Organizing for Change
CMU alumna Vivian Chang empowers Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers
By Tina Tuminella
For Carnegie Mellon University alumna Vivian Chang, life so far has been a series of unexpected intersections.
While a Sciences and Humanities Scholar, she couldn’t choose between biological physics and Hispanic studies. So she didn’t, instead connecting the two unlikely paired subjects as a dual degree in Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science and Mellon College of Science.
Her experience as a member in organizations like Alpha Phi Omega and Circle K highlighted another unexpected crossover—her love of learning and intense interest in community building.
“My path has always been a zigzag, and I didn’t know that community service could morph into a profession,” says Vivian, who graduated in 2013. “I began to realize that I spent more time thinking about my volunteer work than my homework.”
Now, her volunteer work is her career.
As the civic engagement and racial justice director at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA), she oversees programs on voting, redistricting, immigration advocacy and political engagement.
“People are realizing that they suddenly have the power to reimagine a better workplace for themselves and their coworkers,” she says.
Vivian began community organizing as a career after earning a master’s degree in environmental policy from Princeton University in 2017. After graduation, she worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., and then pivoted to election engagement during the 2018 midterm elections. Soon afterward, she joined a fellows program with the APALA, focusing on and succeeding in increased voter registration and voter turnout.
“When I started as a fellow, I didn’t even know my current job existed,” she says. “I didn’t know you could specifically work on AAPI outreach, let alone for an AAPI labor organization.”
Founded in 1992, APALA is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers. Its national headquarters is located in the nation’s capital; the organization maintains 22 volunteer-run chapters with more in the pipeline.
APALA is not a union per se but rather a labor constituency group. Membership is open to anyone in the labor movement: union members, workers who lack access to unions, and anyone who supports workers’ rights.
“We are broad-based,” Vivian says. “Part of our job is to address many misconceptions head-on. We have to overcome the lack of education about unions while simultaneously confronting the purposeful miseducation about unions. Everyone says APALA is small and mighty. One day, we’ll be large and mighty, and everyone will know us.”
On the job, Vivian learned the vast history of AAPI people and enjoys listening to others' personal stories. What brings excitement to her civic engagement work is learning from a marginalized, somewhat hidden population. The term “invisibilized” is commonly used in the AAPI community referring to how little representation and how much erasure occurs.
“Before I worked here, I didn’t know the detailed history of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [the longtime ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the U.S],” Vivian says. “I learned that the Immigration Act of 1965 [the law enforcing immigration regulation then and now] truly ended Chinese exclusion, and in turn, allowed my parents to come to America. I was born here and without that legislation, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Voter outreach revealed to her that people intensely desire recognition by others who care. She regularly witnesses the profound difference it makes to talk to communities who have never been heard or feel left out.
“When knocking on doors of AAPI households, you will probably hear either ‘You’re the first person who has ever talked to me about this!’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to talk to someone about this issue!’ It’s so meaningful for people to talk to and be heard by someone who looks like them,” Vivian says.
An Inspiring Resurgence
At Carnegie Mellon, one class solidified her ideas about racial solidarity and transnational movements: Professor of History Nico Slate’s course The Civil Rights Movement and the World.
During the class, she learned the histories of marginalized people, like Indian social reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who rose up and fought for change. These histories impacted her deeply and led her toward the path of labor and worker organizing.
Slate is thrilled his course helped Vivian find a fulfilling career.
"It's so wonderful to see all that Vivian has done and is doing with her knowledge and many talents,” Slate says. “I'm so happy for her and am deeply moved by her commitment to fighting for a better, more just, and more equitable country."
What Vivian loves about the work—and about organizing as a career—is that it’s creative. She cites vaccine sign-ups and virtual fundraising cook-a-longs with AAPI chefs as examples.
In the four years she’s been involved with civic engagement work, Vivian has seen improvements in workers’ conditions.
“It’s a great time to be in this field. I feel lucky to see a resurgence in the success of workers,” Vivian says. “People are making headlines talking about class disparity and class consciousness. Policy change often opens a door, but what pushes people through the door is seeing the news of effective change.”