Belissa Ho traded the Pacific Ocean for Lake Superior when she moved from Hawaii, and her first impression of Duluth: “It wasn’t the weather.”
“It was understanding my hierarchy of where I belonged, quote-unquote,” Ho said.
“When I came here, it flew in my face that you were a minority and you will be misinterpreted at most steps with regards to how you present yourself. Comments like ‘Do Asian women actually act like that?’; ‘You’re really loud for an Asian’; and another comment I would get is the standard: ‘Your English is very good.’
"Eh, I spoke it my entire life.”
Pakou Ly related to similar experiences after relocating from the Twin Cities in 2006.
While folks were cordial, it was a lot of work to develop friendships, she recalled, and “You’re never really part of the inner circle.”
“There’s still this old boys’ club, if you know so and so, they can get you in, and I didn’t know any,” she continued.
Ho and Ly connected to an informal Asian women’s social group, which was a welcoming breath of fresh air.
“I didn’t have to explain myself,” Ly said.
“There’s just a certain comfort level of knowing I’m accepted for who I am.”
“We’re a walking stereotype wherever we go,” said Julie Kim. “I’ve met so many amazing people in Duluth, yet things in Duluth haven’t changed. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) numbers increased, but how are we taking care of people? How are we supporting people who live here?” Kim continued.
Kim, Ly and Ho are among a group of women behind an advocacy group formed out of that social circle. The mission of the Twin Ports APIDA Collective, or TPAC, is to advocate and build solidarity, awareness and equity for the APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) community in Duluth Superior.
“We’re all stronger together,” Jennifer Lien said.
Since organizing in April, Ho, Kim, Ly, Lien and Julia Cheng are among the nearly 30 who have written opinion editorials, organized a March 17 vigil and collaborated with the Duluth Superior Film Festival.
Up next: a 2022 multimedia exhibit at the Duluth Art Institute titled “Like Me, Like You.”
Through these efforts, they aim to share their stories, and it's important for people to get to know us, Ly said. “We work in the community, we volunteer in the community, so you bridge that gap of potential misunderstanding.”
It’s difficult for people to connect Asian people with anti-Asian hate in Duluth, Lien said.
“Folks who have the best of intentions and the biggest heart, sometimes they’re not fully aware of what’s really going on,” Ly added.
As a result, much of their efforts are focused on education and connection.
Before they formed TPAC, the group was in contact with the city of Duluth, answering questions about the needs of the community during the peak of the pandemic.
After the March 16 shootings in Atlanta that left eight Asian women dead, Kim, Ly, Cheng, Lien and Ho, among others, were in touch with city staff as they pulled together a community event at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, where about 150 gathered.
“Within 24 hours, because of our skillset, we’d pulled together the candlelight vigil,” recalled Cheng, who spearheaded much of the effort.
At the request of the collective, Mayor Emily Larson put out a strong condemnation of the attacks and of discrimination, Duluth Community Relations Officer Alicia Kozlowski said.
Today, TPAC is among those working with the city on a BIPOC business directory.
“It’s a phenomenal group of powerhouse leaders,” added Kozlowski, “and we’re already seeing the power of their collective and the power of grassroots organizing.”
TPAC’s partnership with the Duluth Superior Film Festival meant a lot to outreach coordinator Dahee Kim.
“It was really important to have representation from the Asian Pacific Islander Desi community. That was important for me as a Korean American person,” said Kim, whose documentary, “Big Happiness,” which was shown at the festival, charted her experiences as a transracial adoptee.
“During our screening that was cohosted by TPAC, to look out and see 40% of the audience be Asian American people from the Twin Ports region, that was a special moment,” festival co-director Matt Koshmrl said.
“When you think of northern Minnesota, you don’t think of the most diverse place, but there’s a hunger for that type of representation in everything, arts included,” he added.
They’re building a resource list for alliance and how to talk to children about racism.
They have a database of reported microaggressions and some harassment experienced by folks in the Duluth-Superior area.
They’re hosting a session Oct. 14 at the upcoming St. Louis County Health and Human Services Conference on “Confronting Asian Hate as One Community.”
And they’re making strides to update social studies in schools.
“We all know the white version of history, but the Asian American community has a deep history predating the history of many immigrants here in Duluth,” Lien said.
“Knowing the history of ancient China, like my kids learn in school, isn’t the same as knowing the history of Chinese Americans, and that’s the piece that has been missing,” Lien continued.
Before meeting members of the Twin Ports Asian community, Lien said she felt disingenuous showing up in service to another marginalized group without tending to her own community’s needs.
She said she feels anchored in her work with the group now.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing because this is what feeds my children’s identity," Lien said. "This is what will make them feel proud to be Asian in the Twin Ports, and from this foundation, then our organization can come alongside the Black community and the Native community and say we will do this together.”
Lien has a number of upcoming speaking engagements, which she said she’s happy to do.
“People are always saying, ‘I’m sorry for the emotional labor,’ but I feel like our narrative is nobody’s ever listened to us before, so to be invited to tell our story, to me, is an important part of this work.
“Invisibility is the APIDA curse,” Lien continued.
Folks still question if this advocacy work is needed and if there really is racism against Asians, Ly said.
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“All advocacy groups that support a particular community of color, they’ve met the same kind of resistance,” Cheng said.
They center their efforts and collective expertise — in advocacy, dismantling racism, journalism, health care, public relations, higher education and more — to sound a call to action to become better community members while representing their cultural identities.
They don’t yet represent every Asian ethnicity in the Twin Ports, but they’d like to, Lien said.
TPAC received grants from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and the Coalition of Asian American Leaders for the upcoming exhibit, and “Like Me, Like You” is set to open in January at the Duluth Art Institute.
This will be the first group show of Asian American artists from the community, about the community in Duluth, said Cheng.
So far, there’ll be works by a jewelry-maker, a podcast, storyboards, poetry, a film component and more — all centered on personal narratives and storytelling.
While Cheng has lived in and organized in larger communities, such as Boston, Washington and Cleveland, she said moving to Duluth has been a game-changer regarding how she thinks of change.
“I’d never been so engaged in any other community that I’ve lived in," she said. “Duluth is small enough that the problems are not intractable. … It’s not so small that it’s completely hopelessly insular. We feel we have hope from living here that we can make a difference."
And on a personal level, what these women have garnered from joining together is endless.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Kim said. There are different ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds and stories; and they can all come together with an “automatic understanding that you belong here, and you never have to explain yourself.”
“Us all being Asian gives us a bond from which we can all bring out the best in each other, and all of our disparate strengths and skills and experiences,” Cheng said.
“I think of it like a bowl of congee,” Ly said. “It’s filling, it’s warm, it’s homey.
Asked how to support TPAC, the women noted their upcoming events and ways to reach them before Ly added: “Just say ‘hello.’”
For more information, find the Twin Ports APIDA Collective's Facebook page at facebook.com/TPAC2021.