How to Sustain Activism Beyond College
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By Gayle Romasanta
When I was 19, I started the Filipina-based sorority, Kappa Psi Epsilon. It was March, my birthday month, but not yet my 20th birthday. I was in student government, a senator for the College of Liberal Arts at California State University, Long Beach. I so desperately wanted Pinays to talk to about where we stood in the middle of what was then, the re-election of Bill Clinton. I wanted to talk politics. I wanted to learn about Filipino American history. I wanted to talk about different ways to make a difference. So I created Kappa Psi Epsilon. That was the beginning of what it meant to be conscious for me.
Since then, the sorority has grown over the last 21 years to include chapters at California State University, Long Beach, Sacramento, San Francisco State University, UCLA, and UC Davis. Just by guestimate, there’s been approximately 1,000 women who have pledged and crossed over to become sisters of Kappa Psi Epsilon, where they learn self-love, the value of working with women and making decisions, leadership skills, and how to sustain an organization and inspire others to think more deeply about their place in this world. Out of all the things I have created, this is one of the most lasting things I’ve done.
I’ve created and been part of so much since that fateful March of 1996. And I marvel at how the hell I am still an activist, artist, and part of the Filipino community. When you’re as active as I was and still am, then you suffer little and big heartbreaks creating communities and stories. Sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. You mess up. And many times you ask yourself, why does this even matter? Other times, you feel triumphant.
But how does one sustain this life of being an activist? By activism, I mean how does one continue fighting and pressing forward our Filipino American community to a consciousness where we can dream and be anyone we want to be? Where we can help each other when necessary and where we consistently work together to get our needs met? It’s a selfless job, being an activist, one where you don’t get a pat on the head or acknowledged. It’s little to no pay and the hours. Oh my goodness. The hours involved most times are beyond what I have the capacity for.
But people manage to keep going and are activists as they get older.
It happens every day in our community. When you go to an event and you see someone like me, toting four children and talking about change, then you know, oh look. That person hasn’t given up. They’re not jaded. Yet. Or when I go to an event and see the same lovely people I’ve been seeing the last 20 years, creating stories, nurturing communities, or still writing poetry about our people, then I know, that like me, these lovely shining faces who have gained some wrinkles like I have, continue the fight and are teaching the new generation. The new generation that will take over when my generation decides to go on permanent vacation. Hahaha. If that ever happens to activists.
When I was a congressional intern, I attended a Congressional Black Caucus intern event. At the time, one of the youngest congressmen, Jesse Jackson, Jr. was talking to all of us young, passionate, politically aware kids about how to keep going and fighting for what we thought was right. It was 1996 and he told us that we were probably just happy to be there. Which was true. We were all students of color, some undergrads, some already in grad school. And we were so happy to be interns for the 104th congress. I was an intern for the former President of California State University, Long Beach, Congressman Steven Horn, a former history professor. Jackson, Jr. told us that was the first stage of being in the political life, happy to be there. Jesse Jackson, Jr. then proceeded to tell us there was then a second stage — the anger stage. We would start noticing all the things that was wrong with Capitol Hill the longer we were there. And it was then we would have a choice. Would could get angry at everyone and notice that things weren’t as they seemed and stay there, stay angry. Or we could get to the third phase of activism, take those feelings and push forward to make change. That was the choice: we could leave and go back to leading a normal life where we didn’t have to fight for our community anymore (sometimes ignorance is bliss) or we stay and push forward, organizing for justice for our communities. I always took that with me.
To this day, I choose the journey, I choose justice. I choose sticking it out.
I will always remember what he told us young kids. He was young at the time too, and if you know anything about Jesse Jackson, Jr. his political life didn’t end up so well (that’s worth a google). But that doesn’t make his talk with us any less important or life changing.
