A headshot of Maisie Chin, an Asian American woman with shoulder lengthy brown hair and glasses smiling wearing a red sleeveless shirt

In conversation with Maisie Chin: Awakening Asian American solidarity-making with Black parents

ByERI staff

USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) staff Khia Duncan recently sat down with Maisie Chin, the ERI 2023 Spencer Foundation Scholar-Activist Fellow. Maisie is the co-founder and former executive director of Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE) in South Central Los Angeles. CADRE is a parent-organizing and movement-building organization fighting for racial justice in education to end the school-to-prison pipeline, with a strong record of parent-led policy victories that have led to changes in both practice and narrative. 

As a child of Chinese immigrant parents and a University of California Los Angeles graduate, Maisie has lived by a set of principles that have driven her lifelong work to dismantle anti-Black and racist systems, including an intense examination of Asian American privileges that come at the expense of Black and Latinx families and communities in South Los Angeles.

We are excited to explore Maisie’s more than 20 years of practicing radical cross-racial solidarity. Answering the call to action after the Los Angeles uprising in 1992, Maisie’s philosophies have led her to center the experiences of the Black parents with whom she organized during her tenure at CADRE. The transformation of Maisie’s relationship with her racial identity, power, and positionality came as a result of her own awakening to activism and solidarity-making. What follows are excerpts from interviews conducted by Khia Duncan (ERI Data Analyst) of Maisie Chin in Fall 2023, lightly edited for clarity and flow.



Khia Duncan: Maisie, it is good to meet you and we are excited to hear your story. Can you start by telling us what it means for you to make Asian American – Black solidarity?


Maisie Chin: I desire to live in a pro-Black world. Not a non-white one, but specifically a pro-Black one. My own awakening led me to choose to be a grassroots, community-based organizer working with Black and Latinx parents in South Central Los Angeles for nearly three decades starting in the mid-1990s. It is from this period of decolonizing and reimagining my Asian American identity through deliberate praxis—practice, reflection, self-analysis—as an organizer that I have come to this aspiration and conclusion that we have to rigorously make solidarity with our Black siblings, not just be in solidarity. 

And in order to do so, we as Asian Americans must undertake political projects that deliberately take on more than white supremacy, but anti-Blackness and what Claire Jean Kim (Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine) calls the “Asian-Black gap”. I echo Kim’s assertion that we have to widen our field of action beyond dismantling systemic harm at the hands of whites and asserting our humanity in a white world—to include and center, the dismantling of anti-Blackness and our systemic Asian American privilege derived from it. 

In a world that is more anti-Black than it is white supremacist, given the degree to which those of us who are not white or Black harbor anti-Blackness, and the conscription of racial categories in the labor production hierarchies of global and racial capitalism, belonging to and in whiteness is not a viable future for Asian Americans. The more we focus on that project, the more we separate ourselves from the transformative work of remaking our world to be human, as Grace Lee Boggs would say. And it is in a remade world that Asian Americans will thrive: collectivity and interdependence allow us to see ourselves fully once we see the humanity of our Black siblings fully, in a way we are not taught to do in an anti-Black world.


Khia: Let’s talk a little bit about the LA Uprising in 1992. Can you talk about the impact and/or aftermath of the Uprising on your work?


Maisie:  I started working in South Central Los Angeles the year after the 1992 uprising. After graduating from UCLA, I was part of an incredible generation of alumni who did the same. But I was one of a small number of Asian Americans who chose community-based organizing in a Black and Brown community—a community that just saw people who looked like us (Asian Americans) kill Latasha Harlins over a bottle of orange juice. I could not get out of my mind the image of Korean store owners on rooftops across South Central pointing rifles at Black and Brown bodies. I am Chinese American, but it did not matter—I knew it would become a proxy for all of us Asian Americans, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of our proximity to the South Central realities that encompassed Korean-Black relations in LA.  

And like many Asian Americans who began organizing for social justice during that decade, it called for us to reconcile our economic privilege due to our educational access, and conversely, our own experiences with economic injustice and poverty.   Despite the poverty conditions many of our families escaped from and possibly endured for some time here in the U.S., Asian Americans—with near-automatic access to all levels of education and positive stereotypes about how much we value education and hard work—often improve our socioeconomic positions within one generation, maybe two. We not only tend to escape poverty and working-class conditions, whether we assimilate culturally or not, but we also readily escape association with Blackness and anything associated with it.

