The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) welcomed the Year of the Monkey with it’s annual lunar new year gala at PIER SIXTY, Chelsea Piers, in New York City on February 16, 2016 with more than 700 people in attendance. AALDEF presented its 2016 Justice in Action Awards to Eric H. Holder, Jr., former Attorney General of the United States and partner at Covington & Burling LLP; Heidi C. Chen, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Zoetis; and Phil Yu, founder and editor of Angry Asian Man.
Cindy Hsu, anchor and reporter at CBS2 News, and Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art co-emceed the evening’s festivities.
AALDEF board president Tommy Shi began the evening with special thanks to benefit committee co-chairs, pro bono law firm supporters, AALDEF alumni, and volunteers. Among the event’s major supporters was Justice Circle sponsor Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Margaret Fung, executive director, highlighted recent cases and activities, and she previewed AALDEF’s plans to protect the voting rights of Asian Americans in the 2016 elections.
Neal Katyal, former Acting Solicitor General of the U.S., a 2015 Justice in Action Award recipient, and partner at Hogan Lovells, presented the award to Holder. Katyal described working in the Justice Department with Holder during a highly politicized climate of partisanship. Katyal spoke about Holder’s vigorous defense of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his actions to address hate crimes against American Muslims and Sikh Americans, and the Justice Department’s role in securing a settlement against the Philadelphia School District in AALDEF’s complaint about racial violence and harassment against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School.
Holder accepted the Justice in Action Award, noting that “Yours. . .is a community that for too long has not been given the attention that both your history and your ongoing concerns merit. . .That is why organizations like this one are so vitally important.” He urged people to build bridges to concerned communities, emphasizing that “Positive change, though possible, does not simply occur. It is the product of sacrifice, of joint action, and of perseverance….The time for action is right now.”
The second presenter was Louise M. Parent, of counsel, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, and former general counsel at American Express. She described the outstanding accomplishments of Chen, one of only five Asian American women to serve as general counsel among Fortune 1000 companies. Parent said, “Heidi understands that a commitment to diversity must go beyond personally-held values. . .We need more people like Heidi who are willing to ask the uncomfortable questions.”
In accepting the award, Heidi Chen spoke about the issue of dignity and how it has shaped her professional career and personal life. She said that dignity gives the strength to speak our minds, the courage to act, and helps us to do the right thing. These values helped her navigate the corporate world and become general counsel at Zoetis, where women are nearly half of the executive leadership team. She also cited the importance of civic organizations like AALDEF, which help to push back against the forces that may erode dignity.
Before the Justice in Action Award was presented to Phil Yu, a surprise video from Jeremy Lin was shown:
The final presenter was Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist at the Wall Street Journal. Yang described how Phil Yu, right after graduating from Northwestern University, saw “the collision of race and culture playing out in weird and funny ways,” and was moved to document it. He said Yu has since shared stories that are overlooked in the mainstream and highlighted voices not yet discovered by mass-market channels. Yang said that Angry Asian Man was the most influential website in Asian America and for 15 years has been a singular voice on Asian American issues on the internet.
Phil Yu, not really as angry as his blog might suggest, thanked Yang, whom he described as a mentor, friend, and “father of that boy” Hudson Yang, star of the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat.” Yu noted that just two days earlier, he had celebrated the 15th anniversary of Angry Asian Man, which at the outset gave him a place to speak out about what it meant to be Asian American. Called an activist, a journalist, a pundit, and a provocateur, Yu said “The work I do empowers me, and hopefully, it empowers the people and organizations on the ground doing the real work for our community, like AALDEF.” He urged everyone to “stand up, speak out… and stay angry.”
George Takei delivered a special message at the end of the program. He gave a special shout out to AALDEF assistant director Lillian Ling for organizing a theater party of 250 people to support “Allegiance.” Takei said that just as Japanese Americans fought for their constitutional rights during World War II, AALDEF today fights for fundamental American rights: the right to a living wage, a decent education, the right to vote. He closed the program by urging guests to support the organization’s work, noting that when AALDEF does its important work, “we all live long and prosper.”
The AALDEF Justice in Action Awards recognize exceptional individuals for their outstanding achievements and efforts in advancing social justice. Past recipients include Congressman John Lewis, David Henry Hwang, Jose Antonio Vargas, BD Wong, Don H. Liu, Mira Nair, Deval Patrick, George Takei, Lani Guinier, Seymour Hersh, Sandra Leung, A.B. Cruz III, John Kuo, Larry Tu, Ivan Fong, John G. Chou, Margaret Cho, Harry Belafonte, Neal Katyal, Yoko Ono, and the late civil rights icons Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi.
Highlights at the silent auction included two house seats for the Broadway musical, Hamilton, drinks with playwright David Henry Hwang, afternoon tea with BD Wong, a private tour for 11 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art led by Sree Sreenivasan, an autographed cast poster of the TV hit, Fresh Off The Boat, autographed casebooks from the civil rights icons Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, autographed sneakers from Jeremy Lin, autographed basketball from LeBron James, VIP tickets to The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, New York Yankees Legends Suite tickets, and the AMG Driving Academy Program at the Legendary Lime Rock Park Racetrack in Lakeville, CT.
Since 1974, AALDEF has been protecting and promoting the civil rights of Asian Americans across the nation through litigation, advocacy, organizing, and community education. All proceeds from the Lunar New Year Gala will go directly towards supporting AALDEF’s legal and educational programs in immigrant rights, economic justice for workers, voting rights and civic participation, educational equity, and the elimination of hate violence, police misconduct, and human trafficking.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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