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Tsiwen M. Law advocates for Asian Americans

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

Monitors that help with language translation are prominently displayed in the the Public Services Concourse of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building, located at 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd. Visitors to Philadelphia, including many immigrants seeking help, can access information in various languages about the availability of interpretation services.

These language interpretation services, such as those that are now threaded throughout Philadelphia city government, came to be following efforts by Tsiwen M. Law and fellow advocates in the Asian American community. In 1988, Law, 74, became the first chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Asian American Affairs, reporting directly to then Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode. Under Law’s leadership, the commission recommended a city-wide system for interpretation services for more than 13 different Asian communities in Philadelphia. The language program has now expanded to serve other minority communities in the city. Also during his three-year tenure as chairman, Law testified before Congress about the shortcomings of the 1990 Census count of Philadelphia’s Asian American communities.

Law was raised in Manhattan to a father born in Hong Kong and a mother whose parents were from southern China. His lifetime of activism began in 1968 when he attended college at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley and became a member of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA).

“It was the first time (I was) introduced (to the) concept of being Asian American and what it meant,” Law said. “I have carried that with me throughout the rest of my life.”

The term Asian American has expanded over the years and now includes people who are natives of South Asia, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands (including Guam and Samoa).

After a three-month long strike, UC at Berkeley agreed to establish a Department of Ethnic Studies, which included a division of Asian American Studies. After the strike, other colleges and universities initiated similar programs across the United States.

Following graduation from what is now the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, he helped to found the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

We weren’t getting Asian Americans sitting on the bench,” Law said. “At the same time, we weren’t getting a lot of the policies that we wanted to be carried out at the federal level. At a national level, we lacked any kind of organized force. To make that change, we had to have (an) organization (setup) just the way the Philadelphia Bar or the Pennsylvania Bar (associations) operate on behalf of lawyers in the state and in the counties. That was the impetus to build our own bar associations so that we could help elevate Asian Americans to seats and vacancies on the federal and state courts and to administrative positions, as well as to workers compensation judges and immigration service judges. All those positions were not being filled by Asian Americans or by people who had any kind of cultural competence or understanding of the Asian Americans that were coming before them in their courts. There wasn’t any kind of sensitivity to the language issues.”

Due to these efforts, a law was signed in 2006 that required competent interpretations throughout the court systems in Pennsylvania by certified language interpreters. Law and his allies also advocated for laws prohibiting ethnic intimidation and hate crimes at the federal level. At that time, few state legislatures had hate crime laws in the books.

Despite these achievements, challenges remain for the Asian American community. There are current attempts to prevent racial minorities from increasing their representation at elite schools and other institutions, as well as in government programs and in private industry, Law said.

“The consequence of (Anti-China and anti-immigrant rhetoric) is usually a lot of anti-Asian violence,” he said.

Law’s efforts have led to a positive change for Asian American communities. On a personal level, the birth of his granddaughter represents the melding of century-old Asian immigrant families and more recently arrived Southeast Asian communities and reinforces the relevance of his Asian American identity that he began to learn about and embrace over 50 years ago.

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Advocacy Milestones eNews


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