a thing.”

It’s a matter of where people are at in their political understanding and their comfort level in terms of what they’re willing to do. Is it going to be, “Okay, we’re going to do an education campaign in Chinatown telling people not to grow vegetables, or to at least use raised beds”? Or is it going to be, “We’re gonna do a direct action on Chase Bank”? It could be anywhere along the spectrum. We don’t have the equivalent of an APEN here. We’re starting from more or less zero, but I think there are a lot of individuals who are wanting to do something.

O: In terms making sure that the effects of climate change on Asian Americans are paid attention to more broadly—what long-term would you like to see happen? Would that be having more, or more influential Asian-American environmental organizations, and not even bothering with the entrenched problems with mainstream environmental organizations? Would that be change within those later?

A: The ideal end goal would be, yes, everybody’s on the same page about what environmental justice is, and there’s truly multiracial coalition building, and every organization is diverse in the way that it needs to be diverse. My theory of change as to how we reach that is to have more Asian organizations that are working exclusively on environmental issues… and mitigating harm in our communities. Asian-American climate justice organizations can still participate in broader People’s Climate March-ish things as needed, but we don’t need to be the ones leading them. The way to prove to mainstream environmental organizations we actually have real issues and are actually working on them—that we deserve attention and investment—is to prove that you’re already doing something. Oftentimes it’s just easier to incubate on your own at first, building up analysis and partnerships with other POC organizations, or smaller neighborhood organizations that are multiracial, and finding some strength there before coming to big green organizations and saying, “Hey, maybe you should care about this.”

O: Are there groups right now that work on the intersection of Asian-American and environmental issues whose work you think is exciting? You mentioned a couple briefly before.

A: I think APEN is the biggest example; for a long time, they were sort of the only kid on that particular block. They have a framework around a just transition, and they do a lot of grassroots work in Richmond and in the Chinatown in San Francisco. Their work is really cool, but it’s also very local, very grassroots stuff that isn’t transferable. They have a model that works for them, and that isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone everywhere.

And then here in Chicago, we went on an educational tour with LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization). That’s an example of a local organization showing up for their own community, and having both short- and long-term goals. They talk about immediate harm mitigation, but they’re also talking about the impacts of the prison industrial complex on their community, and so on. They balance all of those things, and face a lot of parallel issues in terms of language access and a lot of folks being undocumented: those are issues that we have in the Asian-American community as well. LVEJO is a great org to look to when we have broader guiding questions that we need to answer.

I do think that there’s a big difference between being Asian American in the Midwest versus on the East or West Coast. The history is different. The demographics are different—in all of the Midwest it’s basically just Chinatown and Argyle, and then particular ’burbs outside of particular towns. We don’t have the kind of population density that, for example, APEN can work with. So the model is different, and the way that we interact with the majority population is also different.

An issue across the Asian-American world is that every community is different. We speak, like, a gajillion different languages. In the Latinx community, for the most part, everyone speaks Spanish, so even if you’re from different countries and don’t necessarily like each other, you can still communicate. That’s not the case with the Asian-American community. And especially when we’re working with immigrant communities, we’re also dealing with a lot of trauma when we interact with each other. We have Korean grandparents that hate Japanese grandparents, or grandparents that think all South Asians are terrible. All of those entrenched intergenerational traumas from lifetimes of war in Asia get transferred here. As specific traumas do, with any immigrant community, but it’s exacerbated by the lack of communication.

O: Do you have ways that you think about connecting different communities and building coalitions within the Asian-American community?

A: A lot of it comes down to, are you in the same place at the same time? Are you going to eat with each other? And communities have a lot of generational gaps, too. So are spaces that you’re creating going to be intergenerational? Why or why not? Are you being thoughtful about the way that you bring people in? There’re tiered levels of ways to do that as well.

There are ways to do it within your own community before going out to a broader community. So if I’m talking with Taiwanese aunties and uncles, I say, “Let’s talk about why we say mean things about XYZ group from other country, right? Maybe unpack that a little, let’s think about that.” And maybe after that conversation I try putting them in the same room with a different group of people. The thing is, all of these things are slow. Understanding the contradiction between the urgency of now and the fact that base-building is slow is key. Healing is slow, trust is slow, but you can’t move on without it.

O: How do you work within that contradiction? In terms of: this work is slow, it has to be done; also, climate change is not that slow.

A: The cool thing is that there is a large pool of people, particularly young people, who are like, “I know this is happening, and I know it’s a problem. I don’t know what to do about it, and I don’t know who to do it with.” And so that’s the demographic I’m personally trying to reach. I’m not thinking, “I’m going to go and canvass Chinatown and see what the seniors in this building think about climate change.” I’m using young people, very broadly, as an entry point, because they’re under no false impressions about the climate crisis... Not that familial bonds are the end-all be-all, at all, but especially being more recent immigrants, there is an immediacy of, okay, I can understand that there are impacts right now.

