Spotlight on Unforgettable’s Awardees | David Choi, Arts & Entertainment Award

David Choi is a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter/music producer who first gained fame on YouTube for his original song “YouTube A Love Song” in 2006. Since then, he’s paved the way for independent artists who are building a fanbase and making a living themselves by mobilizing social media resources. Choi wrote and self-produced all three of his albums Only You, By My Side, and Forever and Ever, which debuted at #97 on the iTunes top album charts, his songs have used in both American and Korean television shows, and his YouTube channel boasts close to a million subscribers and over 117,000,000 total video views.

You talk a lot about a moment in high school, where you went from hating practicing your musical instruments to being obsessed with composing music. What happened?

David Choi: Well, I didn’t know you could create music. Learning an instrument is not being creative. It’s just practicing someone else’s music. You can’t be creative when somebody is telling you exactly what to do.

Once I realized I could be creative with music, something just grabbed me and made me want to do this forever. It was weird. Maybe it was me wanting to succeed? I don’t even think it was that. I just really loved it. It’s like when you fall in love with somebody, and you want to spend time with them every single day. That’s how I felt about music.

Do you find that your good songs come to you very quickly, or do you have to work hard to rewrite, analyze the lyrics or the structure, and rewrite again?

David Choi: Now that I’ve been doing it for so long, it feels more innate. I will write a song, and what matters to me is not necessarily whether it sounds good, cool, or unique, but whether it’s honest. That’s the first part. Then the second part is sitting on it after I record it, and later listening back and being more judgmental. Here, I’m putting on my producer’s hat and looking at song structure etc.

There are definitely songs that I rewrite constantly but if I keep having to do that, often I’ll just let it go. I feel like it loses something after too much revision. But that’s just the art side of me talking, not the practical side. It’s about balancing the two.


Check out David Choi on the cover of KoreAm Journal’s December 2013 issue. Buy a copy to read the full cover story.

For more information on 2013’s Unforgettable annual gala, click here.

For free tickets to our Unforgettable after party, click here. Hope to see you there!

Spotlight on Unforgettable’s Awardees | Janet Yang, Audrey Woman of Influence Award

Janet Yang is a film producer and cultural ambassador who works to bridge the gap between the Hollywood and Chinese film industries. President of Janet Yang Productions and The Manifest Film Company, Yang’s numerous credits include The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Joy Luck Club, High Crimes, The Weight of Water, Disney’s High School Musical in China, and most recently, Shanghai Calling.

What quality do you think has helped you become successful over the years?

Janet Yang: I don’t get too stuck on things. I don’t think, “This is how it has to be.” And especially working in China, it’s a handicap if you come in thinking, “This is the only way.” Studios go in, saying “This is how it’s done,” and it comes across as arrogance because it’s not how they do it in China.

Working in Hollywood and the West, the individual is often glorified, and that sometimes leads to over-sized egos. If I had a huge ego, it’d be really hard, because you’d be constantly butting heads with everyone. Not that I’m a wallflower or doormat, but because I’m pretty agile and I’m willing to let people have their space, I can concentrate on doing whatever’s necessary. If I need to be the alpha dog, I’ll be the alpha dog, but I’m not too attached to playing a certain role, and I think that’s helpful in terms of getting along with people.

Looking back, what has it been like being one of the few Asian American female power players in Hollywood?

Janet Yang: That’s always been a tricky question, because in this lifetime, I’ve only been Asian and a woman, so I can’t absolutely say how it’d be different otherwise. But I sometimes feel like we don’t have a club. It’s harder to have an instant identification with this group or that, when you’re in between cultures. You don’t know which club you should belong to, and you don’t particularly want to belong any existing club, so we have to make up our own club.

In the early days, especially in Hollywood, I was often in institutions where I was the only woman, and I definitely felt somewhat conspicuous, but it never felt like it was a true handicap. It could have been an asset. These days, people tend to remember me, and I’m sure it’s because there aren’t that many Asian women. So, how can I complain? I was just doing my thing, and doors opened up.

