Position: Executive Director, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates
- Young has always felt that having leaders among Asian immigrant women was the truest way of having them become involved in the process of bettering their lives.…She has always worked towards involving women so that their input is used in forming goals and objectives.…As a confident and courageous immigrant woman, Young has served as a strong role model for the women with whom she works.
—Ken Fong, Chinese Component Coordinator, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates
- Young has been a tireless promoter of the rights of immigrant women. She has worked on a wide range of issues affecting immigrant women but has increasingly focused on the health of women in their places of work. Consistent with her values of encouraging the development of grassroots leadership, Young has always started her work with these women workers by providing them with education and awareness.
—Sherry Hirota, Chief Executive Officer, Asian Health Services
- Ever since I came to the U.S., I have been sewing in garment factories in Oakland. For almost ten years, I suffered daily back and shoulder aches. I know almost all the garment workers experience neck, back and shoulder aches. We wanted to understand how to alleviate these pains. Through Young's involvement, we began to work with doctors, nurses, industrial hygienists and researchers to identify what caused our common workplace pains and how to treat and prevent them.
—Garment Worker and Peer Trainer, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates
When a recent college graduate named Young Shin emigrated from Korea to the United States in 1975, she had no personal experience in the garment industry. But beginning in 1976, when she launched her career as a social service worker at Asian Community Mental Health Services in Oakland, Calif., Shin gradually became aware of the health and safety issues that Asian women immigrants faced in their daily work inside California sewing factories.
The list of concerns seemed endless: job injuries leading to disabilities and chronic pain; substandard working conditions; low pay and no benefits; language barriers and limited English-speaking skills; no knowledge about how garment worker injuries could be prevented; and no "voice" to make a difference.
In 1977, Shin began to host and produce a bilingual program called "Asians Now" on KTVU. The plight of immigrants working in the San Francisco Bay area was a frequent topic on the show during her three years as host. But it was not until she had finished pursing a law degree at Hastings College of Law that she had the opportunity to witness firsthand the inequities of immigrant workers in the garment, hotel and other low-wage industries—industries that she knew employed a large number of Asian immigrants.
The union asked her to help the Korean immigrant women workers understand what was happening around the union contract negotiation.
"At that time, the union representing the hotel workers in San Francisco didn't have a Korean-speaking organizer, and they wanted me to come in and help them understand what kind of rights they have," Shin recalled. "So I came in, and they started talking to me about issues such as getting yelled at by their supervisor, the repetitive nature of the job and its impact on their health and no way to voice their concerns due to language barriers. We met at a cafeteria in a basement of a luxurious hotel. It was very clear that inequality existed."
In 1983, armed with her law degree and the memories of meeting immigrant hotel workers in that basement, Shin co-founded the Oakland-based Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), an advocacy group designed to empower Asian immigrant women. Her first objective was to teach survival English to hotel workers in San Francisco. But AIWA quickly expanded its mission to address health, safety and economic issues for immigrant women working in low-wage industries throughout the area.
From the beginning, Shin promoted and nurtured a different kind of advocacy. Neither she nor AIWA wanted to do the work for the women they sought to help; instead, Shin's vision was to create grassroots leadership that gave the Asian immigrant women the capacity to make changes for themselves. "We want immigrant women to have the tools to improve their own working and living conditions," said Shin. "That is the only way."
Shin began by teaching literacy and leadership skills, while educating women about their economic and employment rights. "Through different leadership training, we really talk about how we have to do it together, that we cannot [advocate change] on an individual level," she said.
"I always talk about this story," she said. "When we first started in 1983, the story goes, workers did not always receive minimum wages in the garment districts. And when we started talking about that, the workers would go and say, 'Why don't you pay me?' And the minute they said that, they got fired. Certainly, we told them that they have a right to ask that question, but they have to work with other women to advocate for their rights so that they don't get into that difficult position. We talked about the fact that if you do it alone, you basically will lose. You have to work together."
With Shin as executive director, AIWA's organizing work eventually focused on two main industries where low-income Asian immigrant women are heavily concentrated: Northern California's garment industry in Oakland and San Francisco and the electronics industry in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area. Three main leadership development programs emerged:
- AIWA's Membership Board, the governing body for the organization, comprises immigrant women leaders working in different low-wage industries. The board organizes events, reaches out to the community, conducts political education training and plans AIWA's campaigns for justice.
- The Workplace Literacy program teaches survival English skills while focusing on such issues as workers' rights, occupational health and safety and immigrant and women's rights. According to Shin, the program utilizes a popular education and peer teaching model so that former students of the classes, immigrant women themselves, teach the classes with volunteers.
