The Swarthmore Asian Organization is shifting to become a political group. This change, which comes after decision made by SAO leadership in the 2015-2016 school year, was marked by a “re-birthday party.” The event was both a 30th birthday for the group as well as an opportunity to refocus their organization.
SAO was formed originally as a political group to advance the interests of Asian and Pacific-Islander students, faculty, and staff, but shifted over time into its current form. In recent years, the group has served as a social and cultural group. Part of SAO’s shift is to change the perception of who SAO is for, as the group’s membership mostly consists of students of East-Asian descent, according to SAO co-presidents Josie Huang ’19, David Chan ’19, and Shuang Guan ’19. Guan explained some of the reasons for the shift.
“The way SAO started, its mission was political in order to increase numbers of API students and faculty on campus. … SAO was really a home for a diverse number of people falling under this label of Asian or Asian-American, and we’ve found that, in the past few years, SAO has been kind of shifting towards a social [and] cultural kind of path and our member base has also gotten very East-Asian-American. And, that’s led to some people telling us that they feel a little bit excluded from SAO or they don’t feel comfortable coming to SAO events because they don’t see a lot of people who look like them or represent them,” she said.
SAO hopes that the political shift will make SAO more welcoming to a wider group of Asian and Asian-American students.
“Instead of SAO being tied together by this social-cliquey feeling of ‘oh my friends are here so I belong here’ … hopefully it’s that people are passionate about working on API issues,” Shuang said.
Shuang also described the group’s political plans.
“We want to do more collaborations with other affinity groups to build community at Swarthmore. We also hope to volunteer with Philly organizations (currently in talks with AAI, Asian Arts Initiative). We are trying to increase awareness and support for Asian-American Studies at Swat by bringing Asian American Studies scholars to talk at Swat while advocating for more Asian-American Studies courses,” she said.
“We’re really hoping that one, we take up SAO’s political mission again, and really do political work, talking about API issues, possibly working with organizations in Philly who already do work in arts and community empowerment and education and also doing more collaborations with other groups on campus,” she said.
The “re-birthday party” was intended to help SAO start becoming a political organization, and was well received event. According to SAO leadership, some of the attendees were not regularly attending SAO members. This suggests that students see SAO less as an organization for students of East-Asian descent and more as one that represents students from many API backgrounds.
The co-presidents also met with the leadership of other groups representing Asian-Americans on Swarthmore’s campus in order to best serve the interests of Asian-American and Asian students across their different organizations.
“There’s a bunch of other Asian-affiliated groups, and what we’ve realized in having conversations is that the nature of these groups tends to be more cultural, so it’s kind of like us deciding to not overstep the things that they’re doing and to kind of fill in for the spaces that they don’t have … having SAO is sort of a space for us to have these [political] conversations outside of the cultural groups,” Huang said.
The reactions to SAO’s political shift have been generally positive, according to the co-presidents, and they are optimistic about the future.
“We had a SAO-rebirthday, which was when we announced the change, and it was also a celebration of SAO’s 30th anniversary. We had a lot of people come to this, except …. we’ve realized that, because of the nature of how SAO is right now, it’s going to take a lot to change [the perception that SAO is primarily an East-Asian group]. The people that came to the event, some of them were people that we haven’t really seen before at past SAO events, but a lot of them were also still primarily still East-Asian, and so what we realized after this event is that it is a little bit difficult, that it is going to be a work in progress. This change is mainly to open up SAO again to the rest of the community. We did get a lot of positive reception from people who were at the event, who expressed that this is something that they had been looking for,” Huang said.
SAO included other Asian-affiliated groups to discuss the shift and get feedback.
“We gathered the board members … of other Asian-affiliated groups in the IC to talk about our idea to shift from being a social cultural group to mainly be a political group and get their feedback.
Aamia Malik ’18, the president of Deshi, a group for South Asian students on campus, expressed that she thinks the change will be positive for other Asian-affiliated groups on campus.
“The biggest shift will be SAO acting as more of an umbrella organization for other groups instead of its own entity as it is acting currently. In my opinion, this is a good shift because it will create a space for more IC groups to communicate and collaborate, something that needs to happen more,” she said
The implications of SAO’s changes are likely to be more pronounced next year when the incoming Class of 2021 enters and interacts with Swarthmore’s cultural, social, and political organizations for the first time.