Do you have any advice for anyone who looks up to you and your career path?

Janet Yang: I don’t know. [laughs] That’s the problem when people ask, “How did you plan your career?” I didn’t plan it. I had no idea what I was doing. I was really more driven by my passions, I had this thing I wanted to do, and I was following my nose. So don’t try to imitate what I did. You can’t chart it on a graph, because it doesn’t make any sense. It was less of a plan and more of an evolution.

Especially in this day and age, the opportunities are coming from God knows where. It’s a crazy environment, so I feel like one has to be really clear about who you are, and hopefully what you’re good at and what you love to do overlaps, and then focus on those things. There are so many choices nowadays.


For our full Janet Yang profile in this issue of Audrey Magazine, click here.

For more information on 2013’s Unforgettable annual gala, click here.

For free tickets to our Unforgettable after party, click here. Hope to see you there!

Most Entertaining Twitter Reactions to Wang Leehom’s Girlfriend Announcement

Earlier today, Mandopop singer and dreamboat Wang Leehom shattered the hearts of boys and girls everywhere when he made an announcement on his official Facebook site:

“The past few years your comments here have often been about ‘hope you find your Forever Love.’ I’m lucky to have met a girl to hold hands with and share my future. She’s not in the entertainment business so you don’t know her, but I also don’t want to create the opportunity for rumors so… her name is Lee Jinglei, she’s 27 years old and a graduate student at Columbia. Wangbaba & Mama love her and I hope you will too.”


Photo and headline courtesy of

The Taiwanese American singer/songwriter/actor has been notoriously mum about his private life, which has resulted in gay rumors swirling for the better part of his career. Most recently he was linked to his friend, classical pianist Li Yundi — a rumor Wang promptly swashed on Weibo.

As we properly congratulate the happy couple, we also take to Twitter to assess the myriad of fan reactions, which range from thrilled ecstasy to total devastation.


For those of you who are happy for him:

For those who need some time to mourn:


Macel Wilson: The First Asian American to Win Miss U.S.A. in 1962

In 1962, Macel Patricia Leilani Wilson from Honolulu, Hawaii was the first Asian American woman to win the title of Miss U.S.A. Wilson was not only the first Asian American, but the first non-Caucasian woman to wear the crown. She would go on to become a finalist in the 1962 Miss Universe competition.


Macel’s news story is sandwiched in between “Freak Accident Kills Ex-Governor, Wife” and a photograph of Lodi Boat and Ski Club Miss Skipperette competition.

The July 13, 1963 issue of Lodi News-Sentinel, based in California, reports:

Macel Leilani Wilson of Hawaii, daughter of a plumber, won the Miss U.S.A. title Thursday night in a tense climax to the Miss America pageant. Miss Wilson, 19, captured the fancy of the eight judges with her flashing dark brown eyes and a lithe figure that would grace any come-to-Hawaii poster…

Miss Wilson, a receptionist, didn’t list a single previous beauty title on her contest application, measures 35-24-35 and stands at five feet, seven inches….

The deeply tanned Miss Hawaii, who succeeds Sharon Brown of Minden, La., as Miss U.S.A. told pageant officials that her ambition is to “go to college and get married.” She arrived in Miami for the contest wearing a sarong as her native costume, and did a brief hula-hula for photographers.

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Eventually, Wilson would get married to a Danish civil engineer and move to Copenhagen, Denmark to study filmmaking. She worked as a film editor for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation from the 1970s to 2000, with a break in the middle where she went to Tunisia to study Fine Arts. She reportedly had some art exhibitions in Denmark displaying her work after leaving the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

In light of Nina Davuluri becoming the first Indian American to win the Miss America title last night, it’s fascinating to see what a difference of forty years makes. Davuluri, also 5’7″, is 24, has already graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science, and has plans to become a doctor.



The Asian Americans Competing for Miss America, Including Two “Crystal Lees”

While Nina Davuluri claiming the Miss America 2014 title on Sunday night marked the first time an Indian American woman has won the coveted crown, merely focusing on Davuluri’s victory would be minimizing what a historic night it was for Asian American women overall.