After Kappa, I began my artistic training in the only Filipino American theater in the United States, called Bindlestiff Studio, in the South of Market District, San Francisco, in what is now known as the Soma Pilipinas Heritage district. It was spring 1998. I wrote, I played the violin, I published my work, I was an actress, I graduated college, went to law school for a year, decided I wanted to be an artist and went and got my master of fine arts degree in writing. I taught English to undergrads, fifth and sixth graders, wrote grants, published stories, got married and raised some children, got a dog and some chickens, and kept writing. In between all of that, I went through a lot of heartbreak, both personal and political. Both relationship-wise in my community and stabilizing my adult self. And trust me, if you decide to be an activist for longer than a few years, you will get angry, you will get into arguments and you will wonder what is wrong with some people. You will wonder what is wrong with you. But I adulted and continued my activism in a way that helped get beyond the second phase of activism — to move beyond anger. And for me that meant creating. I created literary arts journals. Magazines. Short stories. Musicals. Plays. I even co-composed the song to a commercial for the first Google Philippines marketing campaign. And all of that, in between learning how to breathe, articulating my boundaries, and watching my community grow, keeps me feeling vibrantly alive as I move into my 21+ years of being active in the Filipino American community.
And what do you know, I’m still not done. I started Bridge + Delta Publishing, a publishing house that focuses on publishing the Filipino American experience. Named after my memories of the family farm owned by the eight manongs in my family, Bridge + Delta was founded on the spirit of immigrant journeys that are absolutely American at their core. We publish stories for families and communities to understand their past, present and future, so that their immigration story gives them a better understanding of who they are. That way, our communities are not just almost home. They are home.
One of the first projects we’re working on is the first children’s book about Larry Itliong. Written by Dr. Dawn Mabalon and illustrated by Andre Sibayan, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, has become such an amazing project to work on. First off, FINALLY!!! Why did this take so long to get the first children’s book out about this great leader? I get to work with Dawn (who used to be my comedy partner when we did stand up in 1999), who has had an amazing career being an academic and activist in our community. She’s a Stanford-trained badass historian who is a professor at San Francisco State University, that I get to call my friend. Andre Sibayan has also been working within the community the last 20 years. His murals and artwork can be seen everywhere in San Francisco (if you see all the UNDISCOVERED SF art and design, that’s his work!). I’ve been seeing his work in the community since 1999 when he was at Bindlestiff and where he would later paint a phoenix/rooster mural on the wall in that old black box theater, before it was torn down to make way for the new Bindlestiff in 2004.
So much history I have with these folks, and we’re making a children’s book to honor Larry Itliong to create more history for our next generation. Children will finally be able to do a report in school about our Filipino American heroes (we’re creating an eight-book series about Filipino American leaders for children after we publish Journey for Justice). Families will finally be able to read a nonfiction book about Filipino American leaders before bedtime. And we finally can show our community, this is what happens when you move forward and leave the second stage of activism. You leave your anger and then start making change, just like our Filipino American leaders who pushed through turbulent times. You make change in the way you know how, either through art, writing, science, engineering, public speaking, or any other gift you were given. But you just do it. And this life moves on in years and you’re still doing it and bringing your family along with you on this journey.
If you’re so inclined to get Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, you can visit www.bridgedelta.com where you can pre-order by donating to our Indiegogo campaign! We our trusting that our community will invest in this campaign so we can give these books to classrooms that need it, as well as pay for production costs for the next book in our series about Olympic diving champion, Victoria Manalo Draves, and more. 5% of profits also go to the Filipino American National Historical Society and to the Little Manila Foundation.
And that’s how you continue being an activist long after your college days are over.
You just keep going. You come across more heartbreak. Some surprises. Meet the loves of your life (babies, books, friends, partners, restaurants, and homes). And you all journey to bring each other closer to a kind of consciousness that is beyond the passion of youth organizing.
You get closer to an unconditional commitment to love yourself and each other so much that you want to see everyone able to live a dignified life, with work that fulfills them and the ability to live and support themselves and their families. You want to see the next generation thrive in a way that wasn’t possible for your generation. So hang in there friends. Take care of each other and keep going.