Students Present at the AAFC


Cherim Kim

Students from all over New England came to the AAFC in 2016.

How do we combat stigma surrounding LGBTQI+ identities in Pan-Asian communities? With the rise of racial violence across the U.S., how can we build solidarity across racial groups? How do we bridge cross-generational divides in Pan-Asian communities?

These were some of the questions addressed at the Asian American Footsteps Conference (AAFC): “Passing the Torch,” on Sunday, April 11th, hosted virtually by Phillips Exeter Academy. The conference, held annually since 2011, provides a space for Pan-Asian students attending independent high schools in New England to discuss their identities and experiences. Over 540 students and adults from 39 schools gathered for a day of learning, connection, and community building. The day’s program included small-group sessions, three workshop periods featuring over 20 activities hosted by students, and a keynote speech by Helen Zia, a prominent Chinese-American author and activist. 

Workshops run by students and faculty from participating schools and featured adult presenters explored various aspects of Pan-Asian identities through group discussions and interactive activities. Sixteen Hotchkiss students ran workshops including “Dethroning Colorism in South Asia: A Panel Discussion with Icons from the Beauty Industry,” “Mythology and the Asian American Identity,” “Setting Stigmas Queer,” “Unlocking Memory Chambers You Did Not Know You Had,” and “Talking Social Issues at the Dinner Table: Crossing Generational Divides.”

Inspired by her personal scientific research on mental health, Yuka Masamura ’21 led a workshop with her sister, Haruka Masamura (Exeter ’21), and Isabella Yoo ’21 about body image and social pressure in Pan-Asian cultures. She said, “We brainstormed ideas around mental health, eating disorders, plastic surgery, etc., and the hardest part of the planning process was narrowing down our topic.” They chose to center the group’s discussion on the Japanese proverb, “the stake that sticks out gets hammered down.” The workshop offered a safe space for participants to share personal experiences with and change perceptions of body image in Pan-Asian communities. Yuka Masamura said, “We wanted to create a casual setting for conversations and pose discussion questions about which people felt comfortable enough to share, as mental health and body image are [quite] sensitive topics.”

James Yae ’23 attended a workshop hosted by an Asian-American comedy troupe entitled “Stir Friday Night!: Resilient Communication Through Improvisation.” He said, “The workshop taught me that improvisation is a great tool in communicating more effectively and productively. [It’s important to] show appreciation and gratitude in a conversation, whether that be about AAPI issues or simple day-to-day conversations, [because] we become more [empathetic] towards different perspectives.”

In addition to three workshops, students and adults also attended small-group community-building sessions to meet other participants. Mr. Yoo, Ms. Nora Yasumura, director of student clubs and affinity groups, and Ms. Peg Hsia, senior associate director of admissions, were the primary organizers of the school’s delegation and led the community-building session for adults. Ms. Yasumura said, “I think what makes this conference unique is that students of Asian descent can talk with [others] from a wide range of schools in New England. Students realize they’re not alone and that [others deal with similar issues]. The sessions also allowed students to meet others and begin creating a movement [in response to] the rise in anti-Asian hate.”

After the workshops and community gatherings, participants tuned in to Helen Zia’s keynote speech, followed by a Q&A panel. Zia is an author and activist. Her book, Last Boat out of Shanghai, was nominated for a PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography. Zia’s keynote speech focused on activism and the “missing in history” contributions of Asian Americans. Annie Dong ’23 said, “[Zia’s] keynote speech was wonderful, as I learned a lot about Asian-American history that is often overlooked and forgotten. She made me realize that racism and fetishization of Asian women has been an issue for a long time, and it’s time to stand up for what is right.”

Ms. Yasumura applauded students’ efforts to step up to the challenge in the midst of difficult and busy times. She said, “With eight student groups presenting workshops, we have been taking the lead and showing strength in New England schools. As adults, we are volunteering our time, because we care deeply about the issues in our communities and feel energized [to create change].”

While the conference has concluded, discussions surrounding anti-Asian hate will continue on campus. On April 21, the school will welcome speaker Justine Fonte, a Pilipinx sexuality educator and consultant to kick off programming for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May. 

St. Mark’s School will host next year’s Asian American Footsteps Conference.