When it came down to the final five, there were THREE Asian Americans in the running: Davuluri, Chinese American Miss California Crystal Lee and Chinese American hapa Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh.

Miss California’s Crystal Lee is a recent graduate of Stanford University (with not one, but two degrees: a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in communication, which she earned in four years) who dreams of owning her own technology company in the future. She was runner-up to Nina Davuluri, and while the two of them squeezed each other’s hands, there was an instant realization that no matter who won, they’d both be making history. Crystal Lee is from San Francisco, her talent was ballet on pointe, and she earned some sympathy from viewers when her interview question involved her thoughts on Syria — something that even politicians are having a hard time explaining.

As fourth runner-up, Rebecca Yeh calls herself “a little bit of everything” and “a product of that great American melting pot.” Her dad is Chinese and her mom is German, Irish and Bohemian. Her talent was the violin, and her goal is to become a clinical pharmacist as well as a violin instructor. Her platform was “My Voice for Philip;” Philip is her older brother who was diagnosed with autism.

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In addition to those two, there was another 22-year-old Crystal Lee in the running: Miss Hawaii. This Crystal Lee was born to a father from Hong Kong and a mother from Ohio, but raised in Waipahu, Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Hawaii, where she studied French, and her goal is to become an advertising/promotions executive in the future. Her talent was contemporary dance, and her pageant platform involves educating others on the importance of donating blood — an issue that became important to her when her grandfather became dependent on blood donations after being diagnosed with cancer of the blood.

And this year’s Miss District of Columbia (Washington DC) is Bindhu Pamarthi, a young woman born to Indian immigrants who has been competing in pageants since she was 12. Now 23, Pamarthi is passionate about ending animal testing in the cosmetic industry and more. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pamarthi aspires to go to law school.



Which Asian American Women Influence You? | Audrey’s 8 Picks for Our Inaugural Women of Influence Series




Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.

Check out our Influential Women video introducing all 8 of our picks below, and tweet us at @audreymagazine or @adatseng to suggest other impressive Asian American women for us to feature in our continuing series!



Keli Lee, Executive VP of Casting at ABC Entertainment


Somaly Mam, Co-founder and President of the Somaly Mam Foundation



Madhulika Sikka, Executive Editor for NPR News


Grace Lee Boggs, Lifelong Activist for Detroit and the African American Movement


Valarie Kaur, Founder of Groundswell at Auburn Seminary


Alex Wagner, Host of MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner


Grace Ueng, Founder and CEO of Savvy Marketing Group


Melissa Lee, Host of CNBC’s Fast Money





BOLLYWOOD GOSSIP: Deepika Padukone compares her ex-boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor to rumored new beau Ranveer Singh

The Deepika Padukone cover story for the September issue of Filmfare Magazine starts: “It’s the best time to be Deepika Padukone, right now.”

The Bollywood actress (daughter of famed cricket player Prakash Padukone) has recently seen her star power shine brighter and brighter with each film release. Last year’s Cocktail was a hit, and this year brought the popular sequel Race 2; the box office success Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, showing she still has some sizzling on-screen chemistry with her ex-boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor; and Chennai Express, which reunites her with Shah Rukh Khan.

Next up for Deepika is the much-anticipated Ram Neela, opposite Ranveer Singh, her new “are they or aren’t they dating” co-star who’s hot off the critical acclaim of Lootera, and she’s in pre-production for Happy New Year, which reunites her with not only Shah Rukh Khan but also the director Farah Khan of her debut film, 2007’s Om Shanti Om.

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Highlights from her Filmfare interview:

On her relationship with Ranbir Kapoor:

It’s always nice to have that one screen jodi that the audience looks forward to. I’m glad that Ranbir and I have formed that. I guess it’s also the way our characters were written and what the film did for us. And what also helped was the way Ayan [Mukerji], whoh’s a dear friend, directed the film. He brought out the best in us. I’m glad I have that equation with Ranbir. He’s someone I trust my life with.