I will never forget meeting a young Asian American brother who grew up in what is known now as Koreatown after I spoke to the late John Delloro’s class at UCLA (a former lecturer in the Asian American studies department at UCLA and a well-known labor organizer).  The student shared about his teenage and young adult years, being fully immersed in a Korean gang and the life it demanded. When he decided to hang it up, he was admitted to and began attending UCLA within a year. At that moment, he was getting ready to graduate and head to law school. Admittedly, I saw him carrying no obvious liabilities into his future, his former life would not hinder his future life. This would never be the case for Black and Brown youth associated with anything deemed “criminal” or “violent”.   


Khia: That is such a rich backdrop. Can you share with us how you developed your personal political compass?


Maisie:  I heeded the call of Mari Matsuda’s (the first tenured female Asian American law professor in the US, at UCLA), “we will not be used”, when I first read her seminal speech in 1993. And yet when it came to education, I was less sure that we as Asian Americans were willing to unpack its use as a tool of oppression rather than social and economic mobility. It was more clear cut to make visible the fact that we too suffer poverty, racism, and exclusion from civic society due to being immigrants. But education was and is harder, given that we are clear beneficiaries of it, regardless of the harm it does others. 

“We will not be used” became my personal political compass.  As a community organizer trained in the more old-school white tradition often credited to Saul Alinksy, we were often taught that race did not always matter. Rather, what mattered was the issue and the shared desire to make change and develop the analysis to do so. If we did not come from the community in which we were organizing, it could more or less be forgiven; especially if we helped the community win a bread-and-butter issue that improved their lives in a material way, such as installing a crosswalk or playground or winning some school funding. When it came to changing what happens interpersonally, how parents and students are actually treated, this felt pretty insufficient— as if organizing in this way would, in the end, affirm the system as it is, that a few more amenities and resources would somehow close the gap. 


Khia: When did you first know you were going to engage in organizing for racial justice in your city


Maisie: I came of age politically in Los Angeles and California in the mid to late 1990s, wherein the six years post-uprising, our statewide ballot initiative process countered the multiculturalism and equity movements with successful passages of statewide laws that would fundamentally change the complexion and trajectories of our local social justice movements for decades. 

The first three-strikes law in the nation (1994) enabled Los Angeles to continue to be the carceral capital of the world, particularly for Black and Brown people. The first ban on undocumented immigrants receiving publicly-funded social services (1994) put the fear of deportation into hundreds of thousands (though it was quickly ruled unconstitutional). The end of affirmative action (1996) in progressivel- identified California limited employment and educational access at the same time as Los Angeles County was clearly on its way to becoming majority non-white. The outlawing of bilingual education (1998) threatened the economic viability of all immigrant non-English speaking families and targeted our Latinx siblings. This reactionary era also laid the groundwork for the turn-of-the-millenium effort to automatically try young people as adults if they were charged with violating certain criminal codes (2000). 

California was working hard to suppress the burgeoning power of the emerging non-white majority by reframing “civil rights” as obstructions to individual liberty and meritocracy. Coming of age politically during this time, and all of the elders who mentored me along the way, crystallized for me how all of this backlash to structural change was fundamentally rooted in anti-Blackness and the template for dividing people of color. Building multiracial solidarity, and being an ally to Black and Brown solidarity as an Asian American, was seeded during this time. It was, to use another of Grace Lee Boggs’s grounding phrases, an “incredible time to be alive on the clock of the world”.   


Khia: What has been your experience with coalition-building in the face of racialized and anti-Black oppression?


Maisie: I have always believed in racial solidarity against the common enemy of white wealth and a white-dominant cultural agenda. Progressive Asian American organizers and activists are often co-leading coalitions addressing issues that underscore the intersectionality of poverty, racism, and sexism, such as: immigrant rights, language access, domestic violence, healthcare access and treatment, worker rights, environmental injustice, and housing. We highlighted the oppression that we also experience at the hands of racial capitalism, and we educated as much as we could about Asian American poverty—especially among our most marginalized subgroups such as Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians.    

We were challenging the model minority myth with full throats and hearts. But I noticed where we did not show up, or at least did not show up in the same vigorous way—or example, on the issue of mass incarceration and criminalization and its never-ending racialization and on the issue of the stark differences between the K-12 schools that Asian Americans attended and those that Black and Brown children attended in places like South Central. It was and continues to be, harder or more isolating when we use our voices to challenge the systemic injustices that illuminate our proximity to white privilege—the systems that give us the same benefit of the doubt that white people get. It is why we cannot get comfortable or assume that our Black and Latinx siblings automatically see us as allies. We have to show it in our actions.


Khia: Tell us a little bit about how you got into K-12 education work and its impact.


Maisie: After UCLA through most of the 1990s I worked to improve student success in schools in Watts and South Central. With no other Asian Americans in the room, I was usually the only one in an entirely different context. I had had the privilege in my earlier years of being eldered by a few Asian American public school teachers—primarily Japanese Americans, who fought for equity, were teachers union activists, and taught in predominantly Black and Brown schools. 

