Across the country, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are uniquely threatened by the growing, intensifying consequences of global climate change. From air, water and soil pollution to rising sea levels and disastrous storms, areas inhabited mostly by AAPI communities are at significant risk. Last year, the horrific, degrading ways in which our leaders and our peers reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic exposed another threat -- one which has existed in the US since the early 19th century. 2020 -- and now the first quarter of 2021 -- saw skyrocketing violence and hate speech towards Asian Americans. In response to both the climate crisis and this crisis of hate, AAPI activists, artists and community members stood up -- this time with an administration and specifically a Vice President who stands with them. Today, AAPI artists represent some of the most vocal in our country about the threats of climate change and inequality. Follow below to learn about three incredible AAPI eco artists living and working in the US today.
Commemorating the Internment of Japanese & Japanese Americans in Washington State
Our co-founders Scott James and Jason F. McLennan live with their families on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. Here, Jason, Scott and their families have been exposed to the history of AAPI exclusion and discrimination. This island is home to the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. The memorial commemorates WWII era internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans who lived on Bainbridge Island during a time of misplaced fear of and intense racism towards Japanese Americans.
Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American Exclusion Memorial aims to honor exiled Bainbridge island residents, to welcome them home and to provide a place of “healing and learning.” The memorial also functions as a space where “human rights lessons of the internment can be shared widely, and the foundational idea of Nidoto Nai Yoni, ‘Let It Not Happen Again,’ can be made perpetually relevant to future generations.” Learn more about the Memorial and how you can support their mission here.
A Brief History of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was first proposed as a Asian-Pacific Heritage Week in the late 1970s. In late 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill presented by Congress to establish Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. Years later in the early 1990s, President George H. W. Bush signed a second bill, extending the week into a month of commemoration. By May 1992, the month had been permanently recognized as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. In her article “How One Woman's Story Led to the Creation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month” for Time, Kat Moon details the origins of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Though Carter, Bush and Congressman Frank Horton often receive all the credit, Moon writes that the progenitor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was actually Capitol Hill staffer Jeanie Jew.
Jeanie Jew Lobbies for Asian Pacific Heritage Week in 1977
According to Moon, Jew “had witnessed the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and was concerned about the lack of recognition given to Asian Pacific Americans.” Jew noted that Black History Month had recently been instituted by President Ford and Hispanic Heritage Week had been established a decade earlier. However, at the time, there was no commemorative period for Asian Americans. Thus, Jew led the charge towards an Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and justice for her community.
Moon explains that the lack of proper recognition felt personal to Jew, whose great-grandfather had immigrated from China to the US in the 19th century and “had helped build the transcontinental railroad.” Though Jew’s grandfather “and his peers had played a key role in American history [they] had suffered for it” rather than celebrated. Instead, Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans were actively persecuted, with laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Geary Act shut them out of society. Violence against Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans skyrocketed in the late 19th century, with Jew’s grandfather himself killed during racial unrest in Oregon.
AAPI Heritage Month Finally Becomes an Annual National Celebration in 1992
Moon writes that Jew and her colleagues chose May to “commemorate the arrival of the first known Japanese immigrant to the U.S. on May 7, 1843” and to “honor the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.” Though Jew and her colleagues got President Carter to sign their bill in 1978, the week of commemoration was not designated an annual recurrence. In 1990, President Bush Sr. signed a similar bill -- one that recognized Asian Pacific American Heritage Month but which required an annual reapproval. In 1992, Rep. Horton finally secured an annual national observance of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, referencing Jeanie Jew in his speech on the House floor.
Why AAPI History Month Is Exceptionally Important This Year
In the months following former President Trump’s inappropriate and derogatory comments about the origins of COVID-19, violence and hate speech against AAPI people has increased substantially. Despite AAPI leaders continuously asking the former president to refer to the pandemic in proper terms rather than referring to it as “the China virus” and “the Wuhan virus,” Trump turned a deaf ear. Anti Asian and Pacific Islander speech and attacks grew nationwide -- affecting community members from Los Angeles, California to New York City, New York. Trump’s comments appear to have contributed to growing violence against AAPI individuals. In an October 2020 article for Business Insider, Charles Davis wrote that UN officials believed Trump was legitimizing “the rising wave of racist and xenophobic attacks.” Executive Director of the A3PCON Manjusha Kulkami referenced data gathered by the organization. Speaking with Davis, Kulkami noted that increasing “racist and xenophobic attacks” against Asian-Americans had been “catalyzed by rhetoric from the president and other government leadership.”
