AAPI Heritage Month: Brave Woman Highlights
By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
Today we shine the light on four fearless, barrier-breaking women we’re in constant awe of. Each woman inspires others to follow in their footsteps while also representing the beautiful diversity of the AAPI community. Check out and celebrate their incredible stories and accomplishments.
Don’t forget: Issue 15 featuring artist Bernice Bing debuts at the end of May! Subscribe now to get it first.
1. HELEN ZIA
Activist, journalist, and author
Image by Steve Rhodes
Helen Zia is one of the leading figures in the Asian-American movement. She’s an award-winning author, hard-hitting journalist, and multifaceted activist who has organized efforts against anti-Asian hate crimes. She also rallied in support of LGBTQ+ rights and advocated for women’s rights throughout her career.
In the 1950s, Helen’s parents, who emigrated from China, raised Helen and her siblings in Newark, New Jersey. As one of the only Asian-American families in the area, the Zia family faced discrimination. Helen grew up inspired by the civil rights movement and feminist movement—influenced by leaders who supported equality for all people.
Helen attended Princeton University on a full scholarship, and was a member of the university’s first graduating class of women. With her sights set on community organizing, she got involved in the construction industry to help diversify it, becoming one of the first women of color in the country to become a construction laborer.
She moved to Detroit shortly after to help integrate the automobile industry. By day, she worked with dangerous machinery at the Chrysler plant, and by night, she worked with the trade union movement. A few years later, the American auto industry faced massive layoffs, which pushed Helen to pursue journalism.
In 1983, amid anti-Asian hate in Detroit, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was killed. The white men who killed him received a lenient sentencing, causing an outcry from the Asian-American community. Helen organized mass protests that unified different Asian-American groups, and it was the first movement to bring Asian-American civil rights to the forefront of America. She also co-founded American Citizens for Justice, an organization that raised legal funds to help challenge the judge’s decision.
After nearly a decade in journalism, including her dream job as executive editor of Ms. magazine, Helen became the vice president and editor-in-chief of WorldView Systems. She was also a board chair of the Women’s Media Center, and was active with non-profits, including heading the New York Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
When she wasn’t writing articles for the New York Times, Washington Post, or OUT, she worked on her own books. It took Helen twelve years to research and write Last Boat Out of Shanghai, a book about refugees who fled during the communist takeover of China.
More of Helen’s feats: She was a torchbearer for the Beijing Olympics. And she was a witness in the monumental 2010 federal marriage equality case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. She and her wife, Lia, were also among the first same-sex couples to wed in California.
When we stick to our passions and put fire behind our beliefs, we can make a difference in the world—just like Helen continues to do.
2. CHRISTINE SUN KIM
Sound artist, visual artist, and activist
Image by Joi Ito
Growing up, people told Korean American artist Christine Sun Kim that sound would not have a presence in her life—but she refused to let the world dictate her creativity. Born Deaf, Christine discovered her love for art at a young age. Throughout grade school, art curriculum may have taken a back seat, but she always loved visual art. She pursued a master’s in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, but still struggled to find the perfect medium to express herself.
While she continued to draw and paint, she finally found her artistic voice in 2008, at a residency in Berlin, Germany. Many galleries in the city focused on sound art—and that’s when it clicked. Christine believed sound wasn’t just something you can hear. It can be felt, seen, and thought about. In her 2015 TED Talk (which you should all watch!), she shared how “sound is so powerful that it could disempower me and my artwork or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.”
Christine then earned a second master’s in fine arts in sound and music at Bard College. After making Berlin her permanent home, she traveled all over the world to showcase her groundbreaking pieces, including one week of lullabies for roux, game of skill 2.0, and Trauma, LOL.
Her critically acclaimed work explores communication, language, and experiences she’s had as part of the Deaf community. And her artwork’s medium includes video, drawing, writing, performance, sound installation, and humor.
Places where she has exhibited include the Times Art Center and Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York, and MIT’s List Visual Art Center. Two of her pieces will also debut at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2022.
She was also the first Deaf Asian American to perform the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” in American Sign Language at the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, only a few seconds of her performance was broadcasted, and Christine expressed her disappointment in a New York Times op-ed.
