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Helen Zia: A Disobedient Daughter and Her Passion For Justice

September 9, 2009

This is a cross-post from WMC Board Member & Progressive Women's Voices participant Gloria Feldt's terrific blog, Heartfeldt Politics. It details the biography of Helen Zia, the extraordinary chairperson of the WMC Board. by Lee Taylor Helen Zia was born into a Chinese American family in New Jersey in 1952.  Although the fifties was a time of great conformity, the seeds of revolution were sown the day that Zia was born.   Zia was brought into an immigrant family which observed traditional Confucian beliefs, including the Three Obediences: a daughter must obey her father, a wife must obey her husband, and a widow must obey her son; the trajectory of Zia's life proves that she was truly a radical visionary and community organizer who broke seemingly insurmountable social and cultural barriers. Helen Zia graduated from Princeton University in the first class that accepted women.  She was also breaking racial boundaries as one of the few female, Asian American members of the prestigious university.  Zia attended Princeton on a full scholarship, working her way through school and majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She was highly conscious of and became an active participant in the political transformations taking place in her young adulthood.  Zia and her generation witnessed the nascent feminist movement, and the full-fledged civil rights movement, as well as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Hers was the baby boom generation – huge numbers of young people who were dissatisfied by their government’s war in Vietnam and inequality at home – they were idealistic about the opportunities for peace and sisterhood. Zia's career experiences after Princeton, however, showed that the youth-led social justice movements had not reached all areas of society. After graduation, Zia enrolled in Tufts Medical School in Boston.  She moved to Boston's South End; a neighborhood then predominantly inhabited by low-income Chinese, Puerto Rican, and African Americans, far from the glamorous place it is today. Helen soon discovered that medicine, a conservative white and male institution at the time, was not a friendly place for an Asian American woman committed to progressive social change.  After two years of medical school, Zia felt a sincere urge to get involved in grassroots efforts to change troubled communities – she quit medical school and became a construction worker in her South End community, which offered Zia a way to create change, educate herself on community needs, and pay the bills. Zia indicates that construction trades were not welcoming to women or minorities, as they were predominantly held by Caucasian males. There was a national movement to integrate the construction field, which Zia became part of, as one of the first women of color in the country to become a construction laborer.  Her allies, at least at the onset, were African and Asian American men. Zia's struggle to be employed in the construction field paid off; she was soon hired. On another positive note, government funded construction projects required contractors to pay fair wages at union rates.  Thus, Zia's construction job could offer her more compensation than she could earn elsewhere, approximately $9.50 an hour when the minimum wage that she earned as a medical student was $1.35 an hour. However, Zia soon experienced sex discrimination on the job, and in a local community collective. While in Boston, Zia became active with the Socialist Feminist movement while at the same time organizing in her neighborhood with a collective of African and Asian-Americans.  Little did Zia know that these two networks would come into direct conflict with one another and lead her to deny an important aspect of her personhood.  At this time in 1975-76, school busing and racial integration were at the forefront of Boston politics, with violent protests and racist attacks occurring throughout the region.  Zia worked with her community of African and Asian American friends to counter the intense racism that emerged out of these issues. This social justice collective would turn against her – on the issue of sexual orientation.  On one occasion, the collective invited her to a meeting, which she quickly realized was a trial of sorts about her sexuality.  Her African/Asian cohort announced that they were concerned about her feminist activities in Boston because they perceived many of her friends to be Lesbians.  Her Asian and African American friends said that “communities of color have no Gays or Lesbians because homosexuality is a symptom of white, petty bourgeois decadence” and they were concerned that she too was a Lesbian.  They asked Zia to sit in the center of the room and demanded to know, "Are you a Lesbian?" Zia was aghast -- she was at the questioning stage at the time and had not yet come out as a Lesbian.  Not yet sure of her sexuality, but afraid to be ostracized by her friends and colleagues, she said “No, I’m not.” With those words, she stepped into the closet, denying her own identity. Most regretful for her, she stopped seeing her Lesbian friends. Zia looks back at this moment as a time of isolation and self-denial that delayed her acknowledgement of her true sexual orientation. Yet Zia reflects that something positive came out of this difficult time.  Soon after what she calls her “Lesbian trial,” Zia decided to move to the Midwest, the American heartland, because she felt that to work for progressive social change, she needed to understand the lives of people in the American heartland. With next to no money in her pockets but many dreams in her head, Helen Zia packed up all of her belongings and moved to Detroit, Michigan.  Some friends allowed her to sleep on the floor of their apartment and Zia promptly applied for a position in a Chrysler factory.  Helen was soon hired as a Large Press Operator in a Chrysler stamping plant – on Eight Mile Road, “just like Eminem—but for real,” she says.  Her specific job involved working with huge and dangerous steel-cutting machinery.  Helen was involved in the Trade Union movement to bring new and progressive voices into the UAW and the auto industry. Helen’s job in the Chrysler factory lasted for two years – until she was laid-off, but her time in Detroit had not yet to come to an end.  She experienced the major “restructuring” of the manufacturing sector, which amounted to approximately 99% percent of the auto industry when it experienced its first major collapse.  Zia felt compelled to tell the stories of the men and women she met in the factories and the  unemployment lines of Detroit, when the media failed to chronicle or even make note of their terrible suffering and dehumanization. Thus began the journalism career of Helen Zia. With no journalism experience, no internships or mentors, but driven by her passion and persistence, Zia wrote query letters to hundreds of publications.  