(WOMENSENEWS) In 1946 my father came to the United States as a diplomat from China, after having served in China’s wartime capital during the Japanese invasion, and on the Far East Commission established by Gen. Douglas MacArthur after Japan’s defeat. When the Communists took over in 1949, he decided to stay in the United States, raised a family in the Washington, D.C., area, and became a scholar of Asian history and linguistics.
He instilled in his children pride in our Chinese heritage, and his belief in the importance of doing good, not just doing well. Time after time he asked us, "What are you going to do to make this world a better place?"
As our family settled near our new nation’s capital, our spirit of public service became focused on the United States. At 10 I attended my first political rally for John F. Kennedy.
Yet my commitment to America and what it stood for was constantly questioned. In my early years, I was the only Asian American in my elementary school. During the McCarthy era, I literally saw my classmates move their desks away from mine when the class discussion turned to communism and China.
Later, as a student at Yale during the Vietnam War, because of my Asian features I was considered by strangers as one of "them" as opposed to one of "us." So often when I was introduced as being from Washington, D.C., I was asked, "But where are you really from?"
Bias Fueled Political Passions
My own experience of discrimination and identity fueled my passion for equality and political involvement. And then there was the sexism. I was a member of the first undergraduate class at Yale to include women. Later, at Harvard Law School, I was part of the first class to exceed more than 10 percent women.
Coming from a family of strong women, I felt comfortable as a trailblazer. But I was painfully aware of the obstacles facing women even though the laws of our land were intended to level the playing field.
I initially wanted to become a civil rights lawyer, and through my law professor mentor, Derrick Bell, I got a summer job with the Office for Civil Rights in Boston. I soon realized that although I had the passion and abilities–with my language skills in Chinese, Japanese and French and my bicultural background–I could make an even greater contribution in international relations. I had inherited my father’s passion for foreign policy, and especially for bridging the United States and the Far East. I became an international lawyer, and a pioneer in the developing Asia legal practice in cross-border investments and trade.
I knew I would eventually want to give back to my country by way of what are sometimes called the three W’s: work, wisdom and wealth.
Work came first, because it took time to develop wisdom and wealth. From my student days, I both supported and was supported by women and minorities. My first educational loan came from the Women’s Philanthropic Education Organization. While at Yale, I recruited women and minorities for the admissions committee from areas of the country that were not traditionally targeted.
Investigating Gender Disparities
At Harvard Law, a group of us at the Women Law Students’ Association investigated why a lower percentage of women accepted to Harvard Law matriculated than the percentage of men who were accepted. We learned that the school’s financial aid grants were smaller than at several other peer law schools.
Whereas the families of male students would make extraordinary efforts to fund their sons’ or grandsons’ or nephews’ education at Harvard Law, the families of women were less inclined to do so. We recommended that the financial aid committee take those factors into consideration when reviewing financial need, and also that they be more competitive in their grants.
With the passage of time came wisdom, which informed my work for organizations like the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
But the most compelling work I did in the area of civil rights was to join other activists in response to the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American scientist at the national laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., who was accused of being a spy for China. Prosecutors told him that he had failed a lie detector test (which he had not), and that he would face the death penalty "like the Rosenbergs." Dr. Lee was held in solitary confinement and literally shackled while awaiting trial.
The protest of which I was part eventually led the federal judge in the case to issue an apology to Dr. Lee for his mistreatment and lack of due process, and the New York Times published a historic "mea culpa" for its reporters’ biased coverage.
One of the greatest honors I have received in my career is the "Justice in Action" Award from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, which stemmed from those efforts and for my outreach and fundraising over three decades for minority and women’s rights.
Funding Candidates to Spur Change
Work and wisdom are important, but wealth is critical. So through the years with my gradually increased earnings as a partner in a major law firm, I have become a committed political funder of candidates.
In the current election, I serve on both the Asian American Finance Committee for Obama and the Women for Obama Committee, because I feel that both groups are underserved in the political arena and that fundraising is crucial.
I also donate to various political action committees that support minority candidates. I’m a longtime supporter of EMILY’s List, the progressive pro-choice political action committee that has worked for many years to fill the political pipeline with female leaders. We are just beginning to see the fruits of that effort.
What I’ve come to realize through many years of commitment to political engagement is that the power of one’s own passion, combined with financial resources, is the best formula for effecting change. When an individual’s passion and wealth combine with that of others, the result can be a sea change–as we are seeing even now.
We face an election that will be historic, with either a man of color or a woman in the White House, but much work remains to be done. Government leadership at every level still lacks gender and racial diversity. So I continue to direct work, wisdom and wealth toward the day when the leadership of the United States will look more like the population. Given the distance we’ve come from my parents’ generation to my children’s, I’m hopeful that the dream will become a reality.
Attorney Alice Young is a partner at Kaye Scholer LLP in New York and chair of the firm’s Asia Pacific Practice. Her board service includes the Asia Foundation and the Aspen Institute.