Christine’s innovation shows us what can happen if we step outside society’s expectations: We unleash our potential.
3. Sen. Tammy Duckworth
Politician and retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel
Image by Senate Democrats
Senator Tammy Duckworth is the living, breathing definition of courage. Tammy’s proudly Thai American and of Chinese descent, and one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in elected office. She’s also the first senator to give birth while serving in office, and the first woman with a disability elected into Congress.
Tammy grew up in a military family and spent her childhood living in Southeast Asia, becoming fluent in Thai and Indonesian. When her family moved to Hawaii, she had to work odd jobs after school to help her parents make ends meet. Her father, a war veteran, struggled to find work.
Throughout college, Tammy continued to work hard and graduated from the University of Hawaii. After getting her master’s in international affairs from George Washington University, friends encouraged her to join the Army ROTC. She then became a helicopter pilot, one of the few combat roles available to women at the time. Tammy was a pilot for over a decade and absolutely loved it.
During the Iraq War, she served as a battle captain and assistant operations officer. In November 2004, Tammy was on a combat mission when her Black Hawk helicopter was taken down by a grenade, causing her to lose her legs and parts of her right arm. Her crew bravely saved her life. Tammy was awarded a Purple Heart for her service and dedicated most of her career afterward to veteran affairs. She especially supports fellow veterans who were wounded in battle.
In 2013, Tammy was elected as a U.S. House Representative, becoming the first Asian American from Illinois in Congress. She introduced bills that benefited veterans and working families, including the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, which made it law for airports to provide clean and accessible lactation rooms for mothers. She also concurrently earned her doctorate in human services.
Tammy was elected yet again in 2016—only this time she became a U.S. Senator. She co-founded the Environmental Justice Caucus, which helps raise awareness of the environmental issues affecting communities of color. She has also fought for more AAPI representation in government and worked on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill to help fight Asian-American discrimination.
When Tammy eventually flew helicopters again, she showed the world that determination could make you limitless. In her recent memoir, she wrote, “No matter how grievous the wound, healing is always possible, and that the lowest moments can lead to the greatest heights.”
4. Dr. Swati Mohan
Image by NASA HQ PHOTO
On February 18, 2021, the world excitedly watched as the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, made its final descent—after traveling 203 days and 293 million miles. Its purpose: To study Mars’ geology and search for any signs of past life.
During the rover landing, Dr. Swati Mohan said, “Touchdown confirmed” to a room full of cheering NASA scientists and engineers. Perseverance is the most technologically advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet—and Swati’s main job was to act as its eyes and ears. She also provided commentary throughout Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing, and worked with a diverse team of engineers to ensure this major milestone for NASA.
Swati began working on the Mars 2020 mission in 2013, and became the lead engineer for guidance, navigation, and controls operations throughout its development. She made sure the spacecraft always headed in the right direction–no easy feat, since Perseverance faced thousands of degrees of heat, had to decelerate from 12,000 mph to 2 mph in seven minutes, and had to land in a safe place amid Mars’ unknown terrain.
When she was a year old, Swati and her family emigrated from India. She grew up in Northern Virginia and was raised with traditional Indian values. Her passion for space exploration began when she first watched Star Trek as a kid. She loved how a close-knit team could explore the beauty of the universe together. She also enjoyed reading nonfiction books on the nebula, the Big Bang theory, and planetary exploration.
As a kid, Swati wanted to be a pediatrician. Then her passion turned to engineering when she took her first physics class in high school, and she realized exploring space was a real career option. She then earned a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, and her master’s and doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After interning at different NASA centers, Swati found her niche field. Before Perseverance, she worked on Cassini, a spacecraft that unearthed discoveries on Saturn, and GRAIL, a mission that sent spacecraft around the moon.
Swati teaches us to stay resilient, despite the many obstacles that may come our way. “What I learned most from Mars 2020 is not from that one landing day,” Swati told Cornell Chronicle. “It's from the eight years spent working on the project and coming across failures, both small and big, and having to persevere through all of those to get to that next step.”