By Grace Lee and Dawn Philip
Lora Jo Foo is the author of Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy and most recently, Earth Passages. She is a native of San Francisco, born and raised in the city’s Chinatown. From the age of 11, Lora worked as a garment worker. She is an accomplished attorney, labor organizer, author, advocate for worker rights, and a nature photographer. She is a co-founder of the California-based Sweatshop Watch and served as its Board President from 1995 to 2004. She has also worked at the Asian Law Caucus and the AFL-CIO.
NAPAWF: We talk a lot about young women’s leadership at NAPAWF, so as someone who has been working in the community and doing political activism for a long time, what’s your idea of leadership and young women’s leadership especially in the API community?
LJF: Asian-American women’s leadership—one of the differences is the much more collective consensus building style that we have. It’s a strength, and sometimes it’s a weakness when we don’t call each other out when we need to and let people go off in directions that are not healthy for the community. But most of the time, I think the strength of Asian-American women’s leadership is its consensus style. In, I think 1999, when Barbara Phillips at the Ford Foundation asked me to write a report on Asian-American women that turned into a book, she started with the Asian-American women’s community, first because of her experience with what I was describing as that concessive, collective, type of leadership. One of the reasons she decided to give us a planning grant for what became the National Gender and Equity Campaign was because she knew our community would work together whether or not the Ford Foundation funded us. One of the weaknesses, among Asian-American women leaders, is not wanting to stand out. If there’s any reason why Asian-American organizations and women’s organizations are underfunded or less funded than other organizations, it isn’t just the racism in philanthropy—it’s also the assertiveness of Asian-American women in terms of their causes and not wanting to be seen as individualistic or selfish or whatever. I think I started this by saying that Barbara started with us first (well, she started with us first actually because we were friends and I was moving on from the Asian Law caucus and she wanted me to write this report ) based on her experiences with Asian-American women leaders.
NAPAWF: In your first book, Asian-American Women, you mentioned that you had to call up your “old girls network” for information. What did having this network mean for you when you were writing your book?
LJF: When I first started writing and researching the report for Barbara at Ford, I was pretty naïve. I had no clue that there was so little research out there on Asian-American women, so ten years ago when I started the research, I thought all I had to do was ask different organizations that were working on these issue areas to give me their reports and research and whatever they’ve compiled over the years. I figured that you can’t write a grant proposal unless you have facts and statistics and analysis. At the Asian Law Caucus, just to be able to do garment workers advocacy and low wage worker advocacy, I wrote law review articles, I did research, I wrote white papers, etc. Based on this, people would write grant proposals so I just thought everybody in every field—in health, and reproductive justice, and welfare reform—everybody has probably done this too. I thought I could just call everybody up and they could just send me their materials, but it’s not the case. There’s just very little research out there, and I’m amazed at how people get funded if you don’t have the facts and stats to be able to argue your case. A lot of it was research from scratch. Because there were so few studies nationally, I had to call on that “old girls” network to ask for local studies because ten years ago, you didn’t necessarily just find it on the internet with a Google search. Studies started coming in from different parts of the country, and that was one key way. Without that old girls network I would not have been able to write the report. Interviewing people on the ground in many different states was made possible by that network of activists that I had—it enabled me to make those contacts, do those interviews.
NAPAWF: Can you give a quick introduction of your most recent book, Earth Passages?
LJF: The book is about growing up in the inner-city ghetto of San Francisco Chinatown. The stories start from age three and end just right after high school. The last story is my trip to Alaska. I took off to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries after high school. The healing process really is shown through the photographs. I’ve had comments like if you were to just read the stories, you’d be really depressed, but reading the stories paired with the photograph is very empowering because the photographs are empowering. There’s just this healing process that people feel as you read the story and you go back and forth between the photograph and story. One of the reasons I decided to even publish the stories even before I thought of that combo of photo and stories, is that there’s v. little written on ASIAN-AMERICAN growing up in poverty. There’s lots of non-fiction, but there isn’t creative writing that gets into the nitty-gritty of growing up in the inner-city ghetto of SF Chinatown.
NAPAWF: Your most recent book, Earth Passages is a bit of a departure from the last one you were just talking about.
LJF: It was definitely a departure. The book is about growing up in the inner-city ghetto of San Francisco Chinatown. The stories start from age three and end just right after high school. I was working on both books at the same time actually, but Earth Passages book was a much longer process. I started that actually in 1989 with the first story that I wrote, and then I started taking the first images that I considered art in 1991. Before that it was just snapshots that had come back from backpacking trips or hiking trips. The stories are very short vignettes, but I wrote about one story a year because they were difficult to write, they were painful stories from childhood, and to be able to write, you have to be in this mindset, you can’t be running crazy in litigating and organizing. So I had to find chunks of time to be able to write, and usually that meant being gone for a month at a time.