Reparative Work Remains Despite New Administration
Though President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris -- our first Indian-American VP -- have since taken office, crimes against AAPI persons are still on the rise. Thankfully, both Congress and the President have taken some action. In an article for AP News, Darlene Superville notes that on 20 May 2021, President Joe Biden “signed legislation to curtail a dramatic rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” Superville writes that this bill represents one of few pieces of bipartisan legislation to have been passed by the 117th Congress. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was approved 364 to 62 by the House and 94 to 1 in the Senate. Still, anti-Asian attacks are rising. In a May 2021 article for USA Today, N'dea Yancey-Bragg writes of an enduring historic surge “in Anti-Asian American hate incidents...despite [Biden’s] public awareness campaign.” Yancey-Bragg references a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSU San Bernardino.
The Center found that “there was a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in the first quarter of 2021 in 16 major cities and jurisdictions compared with last year.” Quoting Associate Professor Van Tran from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, Yancey-Bragg writes that the violence and hate speech “‘is not likely to decrease any time soon unless we are very vigilant about it.’” In her article “10 DC-Area Asian Americans Discuss Why Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month This Year Is So Important” for The Washingtonian, Shriya Bhattacharya spoke with New Jersey Congressman US Representative Andy Kim. Rep. Kim told Bhattacharya that Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is extra important this year because after months of increased violence and horrific rhetoric, it is their “‘time to take back the narrative’” and create a “‘greater sense of empowerment’” for AAPI people across the US.
Environmentalism and the AAPI Community
Though AAPI community members have long been involved in environmental activism -- lobbying against the harmful impacts of climate change, pollution and more --, their contributions are frequently overlooked. Surveys conducted over the last ten years demonstrate higher concern for the environment amongst Asian-Americans than any other ethnic group. Referencing 2014 AAPI data from the Center for American Progress, NBC News writer Agnes Constante notes that “they are more likely as a group to prioritize it over economic growth, compared to other racial and ethnic groups.” In her article “Why the Environmental Movement Should Stop Ignoring Asian Americans” for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Christina Choi writes that cultural heritage and tradition might influence AAPI attitudes towards conservation.
Culture and Tradition Might Influence AAPI Commitment to Environmental Responsibility
Choi writes that “like many of [her] fellow Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as Indigenous Pacific Islanders, the values of protecting and conserving resources are values [she] grew up with.” Choi references the experiences of her grandparents, who were repeatedly affected by violence against the Korean people and the country’s landscape. Christina Choi describes decades of colonization, war and invasion. Each conflict taught her grandparents “to appreciate the beauty of Korea’s mountainous lands and free-flowing waters, for they could be stolen or destroyed at any moment.” They in turn taught Choi’s parents the “importance of protecting our resources.”
Unlike individualistic Post-War white American culture, Choi notes that many Asian cultures place emphasis on “do[ing[ our part for the greater good.” In addition to environmental responsibility, Choi writes that “recent studies have also linked collectivist values to better, more effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Despite the fact that “70 percent of Asian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, compared to the national average of 41 percent,” Asian Americans are rarely considered.
Connection to Asia Pacific Region Another Factor in AAPI Environmentalism
Additionally -- writes Choi -- “a study last year by the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America showed that 86 percent of Asian Americans agree that acting now on climate change would provide a better life for their children and grandchildren.” This statistic is high “compared to 74 percent of the general U.S. population” that marked the same. While cultural focus on environmental responsibility might influence some AAPIs, others are affected by the endemic risks posed by climate change and pollution that Asian-Americans and Asians worldwide face every day.
Here, we shift back to Agnes Constante’s article “For some AAPIs, ties to Asia Pacific region strengthen resolve to fight climate change” for NBC News. Constante writes that “the greatest percentage of people living in high risk climate zones are those in the Asia Pacific region and South Asia.” Natural disasters impacted by climate change are becoming more frequent and more intense in the Asia Pacific Region. In fact, “ nearly half of all natural disasters across the globe in 2018 occurred in the Asia Pacific region.”
Direct Experience with Environmental Issues in the US Affects AAPI Activism
Watching relatives suffer from outsized effects of unmitigated climate change in the Asia Pacific region certainly encourages some AAPIs to fight for climate justice. However, Asian Americans also suffer the consequences of climate change and poor environmental policy in the United States. In 2015, the Obama-era EPA acknowledged that climate change “poses serious threats to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the United States.” The EPA noted that without intervention, “rising air and ocean temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, changing frequencies and intensities of storms and drought, decreasing stream flows, rising sea levels, and changing ocean chemistry” will continue to threaten the US Pacific Islands. Obama-era EPA officials noted that “Asian Americans and Hispanics in 2006 to 2008 had the greatest percentage of populations residing in counties where air quality did not meet EPA standards for particulate matter.”
Impacts of Climate Change and Environmental Policy Disproportionately Affect AAPIs
A 2017 study published in The Journal of Social Science & Medicine confirmed that exposure to pollution remains high amongst Asian American and Pacific Islander populations. The study found an association “between higher proportions of Asian Americans in neighborhoods and greater exposure to carcinogenic HAPs.” Not only do Asian American populations “face notably high air pollution risks,” but Asians and Asian Americans “have been underemphasized in previous studies of environmental injustice.” Today, “Chinese and Korean populations experience the greatest mean cancer risks due to HAPs” nationally -- followed closely by Black Americans. Researchers Sara E. Grineski, et. al. write that “analytical attention has long been diverted away from Asian Americans” because the “model minority myth has exerted power over inquiry within the environmental health...research community.”
In her article “Why the Environmental Movement Should Stop Ignoring Asian Americans” for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Christina Choi also references the “model minority myth.” She notes that because of the model minority stereotype, members of the AAPI community “receive little support from environmental justice work as well.” While Choi writes that Asian American and Pacific Islanders are often assumed to be in high-paying fields like medicine, law and engineering, “the highest poverty rates across the United States are found in Bhutanese and Burmese communities.” Those living in poverty -- in the United States and abroad -- are at disproportionate risk of suffering from climate change due to an increased occurrence of illness and lack of access to medical care.
Three Asian American and Pacific Islander Eco Artists Fighting for Our Planet
From large-scale public installations to miniature watercolors, art has long existed as an expression of frustration and a vehicle for change. As part of their climate action advocacy, contemporary AAPI artists across the US create evocative pieces that both educate and motivate their audiences. Three AAPI artists focusing on environmental issues today include Mel Chin, Pam Tau Lee and Alex Ito. Learn more about their lives and work below.
#1 Texan Artist Mel Chin
Internationally celebrated conceptual artist Mel Chin has worked on projects around the world, but was born and raised in Houston, Texas. According to Chin’s bio on his own website, the artist “is known for the broad range of approaches in his art, including works that require multi-disciplinary, collaborative teamwork and works that conjoin cross-cultural aesthetics with complex ideas.” One such work that embodies his willingness to collaborate with others is his hand-drawn, animated video 9-11/9-11. The joint US-Chilean production won a Pedro Sienna Award for Best Animation in Chile in 2007. Chin is well-known in ecological art circles for his interest in “unlikely places” for installations. For instance -- according to Chin’s bio --, the Texan artist has created art around the world from “destroyed homes [and] toxic landfills” in an effort to investigate "how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility.”
Mel Chin Explores Environmental Healing in 1989 Project Revival Field
By now, Chin’s environmental conservation advocacy is as well-known as his art. In 1989, Chin began his Revival Field project. Peter Boswell described the project twenty-eight years later in his article “Invisible Aesthetic: Revisiting Mel Chin’s Revival Field” for the Walker Art Center’s magazine Sightlines. Boswell notes that Chin’s Revival Field remains “one of Chin’s most important projects.” He describes the “green remediation” project as one that “united scientists and artists in field testing” this pioneering approach to conservation. Boswell explains that Revival Field emerged from Chin’s “growing interest in the subject of environmental pollution,” which he had explored in prior projects.
Chin started researching how he could use plants to remediate polluted soil by “soaking up heavy metal toxins...through their root systems and then harvesting and incinerating the plants to recover and recycle the metals.” Chin worked with scientists at the US Department of Agriculture Research Service to develop a “framework of art [on which he could] conduct the first field test of the process on a contaminated site.” By 1993, Chin’s project was successful -- with plants in the field absorbing toxic cadmium. The above series of photos demonstrates the experiences and passion of students currently working on Chin's Revival Field program. Around the time of Boswell’s article, art critic Eleanor Heartney defined Chin’s Revival Field as “‘now a classic model for the partnership of art and environmental science.’”
Chin’s Recent Work Confronts Climate Change
In a recent article for Arts Boston, Elena Morris writes of work Chin has produced within the last five years. Morris specifically singles out two projects from 2018 -- Wake and Unmoored. Wake -- a sixty-foot sculpture of a shipwreck placed in the middle of Times Square -- interrupted foot traffic in NYC. Morris describes the project as “jolting imaginations towards a possible New York City covered by the rising sea.” In addition to modern sins against the environment, Wake also touches on America’s many prior sins -- including the displacement and enslavement of Africans. On his website, Chin describes “the expanding past economies” of New York City as “a prologue to our current environmental dilemma.”