In the education equity landscape of trying to close the achievement gap, however, I was often by myself when listening to data report after data report showing Asian American and white students at one end of the spectrum and Black and Brown and poor students at the polar opposite. By some metrics, Asian American students had even surpassed white academic achievement. That juxtaposition, that reality, embedded within the concept that education is the great equalizer, was troubling; even more so when “closing the achievement gap” was often described as closing the gap between Black and Latino students and white students, with Asian American students not mentioned. There was a gap to close between Black and Latino and us, as well. The narrative has since evolved to be White and Asian on one end, and Black, Latinx, Native American on the other, but back then, to be invisibilized in this way also signaled to me that us not being white yet clearly benefiting from public education as a common good was an awkward alignment to acknowledge. We are neither Black nor white, and it signaled to me that we needed a distinct narrative about our positionality, and the contradiction it poses—in other words, our role in easing the persistence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness.   


Khia: Who are some people that you would pay homage to as you walked this community-engaged journey?


Maisie: I have Asian American Studies at UCLA and those elders to thank for having the capacity to recognize our collective responsibility, and the need to continue to make collective Asian American history—invisible as it may be—as resisters, defenders, and probably most importantly, as solidarity-makers. This is what allows us to, in the words of Grace Lee Boggs, “grow our souls” and “become more human” as an intervention to being divided and racially competitive due to capitalism.  

This grounding in Asian American history prepared me to be receptive to the endless number of Black activists, organizers, strategists, historians, and authors of the Black struggle who then helped me grasp the inherent and dehumanizing contradictions of the project of public education in the U.S., from its inception through its present-day design and usefulness as social control. I consider Black activists Joyce Germaine Watts and Ron Wilkins my political aunt and uncle; they invited me into their wisdom, shared it willingly, and made sure that I would never be confused.    

Figuring out my role in what Professor Antonia Darder calls an “emancipatory project” within the larger struggle for educational justice was not entirely clear at first. But it did require a conscious ability to question and then reject the purpose and foundations of our U.S. education system, including the dominant narratives about “good” and “bad” schools and students, and what we feel entitled to when we seek academic achievement.


Khia: Let’s talk a little bit about reconciliation and positionality between the Asian American and the Black community. What are some of your thoughts on this subject?


Maisie: I am impassioned about Asian Americans finding ever-more impactful contributions to reduce harm in the world, and to co-construct a society of allied, liberated communities free to determine the course of their lives. And for this to be possible, it means exponentially reducing harm to our Black siblings, supporting the livelihoods and futures of our Black siblings, and ensuring that we are at the very least not obstructionists to any of it. 

In order to do this, we have to absolutely acknowledge where and when we have relative power and privilege in certain spaces—especially those that often dictate our livelihoods, education, employment, and where we are welcomed to rent and buy homes. Additionally, we need to reconcile our relationship to civil rights legal protections and remedies born out of the long, bloodstained arc towards justice as crafted particularly by our Black siblings. We may have also contributed to achieving or furthering civil rights; however, we tend to benefit more from them than our non-white, non-Asian siblings. 

For example, Asian Americans will join the chorus calling for improved education access for everyone, even for concepts like affirmative action that are attempting to level the playing field. Yet, when we clearly benefit more than other non-white groups, we tend to shed our association with any other narrative and reasoning for our success besides it being due to our individual hard work and merit—the “good” narrative. We may not be counted upon to defend civil rights tools specifically intended to achieve Black equity. Oftentimes, we directly benefit from civil rights tools only to turn around and use it as proof of individual responsibility done right, of immigrants contributing to U.S. society and economy, which only underscores that we are not the opposite. 

What is not being said and what we are not associated with, is our power and privilege. It is anti-Black whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and if we want to be part of dismantling anti-Blackness, we have to dismantle our comfort with our access to educational success and economic mobility and build a kind of Asian American livelihood that does not come at the expense of our Black siblings.  


Khia: Why did you choose to work with Black parents? Can you share a little bit of what led to you co-founding CADRE?


Maisie: This choice and commitment had multiple dimensions. It started first with everything I have shared so far about how my Asian American identity and solidarity-focused consciousness emerged and evolved. Wanting to support Black and Latino solidarity building in South LA meant not only thinking about access to education and educational outcomes. I learned from my friend, gang truce architect, peace visionary, and son of Watts Aqeela Sherrills early on that the power of de-escalating the pervasive violence that defined South LA—and then characterized its schools and how teachers and administrators saw students and their families—required courageous peacebuilding defined and led by the community itself, including those most assumed to be associated with crime, or the “criminalized”, true or not.