NAPAWF: The stories in the book are paired with some amazing nature photographs you have taken over the year. What led you to choose this unique format?
LJF: At some point, I realized that the photographs were just as healing, in terms of childhood wounds, as the stories. I think it was in the mid 90’s that I put the two together and decided I was going to publish a book of nature photographs interwoven with childhood stories. I didn’t actually pair the photographs with the stories until the very end when all the stories were written, and I hadn’t even decided on what photographs to put in. I just laid out all the stories on the floor and laid all the photographs around, and started moving photographs around and pairing them with stories. It’s a very subjective process because what a photograph or a visual image means to one person means something completely different to another person. It was just my own process of feeling comfortable that this photograph just goes with this story. It works for some people and doesn’t for others. For some people it’s just two separate books—a book of photographs and a book of stories and the two just don’t meet. But others—they get it, they understand it exactly the way I presented it.
NAPAWF: Do you think these stories and these photographs, this means of expression, can be another form of activism?
LJF: I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve done three readings now. The very first reading was just stunned silence because they didn’t expect these stories. People just don’t expect these stories. They’re really intimate, they’re very personal. Comments I’ve received, not just from Asian-American women, but African-American and white women, have been that it touches them and moves them in the same way. I also realized that these stories bring up memories for people from childhood that they aren’t prepared to deal with. There’s a lot going on in people’s minds emotionally, after I’ve read these stories. That’s why there isn’t this immediate exchange. But I think what the book will probably do, (because people have told me that it’s really brave to put these stories out there) or what I’m hoping that people realize is unless you surface what is repressed, unless you really grapple with your childhood, the healing doesn’t start happening. I don’t know if it will spur people to activism more than an inner journey. For me, I think that having gone through this process of therapy, writing the stories, photographing, I understand what drives me to do the work I do, and I can do it from a healthy place, instead of a dysfunctional place. That’s a much better place to do activism. I think that maybe that’s the contribution of this book.
NAPAWF: If you could have one superpower power, what would it be?
LJF: Actually, what I think about is just physical health. If I had superpowers, I would reverse the aging process, not that I want to be immortal—by the time I am 90 I am ready to go! My mom passed away at 92, and at 92 it’s time to leave the earth. But I’d like not to be decrepit. After your 40’s you lose muscle mass, and I found that I couldn’t carry the camera equipment I used to carry. It started to be a burden to photograph because everything got heavy. I keep injuring myself anyway because I keep thinking I can carry this equipment, I can do what I used to do. Then there are all these injuries you get that you wouldn’t in your 20’ss or 30’s. I’m in physical therapy just to heal everything that I injured because I can’t slow down. So if I had superpowers I would be in perfect health in my 60’s and 70’s so I can keep hiking. So that I can hike the distance I used to hike in my 30’s. I would maybe slow down, but I would want to be able to continue hiking and carry a backpack. That’s what I would want, and then like I said, when I’m ready to go at 92, I’ll just go.
NAPAWF: What causes you outrage right now? What makes you angry?
LJF: What gets under my skin right now is climate change. The really wasteful way Americans live that is ruining the earth and sort of the imperialism of Americans whether they’re Republican or Democrat or Green. They’re not understanding that for the last fifty years or more, Americans have caused so much of the global warming but expect countries like China and India to take equal responsibility. People didn’t get rid of their SUVs and Detroit didn’t go downhill until gas prices went up. They’re not understanding that unless we live the lifestyle of let’s say the Europeans, it’s not going to change. It isn’t just white people— its black, and Asian-American, and Latinos that are so use to the American way of life and the wasteful way of life, that we’re impacting not just us but the rest of the world. That’s what gets under my skin. And actually, in 1998 or 1999, we were having a NAPAWF gathering and we were doing visioning and everybody had 2 min to write a mission statement for NAPAWF. I scribbled mine out in terms of economic, social, gender equality justice for Asian-American women. But you also have to understand that once we get to that position, you have the consciousness not to live like the rest of Americans so not getting an SUV because of its impact on our sisters across the globe. I think that if there’s any agenda that needs to be added to the feminist agenda , climate change is one of them and our lifestyle is one of them.
I want to work in the climate change environment now. It might be climate change and labor, making sure that the green jobs are good jobs or union jobs or high paying jobs, or it may be just directly tackling the global warming issues. I’m thinking that in the next ten years, that’s really what I want to be focusing on and not always worker issues, just sort of moving on. I’m thinking if we don’t have a healthy earth, then we’re not going to have economic justice or social justice or racial justice, or any kind of justice.