Celebrating Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month With Jennifer Oh
The University of Denver is committed to living our values of diversity and inclusion. We recognize that our community and institutional success is dependent on how well we engage and embrace the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni. With that shared value in mind, throughout this academic year, we plan to publish a series of articles to celebrate cultural and ethnic heritage months. In partnership with Human Resources & Inclusive Community and the Staff of Color Association (SOCA), we will feature a staff or faculty member in recognition of each heritage month, along with an event to honor one another and learn about our unique differences.
If you want to hear Jennifer Oh’s story you have to start with her mother’s.
The foundation for a successful career as a community builder and health equity champion was laid when Helen Kim arrived in New York City in 1973, an immigrant from Seoul, South Korea. She put herself through college, worked as an office administrator, and then stayed home to raise her only child.
“Like many immigrant parents, she poured everything she had into me so that I could pursue all the career and education opportunities that were challenging for her to reach,” says Oh, who works as director of Midwest regional engagement for University of Denver Advancement. “This is why everything I have done so far in my career and personal life is a ‘love letter’ to her. I want everyone to know that I am here only because of her unwavering love and support, as well as everything she fought for in her life and persevered through as an immigrant, as a woman and as an Asian American in this country.”
Oh grew up in Chicago and started her professional life addressing health disparities among Asian American populations. Drawn to higher education, she joined DU in December 2019, where she connects with alumni, parents, students, donors and friends of the University, building resources and support for the school.
Though not technically in her job description, Oh also played a leading role in creating Advancement’s Pathways to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion event series, aimed at creating a welcoming community through discussion and storytelling with diverse populations.
Grief has propelled Oh into reexamining and sharing her own story. After a long fight with cancer, her mother died in October, causing Oh to look more closely at her mother’s life.
“I think within our Asian community passing on your legacy is a very, very crucial value in our lives and our storytelling,” Oh says. “Through this journey of grieving, the one thing that has kept me going is the fact that I am [my mother’s] legacy. I feel like even though she’s not here, her love for me and care for me is why I do what I do and why I fight for the things I believe in.”
During Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month, Oh is honoring her mother and sharing her perspective. She answered some questions from the DU Newsroom about her work, her inspiration and the role allies play in diversity, equity and inclusion work.
What made you so interested in community health and community engagement to begin with?
In college, I took some courses on public health work and health sciences, and I did an internship in health disparities. And then I found the Asian Health Coalition and I learned that I really did grow up privileged. When I started working with all these local community agencies that provide direct services to the Asian American immigrant community, it was very eye-opening for me. There are stereotypes that all Asian Americans are kind of the same; we’re the “model minority”; we don’t have issues. And that’s not the case.
I reflected more on my parents’ upbringings and how it was hard for them when they immigrated here to the U.S. It wasn’t easy for them. It didn’t come with privilege. It just made me appreciate my upbringing more. And I fell in love with the work because it wasn’t just helping people to help them; it also made me understand my identity better and learn my family’s history and then their struggles.
What are some of the health equity issues that Asian Americans are facing?
There are so many Asian subgroups that policymakers and systems here tend to lump all of us into one category. There are so many other populations. Their history has roots back to different parts of Asia. Their migration patterns and everything that they faced back in their home countries are different. They’re immigrants, but they’re also refugees.
All of those unique differences need to be appreciated and respected, but they’re often not. And because of that, the data is not very accurate. When I worked in health equity, we constantly tried to disaggregate the data through a lot of extensive surveys, interviewing with community providers, researchers and people within the community. All of this data really needs to be accurate so that health providers, community advocates [and] policymakers make informed decisions that benefit these unique populations instead of this blanket approach.
There are a lot of unique health issues that affect the Asian American population. Hepatitis B is very prevalent. There are certain types of cancers that are more prevalent. So in order to take a tailored approach, we just need better data and better funding.
Do you feel like we’ve taken any steps forward recently in changing this system?
