If you don’t believe art can be effective activism, the history of Kearny Street Workshop will prove you wrong.
Founded as an artists collective inside the International Hotel in 1972, the group, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is the oldest multidisciplinary Asian Pacific American (APA) arts organization in the country. Since the beginning, the group has been a driving force behind the Asian American cultural movement. In the 1970s, for example, they fought evictions by organizing rallies, showing up to court hearings, hosting workshops on affordable housing, and distributing pamphlets and poetry. Later in the decade they began hosting youth programs in an attempt to keep children from violence in Chinatown.
When real estate developers evicted the mostly elderly, low-income, Filipino tenants of the International Hotel in 1977, the arts collective began creating many of the posters, t-shirts, and murals that today are often used to memorialize the movement. One of the best known slogans they helped popularize is the enduring phrase “We won’t move,” still used in tenants rights organizing today.
Kearny Street Workshop connects that history to the present with their new podcast called We Won’t Move: A Living Archive. The five-episode podcast brings together Kearny Street Workshop Program Leads Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, and Dara Katrina Del Rosario to discuss the radical history of APA arts and activism with a series of thoughtful creators, curators, and activists. The episodes, each running about thirty minutes long, are suitable for audiences young and old, as they connect history like that of the International Hotel to today’s activism locally and throughout the Asian diaspora. “The hope is that whatever generation you’re at, or whatever discipline you’re in, that you feel inspired, and cheered on by this podcast” says Lin.
The podcast comes out during a particularly traumatic time for APA communities across America. According to a study from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at CSUSB, anti-Asian hate crimes surged 145% in 2020, though hate crimes decreased 6% overall. In Atlanta, a mass shooter killed eight people, six of whom were APA women. In San Francisco, multiple Asian elders have been attacked on camera, videos of which are widely circulated on social media.
These documented incidents, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to increased anti-Asian violence, simultaneously mobilize activists while also re-traumatizing viewers and omitting the historical context. We Won’t Move: A Living Archive moves beyond immediate trauma to examine this larger historical narrative, affirming the spirit of self-determination and solidarity within APA communities that has endured decades. Though social media activism is great for drawing attention to an issue, Lin says it can’t capture “the root problems, which have been very historical and structural.”
Throughout the podcast, the hosts discuss a wide range of topics with their guests spanning several decades. During episode 1, for example, the hosts speak with Filipinx femme curator, art writer, and University of Massachusetts professor Thea Quiray Tagle about their new exhibit AFTER LIFE (we survive), a curated exhibition viewable from the outside periphery of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Episode 2 covers the history of the International Hotel in close detail with activist and scholar Dr. Estella Habal. Episode 3 more closely examines the present, walking through the work of photographer and artist Erina C Alejo documenting anti-displacement resilience. Each episode of We Won’t Move bestows both historical knowledge and an embedded perspective on organizing, community building, and artistry in the 21st century.
In the years since Kearny Street Workshop was founded, a lot has changed. Little Manila, where the International Hotel stood at the intersection of Kearny and Jackson, has been mostly replaced by skyscrapers. Gentrification has bulldozed the city, replacing thousands of multi-generational San Franciscans with wealthy transplants who retreat to their suburban homes when the city shelters in place. It’s hard to walk one block in Chinatown without running into a white guy wearing a tech logo-emblazoned ¼-zip fleece. But history, the hosts say, can help keep local communities rooted, holding their ground against the changing tides.
While in decades prior, Asian Pacific Americans were pushed from their homes by real estate interests and banks, “today it’s big tech, it’s hospitals, it’s universities, it’s the professional-managerial class,” says Kazumi Chin. “Understanding the way that system works is really important.”