With each passing year in the mid to late 1990s that I worked to include Black and Brown students and their parents in the educational process as currently prescribed—the more I worked alongside advocates like Aqeela, Joyce, Ron, and so many others to build grassroots, community-based foundations for Black and Brown solidarity as a primary component of violence prevention, community empowerment, humanization, and transformation. 

It is hard to put into words the influence that this parallel work had on my political imagination when it came to ultimately working with Black and Brown parents. It shaped my path to parent organizing as one that started with humanizing the most marginalized families, the ones most often blamed for community failure, and the ones whose humanity was being ignored, even by activists and organizers at large. Engaging these families meant engaging the most marginalized parents at schools. “Parent engagement” for me did not mean what educational institutions needed it to mean.It meant organizing and leveraging their rights as parents of children in schools to tap into their humanity, self-empowerment, and fundamental worth as members of a collective community. It meant engaging their full selves and opening up opportunities for South LA parents to deliberately direct their power to preserve the value of their families’ lives. 

I learned pretty quickly that getting involved in South LA schools is, like in most places where people are surviving intergenerational poverty and suppression, a matter of life and death. I mean this at even the most micro of levels. A white teacher in a South LA high school once pulled me aside and said to me “Maisie, these kids are just animals!” This teacher also told his entire class that he wanted to “take them out back and beat them.” The irony was that these sentiments were often shared with me by the very teachers who were purportedly working with me to improve educational outcomes, or who considered themselves to be “all about the students”. And when it came to these same “colleagues” talking negatively about parents, it was primarily about Black parents.  

Deep down I knew that the white teacher felt incredible ease in pulling me aside because he assumed that I would buy his dehumanizing racism. After all, I was not Black, I was Asian American. I have to admit that I froze at that moment. But I also realized that I was standing in the gap, that Asian-Black gap I spoke about earlier. I did not quite have the words for it then that I eventually came to have, but I had a visual: my immigrant mom working assembly line graveyard shifts throughout most of my pre-teen and teen years, never involving herself, and my immigrant dad not working but just choosing not to involve himself either. I moved through school without this being a burden on how I was perceived or whether I was taught, and always given the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, all it took for a parent to be negatively judged and spoken about in a professional setting was not coming when the teacher told them to come for a parent-teacher conference. It was a one-way street that left no room for compassion, no room for reality. 

Both of my parents avoided interaction with any of my schools and teachers due to language and cultural intimidation. I was given the benefit of the doubt because of a positive stereotype, even when my teachers knew absolutely nothing about me, my family, my Chinese culture, and the mental health environment inside my home.  It is a different angle on the model minority stereotype, where the perception of Asian parenting is essentially weaponized to further denigrate nonwhite, non-Asian immigrant parents and completely dehumanize Black parents.  


Khia: Maisie thank you for sharing your passion and love for solidarity work.  What are your hopes and dreams for the future of parent organizing and schools?


Maisie: I always hoped that the labor and soul we collectively put into parent organizing and CADRE will, in the long term, contribute to a broader repair of our centuries-long breach of faith and trust between Black parents and other ethnic groups. Through a vision of reparation for what has been ripped apart through settler colonialism, I fundamentally believe that the boldest racial and educational justice dreams are only possible with the deep inclusion of Black parents and humanizing Black families. I believe in nurturing solidarity by measuring our progress against meeting the transformational needs of the most marginalized Black parents and families in all of our institutions, all the more so in schools. I hope for more cross-racial parent solidarity that is not anti-Black or competitive, and that can center Black parents simultaneously as we build mutuality and shared struggle. I see few better ways to do this than through the most transformative aspect of organizing—the increasingly lost art of deep relationship building, consciousness-raising, long-term agenda building, and principled struggle over time. 

What CADRE has learned over more than two decades through much trial and error, is a primer for schools to practice family centering, inclusion of both Black and Brown parent voices and leadership, and accountability that generates shared ownership for our schools.        


Khia: Thank you Maisie, we learned so much from listening to you and we wish you well on your future goals.


Maisie: Thank you all so much for this opportunity to pause, reflect, and share the major milestones in my coming-of-age as an organizer story.  




This interview was supported by the USC Equity Research Institute team Dawy Rkasnuam, USC Masters student; Khia Duncan, Data Analyst; Shawntae Mitchum, USC Doctoral candidate; Gladys Malibiran, Communications Manager; Dr. Kim Tabari, Organizational Development Director; Vanessa Carter Fahnestock, Project Manager; and Manuel Pastor, Director.


© 2024. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.