Unmoored was a far different experience for its audience. The project applied “virtual reality technology to plunge viewers deeper” into a world destroyed by climate change. Chin’s Unmoored project created the illusion that users were immersed in a world flooded by melted polar ice caps -- surrounded by “a new ecosystem teeming with organisms in the water.” She notes that the pair captured public attention “for the visceral nature of his public artwork about climate change.” Today, Chin’s work currently explores environmental issues such as global climate change, air and soil pollution, sustainability and more. Chin is active on social media; view more of Chin’s work on his Instagram feed here.
#2 Artist and Activist Pam Tau Lee
Pam Tau Lee is an artist and activist currently based in San Francisco, California where she recently participated in the Sowing Agency show presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center as part of the 24th annual USAAF Festival. Lee was born in Northern California and studied at both Cal State Hayward and UC Berkeley. It was at UC Berkeley that Lee became involved in both social and environmental activism.
A Long Legacy of Environmental and Racial Justice
Lee’s activism was profiled several years ago in an article entitled “Legacy of Selma March Extends Beyond Black and White” from NBC News. The article described Lee as “the founder and chairperson of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, and the founder of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.” In 2015, Lee was “inducted into the Hall of Resistance in the Ancient Africa Enslavement and Civil War Museum in Selma” for her decades of work. In the article, Lee herself explains that “‘the civil rights and later the black power movements that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of people like [her] to dedicate [their] lives to fighting for needed change.’” Throughout her life, Lee has fought for “‘change that can end poverty, white supremacy, patriarchy and wars of aggression, a change for a better America.’” Lee remains a proponent for her group Asians4BlackLives, which she describes as “‘committed to an America that comes to terms with the trauma of its painful history and finds true reconciliation for it.’”
Lee Explores Art as a Tool for Environmental Justice in Sowing Agency
According to the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), the Sowing Agency exhibition -- which took place from 30 April to 23 May 2021 -- was “inspired by the fight for environmental justice.” The exhibition includes pieces by twenty-one female AAPI artists, with work intended to activate the “Asian Pacific Islander communities to engage in the issues of today’s climate crisis.” AAWAA notes that together, the varied “pieces featured in the show work to realign our relationships with the Earth through introspection and collective leadership.” The exhibition’s goal was to amplify “calls for increased action to challenge extractive industries, monocultures, corporate greed and colonization.” Working with artists and community partners, Sowing Agency hoped to “weave local and global climate resistance into our cultural consciousness.”
AAWAA’s bio of Pam Tau Lee describes her as a painter and activist who has dedicated “her life's work to environmental justice.” According to AAWAA, Lee actually “wrote the paper on workplace safety for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.” She has also “contributed to Principles of Environmental Justice” and co-founded the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Lee also co-founded the Just Transition Alliance currently serves as chair “of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines - U.S.”
#3 Brooklyn Artist and Culture Worker Alex Ito
According to his Artspace bio, Alex Ito was born in Los Angeles, California in 1991 -- making him the youngest artist in this list. Ito currently lives and works in Brooklyn but has since exhibited in Los Angeles. His solo exhibitions include a show entitled Cloud Nine at The Still House Group in New York, Tales from a Sardine Run at Rod Barton Gallery in London, Act I: The Crucible’s Nest at AA|LA Gallery in LA and God Has No Fingernails at Good Enough Gallery in Atlanta. Ito studied sculpture, cultural studies and art history at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Ito has also participated in a number of group exhibitions and has also curated several -- including Watching Things Burn at Springsteen in Baltimore. Reviews of Ito’s work have appeared in Mousse Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and more.
Alex Ito’s Approach to Environmentalism through Personal Heritage
Interstate Projects’ release describes the sculptural assemblage on the ground floor of the gallery as a “vernacular for industrial Americana; one premised on utopian fictions of progress, cowboy expansion and ultimately, cultural amnesia.” His film -- started in 2017 and completed last year -- explores Ito’s own heritage set against a backdrop of real life images disguised as science fiction. Combining the surreal with the corporeal, Ito “lyrically renders the disposable frameworks of life as it is reduced and reconfigured into agents of waste, capital and fear.”
On Anti Asian Hate and Activism through Art
Ito recently spoke with Artsy’s editorial team for their article “6 AAPI Artists Reflect on the Spike in Anti-Asian Violence.” In conversation with the Artsy editorial team, Alex Ito also references the model minority myth. He notes that “it is critical that these conversations surrounding anti-Asian violence avoid reducing into isolated identity narratives and consider the risks of inadvertently endangering Black, Brown, and other Asian diaspora communities.” Ito underscores the importance of intersectional efforts to elevate all persecuted communities. He explains that art must respond authentically and selflessly to injustice instead of “collaps[ing] into vanity projects or institutional performativity as opposed to community action and care.”