Taking action against hate

Pui-Yan Lam.

In this alumni apotlight, we catch up with Pui-Yan Yam (’01 PhD sociology) who currently is working as a public sociologist. She is a recipient of the Eva Lassman ‘Take Action Against Hate’ Award, presented by Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies to honor an individual or organization for doing impactful work to counter hatred in any of its forms.

Do you have any specific memories of WSU?

One of my first teaching assignments was in the comparative american cultures department and through that I met and got to know Linda Vo, who is a sociologist and I think was affiliated with the department at the time. She is in the Asian American studies department at UC Irvine now. I became more active with a student organization on the WSU campus and Professor Vo helped us organize events. She became an informal mentor to me, asking me things I wasn’t even thinking about, but also through observing her as a faculty member and seeing her mentorship. To observe her career from afar was inspiring because she is a scholar who is not only publishing great work, and of relevance to the Asian American communities, but she’s also very involved in those communities. I feel fortunate that I got to know her by chance and develop that relationship.

After you graduated from WSU you got a job up the road at Eastern Washington University. Can you tell us about that?

When I was working on my dissertation, I applied to and got an interview at Eastern. I liked that they serve a lot of first-generation college students because my undergraduate university, San Jose State, was the same. I enjoyed having classmates of all ages and learning about their life experiences. I felt like that was an important part of my sociological training as an undergrad coming to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Through my classmates, I learned about U.S. society, and it was eye opening. I loved that the U.S. system allows students from different paths to access higher education, whereas in Hong Kong going to college is a very strict path. Universities with a mission to serve students from all sorts of backgrounds, especially first generation, were close to my heart, so I thought Eastern would be a good fit for me.

The Spokesman-Review recently featured you in an article about the Eva Lassman award. Can you speak about winning that award?

The award is especially meaningful and personal because we were nominated by the young leaders that we raised, and I think that was their way of showing their appreciation.

Towards the latter part of my time at WSU, I started to become very active on campus. Around that time, another sociology graduate student was working to create an Asian American Graduate Student Association at WSU, and I was invited to be the co-president. So, I started to get experience doing activism, especially around racial equity.

In my first year at Eastern I attended diversity forums to figure out what the issues are and became involved with various committees. I met people who were active in the Asian American communities in Spokane, but mostly my activism was within the university because I thought that was the best place for me. I could see things from the student/activist side because I could remember my experiences. It wasn’t until after the 2016 Presidential election that I felt like I needed to do more. I became co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalitions (APIC) Spokane chapter in 2017 (with Rowena Pineda) and became involved in other organizations and coalitions.

At the time we stepped up to be the co-chairs, people kept saying they were so happy to have two young leaders, and we were like, “We’re young?!” (laughs). We thought our priority should be to develop young leadership. We built an advisory committee with younger Asian Americans focusing on advocacy, particularly legislative work. In Spokane especially, many of the Asian organizations are primarily immigrant based so we wanted to get the American-born generation more involved, and there was nothing at the time that they could belong to.

I’m using my training as a sociologist and my knowledge about Asian American communities to develop educational programs. The last year of our co-chair was the start of COVID, followed by a rise in anti-Asian racism. So we had to jump in and do a lot of work around these issues. I remember the first case of COVID in the U.S. was in the state of Washington and I thought this may trigger a lot of racism as we have seen in history. We quickly jumped in and partnered with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and organized things like bystander intervention trainings. I’m no longer the co-chair, but I’m serving on the board of the organization, and we are moving to become a C3 so we can get grants to support this work.

It’s interesting and important work and I think it serves as a great example for the next generation of WSU graduates. What are your plans for the future?

Educating our larger community. Education is needed because I think Asian Americans, as a group, are still relatively invisible and many people don’t know the history of Asian Americans in the United States.

There are also many efforts to push for ethnic studies, for example, in the past few years. Because of the rise of anti-Asian racism, but also the murder of George Floyd, I think there is more demand from students to teach about racism in schools. But of course, we are facing backlash with the anti-critical race theory movements spreading across the nation.

For me, it is important to focus not only on Asian American studies but race and ethnic studies in general, and I’m excited about that. Our organization is working closely with the school district on these issues and how we, as a community organization, can help teachers infuse more about the Asian American experience into the curriculum. This is something I have the expertise to contribute to.

Tom Rotolo’s influence in graduate school allowed me to become familiar with studies of civic engagement. This has also been useful in my community work because I am interested in figuring out what gets people engaged and involved and building capacity. I’m putting the knowledge that I gained in graduate school into practice. Even though a lot of things I didn’t plan, somehow the dots connect, and I am able to use what I learned from different people now 20 years later.

Originally posted at WSU Sociology News