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2022 Scholarship Winner: Yangzom Tenzin

Who is an Asian American leader (past or present) that you admire?

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The court came to a final decision: Tahanie’s dad was sentenced to a 22-year-long prison term, solely over a counterfeit bill in his bodega. Overnight, Tahanie, 14, fell victim to the same oppressive system that Yuri Kochiyama fought her whole life to dismantle. 

Yuri was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans whose entire lives were flipped upside down during World War Two. A time when the U.S. government shamefully contributed to its systemic infringement of the rights of minorities. In 1941, at 18 years old, she was ripped away from her middle-class life in California, to atrocious incarceration conditions in Arkansas’ detainment center. It was then that Kochiyama’s activist flame was lit. 

It wasn’t until after her release though, in the 1960s when she and her husband moved to Harlem, New York, that she truly found a vocabulary for her feelings. Her black peers taught her that her experience was only one in a long long line of racist, inexcusable actions from the history of the U.S.A; The same “land of liberty” that she was supposed to be eternally grateful for, according to her own immigrant parents. 

Upon befriending Black-American leader and activist Malcolm X, they discovered a birthdate wasn’t the only thing they had shared; but a devotion to solidarity. He preached “The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world,” a philosophy that Kochiyama strongly enforced specifically upon us- the Asian community. Yuri urged Asian-Americans to reshape their image from accommodating, quiet, and uncomplaining people to a resolute force that stands beside the most oppressed and marginalized in remembrance of our own history. 

Yuri Kochiyama prospered into a renowned civil rights activist, not by putting herself at the center of attention, but rather through her noble selflessness when it came to community organization, amplifying the voices of others, and even volunteering her home as a shelter so much so that it was nicknamed “Grand Central Station”. Her honest but tireless efforts behind the scenes take me right back to last year, volunteering as a Youth Ambassador in Tahanie Aboushi’s campaign for Manhattan District Attorney. 

Joining Tahanie’s team as a sophomore, I didn’t realize just how clueless I actually was about our justice system, nor the way its complex thrived off the mass criminalization of thousands of people of color suffering from social inequities. However, as my team and I campaigned our way through apartments in Harlem or Washington Heights, I recognized the realities of these underserved black and brown communities, and was incentivized to believe in Tahanie’s vision even further. 

For every door-knock answered, I pushed for the need of Ms. Aboushi- the daughter of Palestinian immigrants- in office, to protect our working immigrant families. For every phone-banking call answered, I emphasized the need for decarceration and investment of resources to back our POC communities. 

Reading about Kochiyama’s optimistic sense of “We” gives me deja-vu to this time period. I am brought back to handing out flyers in humid NYC weather with our youth director Ananya. I am brought back to cheering along in Marcus Garvey Park as Cynthia Nixon endorses our movement. I am at our final goodbye party on election night: Over the sight of tight hugs, I swear I can still hear someone discussing refocusing our city’s budget towards reinvesting and rebuilding our neighborhoods. 

With inspiration from both Yuri and Tahanie, I continue striving towards these same incentives through my work in Queens Youth Court, where we give teens with minor offenses a second chance before being placed in permanent record facilities. In the future, I want nothing more than to keep vigorously advocating for the justice of minority communities in the pursuit to reform a system that was designed to repress them.

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