She reminded me that this was in the day of the typewriter, when making a typo required starting over – no word processors or white-out then. Through blood, sweat and tears, Zia’s enthusiasm for the voiceless majority of people shined through and impressed a local alternative paper, which returned her inquiry to write about the labor movement and the collapse of the auto industry – and asked her to write an advertorial on winter indoor plants.  Knowing nothing about plants, Zia enthusiastically wrote the piece, and eventually became a regular writer on politics and culture. One of Zia’s most challenging times came, when the economy was in a deep depression as the manufacturing sector disintegrated and the nation’s leaders blamed Japan for producing fuel-efficient, dependable cars. As attitudes turned ugly against anyone who “looked Japanese,” all Asian Americans felt endangered and it was only a matter of time before a terrible hate crime occurred: the violent slaying of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, in 1982 by white autoworkers who allegedly yelled, “It's because of you motherfuckers that we're out of work," before hunting him down through the streets of Detroit, then beating him to death with a baseball bat.  The two autoworkers responsible for Chin’s death were sentenced to three years of probation and forced to pay a fine of $3,000 – less than the cost of a used car. Chin’s slaying and the subsequent injustice signaled the dire state of the economy, the criminal justice system, and civil rights in America. This event deeply affected Zia’s social consciousness; she knew firsthand of the plight of the autoworkers as well as the racism directed toward Asian Americans, since she herself was Chinese American, just like Chin.  Zia immersed herself in the struggle for justice in the name of all those who faced discrimination and hate. She became a co-founder and national spokesperson of a civil rights organization of Asian Americans and her efforts were captured in an Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Helen Zia is quoted, "The Vincent Chin case was a watershed moment – not only for Asian Americans, but all Americans." Never before had the federal government used civil rights law to protect the rights of an immigrant and Asian American." It was also a first for Americans of the many and diverse Asian ancestries to come together in a mass movement for civil rights. Previously, it was mostly college students and progressive activists who had taken up the name 'Asian American,' but the average people in the Chinatowns, Japantowns, Koreatowns identified solely with their own ethnicity. Detroit became the epicenter for a new American civil rights movement – with Asian Americans at the core. The Vincent Chin case reinforced that her writing passion lay in the world of advocacy journalism.  Zia moved back to New York City to take a prominent position at a travel magazine. But Zia’s goal was to work for a publication that reflected her commitment to social justice and feminism – and her dream was to work with Ms. Magazine. After a number of years of checking with Ms. to see if they had any job openings, she was contacted by the magazine with the good news that warned to hire her – and the bad news that this could be their last issue and if she joined Ms., she might soon be out of work.  According to Zia, this was Ms. Magazine’s “Australian period” when two Australian feminists owned the magazine. Zia took the risk of a lifetime and left her job as editor-in-chief of another magazine for the shaky job at Ms.  The Australian owners of Ms. were indeed about to fold the magazine when the fabulous Gloria Steinem pulled a rabbit out of her hat and saved Ms. by finding some new investors for the magazine. Then the incomparable Robin Morgan took the helm as Editor-in-Chief.  Zia’s colleagues at the magazine were all resigning from the magazine because of its dire financial condition, but she was determined to stay with a magazine she believed in. Zia asked Morgan how much of a paycut she have to take  in order to stay at the magazine.  Once Morgan and Zia worked that matter out, she remained at Ms. Magazine became its Executive Editor. Zia recalls that her tenure at the magazine was a tremendously exciting time.  She wrote breakthrough investigative reports for Ms. on such topics as global sweatshops and women who join supremacist hate groups. She also indicates that keeping the magazine afloat continued to be “survival mode.” During this time, the staff of Ms. took the revolutionary and historic step of eliminating advertising. When the magazine depended on advertising, the corporations tried to control the editorial content to block “controversial” topics – for example, about lesbians, cancer, or even to photos of women who didn’t wear make-up -- from appearing in the same issues as their ads. But Ms. editors weren’t about to stop telling the truth about women’s lives. Instead, they decided to reach out to Ms. readers for financial support by raising subscription prices – and making the magazine content more feminist than ever.  Needless to say, Zia’s social consciousness background came in handy when she became Executive Editor of Ms.  Zia reminisces about this remarkable time at Ms. but notes that it came to an end when she met her soul-mate and spouse-to-be Lia. Zia quit Ms. and moved to San Francisco to join Lia after realizing that a cross-country relationship was too difficult. She continued to write for Ms. and to serve on its board of advisors.  Zia has been a prolific writer of numerous books, essays and articles and currently chairs the board of The Women’s Media Center (www.womensmediacenter.com).  She is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. President Bill Clinton quoted from Asian American Dreams at two separate speeches in the Rose Garden. She is also co-author, with Wen Ho Lee, of My Country Versus Me, which reveals what happened to the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for China in the "worst case since the Rosenbergs." Helen and Lia were married in San Francisco in 2004 and again in 2008 – they were plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits for marriage equality that went before the California Supreme Court. She continues her life of activism: some of her commentary can be found on www.Redroom.com/author/helen-zia and she can be seen in Bill Moyers’ documentary “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” She advises younger women, including this author, to “always stay true to your passion, never fear standing up and raising your voice for what is right, and get organized because together we can change the world.”

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