Gabriel Hisugan, youth organizer for Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), Bright Limm, president of Korean Americans for Political Advancement (KAPA), Julie Ae Kim, a program manager at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Dr. Raj Bhayani, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Flushing Hospital, were all recognized.
Limm, who heads the progressive advocacy group KAPA, said celebrating AAPI Heritage Month allows the community to discuss not just cultural heritage, but also injustices and struggles.
“It’s an obligation of the honorees to use this opportunity to speak on those issues, to highlight issues that may not otherwise make it into the public discourse,” he said. “It’s up to the rest of us to take those ideas seriously.”
In addition to leading KAPA, Limm is also a member of the Working Families Party and Community Board 8.
Kim, an activist and organizer who manages the ActionNYC program that connects immigrants to free legal services, said these types of celebrations highlight community members who “don’t get honored everyday.”
“There are so many unsung community heroes doing amazing work that don’t get recognized,” she said.
In addition to her work for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Kim is on the board of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) New York City Chapter, the steering committee for KAPA, and is a graduate student in women’s gender studies.
She noted that Asian American history, though easily forgotten, is a part of the larger American history.
“This celebration, and having it recognized, gives us an opportunity to really understand, learn and share with others what Asian Americans’ contribution to American society has been,” Kim said. “That’s really important to me.”
Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who hosted the sixth annual event at Townsend Harris High School, also shared the stage with Alice Lee Giannetta, a local attorney who won the Mrs. World competition last year. Both women are Townsend Harris alumni.
Giannetta moved to Flushing when she was eight years old. The attorney and activist recounted growing up in a different Flushing, one that only had one Chinese supermarket in the 1990s.
She said her family spent “almost all our weekends there” because it was the only place they could find videos and DHS tapes of television shows from their native Taiwan.
“We felt nostalgic and missed home,” she said. “That was really our community center.”
Another site that served as a community center was her Chinese school, which provided resources to help her feel at home in Flushing.
“As an immigrant, I had to deal with learning English, how to assimilate to this community,” Giannetta said. “I realized how much these community centers help me and inspire me to give back.”
As a Townsend Harris student, Giannetta said she spent her summer registering voters in Flushing. She stood on the corners of Main Street speaking to both Chinese and English-speaking residents.
Through that experience, Giannetta said she learned what it meant to bring awareness to the Asian-American community, especially in Flushing.
Giannetta went on to attend Stony Brook University, where she majored in political science, and got her law degree at CUNY Law School. She now works as an attorney working in commercial litigation at an international law firm.
The lessons she learned from her youth played a role in her advocacy work. She recently went with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association to Capitol Hill to lobby for a bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to Chinese-Americans who fought in World War II.
According to Giannetta, many Chinese-Americans were not given citizenship even after the repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese-American laborers from entering the country. By her estimate, thousands of Chinese-American WWII vets are still not recognized for their service.
Giannetta said she first learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act in her American history class.
“I was really shocked because the America that I knew was always an America that was welcoming of all people from all backgrounds,” she said. “It was very sad to learn about that.”
But learning about that piece of history also “triggered a fire” in her. She inspired her to act, and to be involved in civic and political life.
“Although it was part of a shameful past of our country, it inspired me, as a private citizen, to advocate for justice,” she said.
As Mrs. World 2018, Giannetta’s platform is gender equality for women and girls. She has especially focused on advancing education for girls all over the world, knowing how much it changed her own life.
“It was education that opened so many doors for me, and allowed me to have really wonderful experiences,” she said, “and enabled me to be in a position to give back.”
When she toured different countries, Giannetta she said saw how girls were not allowed to go to school and not encouraged to read or learn. Instead, she saw that many young girls were taught to be mother and wives.
She predicted that the lack of education would have a devastating effect not just on their lives, but for the entire world.
“If we have a population of girls who grow up to be illiterate and not be taught anything other than to give birth, that country will never be able to be successful and modern,” she said.