Yimei Shao: Tackling Voter Suppression From an Asian Feminist Lens

Name: Yimei Shao

Year and Major: Junior (2018), Education Studies B.A., SCA minor

Hometown: Queens, NY

 

Despite being the fastest growing racial group in the United States, Asian Americans have the lowest voter participation rate. As President of The Roosevelt Institute at NYU, Yimei Shao tackles this question, boldly fighting everyday for an inclusive campaign colored by Asian Americanness and womanness--with her current focus being on the fight for voting rights. Read on to learn about Yimei’s incredible work with the Democratic Access Campaign and what anyone can do to maximize their civic engagement.   

 

HC NYU: What is Roosevelt NYU?

The Roosevelt Institute at NYU is a student run public policy think-and-do tank. We’re part of a network of over a 100 student think tanks across the country supported by the Roosevelt Institute, a 501c3. The NYU chapter has been around for about five years. Essentially, what we do is train students in policy writing and advocacy, with our core belief being “Who Writes the Rules Matters.”. It’s about Including voices that have been left out of the conversation, fundamentally reclaiming democracy to be for the people.

I’ve been a part of Roosevelt Institute at NYU since my sophomore year. I started as the Public Policy Coordinator where I helped people write their policy proposals and since this past fall, I’ve been serving as the President.

 

HC NYU: Roosevelt NYU is one of about ten New York chapters working on the Democratic Access Campaign to fight for voting rights. Can you tell me more about the campaign?

The campaign idea was created at a leadership conference over the summer that took place in Hyde Park, NY where the FDR Presidential Library is. Many female leaders came together and asked, “What do we, as New Yorkers, want to work on as a region this year” and “What is important to us this year politically?”. In the end, what we came up with was: voting rights. In 2013 the Voting Rights Act got gutted, and this past election year many people could not vote in the primaries due to New York State having one of the most restrictive change of party deadlines. To add, it’s ranked 41st in the nation for essentially having archaic voter laws. We don’t have comprehensive early voting opportunities nor do we have automatic/same day voter registrations which have been proven to increase voter turnout. We are in the bottom ten for voter turnout which is extremely unfortunate.

 

So, we decided that this issue was something that we as young people really care about given our passion to reclaim democracy for the people-- part of that means having people be able to participate in democracy and tearing down the barriers along the way. Especially since our idea originated from the minds of women of color- a group of people who haven’t been able to vote until recently, we realized that voting was a new privilege that we needed to defend. Shortly, Governor Cuomo proposed the New York Votes Act for his executive budget and included stipulations for automatic and same day voter registration as well as early voting. We thought to ourselves, “This is perfect”-- we could rally behind and lobby for an actual piece of legislation. But we didn’t want things to stop there; We want people to be engaged in local politics, especially now when we need a lot of local infrastructure and local politicians who will be willing to say NO to things that are going down federally, and protect our media communities, It’s about civic engagement at large.  

 

 

HC NYU: Why is it important to think locally when it comes to politics?  

Personally and politically. I think that the Republican Party has gotten to where it is today because of its local mindset, whereas the Democratic Party has always been weaker about thinking locally. There is a phrase that says, “Think globally, but act locally.” The everyday connections we make with people is politics. If we can’t even protect the people in our own immediate communities, how can we think nationally?

 

People assume that New York is a “blue” state, so it’s “safe.” But the reality is that less than 21% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the 2016 primaries, and we are ranked in the bottom ten for voter participation. When people think of elections, they usually only think about the presidential elections that happen every four years, forgetting about senatorial or gubernatorial elections that can actually affect the lives of New Yorkers in real ways. We become settled in feeling disconnected from government and start to think that government is not personal. Yet we’ve seen just how personal it is on our own campuses-- the fight for a sanctuary campus is such a visceral representation of how personal politics really is. We want people in city governments who will uphold NYC as a sanctuary city.

 

Bill DeBlasio has been working on desegregation and we want a mayor with these kinds of values, His seat is up for reelection this year, but are people even paying attention to that? This country is so big. New York has always been a sort of laboratory grounds for policy. When other states see that we’re doing something new, and we’re doing it well, they’ll want to do it too. It’s frustrating to see that we’ve lagged behind in simple Democratic measures like voting.

 

HC NYU: What direct actions can we take?

  • Call your local representatives and tell them to support the New York Votes Act. Explain to them why as college students, as people who are inheriting this world-- why it is important that we have a say.

  • Care. We need people to care. The whole point of this campaign is to show that we’ve gotten to this point because people don’t think local politics is sexy. People don’t know who their city councilmen or women are. We only hear about big, federal issues that can be overwhelming.. It gives us a sense of hopelessness which then causes us to not care or do anything about things that we CAN actually fight for at the local level.

  • Think of your community and strengthen bonds. If people really care about the state of this country, they should look at their immediate communities and fight for what’s right. People can look to things like participatory budget funds-- local budget directly decided by citizens’ voting, and decide what we want as a community and where we want our money to be spent. Not that many people show up to vote about these things simply because they do not know about it.

  • Talk to people about registering to vote. Try thinking of ways in which you can bring people to the polling booth-- perhaps that could be babysitting for someone so that they can go vote or carpooling with other people. Or if someone is socially anxious, bring two or three friends with you and go vote together.

  • Follow our campaign through these hashtags: #NYValues, #NYRooVotes, #RooImpact, #OurVoteOurVoiceNY

 

 

HC NYU: So, when and where will the actual campaign take place?

The campaign itself will culminate in a lobbying day in about a week. We’ll be going down to Albany to meet our representatives in person to lobby for the New York Votes Act. Before then, we are writing a lot of op-ed pieces, and we’re also going to be creating a lot of public art installations and infographics. We’re going to be displaying a lot of public artwork in the park just to get people talking about taking control of our political situation and our own governance. This is about autonomy.

 

We’re partnering with another national student organization called, Democracy Matters. They’ve been working on campaign finance reform and getting big corporations out of our politics. Like us, they too strive to bring people back into politics.

 

HC NYU: What does voting mean to you personally?

I just really believe in the power of our generation; we will bring the revolution.

 

I’m also thinking about how we can take care of our undocumented immigrant community. One out of 7 Asian immigrants are undocumented with many living in New York. Obviously, these individuals can’t vote and wouldn’t directly benefit from the New York Votes Act, but we as constituents should be voting in the interests of our community, so that the voices of undocumented immigrants will be heard too.

 

HC NYU: What connections are you making in your work as an Asian American feminist?

I’m living in the footsteps of strong Asian American women who have been demanding representation, demanding a voice. Asian American women are socially labeled as demure, docile, quiet-- as people who don’t have opinions or as China dolls who just sit and look pretty and exotic. But, Asian American women also do a lot of backbreaking work, hard labor that deserves to be recognized.

 

As an Asian American woman, watching historically rich Asian communities like Flushing and Chinatown get gentrified is personal to me. Watching elderly tenants get pushed out and manipulated by their landlords is personal to me. When I see my own mother excluded from certain institutions because she has an accent, I am reminded that politics is deeply personal. This past year was the first year that I was old enough to vote in the presidential election, and it meant a lot to me because I was reflecting on how the people who came before us fought for this very right to vote. We cannot disrespect their legacy. Asian Americans have only recently been able to even become US citizens. And voting itself is a citizenship right. How long have Asian Americans been locked out this? How long have we been prevented from claiming a home?

 

HC NYU: Many tend to lump Asians and Asian Americans into one homogenous category, failing to view them as individuals. What would you say to these people?

Asian Americans are labeled as “forever foreign”, which discourages and prevents people from accessing democracy in a lot of different ways. I think that often Asian Americans trying to get close to Americanism reject Asiannism and internalize a kind of racist anti-Asian discourse. However, there is room in this campaign to do our civic duty as Americans while also uplifting our Asian brothers and sisters we are in community with.

 

This country was literally built by the sweat and blood of people who look like me and a lot of people who don’t look like me. Asian people have been in this country before it was even this country-- since the 1500’s. This is my birthright as much as is it is yours. But it also shouldn’t matter whether or not I’m American, because we all live together especially in this crowded city.  Their being born here was an act of FATE and it was an accident in a lot of ways, and so was the conditions of my being born here. So, why do we put so much weight on where people are born? Something that people have no absolutely no control over. It shouldn’t matter where you come from because this is where we are now and we have to work with what we have and make the best of it, seeing how we can treat each others in such a way that we can all move forward.

 

HC NYU: One sentence to sum up the fight ahead of us.

The fight for voting rights is a humanitarian one--it's about racial justice, feminist justice, class justice. As such, I see the work that I do with Roosevelt as inextricably linked with that I do with an organization called NYU Asian Pacific American Coalition

 

 

 

 

--SHORT ANSWER--

Historical Role Model: I don't like celebrity culture--my role model is anyone and everyone who has fought for my right to exist

Biggest Pet Peeve: rudeness

You work/study best at: this one coffee shop-bar near my apartment

Some hobbies: Asking people what their star sign is, reading Asian American history, going to museum gift shops.

 

Social Media Handles:

Roosevelt Institute

Facebook: @NYURoosevelt

Twitter: @NYURoosevelt

 

Yimei Shao

Instagram: @prosperitypeach

Twitter: @shaoyimei