HomeAsian AmericansAALDEF Honors William Lee and Viet Thanh Nguyen

AALDEF Honors William Lee and Viet Thanh Nguyen

By Shirley Ng

(Editor’s Note: Shirley Ng is a staff writer for AsAmNews and an employee at AALDEF)

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) today announced the winners of its Justice in Action Awards at its recent Lunar New Year Gala at Pier Sixty in Chelsea Piers.

This year’s Justice In Action Award recipients were attorney William F. Lee, who successfully defended Harvard’s affirmative action plan, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen.

L to R: William Lee, BD Wong and Viet Thanh Nguyen

William Lee told the audience he is an “anchor baby” of Chinese immigrant parents from Shanghai. He is a graduate of Harvard University and a leading trial and appellate lawyer and represented Harvard in the widely publicized race-conscious admissions case, which AALDEF lent a hand of support with an amicus brief that represented 20 Asian American groups. In 2019, the court ruled that Harvard did not discriminate on the basis of an applicant’s race.

During the awards presentation, Lee shared about his immigrant’s parents story and said he has hope “that we will do all in our to power to ensure that the next couple like my parents who arrived in America have the same opportunity they had and are not turned away at the border.”

On workplace discrimination, a concern Lee hopes can be addressed, he said one-third of Asian Americans have reported workplace discrimination. Many Asian Americans face the “bamboo ceiling,” a barrier in the advancement of their career. He said,”There are 50,000 Asian Americans lawyers,” comprising the largest minority group in large firms for the past 20 years. Yet, he says Asian Americans still have the highest attrition rates.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, an advocate for refugees and immigrants and author of The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War , likes to write stories about the complexity of the refugee and immigrant experience that many find hard to remember.

As a Vietnamese refugee, he recalls the fear and anguish he felt as a 4-year old being separated from his parents and brother. Although he was reunited with his parents in a few months and his brother much later, Nguyen said at the gala, “I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be a refugee, that the experience of being separated from my parents remains with me like an invisible brand stamped between my shoulder blades. I know that these families that are being detained at our southern border will be forever traumatized by their experience.” He said what the government is doing to the detainees in the southern border is “wrong.”

He spoke of solidarity between Asian Americans and for other people of color and minorities for the struggle of justice, and redress and reparations for Japanese Americans.

Executive Director Margaret Fung and AALDEF President Tommy Shi started the evening thanking sponsors and spoke of AALDEF’s recent work securing economic justice for Korean and Latino workers in New York City, protecting immigrant small businesses in Philadelphia, including the fight against luxury high rises in Manhattan’s Lower East Side just to name a few. Fung said AALDEF will have the largest Asian American exit poll this election year. 

The gala raised an undetermined amount of money as of this writing, however special guest speaker, actor and Tony Award winner and BD Wong raised $5,000 when he offered a live auction of his tie with images of tiny dinosaurs that he wore in the Jurassic Park films, as Dr. Henry Wu.

Over 500 guests attended the gala emceed by Cindy Hsu, Emmy Award winning anchor and reporter of WCBS-TV and Sree Sreenivasan, Loeb Professor of Digital Innovation at Stony Brook University.  AALDEF celebrated its 45th anniversary last year.

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