As a LSA alum, some of my dearest University of Michigan memories involve Emily Lawsin, a professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, shouting out her truth.
“Clean out your ears and your skeleton closets, because I cannot take any more moments of silence!” Lawsin declared in a 2006 spoken-word performance. As a first-generation Filipinx-American raised in overlapping bubbles of racial, gender and identity intolerance, these words — a brazen declaration against keeping quiet and quietly keeping to the “model minority” script — meant the world to me.
The commitment to fighting for justice is born out of great need and great passion; Até Emily opened my eyes to both.
By far, the most valuable course I took at the University was Lawsin’s American Culture 305, an Asian/Pacific Islander American studies service-learning initiative in which students volunteered in Detroit’s Asian and Asian-American communities. By diving into cross-systems lessons on civil rights and Asian-American history, my fellow AMCULT 305 advocates unlocked perspectives and life lessons that continue to guide me today. Lawsin, and her persistence in ensuring that such courses existed, made these opportunities possible.
Another A/PIA studies seminar taught by Lawsin highlighted larger feminist movements within Asian-American history while calling on students to look within their own familial and cultural identities. For the class’ oral history assignment, I connected with my mother, a native of the Philippines, to craft an oral history of her life and journey to the United States. The exercise uncovered the hidden struggles and resilience of a bold, brave woman who sacrificed immense joy in her life to increase mine — a hushed trade-off for generations of immigrants, as common as it is infrequently discussed.
In Lawsin’s classes, I first learned of enduring, complex pains within Asian-American communities, documented in deceptively simple legal case names: People v. Hall (Chinese immigrants have no rights to testify against white citizens); Korematsu v. U.S. (the executive order interning Japanese Americans is constitutional); U.S. v. Ebens (Sixth Circuit appeal acquitting Vincent Chin’s killer and finding no racial motivation in Chin’s death). Throughout this history of "makibaka" (“struggle”) emerged fierce and revolutionary resistance from civil and human rights leaders, including Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama and Lawsin herself. Theirs was a revolution I longed to join, first as a student activist and later, as a social justice advocate and attorney.
I was so moved by Lawsin’s leadership that I pursued and completed an Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies minor in 2008. Together with the University’s A/PIA studies community, a fierce cohort of students and faculty allies, I organized spaces and campaigns to protest inequities on campus and off. Through it all, and at numerous gatherings, Lawsin’s spoken word, poetry and prose were a soundtrack to our hopes, laughs, progress and heartaches.
Over ten years after graduation, Lawsin still gives me, and so many others, the tools, strategies, love and inspiration to make the greatest impact in our communities. From the stage to the classroom, she uses her voice to teach the vibrant, living history of social justice while challenging intolerances across time, systems and geography.
Recently, I learned the University has acted, repeatedly, to silence that voice. In February 2018, the Departments of Women’s Studies and American Culture voted to recommend Lawsin’s termination, citing reasons that flout anti-discrimination laws and policies. In further violation of these professional and legal protections, the LSA administration also voted to terminate Lawsin in March 2018.
Rather than shock, there is a familiar wave of betrayal, disappointment and anger: The attempts to terminate Lawsin are the latest, and among the most egregious, attacks on A/PIA studies, a program that the University has systematically failed to support since its inception.
In 2013, the University presented me with a Humanitarian Service Award for work with Detroit’s disconnected communities of color. At the time, I believed that such recognition signaled authentic dedication to diversity. After learning that the University is punishing Lawsin and others simply for teaching “the Filipino experience,” however, I fear this commitment rings hollow.
After nearly a decade of fighting within and across numerous movements, Té Emily’s call to challenge systemic and individual moments of silence still resonates. As students, alumni and supporters of justice, we must answer that call, time and time again:
“See, we cannot waste
Any more moments of silence.
And this ain’t about just taking back the night,
I’m talking about taking back the day-to-day,
Because I am done with the silence.”
We will no longer be quietly betrayed by the “Michigan difference” — the University’s public praise of diversity, devalued by behind-the-scenes retaliation against educators and students of color; nor will we tolerate the absence of transparency given to a scholar, author and artist who has, for over 18 years, strengthened women’s studies, American culture and innumerable intersections that have benefited from her expertise and labor.
Join the campaign to ensure equity for Lawsin and A/PIA studies. Doing so will honor a world-class instructor while championing the educational, historic and cultural autonomy that students and communities of color have long been denied — and building the flourishing, multicultural and welcoming university we deserve.
“Our feet can no longer be bound
Our eyes cannot be taped…
I cannot take any more moments of silence
Because silence has already taken too much
Aisa Villarosa, J.D.
U-M Class of 2008
2008 A/PIA Studies Minor / Filipino American Student Association 2007 Vice President
2013 Humanitarian Service Award Recipient, College of LSA
Learn more about the University’s discriminatory actions against Lawsin at:
Shortened URL: https://goo.gl/NxxhxH
Stay connected through the Alumni for A/PIA Studies Tumblr page:
Read Lawsin’s 74-page complaint alleging systemic discrimination within the University, filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on Dec. 5, 2016: