Reproductive Freedom Tour

Vanessa Daniel

It is a sunny
Saturday in Oakland and 30 people have piled out of several vans in Chinatown.
Those in the crowd, mostly teachers, community members, and activists, are
craning their necks towards the second story window of a nondescript building,
trying to glimpse inside one of the many Oakland sweatshops. The site is of
special significance to the four young Asian women who are addressing the
group. It is in sweatshops like these, they explain, that most of their
mothers work.

Anna, 16, whose
mother works 12 hours a day at a nearby garment factory for a popular clothing
designer explains that most of the women don’t speak English or have green
cards and so have little recourse against their working conditions. They sew
in 10-hour shifts with no breaks, in overcrowded rooms where the air is heavy
with toxic chemicals. In the summer they suffer with no air conditioning, in
the winter there is no heat. They are paid “by the piece” rather than by the
hour, often coming away with far less than minimum wage for a full days labor.
“The CEO’s from these corporations sell dresses for $157 that my mother makes
for $3,” says Anna, “they are ripping off Asian workers.”

The eldest
child in her family, Anna Le, who is Chinese American, bears the brunt of the
work at home to enable her mother to work in the factory. In the evenings, she
sees her mother come home exhausted and abused. “In my mom’s factory,” she
says, “they don’t store excess material away from the workroom, they keep it
all in one room with the workers even though the dye in the fabric is toxic
and can damage their lungs. My mom comes home coughing and with back
problems.” Anna says she is tired of the expectation that she should be silent
about the injustice in her life just because she is an Asian woman. “There are
stereotypes,” she says with an edge of anger in her voice, “that Asian women
have flexible fingers and don’t complain…Well I don’t have flexible fingers,
and I complain a lot.”

To their
credit, so do the other young women standing beside her, Sally Saeteun, 15,
Meuy Saeph- anh, 16, and Gen Saephan, 15. They are working to break the
silence about the experiences of low-income Asian refugee women and to take a
leadership role in fighting for change—only they are not stopping with the
sweatshop. In a few minutes the caravan takes off again. Next stop: the
Oakland welfare office. “Welcome,” says Gen, “to the life of an Asian girl in

What is
happening today is a tour of the city, but with a twist. The tour guides are
leaders in HOPE, a community organizing and leadership development project for
low-income Southeast Asian and Chinese girls, ages 14-18 in East Oakland, a
project of Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) for Reproductive Health. The six
sites on the route, including the welfare office, Oakland High, and the IES
medical incinerator, represent spaces that young Asian women must navigate in
order to survive.

Oakland is home
to a huge API population. Southeast Asians alone make up the second largest
ethnic group on welfare in Alameda County. Of the larger API community, half
speak limited or no English, 35 percent of youth live in poverty, and 16
percent are not enrolled, not attending, or have dropped out of school.

With their
mothers in sweatshops and their fathers working multiple jobs, many young
Asian women have to take care of younger siblings, cook and clean for their
families, miss school to accompany their parents to medical appointments and
the welfare office, and pay the bills and taxes because their parents do not
speak English. “It is hard,” says Anna, “my mother comes home late. I have no
time to talk to her about what is happening in my life. I have to be the big

“The strain is
tremendous,” says HOPE coordinator Neelam Pathikonda “and there are few
spaces where girls can express the challenges they face and give each other
support. HOPE is one place where they can.” Says Gen, “Asian girls are
supposed to be quiet and afraid. HOPE taught us that we can be ourselves, open
up and say things.”

fighting for reproductive freedom means confronting the myriad of
forces—economic, environmental, and cultural—that prevent women from having
control over their bodies and the power to make healthy choices. HOPE creates
a safe forum for girls to talk about such issues as sexual harassment, teen
pregnancy, and relationships but then broadens the discussion to explore how
environmental, racial, economic, and political forces affect a woman’s
reproductive health and overall well being.

“HOPE girls
tackle the big questions,” says Pathikonda, like “why are our families here in
the U.S. and why are we poor?” It is out of these conversations that the idea
of the tour was born, as a way to share their insights and educate the larger

To prepare for
the tour the girls researched their communities. They looked up statistics on
the Internet about Oakland schools, visited campuses, and did a comparative
analysis of Piedmont and Oakland High School. They interviewed their mothers
and grandmothers about the war in Vietnam, surveyed over 200 students in their
schools about sexual harassment, policing, and health care access, and talked
to experts about the hazards of the IES medical incinerator in their
neighborhood. They talked to community-based organizations liked PUEBLO,
People United for a Better Oakland, Californians for Justice, and Let’s Get
Free to get information about the issues they deal with. The result is a blend
of personal stories and statistical information presented in a booklet and in
a three-hour tour of the city.