If we talk about equity as a whole, the recent [events have] definitely amplified the anti-Asian hate crimes and the xenophobic and racist rhetoric that’s been happening because of the COVID virus. The anti-Asian hate, and I really want to emphasize this, is a public health crisis. Racism is a public health crisis. For the Asian American population, there has always been a lot of “othering.” It’s very hard for this population to feel like they belong to this country.
I hope things are getting better, and I know that actions are being taken. Recently, Congress passed the bill to address anti-Asian hate, but this is only happening because these horrible crimes have happened. So although this is a step forward, I can’t say I’m very optimistic. I’m very cautious. We’re stepping forward with the bill, but it’s really the culture that needs to change within this country. And it’s not just for Asian Americans it’s for all other BIPOC communities. I think people are getting more informed through media and then through social media. I think it’s just going to take years for us to see real improvement.
What can we do as allies and as a university community to facilitate this process and speed it up?
First of all, I think there needs to be more opportunities for conversations to happen. I think when these things happen — like the Atlanta shooting, the Asian hate crimes, or even George Floyd’s murder — I think people are scared to talk. It’s uncomfortable. And just because I am a person of color, it doesn’t make it easy for me to talk about it either, especially around issues that directly impact myself and my community. It’s a lot of emotional and mental work to talk about it. But I’ve realized that this fear of talking about things is one of the primary reasons why a lot of these issues have been going on.
I just think it doesn’t matter what you believe in, if it’s appropriate or inappropriate. I think people just need to be very open-minded about where others come from and then be ready to listen to different perspectives and not be so guarded. If you come in with all these biases or preconceived notions, you’re not going to have a productive conversation.
Is that why you got involved in Advancement’s DEI series, “Pathways to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?”
Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, I felt like there was a strong desire to just do something. It was a very jarring experience for everyone to witness this on TV or over various sources of media. Obviously, this is not the first time racism has happened in our country, but we all saw it, and I feel like it started a movement.
Due to the complete pivot to virtual activities [during COVID], a majority of my team’s programming went nationwide. We wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and deliver impactful events for the entire DU community. One of them was the Pathways to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I felt like it would be a good opportunity for me to learn more about our community, our DU community and our campus partners. And although I was the strategic lead for it, my partnership with DU Advancement's entire engagement team made this a reality. Our primary goal was to nurture education, provide helpful resources and, most importantly, create a welcome forum for very honest conversations to happen around social justice and allyship. We also wanted to emphasize that we respect where people are in their journey and understanding diversity, equity and inclusion. We just wanted to learn and grow together.
What does Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month mean to you?
I’ll be honest, for particularly this year, I can’t say it’s a celebration with all the pain and loss that my community has faced. For me this month is like a revival. It’s for our community to come together and really reexamine and reframe our long history that is deeply rooted in our country, across diverse subgroups and cultures and to really focus on our resilience and strengths. I think it is also a time to expand in solidarity with our allies and other BIPOC communities. We need to constantly educate each other about our issues, what we’re going through and all the struggles. It might all seem the same because it’s all coming under all these racist attacks that have been happening, but all of these struggles are unique across our BIPOC community. We need to stay in solidarity, to constantly talk to each other and educate each other in addressing all the racist rhetoric and crimes.
What should people who are not part of the community be thinking about this month?
I think something that I would want an ally to know is not to use a blanket approach. I can tell people really struggle with [questions about terminology like] “Is it anti-Asian hate crimes or is it anti-Asian American hate crimes? Is it AAPIDA? Is it AANHPI?” Instead of focusing on things like that, I’d rather have people learn and ask questions around — Why is it that way? What does this acronym mean, really? It must mean that there’s just so much diversity within this population. I think asking thoughtful questions around that and really celebrating the uniqueness of each group is what I want others to take away from this month. Now, Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries, in East, South and Southeast Asia. And then we are also Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. We’re not just one group. It is one population made up of many, many groups.
In partnership with Human Resources & Inclusive Community, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, The Cultural Center, Community + Values, and the Staff of Color Association, we will feature a staff or faculty member in recognition of each heritage month, along with an event to honor one another and learn about our unique differences. If you are aware of any events that are happening on campus or have an idea for Heritage Month events, we'd love to hear about them and promote them campus-wide.