Alison’s one of those people that makes you feel warm and bubbly inside. She is also someone who pushes and challenges you to be your best you. I met Alison for the first time in the fall of 2010 and since then, she has showed me the possibilities of letting my identities, my passions and learning all come together. She is one of my biggest role models, fellow activist, and a really great friend. I am so honored to interview her for Asian, Gay and Proud. Enjoy!
Alison enjoys dancing, photography, drinking bubble tea, eating vegetables from her garden and learning along with other pursuits of love. She is a proud founding member of hotpot! and the co-chair of the board of the National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance. She is queer and mixed race. (On my mom’s side, our family immigrated many generations ago to the US, we’re of English, Irish and German ancestry. On my dad’s side, my grandfather immigrated as a young man from Canton and as a WWII veteran was allowed to bring over my grandmother from Hong Kong. My grandma was pregnant with my Dad on the boat trip from China and subsequent train ride from CA to her new home in NYC).
Who? name, age, what you identify as (or not)
Alison Lin, 30, I identify as a queer, biracial (Chinese and White) woman.
What? what do you do for a living or things you would like to do.
I think that question is more about what I fill my life with, much of which I talked about in terms of my QAPI activism and hint at in my bio. At my 9-5 job, I help lead a coalition focusing on HIV prevention for young gay and bisexual men and trans women at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I am inspired by collaborating with community partners (Y-HEP, the Attic, Youth Emergency Services and many other youth and HIV/AIDS prevention orgs) and the opportunity to incorporate research, coalition building and components of structural change into my job. I earned a Master in Public Health from Columbia University and have published on interpersonal violence in adolescents, abstinence only education, and the health of LGBTQ Asian Americans.
Miyuki: Can you talk about the various queer Asian activist work you do?
Alison: As a steering committee member of hotpot! and co-chair of the NQAPIA board, I spend a lot of time facilitating meetings and relationships. We’re all much smarter when working together, conflict can be a fabulous opportunity, and creativity inspires and renews our activism. Otherwise the work could easily turn into a flood of emails. I wish I could say that I bring this outlook into every budgeting meeting or conference call on workshop grids, I certainly don’t but I’d like to keep that in mind. Connecting with our community through potlucks, deep friendships, shared struggles and outings like seeing Deen’s show is what I savor and draw energy from to keep writing those emails!!! :)
Miyuki: Since your paid work deals with the LGBT community how do you feel that that affects the way you see your non-paid queer activism? How do you see those two worlds intersecting?
Alison: My first reaction to that question is that my life is really queer. And in some ways I live in a little bit of a queer community bubble. I also acknowledge that there are lots of different queer communities out there. One thing that’s different is that I do HIV/AIDS prevention research focusing on young gay men and trans women in Philadelphia and most are people of color. In Philly, according to CDC statistics this group generally includes Black and Latino people so there’s not really a focus on Asians. I acknowledge that I’m not part of and will never be a part of or understand the experience of being a young gay black man in Philadelphia. In the same way that I never understand what it would be like to be a young trans Korean woman. Everyone has individual experiences. So I think about activism that we do across difference versus activism with communities that we’re actively a part of and building in a very personal way.
Miyuki: My first reaction to that is that when we say we’re working at different levels and different communities. What’s interesting about hotpot is that it’s really invested in building connections at the basic human to human level, you know like, “Let’s eat food together and build community” but at the same time, it also works on immigration rights. And there are certainly members of hotpot who are more passionate about the larger political issues…so I’m wondering if you had that kind of vision from the outset of creating hotpot. To have a foot in each realm. To be both a social and political group.
Alison: Yeah, from the beginning some of the potlucks were based around “we know we want to build community not only for ourselves but also for other folks as well.” So we came from a standpoint of wanting to be active, and visible and raise issues/have discussions that are in line with our social justice values. It was a challenge because again, even within hotpot!, there’s lots of people who have different opinions and politics so, the question is about the different levels of awareness. For me, I’ve learned so much around immigration and queer immigration in the past two years so I think about how we share that knowledge and excite people to work on this as well. How do we, in building community, also acknowledge how we are all connected and what actions can we take together?