On rumors about her dating Ranveer Singh:

People are more than welcome to speculate about Ranveer and me. But there’s to much goodness around me to worry about these speculations. … [As a co-star, he’s] too giving, very positive and very entertaining. He’s also extremely sensitive. He puts on this tough exterior, shows his fun side, quirky side all the time. He’s all that. But beyond it, he’s also sensitive to the energies of people. To what people say. That’s such a wonderful quality for a man to have, when everyone else is trying to be manly, tough, and all of that. It’s so nice to meet someone who’s so real and so giving and so uninhibited. What you see is what you get with him.

If you were in a lift with Ranbir and Ranveer Singh together, what would you do?

A dance off between the two of them!

Who do you think will win?

Tough. They are both superb dancers.


Judge for yourselves!

Audrey’s Women of Influence | Grace Lee Boggs, Lifelong Activist for Detroit and the African American Movement

Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice. Story by Ada Tseng.


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Grace Lee Boggs used to think Martin Luther King, Jr. was naïve. At the time a Malcolmist, Marxist and Black Power activist, Boggs would dedicate many more decades to civil rights and labor movements in Detroit. Scholar and activist Angela Davis says in the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs: “Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.” And yet 35 years later, in 2004 when she was in her late 80s, Boggs would publish a column about revisiting King’s writings on nonviolence and how she came to believe his “prophetic vision is now the indispensable starting point for 21st-century revolutionaries.”

“Ideas have their power because they are not fixed,” says Boggs, who was such a big believer of conversations that she often recorded her fiery debates amongst her activist friends. “Once they’re fixed, they’re dead.”

The 98-year-old Boggs has been involved in the African American Movement for more than 70 years. A Chinese American woman who pre-dated both the Asian American movement and second-wave Women’s Movement concerned with gender inequality, Boggs’ first experience with activism came when she got involved with protests in the black communities of Chicago over rat-invested housing. A Ph.D. graduate in philosophy who was told they wouldn’t even hire “Orientals” in department stores, she worked for $10 an hour in a philosophy library and lived rent-free in a woman’s basement that was surrounded by rats.

Once Boggs witnessed the 1941 March on Washington Movement, which pressured President Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination, she was hooked on the power of mass movements as a tool for change. And when she married the late James Boggs, a black auto worker, union activist and writer who proposed to her on their first date, she found her kindred revolutionary spirit who would fight by her side for 40 years.

American Revolutionary director Grace Lee first captured Boggs on camera for The Grace Lee Project, a 2005 documentary about the many women around the country named “Grace Lee.”

“She blew my mind, as a Chinese American woman who devoted her life to radical revolutionary politics,” says Lee. “She had been steadily working on a very local level for so long without anybody knowing about her, and when I read her [1998] autobiography, I was shocked. It was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”

This is a woman who wrote radical leftist essays in the ’40s under her underground “party name” Ria Stone, had a thick FBI file that stated she must be Afro-Chinese, helped organize Dr. King’s 1963 Grand March down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, and founded Detroit Summer, a multicultural program that encourages Detroit youth to transform the community. She still travels the nation as much as she can, and continues to host visitors in her home to listen to their ideas and reflect on how she can help them change the world.

While Boggs had never considered herself an Asian American activist, she’s become an icon that expands our notions of what an Asian American activist can be.

“When we think about Grace in the 20th century, she is very much an outsider,” Scott Kurashige, a historian who edited Boggs’ 2012 book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, says in the documentary. “[But] in the 21st century, she represents the uniting of people from different races and different backgrounds in a way that is now defining America.”



You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be.

Keep realizing that reality is changing and your ideas have to change. Don’t get stuck in old ideas.

History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.

Do something local. Do something real, however, small. And don’t diss the political things, but understand their limitations.

We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.

You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.



Audrey’s Women of Influence | Melissa Lee, Host of CNBC’s Fast Money

Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice. Story by Ada Tseng.



