Written By Sally Chen
Dear Professor Judy Yung,
We were born a little more than fifty years apart, to working-class Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinatown would be a community that we would both work to serve and empower. Your lifetime of work has touched every aspect of who I am today. As a public librarian and ethnic studies historian, you taught me to reclaim my history. I write this letter in honor of your ethnic studies praxis. I want to live it in our collective memory.
Your work has been critical to the growth of ethnic studies as an academic field. To fight for ethnic studies is to reclaim the histories of people of color in the United States. In the 1990s, you established the Asian American Studies program at UC Santa Cruz. Today this program continues to collect our stories and center their value. Your oral history research has inspired generations of scholars, myself included.
Thank you for making sure this knowledge was accessible outside of academia. You laid the groundwork for the robust Asian language materials and collections which exist at libraries in the Bay Area today.
The Chinatown Branch Library was my local library. It was a crucial site in my politicization as a safe haven for learners of all ages to explore and grow. I spent many summers sitting on the library’s carpeted floor. I curled up with the books they never assigned at school, from When the Emperor was Divine to America is in the Heart.
Your work taught me that there are countless complex Asian American stories that need to be told. In 2018, I testified in support of race-conscious admissions in a federal lawsuit (SFFA Inc. v. Harvard). I organized with progressive Asian Americans at Harvard to defend the use of race in college admissions. You taught me that we cannot separate our stories from the impacts of racism in this country.
At a minimum, race-conscious policies recognize how race shapes our lives. Programs like affirmative action are crucial to combatting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity. Winning that case reaffirmed that race gives crucial context for a person’s story. But this is a lesson I first learned from you.
Throughout your many careers, you championed equitable access to education. Today I work at Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) in San Francisco. As the Economic Justice Program Manager, I am guided by the values that you embody: educational equity and affirmative action. You instilled in me that language access and culturally relevant education is both a right and a public good. CAA rejects the notion that Chinese American identity is a monolith — a core value of ethnic studies.
Educational equity means taking affirmative action to allow opportunities for all students, not just Asian Americans. Affirmative action impacts all Black, Latinx, and Native American students who have been denied opportunities as a result of systemic discrimination.
As I write this, the Opportunity for All Coalition is working hard to repeal Proposition 209 in California. Our goal is to end discrimination and promote race-conscious practices in state public contracts, hiring, and college admissions. Professor Yung, I hope you enjoy your retirement knowing that we carry on your legacy.
Sally Chen is the current Economic Justice Program Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, where she advocates for and works with Chinese immigrant communities seeking economic sustainability and independence. As a first-generation college alumna from a working-class Chinese American family and a beneficiary of race-conscious admissions policies, she was one of eight students and alumni that testified in support of affirmative action in the 2018 federal lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard. The Opportunity for All Coalition, with leadership from the Equal Justice Society, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and other partners, is campaigning to support the passage of Proposition 16 in California Learn more and get involved at voteyesonprop16.org.