Miyuki: I think one of the best parts about hotpot is that someone from the outside might think it’s such a small niche group and yet our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. I know that’s a really simple statement but I’ve felt that that was so profound about hotpot!. So your avocational work is mainly queer Asian activist work–could you talk a bit about how you balance working with hotpot stuff and NQAPIA stuff and perhaps a bit about what you’re excited to do in the near future with both of these organizations?
Alison: Starting about a year ago or so, those of us who were in leadership roles originally for hotpot!, started to think about how we could share leadership and bring in other folks who want to be involved to learn from them and share our skills and knowledge. That concerted effort for over a year, let me have more space to take on more NQAPIA work. It is really difficult for me to balance both of them but I’d say that hotpot! is what sustains me in NQAPIA work. It reminds me why it’s super important for me to working on a budget or reading a grant proposal about a national conference because I know what kind of value NQAPIA brings to local groups. I think that they fit really nicely together. One of the hardest things about NQAPIA is that I don’t get to see the other board members and staff that I work with on a regular basis even though I’m in constant contact with many of them. It has definitely been a struggle for me to try and balance both of them. I’m looking more and more to play the support role and let other people really grow their leadership in hotpot!.
Miyuki: Well, now that you’ve brought up the topic of leadership, I wanted to tell you that you’re one of the best activist group leaders that I know and I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences with leadership before hotpot. Also, what do you keep in mind when you’re in that role and how do you manage your relationship with those in the community?
Alison: Well, the first time people encouraged me to take on a position of leadership was in high school. So I was a part of the art society and I was captain of the swim team and that’s definitely leadership in a different way. In college I was very active in starting a sexual assault center on campus so a lot of my activism included raising awareness and organizing events. That was when I began to develop my political values. I got into gender and women’s studies, feminism and considering my role in social justice, especially in relation to community service.
Throughout, I’ve participated in great trainings including a leadership exchange with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and an Emerging Leaders Program. These have given me language around how to bring integrity and compassion to my work and acknowledge the imperfection. That being said, the only way people will know and trust my values as a leader is not only to communicate them but also to act from them consistently. So if I say I have a value of inclusiveness, my actions must reflect inclusion. I value interconnectivity and inclusiveness and trust and love as the core of what I think about in leadership. Trying to hold myself to my values, and at the same time knowing what my limits are and being kind to myself and others is really key. Plus knowing that I’m not alone, that I don’t have to do everything and that I can ask for help and have time for self care and ask my community to help me through things. I’m also really honored that I’m one of your role models!
Miyuki: I think my favorite workshop from the last Creating Change was the “What Kind of Activist are you?” workshop and talking about how the different kinds of activists are all on the same level. There isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be a hierarchy where you necessarily move up to a leadership position if you have more experience. So think that what you’re talking about with interconnectivity, that’s the key to everything. So while I’ve seen hotpot work so that if you want more experience organizing, you can join the steering committee, I’ve also heard you mention that there’s a leader in every one and you’re trying to pull that out of each person and I find that statement really powerful too.
Alison: I totally believe that and the fact is that we need so many kinds of leaders to get our work done. It’s not encouraged enough… people tend to lean back into themselves with a sort of “this is my style, this is what I’m comfortable doing” type of way. I think that that’s the first thing, but once you’re there and you’ve leaned back, you can stretch and grow in ways that are a lot healthier.
Miyuki: So this brings up a question I’ve had for a while…Being Asian is typically seen, at least by American society, as equating to being quiet or reserved and modest. We’re generally seen as the model minority because we don’t “act up.” So how do we grapple with that stereotype and the organizing that we want to do. Not to necessarily become aggressive or try to act against stereotypes just for the sake of it, but how do we respond to these stereotypes? And then on top of that, how does being mixed race affect that equation and the way you see your organizing? And to be more blunt, how do you think your whiteness affects the way you lead?
Alison: In terms of the “model minority” bit, I do think it’s a huge myth. I think that that’s so important to recognize but that for different people there are different cultural truths within it. And it can be an interior/exterior community stance of how people act maybe with our elders, parents or relatives as opposed to with our peers. We have to acknowledge that there are many different ways that everyone acts depending on the situation and embrace that diversity or fullness.