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CNBC unveils their new set on the floor of the NYSE with, from left, CNBC’s Brad Rubin, Carl Quintanilla, Melissa Lee, Jim Cramer and David Faber. PHOTO BY CHARLES SYKES/CNBC/ PHOTO BY VIRGINIA SHERWOOD

Melissa Lee has always been a fast talker. “There’s no explanation for it,” says Lee, laughing. “It’s not like I have a lot of kids in my family and I had to talk fast in order to get a word in edge-wise, but I think it’s just the nature of the business. I’m surrounded by people who talk fast all the time, because, as a trader, there’s not a lot of time to spare.”

CNBC’s fast-paced style is modeled after sports news, and Fast Money, which Lee took over in 2009, was conceived to be the SportsCenter of finance.

“Think of it like we’re all gathered at the end of a hard day’s work,” says Lee, continuing the sports analogy. “It’s been a hard game, we’re in the locker room, it’s a bit more informal, and now we can go deeper into the stock moves, the nitty-gritty play-by-plays, and what the strategy is for the next game, the next trading day.”

Most of the show is unscripted, and while there are often other women and minority panelists on her show, it’s not uncommon to see Lee at the center of her desk, surrounded by men, leading the conversation and asking mile-a-minute follow-ups to get to the truth of their opinions.

“Some people would say I’m too contrarian, but a large part of what financial journalists must do is take the other side so you can see both the merits and risks in investing,” she says. “Particularly when it comes to stocks, you don’t want to hear somebody talking up their book. You haven’t done your job if you’re not pushing back and really making sure their arguments are holding water.”

Lee didn’t grow up interested in finance, but her first journalism internship in college was at the New York Daily News, where she was placed in the business section.

“I saw that you covered the earnings that companies report, that there were analysts out there that covered stocks, and a whole new world opened up to me,” she says. “It became about how these stories affect people, because we’re talking about people’s 401(k)s, their college savings plans, their play portfolios. Whatever the reason, our job is to help people.”

This became abundantly clear during the 2008 financial crisis, when Lee found herself working around the clock and on weekends — rare in financial news.

“As a journalist, that was probably one of the biggest stories we’ll see in our lifetime,” says Lee. “It basically made us think everything we thought not possible was actually possible; that there would be no more Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns, that Bank of America would buy Merrill Lynch. We also realized that at that very moment, people were making decisions based on what we’re reporting; what we’re saying on the air was moving the global markets, and there was a tremendous responsibility there.”

As an analyst on television, Lee hopes that she can help demystify the stock market for those who might find trading to be daunting, especially younger people who have just seen a generation lose a lot of money in stocks. She wants to encourage youth to save and take a longer-term view when it comes to their finances. Her own grandparents came to the U.S. from China and worked in a laundromat, but because they invested in businesses and the stock market, they were able to send five children to college.

“The stock market can be a tremendous tool to help build wealth in America,” says Lee. “I think you have to look at money as a vehicle for what you want to do in the future, and I hope we help people embrace it.

“One of the thrills of working at CNBC is that you have a voice,” she continues. “It’s playing in gyms, in banks, on trading floors, and in CEO offices. It’s a thrill when the CEO of General Electric tells me that when he’s in the office, he watches Fast Money at 5.”



On how her first journalism job introduced her to financial news

I really had no exposure to the world of finance when I was growing up, but when I was in college, the first internship that I got was a print internship at the New York Daily News. They assigned me to the Business section, so that’s how I got my start. Looking back, it was pretty remarkable. Most of the staff were minority women, which is very unusual, and they turned me onto these various professional organizations like AAJA, which eventually helped me get more internships. I worked at Wall Street Journal for a summer, the Washington Post Business section for a summer, and back to Wall Street Journal. After that, I’ve always been geared toward business.

On being an Asian American woman in her industry

I don’t think you’re treated differently in terms of daily interaction at work, but you feel it in terms of the audience reaction. It’s always eye-opening to me, when I get a [racist] email or tweet. And it’s fine if they don’t like my personality, I completely accept that, but what’s shocking is that sometimes people hate you not for what you said, but they bring up me being Asian. Tell me you think I’m dumb, but don’t tell me you don’t like me cause I’m Asian American. That just reminds you that as far as we have come, there is still more work to be done. I hope that in some small way, I can be an example for other people out there.