- The Immigrant Women's Leadership Academy further develops the collective leadership skills of low-income Asian immigrant women through education on the economic and social history of immigrant women in the United States, training in public speaking, networking, building coalitions, organizing and facilitation skills; sponsoring speakers forums for political education; and organizing intensive leadership training retreats.
Developing immigrant women leaders has always been an objective of AIWA, and the success of those efforts has been particularly satisfying to Shin. Many other professionals and organizations did not initially understand the significance of her strategy. "Young had to educate the other health professionals on the importance of women advocating for themselves, rather than constantly finding and seeking advocates for immigrant women," Stacy Kono, AIWA's former youth project coordinator once said, adding that other professionals frequently preferred "quicker solutions where the women would not have a role."
Kono continued, "Young's strategy addressed the root causes of the problems facing immigrant women and created long-term, indigenous solutions to the health and other social problems in the immigrant community. The women felt empowered and confident speaking about how poor and hazardous work places affected their work and providing appropriate and positive strategies to bring healthy environments to electronics plants and garment factories. What has been gained? The development of feasible solutions that were grounded in the community."
Since 1991, AIWA has focused on health and safety issues in the workplace, particularly the chronic injuries that garment workers suffer from poorly designed workstations and electronic workers' unknowing exposure to hazardous chemicals. From 1992 to 1997, AIWA garment workers led what became a national grassroots effort and extended picket lines in the Bay Area to demand corporate responsibility from nearby garment manufacturers.
Called the Garment Workers Justice Campaign, it drew support from immigrant workers; college students; and labor, religious and community organizations. In 1996, AIWA reached a historic agreement establishing worker protections for thousands of garment workers in the San Francisco Bay area. Shin helped expand this agreement in 1997 when three more Bay Area manufacturers—Esprit de Corp, Byer California and Fritzi of California—agreed to improve worker conditions.
The sight of so many young people walking the picket lines to support their mothers during the Garment Workers Justice Campaign inspired Shin to start another AIWA program in 1997. The Youth Build Immigrant Power Project develops the leadership and organizing skills of youths from low-income Asian immigrant families. Members work on a range of issues—from fighting against sweatshop working conditions; to ensuring a voice for the immigrant community in Oakland; and informing garment workers about their health and safety in the workplace.
"When people are not empowered, and don't know what rights they have, they are prime targets of exploitation," said Shin. "It is important for generation after generation to be empowered. When you have new immigrants asserting themselves and asking for fair and safe working conditions, it lifts everyone's working conditions. I think we have to be very clear about that."
In 1998, AIWA's classes on worker health evolved into the Peer Health Promoter Project, which has trained more than 100 women to be peer educators and teach others about occupational health and safety. These peer educators have now trained hundreds of women on workplace injury prevention techniques as part of what is now the Ergonomic Improvement Project, which seeks to improve ergonomic conditions in garment factories through research and changes in workstation design.
In 2000, Shin worked with the University of California, San Francisco, to establish the Asian Immigrant Women Workers Clinic. Located near the garment factories in Oakland's Chinatown district, the clinic has treated hundreds of women with ergonomic injuries. Its work led Shin to establish the Garment Industry Health Improvement Project. In a sewing lab, garment workers collaborate with health care professionals to design and test practical, low-cost workstation improvements, ranging from chairs to tables.
"We believe it will cost about $200 to $250 per workstation to make these changes," said a garment worker participating in the project when it first began. "That's not very much money to save a garment worker from working in pain all day."
In 2002, Shin received the $120,000 Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award. The award, which includes $15,000 for personal use, recognizes the nation's outstanding community health leaders.
With the remaining $105,000, Shin continued AIWA's efforts to improve workstations, eventually training an additional 150 women on the issues of workstation safety and ergonomics. Shin also used the award to enhance the visibility of the organization and help secure additional grants for continued work.
Today, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates employs about 30 immigrant women and youth leaders to develop and monitor programs for nearly 500 immigrant women and youth who participate in AIWA's activities every year. The recipient of numerous awards as well as local and national recognition, the organization continues to sponsor both local and national conferences to address the leadership concerns of immigrant women.
Shin has recently begun to study how leadership develops, seeking to quantify the experiences in a way that can be replicated. Questions she hopes to answer include:
- What are the barriers to leadership—lack of training or formal education?
- How long does it to take for a woman to become a leader?
- What impact does being a low-income immigrant woman have on developing leadership?
Shin is extremely proud that AIWA has survived since 1983. And looking back over the life of the organization, she believes that her original goals have been realized. "We have helped develop leadership of immigrant women, to voice their concerns and to participate," she concluded. "I would say that we have impacted immigrant women. And we have raised the voices of immigrant women."
For more information on Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, see the organization's website.
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