The other thing that I tend to mention that people hate is, learn your languages. And people are not about that. I understand; it’s super touchy. Some people have a lot more access to their family languages than others. If you’re adopted, it’s extra difficult, or if you grew up in an all-white town, or if your grandparents were incarcerated. There are lots of Japanese people who don’t speak Japanese because their parents or their grandparents were interned, and they are taught not to do so. So that is also very political. But for those people who can, I do encourage it. Do you speak Urdu, at least to a degree that you can reasonably communicate with, not just your parents, but your grandparents? Number one, that’s just probably good for you in your personal life. Number two, that gives you a tool. If there’s an environmental justice issue going on in Taiwan, if I can speak Mandarin or Taiwanese to a good enough degree, I can be useful in that situation.

O: Has your perspective or approach to the issues that we’ve been talking about has changed a lot as you have been working on them? You said you didn’t necessarily have the framework for some of the problems you were seeing when you were in college; I’m curious about that trajectory.

A: From high school into early college, I just thought, “Oh, these are just separate things.” There was a lot of learning—not only around my background, culturally, and not only that I could call myself a Taiwanese American—also that I was Asian American, and what that meant.

So I was still building knowledge of myself as Asian American through college, and learning with my peers. At the same time, I was getting politicized and building an environmental justice analysis, through classes and other folks. But, as you might imagine, at Ohio State, there were also a lot of white people. I was friends with Asian Americans who were not super political, or were political but weren’t radical, who were going on this more personal identity journey, while a lot of my white friends were getting radicalized and starting to delve into more explicitly political action. I was kind of in the middle. To my white friends, I’d be like, “That’s cool. I agree with all of that. But also, there’s something that is making me not really want to be with you in this.” And then with my Asian-American friends, I wanted to bring them further along politically—but a lot of times, folks weren’t ready. I thought, “There’s something here, but I still don’t know how to say it.”

And then I did my masters in Taiwan and actually lived in Asia for the first time in my life. To be in a country in which everyone openly agreed that climate change was happening, and could talk about it in a very visceral way in their daily life—it opened up some different possibilities in my mind, about how to talk about things and realizing that I grew up in a very American context, and that really shapes my thinking… I do feel there is something more actionable that I can do at this point, to give people an analysis that includes Asian Americans to take or adjust or change.

O: When people do talk about kind of the intersection of Asian-American issues and climate issues, or maybe when mainstream environmental organizations talk about it, are there things that you think they consistently miss when they even try? Or is it just that people aren’t trying?

A: We are never part of the conversation—Asian Americans don’t get mentioned, generally. Whenever people talk about impacted communities, or POC communities, they’re usually talking about Black and Latinx communities. If we do come up, it’s usually something antagonistic about China. And that’s not really about Asian Americans. That’s really about Asian people in Asia—or particularly a specific government in one country in Asia.

That tends to be the case across environmental issues—for example, before it was: Greenpeace hates Japan because of whaling. Now, it’s: everyone hates China because they want to develop or they won’t cut their emissions the way that we want them to, even though technically, nationally, they are taking more action on climate than us. Maybe in authoritarian ways, but again, there’s not a nuanced conversation that's happening at that level.

O: What strategies or policies would you like to see the climate movement pursuing? Or what are things going on right now that you like?

A: I think there is a reckoning right now: there is more recognition of organizations that are smaller in scale, that are doing more local or regional or state level work. There are organizations that are representing their bases well, and have more of a voice than they have in recent years. That being said, I feel like you have to be really deep into the climate movement to know. And because the climate movement feels very scientific or policy-wonk-y, there’s a democratization of that information that has to happen. I think we’re slowly breaking down those barriers.

Broadly, what I would love to see is a more international view in general. We, as Americans, do not have a global view on almost anything. That’s gonna limit the way that we deal with global climate change. Do people even know where Taiwan is? Probably not. So how can we talk about climate change that’s happening there? So one key step is broadening the knowledge base in general. Next, supporting local grassroots organizations in whatever way you can. I think a lot of the folks I know who are Asian American and progressive or liberal aren’t currently involved in things, or don’t know what to do. Well, the first thing to do is join an organization. I understand that sometimes there isn’t something to plug into, so the other task is how can we build organizations that are deeply rooted in real communities, but can also support people remotely? As a Taiwanese American in Ohio, I didn’t have a local organization that I felt strongly about that was doing the work that I wanted to do. But as a student, I did find a cultural organization that was national that gave me a lot of tools. It probably wasn’t a political organization by any stretch of the word, but it provided that necessary support to me as a sort of super-geographical community. We need to support people who don’t have organizations to plug into, and provide the framework, and the knowledge, and the tools for those people to organize themselves and be able to create the spaces that they want. It’s hard, but I think what has helped me has always been being able to see examples of it somewhere else and think, oh, it’s possible to do this, or somebody has done this, and that opens up a lot of doors. A lot of people are not in dense population centers like Chicago, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do.

Chu’s next workshop on Asian Americans and environmental justice will be held on February 19, 2019, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.

Olivia Stovicek is a journalist and editor based in Chicago with interests at the intersection of social issues and scientific topics; she is a senior editor at the South Side Weekly. She tweets @o_stovicek. 

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