I think about QWAVE and the constituency they’ve dealt with during preparations for marching as the only LGBTQ contingent in the Lunar New Year parade. For their organizing approach it was really important to acknowledge what different Asian cultures find as appealing and acceptable ways messages for LGBTQ visibility. The messages that were developed and used for the parade are family-based messages. It’s not necessarily the “I’m here, I’m Queer, I’m totally individual!” type of message. So there are, messages that change depending on what our goal is. If we’re thinking about family acceptance, that organizing method is going to be different than if we’re thinking about supporting immigration legislation or marriage equality.
In terms of how does my whiteness affect how I’ve been able to lead, I acknowledge that I come into leadership with an incredible amount of privilege. And my whiteness is part of that privilege. So I think that I’ve often said in white communities, I often pass as being white and in people of color communities/Asian communities, people can usually tell that I’m mixed race. But since the white community, in our current society, is the dominant giver of privilege, I have that privilege. So it’s tricky in that sometimes I think about how can I then use my privilege for my communities, and for my queer Asian community. What different understandings can I bring that might help us? So I think that that’s one thing. Another thing that I didn’t realize for a while was that my first queer community was my queer Asian community. And that’s been the strongest pillar among my queer community.
Miyuki: Why do you think you sought out the queer Asian community first?
Alison: Well, I was looking for queer community and I was new to living in New York City. I went to an Asian Heritage Festival and met folks from Q-WAVE. They said you should come to a meeting, and so I went to a meeting! And I went regularly to their monthly events during my time in NYC. Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t have an Asian community outside of my family, so I was also seeking to build stronger connections with my Asian community.
Miyuki: Recently I’ve been thinking about this notion that’s been floating around a lot that says that we’re all going to mix anyways in the future so what’s the big deal with race? But for me, being mixed race is a really big part of my identity and I don’t necessarily want anyone to negate either side of my family. So in terms of queer parenting, I think a lot about what I would want my future baby to hold within them in terms of who their biological parents are and the races of those parents. I know you’ve thought a lot about family building have you thought about what you might want in your future child? What are your thoughts around that?
Alison: You know, I think that’s really dangerous because as someone who’s currently single I want to leave open different possibilities for who my partner is and their preferences. It’s interesting to think about, oh how could we play with the race or ethnicity of our child, but that’s why we do it…because it is dangerous! Race will affect the life of my future child, more so than what I would want. I have a strong sense that I want to raise a child with a strong understanding of the cultures in my life and my partner’s life and be intentional about exposure to different cultures and different people.
Miyuki: I suppose I feel that you can expose someone all you want and they personally might be able to go beyond their racial or ethnic background but the world is still going to continue seeing them in a certain light, based on what their perceived race is!
Alison: Right, and that’s the base of racism!
Miyuki: Exactly, so it gets really hairy here when we start talking about a transnational adoption or other unconventional parenting that is more associated with queer parenting.
Alison: I recently saw Mia Mingus speak about transnational adoption and she was talking about obligatory child-bearing in our society as well as the idea of ownership over our children as if they’re objects to own. Absolutely, the race/ethnicity or perceived race/ethnicity of any child is going to have a huge difference in their life. I’d like to be open to whatever does happen, and that might mean that I have a choice to make about adoption or carrying a biological child. And because I do want to co-parent, there will be conversations about race and about ethnicity.
There’s part of me that wishes I could become pregnant with less intention and my future child would be a combination of me and my partner. But there is something special about the care and consideration that often accompanies queer parenting. One of my best friends just had a mixed race baby, and racism will affect Zahara’s life. At the same time, I’m witnessing how in parenting you have to jump in and be on the ride and really learn as you’re going. There’s so much that I can’t know now, and I won’t know as a parent.
Miyuki: Yeah, I think that keeping an open mind and being open to talking about it is really important. And it really is so funny how we all project these dreams and thoughts on something that hasn’t even started yet. I mean I personally read so many mom blogs even though I don’t think I want to be a mom for another 10 years. I find it so strange.