Her best money advice

You should save as much as you can early on and put money in the stock market. I know that’s tough lesson, but time is on your side when you’re young. Save every penny you have. Don’t spend it on getting your first studio on your own, live with roommates. Don’t buy that handbag, don’t get the extra pair of shoes, don’t do the summer rental in the Hamptons. When you own your first apartment and sell it at a profit and buy a bigger apt, you’ll be much happier. When you have 401(k) you started at 21 instead of 29, that makes a big difference.

You have to have a longer-term view when it comes to money. You have to look at money as a vehicle for what you want to do in the future, so if you think, “By the time I’m 35, I want to have my own home, I want to take vacation, I want to not live off of credit cards and still have decent credit rating,” then you can’t spend every penny you make right now.

Who influences you?

That is tough, because there have been so many people along the way. One of the most influential conversations I’ve ever had in terms of shaping my career path was with this HR woman at CBS that I interviewed with. My absolute favorite show growing up was 60 minutes, and I wanted to intern there, and she said, “I can give you an internship here, you can answer phones and bring people coffee, but you’re not going to learn anything. You’re much better off going and working for a newspaper and learning how to report.” And that’s when I realized you have to think about the fundamentals first, and I’m a much better reporter today because of it.

Melissa Lee’s new CNBC documentary Rise of the Machines premieres September 18 at 9pm.

All around us, there’s a technological revolution underway powered by devices as small as a grain of rice. They are sensors, capable of tracking and recording everything we do. They’re in our smartphones, our cars, our appliances, even our bodies, and they’re connected to the Internet toshare information and make our world smarter. Virtually all products that use electricity – from toasters and coffeemakers to jet engines and MRIs – now have the ability to “talk” to each other, and to us. And, what they have to say is profoundly transforming our lives – the way we travel, treat disease, and enjoy our homes. Today, there are more devices than people connected to the Internet, and that number is expected to rise to 25 billion by 2015.

In this one-hour documentary, CNBC correspondent Melissa Lee experiences firsthand the impact of this brave new world – its promise and its perils – and discovers how the future of the Internet has already arrived. CNBC explores how the widespread availability of diagnostic sensors is not only changing healthcare and saving the lives of premature infants, but transforming industry and improving the safety and efficiency of our railways and jetliners. Lee takes a ride in a driverless car to see how cameras, radar and GPS are used in the quest to fill our freeways with autonomous cars and reduce the number of accidents. Viewers will go inside a home equipped with some 200 sensors which respond to the owner’s movements and daily habits. And CNBC travels to Rio de Janeiro, the world’s first “smart” city, in the spotlight as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.


Audrey’s Women of Influence | Valarie Kaur, Founder of Groundswell at Auburn Seminary


Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.


by Ada Tseng

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On September 11, 2001, Valarie Kaur watched in horror, along with her fellow Americans, as the two towers fell. A third generation Sikh American — her grandparents came from India to California a century ago as farmers — her fear and sorrow took on another dimension when she realized the image of America’s new enemy looked like her family. Kaur was flooded with email alerts about hate crimes directed at her community, and four days later, a man she knew as “uncle” was murdered in front of his gas station by a man who called himself a patriot.

Though her first instinct was to hide, Kaur and her cousin took a road trip across the country to chronicle hate crimes against Sikh, Muslim and other Americans. This initiated her journey an activist, and her footage was eventually edited into the 2006 feature-length documentary Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, with the help of filmmaker Sharat Raju, who would eventually become her husband and creative collaborator.

“When I look back at my college self, I see how much I had yet to learn,” says Kaur. “I was naïve about the challenges and personal costs of working for social justice. I hadn’t learned how to weave joy and balance into my projects, and I often worked myself into the ground. But I also admire parts of me: the easy impulse for compassion, a willingness to be vulnerable, a readiness to leap into the unknown.”

