Teen Activist Empowers Asian Girls to Fight for Change

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

“CALL IT WHAT IT IS,” the Instagram post says in big, bold letters. “CALL IT A HATE CRIME.”

Stephanie Hu’s organization Dear Asian Youth (DAY) posted this the day after the March 16 shooting in Atlanta that left eight women dead, six of whom were Asian-Americans. DAY wrote in frustration to its thousands of followers in response to officials not labeling the actions a hate crime because the shooter said his actions were the result of a “sexual addiction.”

This justification, DAY explained in the Instagram post, is racist because it stems from an ideology that fetishizes Asian women. This wasn’t the first time Hu, 16, and her organization had discussed the fetishization of Asian women. The podcast hosts of Dear Asian Girl, an offshoot of DAY, also talked about it in one of their episodes. Since March 2020, Hu has used these platforms to cover many issues related to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. This work is especially important now, when incidents of hate crimes against AAPI rose 150 percent over the past year.

“We’re seeing this recent rise in particular is because of COVID and Trump’s violent use of rhetoric,” racial justice educator and PhD candidate Bianca Mabute-Louie said. This particularly affects Asian women because they’re two times more likely to be harassed than men, she said.

Hu has personally experienced harassment: At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in her predominantly white neighborhood in Orange County, California, people began to act outwardly racist towards her because she was Chinese. Hu most clearly remembers her classmates making insensitive comments, wondering why China couldn’t “just get their shit together.” This particularly bothered Hu because her parents live in China. She was worried about them, especially because they were under lockdown at the time.

The xenophobia “really made me feel like a stranger in my own community,” Hu said. “So that’s when I turned to poetry to find solace through that.”

What started off as a blog to showcase her creative writing has turned into a nonprofit organization with over 110,000 followers on Instagram and a reach of 3 million people worldwide. There are 150 Dear Asian Youth chapters in 23 U.S. states and 17 countries. In Fort Bend, Texas, a DAY chapter launched the Political Activism Project to increase Asian voter turnout using social media. And in Thorton, Colorado, a DAY chapter raised over $400 for local Asian businesses and restaurants. Altogether, these chapters have held 17 webinars and workshops with the national organization that directs various programs, including the chapter program, reaching 111 members.

But perhaps DAY’s most important initiative is the podcast, Dear Asian Girl (DAG). Since the first episode in July 2020, DAG has aimed to uplift and highlight the voices of Asian girls around the world. It gained over 7,000 Instagram followers and almost 6,000 podcast listeners from nine countries. The podcast hosts, Asian teens Alina Rahim, Genesis Magpayo, Naina Giri and Melissa Yu, bring in experts to discuss topics ranging from the model minority myth to Asian stereotypes perpetuated by the film industry in 30- to 60-minute episodes.

Mainstream media, activist Mabute-Louie noted, largely leaves out the voices of Asian women. DAG starts conversations about issues that play huge roles in the lives of Asian girls, empowering them by letting them know they have a community who cares about the same issues they do at a time when many feel vulnerable or powerless.

Unnathi Prakash, a high-schooler from Arlington, Texas, said DAG made her realize she could fix problems in her community by taking action herself.

“It empowered me in my day-to-day life,” Prakash said. “Now when I look at my community and school, I think about how I can personally make a change in the world. I’ve started getting involved in garden activism, which is really important in a dry state like Texas, and I’m working my way up to getting involved in other social justice causes too.”

The Future is Ms. is committed to amplifying the voices of young women everywhere. Share one of your own stories about your path to empowerment at SayItForward.org.

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Surina Venkat, a student journalist in West Melbourne, Fla., is a writer for Brown Girl Magazine’s new youth vertical, BG Youth.