Anyways, another question! So ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been into “good foods” and gardening, health etc. We all know that you always bring greens when you’re going out to eat. So this is kind of meant to be a light-hearted question but also I think it has a lot to do with the way in which you see organizing! I mean, is there a story behind why you became so health-conscious? To me, it seems that your health-consciousness intersects with the way you see community-building. If so, how does it do that?
Alison: I think it intersects in a way that our food and our wellness affects how we are in community and what we’re able to build and how we’re able to support each other as we move forward. In terms of bringing greens though, I find at potlucks and when you’re going out that you’re quite simply just missing vegetables and greens are the easiest thing to bring—I could just have some spring mix and that’s fine. If I do eat out, I get mad at paying 8 or 10 dollars for a green salad that’s not even tasty. This ties into my thoughts on economics as well and thinking if we cook (and grow) our food and know where it is coming from then we can support sustainability and that will ultimately contribute to a healthier community. And so often in our activism, eating is a reminder of the fact that we all have bodies and that we’re in these bodies. They’re what’s keeping us and sustaining us and it is really easy to get caught up and forget this. You know I was sick earlier this year, and that was mainly stress related. We need to remember that sometimes our bodies help tell us what is not going right and how we need to make sure we’re taking rest and being creative and stretching ourselves. And remembering that balance.
Miyuki: That’s so real.
Alison: I want to give two visions for hotpot!. My vision for hotpot! is that leadership can continue to grow, and that we continue to build community in different ways and grow and change depending on people’s needs and interests. So that we can keep expanding our partnerships in the larger Asian community in Philadelphia but also reaching even farther across differences in order to build alliances and build greater understanding and have visibility and stand in solidarity and invite others to be our allies. Also this is kind of joke but kind of not, I hope that we have both more youth members and more members over the age of 35.
Miyuki: Why is that kind of a joke?
Alison: Because Kat will sometimes call me “Mama hotpot,” which I think is hilarious since I’m 30. My point is that intergenerational, and not even intergenerational, but simply people at different life stages within communities is really essential. I’m interested in fostering these relationships and gaining insight into how the context of our life changes our activism and how can we support people across the spectrum of life. Ultimately for hotpot! to be flexible and self-sustaining we need to have more people and in different facets of our organization and foster spaces for greater inclusion.
Miyuki: Definitely, and I think that in that sense we could be more creative about the ways in which we recruit people. For instance, recruiting at the Stimulus party (Philadelphia lesbian party) made a lot of us really nervous but it was super successful in getting an entirely different crew of people to know about hotpot!. And so I’m sure we could go into high schools and talk about being Gay and Asian, or nursing homes and restaurants and putting up flyers. ..
Alison: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that it is in the greater interest of the people. We were recently invited to submit to the Greater Philadelphia AIDS Resource Guide which also has an LGBTQ resource guide section. And Van is speaking at a Vietnamese student leadership conference being held in Philly—this is the first time they’re inviting people to come and speak about being queer and Vietnamese. So I think we are starting to reach other constituencies. While I use the words “grow” and “change” a lot, I admit that with that growing and changing, we won’t be able to do some of the old things. But I hope that whatever our capacity we are aware of what people are able to do in a volunteer-run organization. And we’re not going for exponential growth rather stretching and still being able to have the balance that we were talking about before, so that people are staying healthy, enjoying the work and savoring the connections.
And for NQAPIA, I’m so honored to work with a board and staff and consider about how can we best be a voice for many local groups. We consider how NQAPIA can work across coalitions or issues like racial justice and immigration. In addition to how to best convene leaders to offer capacity building, and share best practices. I think one area that we’re going to look to expand in is the media, including multi-lingual outreach. I hope that there can be collaboration at some point between folks with the Asian Pride Project, NQAPIA and hotpot!
Alison: I feel really honored and lucky to be held by my queer Asian community. There’s so much gratitude for everyone both people I’ve known, people I’ve worked with and people who are my close friends and also all the folks who came before us in terms of their activism and their strength and their battles to get us to a point where we are now. It’s not that there aren’t more struggles for us to go through, but being able to acknowledge our queer API elders and mentors from all parts of our lives is so essential. They really help me remember that I’m not alone and that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. So in some ways my advice is to know there is community out there for you and to ask for help.