Kaur has been telling stories since she was teenager, realizing her Sikh faith, history and culture were absent from her schoolbooks. However, in 2004, when she was wrongfully arrested while filming a protest at the Republican National Convention and injured by a police officer — resulting in a chronic pain condition that left her functionally disabled in her right arm for years — she realized storytelling wasn’t enough. Embattled with the desire to fight for others, she enrolled in Yale Law School to work on civil rights issues.

After law school, she founded Groundswell at Auburn Seminary, a nonprofit initiative based on the idea that there’s “a groundswell of people, especially young people, who are calling upon their faith, tradition or moral compass to challenge the status quo.” Groundswell encourages people to lead campaigns for social change, whether they’re fighting for immigration reform, religious freedom, LGBTQ equality, human trafficking, hate crimes, gun violence — you name it.

Even with numerous success stories under her belt, Kaur’s life of activism is not without obstacles that challenge her faith. One such moment came on August 5, 2012, when there was a fatal mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc.

“The last year has been an unprecedented moment in the history of the Sikh American community,” she told India Abroad, who featured Kaur as a Person of the Year this June. “In the wake of Oak Creek, I experienced sadness and grief that felt similar to the aftermath of 9/11. But this time, 11 years later, something remarkable happened: the nation’s cameras turned to our community. For the first time in 100 years of history, we stood at the center of the nation’s attention. … As a result, tens of thousands of people stood with us to say that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

Civil rights organizations including the Sikh Coalition and Groundswell had been campaigning for years for the U.S. government to better monitor hate crimes, and this past June, an FBI advisory policy board passed the vote to track hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu and Arab Americans.

“Storytelling is an act of rebellion, art, introspection and revelation,” says Kaur, who is working on a feature documentary about Oak Creek. “I always knew that I wanted to spend my life using stories to help heal the world. But I didn’t know how. As a scholar, unearthing untold stories of the past? As a filmmaker, telling stories on the big screen? As a lawyer, using stories strategically in halls of power to fight on behalf of people? As a public intellectual, using stories to deepen national discourse in the media? For the last decade, I’ve experimented with all these forms of storytelling, and I began to blaze my own path.”



On Groundswell

Coming out of law school, I founded Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that connects and equips people across many faiths and backgrounds in one network to wage campaigns. We train people to use storytelling in movements for social change using digital tools. We run campaigns responding to today’s most pressing social issues, including LGBTQ equality, human trafficking, hate crimes, and gun violence. In little over a year, our base has grown to nearly 100,000 members. We now invite all people of faith and moral conscious to use the Groundswell platform to launch their own campaigns.

On the Yale Visual Law Project, where she makes films and trains students in the art of visual advocacy at Yale Law School

The Yale Visual Law Project is now beginning its fourth year at Yale Law School. We have sister organizations at other law schools too. My hope is that more lawyers and advocates will partner with filmmakers to use storytelling for social change campaigns.

We recently released our latest film The Worst of the Worst about the practice of solitary confinement in America’s supermax prisons. The film shows how supermax prisons harm all who walk through the doors by using personal stories of the people inside: a former inmate trying to rebuild his life but haunted by memories from the prison, a guard suffering from PTSD and the buddies trying to help him, and a desperate mother on a mission to support a son who spends 23 hours a day in isolation. It reflects my belief that changing the world requires more than battling individual bad actors; it requires challenging those institutions of power designed to bring out the worst in us. Within months of its release, the film has played a role in reforming the supermax prison in Connecticut and emptying its cells.

Who influences you?

My mother’s father was Captain Gurdial Singh Gill, who lived with my brother and me our entire childhood. He is the single greatest influence on my life – my guiding star and pillar of wisdom.

My grandfather’s last lesson to me was this: In life, you will endure the noise and whip of the whirlwind. But if you dare to walk the path of a saint-soldier, the deepest part of your heart will always be sheltered from the swirling hot winds. You just have to practice residing in that still sacred center. For me, each day presents an opportunity to live boldly like Papa Ji, and each night to close my eyes with love and gratitude in my heart, as he did.