Reflections on Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month
A conversation between University Diversity and Inclusion Officer Eloisa Gordon Mora, Ph.D. and Dean of the Honors College Matthew Means
I recently met with Matthew Means, Dean of the Honors College, who I consider not only an outstanding colleague and academic, but a valued friend. We made an immediate connection when we first met, sharing, among other things, the fact that we both started together, exactly two years ago, this coming June. In light of the ongoing celebrations of Asian American Pacific Islander Month (AAPI), which will conclude at the end of May, I broached the topic with him, and here are some of his reflections.
We are about to conclude the monthly celebration, in May, of Asian American Pacific Islander Month (AAPI), a celebration that is so vast and rich in so many ways, including the magnitude of nations and languages that it includes—almost 100 nations and in such widely diverse regions as Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Asia, as well as South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. To start the conversation, what does this AAPI Heritage Month mean to you, as a Dean of the Honors College, who is also a principal university leader of our Asian community?
- AAPI Heritage Month is an affirmation of the abiding and lasting role all AAPI traditions, languages, faiths, and values have provided to our national identity. Though the AAPI influence in our country has been at times embraced inconsistently, its value has certainly been consistent, and, fortunately, has grown. AAPI Heritage Month is consequently an acknowledgement of a deepening, lasting, and developing movement; a movement that has helped give rise to a more authentic shared, lived experience for all Americans. More germane to my role with the university, the month is particularly special with regard to the Honors College, as the AAPI population is the largest one outside of the white/Caucasian population in our program at present.
Because all of us have multiple identities, on a more personal level, what aspects of your identity, in their intersections and complexities, does the celebration convey to you, including challenges?
- I have received unprovoked verbal and physical harassment, hate, and abuse throughout much of my life from those who haven’t supported one or more elements of my intersectionality. Some have attacked me due to my racial identity. Others have attacked my sexual identity. Others have attacked my faith identity. Some who supported one of these elements took umbrage with one of the others. These attacks were often due to a) a discomfort with the sense/presence of a minority “other” that didn’t conform to a dominant surrounding hegemony, b) resentment due to an inaccurate assignment of perceived bias, or c) a desire to address self-needs at the expense of another. AAPI month is a festival of the opposites of these concepts. It isn’t about discomfort, resentment, or selfishness-it is about warmth, celebration, and embrace. AAPI Month is, consequently, a joyful recognition of all elements of my intersectionality, because many more elements are represented among the vast spectrum of the AAPI communities. The great challenge comes in keeping the proverbial flame alive, so that the tremendous potential and impact of the AAPI experience grows with each passing year as the celebration is, ideally, augmented.
Recently, this past March and after the mass shootings in Atlanta, we had to confront, once again, the historical reality of anti-Asian violence, discrimination and hate—expressions of hate which regrettably have been on an increasing spiral, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Where do you see us as a nation, as a society, on these issues and looking into the immediate future?
- Our country is at the confluence of many tectonic shifts, aided and abetted by instant connectivity, access, and communication. As the pace of change has increased, our ability to insulate from the pace has decreased. The stresses of the pandemic, as well as the rise of increasingly polarized political dispositions, have exacerbated these variables. Our society thus has before it a great challenge to see beyond the sturm und drang of that which is immediate and look ahead to the larger opportunities the current geopolitical shifts present. How can we embrace the messiness, ambiguity, and differing evolutions of our cultural strands? How can their intersection be a point for shared dialogue, reflection, and exchange? How do we educate that the enhancement of underserved identities comes not at the expense of, but to the benefit of, all? This requires great and shared leadership. We have the opportunity within the context of our university to explore these questions in a respectful, caring, and empathetic way. In so doing, we model behavior for those outside the university environment, and, over time, help heal our nation.
Turning into a more hopeful note, what should we be doing, immediately, but particularly into the upcoming academic year to better support our diverse AAPI communities, given, precisely the complexity of nations, languages, connections to the United States, intersectional identities and other?
- All communities are best served when its members are encouraged, empowered, valued, and given an opportunity to grow. How can you show members of AAPI communities’ encouragement? How can you empower them? How can you show and add value to their lives? How can you foster and encourage growth, either individually or severally, in these communities and with their members? These are questions that can elicit powerful answers and real solutions. The solutions can come in the form of several cumulative, personal, empathetic gestures. Or they can come in the form of organized, activist actions that seek to enact change at a macro level. All are valuable. All are important.
To end on a lighter note, what aspects of your identity might be a surprise for folks?
- That I don’t often conform to them! I try to function through descriptors, not labels, and these descriptors constantly evolve. I am, like all, a work in progress, an ongoing growth opportunity that steps in the proverbial “dog doo” from time to time. In many respects I feel that the older I get, the less I know! One of the greatest aspects of working at a university is the opportunity it provides to be a perpetual student of life. I learn every day from the amazing colleagues I work with, as well as the truly inspiring students I serve. I love the humility this instills in me and I am deeply grateful for each new day.
Matt, it is always such a pleasure to listen to you, I am also deeply grateful to have such an inspiring colleague and friend! Thank you for your time! But I will share one last piece of information that not everyone might know, which is that among his many accomplishments, Matt is also a consummate, professional violinist!
Let’s all enjoy the month’s celebrations and into the coming months!