Activist Helen Zia calls on “community” to fight social injustice

Helen Zia calls for action against social injustices. Photo by AAPI

Helen Zia calls for action against social injustices. Photo by AAPI

By Seanne Coates
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Activist and award-winning journalist Helen Zia inspired an audience at Towson University this week to take action for social justice.

Zia, a New Jersey native who grew up as a second generation Chinese American, pointed to recent events, including violence by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, rampant islamophobia and the killing of many African Americans by police. She insisted that all minorities – and the diverse audiences of college campuses – must stand together as one.

“It’s about talking to each other,” said Zia, a Fulbright scholar and the former executive editor of Ms. Magazine. “It’s about building unity, it’s about finding those missing history pieces of where we have stood together and made big changes.”

Zia said her passion for social justice evolved through her experiences in the 1950s and 1960s when there weren’t many other Asian Americans around her, or in the U.S. as a whole. She quickly learned that keeping her head down was a survival technique. Because she was a minority in a majority white country, she faced two different situations from the people around her.

During the Vietnam War era, Zia said the people around her were brandishing Asians as a bad thing. Her family had always taught her to be quiet and obedient, and, as such, she didn’t speak up about discrimination. But the Civil Rights and Women’s movements were gaining steam at the time, two electrifying crusades that inspired Zia to take action and to find her own voice.

“What we began doing was following the words of Marian Wright Edelman; she is a very famous and noted African American writer and feminist,” said Zia. “And one of the things she has said is ‘if you don’t like the way the world is, change it, you have an obligation to change it, you just change it one step at a time,’” said Zia.

Zia’s first effort to change the world came in 1982 when a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. She said that this incident was a tipping point for the Asian community who banded together for a collective outcry. Zia helped get the Asian community organized and quickly found support from the African-American and other minority communities. The outcome: The Hate Crime Prevention Act was passed. The law supports people of different races, sexual orientation, and those of different genders, Zia said.

“So here is a case involving Asian Americans,” said Zia, “and you can say, well does it involve me, or you? You’re not Asian, or he was a guy, should woman get involved. But actually, the Hate Crime Protection Act includes gender now, gender, disability.”

Helen Zia is an author and former magazine editor. Photo by Barnes & Noble

Helen Zia is an author and former magazine editor. Photo by Barnes & Noble

Zia stressed, “So you can also trace these things, and say that this is part of the unity that we have today, that we all benefit from.”

Today in 2017, Zia said it feels like a very tumultuous point in history, with division, ostracism and actual killing of Muslims, African Americans and transgender people. Although the number of random mass shootings has increased, she insisted, “I feel positive that we will move through what I consider to be a pretty dangerous and harsh time.”

An optimistic Zia said, “Human decency will return and we will be able to feel like we can pick up the phone in the morning and say ‘oh great, something terrific is happening.’ ”

Zia told the Towson University audience: “You all have a special light to share because you are the future makers of history. All these changes that are going on today, this is your time, and you are the ones that are going to be shaping the America of the future, and the media of the future, with the conscience and voice that you raise today.”

“Whatever happens this is your time to bend the arc of history towards justice,” she said.

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