Institutionalizing an Ethnic Studies department, creating supportive cultural centers, disaggregating Asian American and Pacific Islander admissions data and establishing a standardized hate and bias policy: these are the four demands that Mobilizing Asian Students Together, the first coalition of Asian students and organizations at Duke, is fighting for.
The demands were written in response to the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, during which eight people, including six Asian women, were killed. The coalition itself was created in order to support the demands in an organized manner.
“Not a single one of these demands is new. I think the big goal of MAST is to get these demands in a place where we don’t have to keep articulating the same thing over and over,” junior Miriam Shams-Rainey said. “We want to be the last people to have to do this.”
Senior Shania Khoo, one of MAST’s founding members, felt that part of the reason these demands have not been met yet is the “four year cycle of students leav[ing]” after pushing hard for change. MAST hopes to “make sure that institutional memory … is passed down to students.”
Since joining the Asian American Studies Working Group, an organization that is now part of the MAST coalition, during her first year, Khoo feels as though she has learned much about Duke’s institutional history and “what harms and violence … Duke [has] been part of.”
Khoo emphasized several incidents on campus fueled by bias and hate that students should know about, including the vandalization of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in August 2018, the Kappa Sigma Asia Prime party in February 2013, the Sigma Chi Viva Mexico party in September 2003 and the recent vandalization of the East Campus bridge with homophobic and anti-Black graffiti in October.
“Because of how the pandemic has really pushed us all online, a lot of this memory has been forgotten … whereas in the past, people have used these moments as instances to organize very actively,” Khoo said. “Duke is sidelining students of color all the time, even though Duke is very proud of being this diverse school.”
Sophomore Huiyin Zhou described MAST’s current efforts against the allocation of Bryan Center office space to the Career Center as the coalition’s “most pressing issue.”
While the University has paused its plans to move the Career Center to the Bryan Center, Zhou said that the vision for a Bryan Center space is not “the ultimate goal” for cultural organizations.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a separate cultural center building,” Zhou said.
MAST is also pushing for an Asian American and Diaspora Studies minor under the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department.
“Duke doesn’t really provide much support for AADS … even if we have a minor, it doesn’t mean that Duke will necessarily put in more resources and money into this,” Zhou said.
Zhou says the coalition plans to meet with faculty in the coming weeks and has had monthly meetings with the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program to share updates and continue to advocate for a department.
As a student with a busy schedule, Zhou said that constantly working for these efforts is a lot of “emotional labor” and “very exhausting.”
Shams-Rainey similarly feels that a “huge emotional burden” falls on marginalized students advocating for change and said that she spends “more than a class’s worth of time a week in meetings with administration and planning for those meetings, discussing next steps to sort of push administration to be better.”
Despite this, Zhou said members of MAST find motivation by “looking back at decades of efforts that came before” them.
“There’s a legacy of student organization and activism that continues to inspire us, even after people graduated,” Zhou said. “I do feel like we have a sense of community ... and so it’s not like we’re just a demand’s crew.”
Shams-Rainey also found inspiration in recognizing small successes as “something that we can celebrate even if there’s still a long way to go.”
“If you’re continuing to do this work for months, years or literal decades in the case of some of these demands, there ends up being a community of people who care about each other and also care about trying to make Duke into a place that’s more hospitable.”
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Ayra Charania is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.