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The following is an extract from AAFE’s 40th anniversary journal.

Lydia Tom was drawn back to Manhattan’s Chinatown, her childhood home, through her activism at City College. One goal of the students in the fledgling Asian American Studies Program on campus was to return to work in their local communities. She became part of a group that began meeting to talk about important issues facing Chinatown.

It was not long before the group focused on the Confucius Plaza construction project. “All of us had relatives who worked in construction, had skills,” she recalls, “yet there were no workers on the site who were Asian.” Fighting for their rights became a priority because it was seen as a way to secure high quality jobs for Asians stuck in low-wage restaurant and garment industry positions.

Although young people came up with the idea to protest, Tom says their campaign quickly attracted broad support. “When you look back at the footage,” she notes, “you see people who worked in the restaurants, the garment factories, in fact, the owners of those shops were cooperative enough to let people go out and walk on the picket lines.”

Tom says it quickly became apparent that they had to stop the construction work in order to have an impact, which led to police action and arrests. “You had to go in to the work site, actually stand in front of bulldozers and just stop work,” she says. Tom was one of those arrested at Confucius Plaza. She never told her parents about that.

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“I think about my parents, who are first immigration immigrants,” Tom says. “They come to this country, they didn’t know the language. They just went into jobs where they could get employment, period.” For them, she explains, it was about survival, adding, “I’m the first generation born here. I think it’s people like us who can step back and say, ‘gee our parents work really hard as immigrants. They don’t have the same opportunities others do. It was time to fight for the right thing.”

In the 1980’s Tom came to work at AAFE as a full-time staff member, helping develop the organization’s affordable housing programs. Today, she’s a senior advisor at Enterprise Community Partners.

“Very often in immigrant communities,” Tom says “people are just trying to hang on and make a living and provide for their families. They don’t have an ability to spend time to voice (their concerns). I think AAFE has played that role, to speak for the community.”

“It is more important than ever to have an organization like AAFE,” Tom says.

For information on AAFE’s 40th anniversary gala, click here.

As part of the organization’s 40th anniversary celebrations, AAFE has produced a documentary film about the birth of the Asian American civil rights movement. Lydia Tom is among those interviewed in the film. To attend the premiere, click here.