Halfway through January 2019, Dr. Delia Cheung Hom left the university after 10+ years of service as the director of the Asian American Center. As one of the longest serving staff members at Northeastern, Dr. Cheung Hom’s departure sent shockwaves throughout all resource centers on campus. Her departure was not expected, but its reason was clear – her vision was not given credence, and even after a decade her voice was not heard by the same institution that had promised autonomy.
Spring 2019 was difficult on everyone in the Asian American Community; understaffed and underfunded, our remaining Senior Assistant Director Kristine Din and Assistant Director Aaron Parayno fought valiantly to continue their responsibilities while also now taking on a Director-level position’s worth of vacant responsibilities. There was a light at the end of this painstaking tunnel, however, as students in our community had fully rallied behind a promotion effort for Kristine, which would allow her the necessary breathing room to hire for vacant positions in the center with other effective and capable staff members. Students were brought in to assist the process that began following Delia’s departure, and Kristine’s promotion seemed to be all but solidified.
Who better to run the Asian American Center than our Senior Assistant Director, who had served in the position for five years? She is loved and respected by all students for her student-focused approach, and she shared Dr. Cheung Hom’s vision of an Asian American Center – one that caters to Asian American students, shields them from trauma, serves as a haven for those seeking to learn more about their own identities and cultures, and collaborates with other minorities on campus. Together, the staff of the center created a home away from home for hundreds of students. Meshing East, South, and Southeast Asian experiences is no easy feat, but our staff have done so with grace and dedication beyond what was expected of them. Our students never considered the possibility that Kristine would not be promoted.
“There are no other candidates who make sense,” said the leaders of the search for Dr. Cheung Hom’s replacement. Northeastern administration was presented with a letter of endorsement for Kristine’s abilities, written and signed by 11 different Asian American student organizations. And yet, the day after our community’s closing ceremony, Inspir(Asian), Kristine was told she would not be promoted to Director of the Asian American Center, even in the absence of another candidate to fill the role.
Their reasoning? Kristine...
1) Cares too much about students
2) Is too transparent with students about finances and administrative decisions
3) Has a personal vision for the center that doesn’t align with Northeastern’s goals
4) Is too similar to Dr. Cheung Hom, which could lead the center to “stagnate”
Everyone involved was disgusted when Kristine told student leaders, in confidence, that she would not be promoted. Northeastern had offered her a meager pay increase and a potential path to directorship, provided that she hit a certain number of targets laid out by the University – these metrics were never laid out or put in writing, but it was clear what the message was.
Northeastern’s view of cultural centers is skewed to help white students. They believe that cultural centers should function as cultural zoos – anyone who wants to learn about Asian culture should be able to walk into our little home on 109 Hemenway Street and have minorities and staff ready and waiting to educate them on what they don’t know about our culture. They want to drown our Asian American communities and stymie our resources, instead allocating for more “global experiences” in Asia and community service efforts in Asian communities. Delia fought this vision for her entire tenure at Northeastern, and so has Kristine.
It’s understandable why some may see pros to Northeastern’s cultural center approach, as it would open more resources to a larger pool of Northeastern students. But the unfortunate reason our community is so tight-knit is because of the traumas we have endured as students of color at Northeastern. This unfortunate commonality has driven us together, and we find protection in ourselves. Taking away a space built to direct that hurt into positive development through mentorship, sessions of unpacking institutional racism, and the safety to voice our experiences, will put Asian American students at a massive disadvantage. And even more broadly, cultural centers began through resistance at the university. According to the John D. O’Bryant institute’s website, the institute was founded because of Black student resistance following the civil rights movement. Now, 50 years on, asking cultural centers to favor white students over the students these centers have been established to help is completely antithetical to the reason these centers began in the first place.
After students raised concerns about the administration not promoting Kristine, her path to directorship was rescinded and the search for a new director was re-opened. When presented with evidence that over 300 current students and alumni endorsed Kristine’s promotion, we asked why our voices were not heard.
Northeastern said, “do you think being heard is the same as being listened to?”
We do currently have an interim director, but the university’s blatantly disrespectful actions have left a lasting negative cloud over our community, and we can feel the University’s harmful goals on the horizon. Our safety is compromised, and we’re not sure how long we have before we lose the home away from home that made us family.
We are not the first community to have experienced something like this. In fact, pick any resource center and they can recount staff members being treated poorly enough by the institution that they were forced away. CSI lost half of their programming assistants last year. The last director of the SJRC left because Northeastern expected her to continue working overtime hours that were untenable. CSDS has lost a Rabbi. At the Asian American Center, we lost the only South Asian staff member we’ve had because Northeastern didn’t renew the budget to keep her. The John D. O’Bryant Institute. The Latinx Center. The list goes on and on.
Our staff members at Northeastern care about their students. They deserve better than to be treated like they don’t matter at their own University, and their students matter too. Until Northeastern acknowledges the ways in which its institutional racism prevents minority staff advancement, we will continue to bleed our staff members from this open wound.