In front of the
Oakland welfare office, Sally criticizes the U.S. government: “The Americans
recruited my grandfather and dad to fight on their side in the Vietnam War.
Then when they gave up on the war we had to flee our country or be killed. We
came here because we had no choice. The U.S. says it will help us to get on
our feet but really it wants us to work for them again, this time in America’s
low-wage jobs.”

For Meuy, this
office is a familiar place. Like many children from low-income, non-English
speaking families, she has come here frequently to translate for her mother
because, although it is legally required that the office provide translation,
it never does.

A family of
three gets a welfare check of $565 per month. Rent for a two-bedroom at fair
market value is $775. In addition, the family cap law, which denies benefits
to children who are born after a mother begins receiving benefits, impacts
even families where both parents are working several jobs. “Sometimes,” says
Sally, “only half of the family can eat.”

On the way to
Oakland High we pass the Grocery Outlet on 27th and Broadway, where the girls’
families go, along with other welfare recipients, to buy food. Food, that is,
that other supermarkets catering to middle class customers have deemed too old
and taken off their shelves for re-sale to outlet stores where low-income
people shop. At Grocery Outlet there are seldom any fresh vegetables or
fruits. Mostly packaged foods with low nutritional value.     

When we pull up
to Oakland High School, HOPE leaders pass out pictures of Piedmont High
School. A few miles north, Piedmont High, which looks more like a college
campus than a high school, boasts its own outdoor amphitheater, an expansive
library, a room devoted to college prep, and plenty of computers with internet
access. Its student body, which is 75 percent white, enjoys a wealth of
resources that Oakland High students can only dream of, with predictable
results, 83 percent of PH graduates are eligible for the UC-CSU system.

Oakland High,
which is 95 percent students of color (55 percent Asian) and situated next to
a free way on-ramp, is a different picture altogether. Classes are crowded,
books are dated, and computers scarce. Bars, fences, and chains hem in every
exit while the bathrooms lack basic things like doors on the stalls, soap in
the dispensers, and toilet paper. HOPE leaders describe arguing with teachers
to win even a few lessons on Asian history—this in classrooms where over half
of the students are Asian. Their sex education classes don’t teach them about
their bodies, contraceptives, or sexual harassment. Then there is the racial
profiling that students of color confront.

Asian students
are often tracked out of higher level classes and into English Language
Deficiency (ELD),  for no reason other than they are Asian. Gen explains that
teachers are supposed to administer a test to determine placement but many do
not. “In middle-school I didn’t talk much in class so even though I was
getting As and Bs they placed me in ELD,” says Sally. “I had never been in
ELD, not in elementary or middle school,” explains Meuy. “Then, this last year
of high school, they put me there.” ELD classes do not count for college
English requirements. Predictably, only 3 percent of Oakland High graduates
are eligible for the UC-CSU system.

HOPE argues
that high schools like this are an important part of a larger system that
tracks Asian women onto a road of scarce resources and disempowerment.

Last stop,
California’s only commercial medical waste incinerator run by IES (Integrated
Environmental Systems). Located in a low-income East Oakland neighborhood, the
IES incinerator, which runs 24 hours a day and burns everything from syringes
and gloves to body parts, emits toxic chemicals including dioxin,
mercury, and other carcinogens and has been cited by the Bay Area Air
Quality Management District for 250 violations since 1990. There is technology
that reduces emissions but, according to HOPE and other community groups that
have staged protests over the past year, IES refuses to stop incinerating
medical waste.     

what they want and sharing this information with others was a big part of the
tour. The next step is figuring out how to get it. The members of the HOPE
Project will continue to give Reproductive Freedom Tours this summer in the
hopes of educating community members and giving voice to the struggles of
Southeast Asian refugee girls in Oakland.  Z

Vanessa Daniel is a freelance writer and researcher for the Applied Research
Center in Oakland. For more about APIRH: 510-434-7901 ext.304.