Congressman John Lewis, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (Georgia), Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American, and Simone Wu of Choice Hotels International, Inc. were honored with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF) 2013 Justice in Action Awards on February 19.
Since 1987, AALDEF has presented the Justice in Action Awards to exceptional individuals for their outstanding achievements and efforts in avancing social justice. The awards were presented by Rep. Grace Meng, the first Asian American to represent New York in Congress, Tony Award-winning playwright of M. Butterfly David Henry Hwang, and Gordon Smith, CEO of Consumer and Community Banking, JPMorgan Chase.
Juju Chang, Emmy Award-winning correspondent for ABC News Nightline, and Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University, both long time supporters of AALDEF, were the co-emcees for the banquet of over 700. They were joined at the end with a surprise appearance on stage from actor BD Wong, who urged the guests to show their support for AALDEF.
Among the guests at Pier Sixty in New York City were Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Acting New York Supreme Court Justice Debra James, and past Justice in Action Award recipients Don Liu, Parkin Lee, Alice Young, and Sandra Leung.
AALDEF Board president Tommy Shi wished the audience a happy new year and shared the story that, seven days before the 2012 election, with AALDEF’s national poll monitoring and exit poll project at stake, Hurricane Sandy hit New York. AALDEF staff was stranded in outer boroughs and the office was without electricity. “We put out an emergency call for help,” said Shi. “AALDEF staff and volunteers lugged boxes of voting materials down 12 flights of stairs in the dark. We were lucky that Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP donated temporary space with computers and phones for our staff and volunteers. And Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP opened its conference rooms to us. In the end, the Asian American Exit Poll surveyed over 9,000 voters in 14 states on Election Day, the largest multilingual survey of its kind.”
Margaret Fung, AALDEF executive director, said that the three Justice in Action Award recipients had taken courageous stands on some of AALDEF's current priority issues: securing real immigration reform, expanding diversity, and defending the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court.
David Henry Hwang introduced honoree Jose Antonio Vargas as having “one of the great immigrant stories of our time.” Vargas, an award-winning Filipino American journalist, publicly revealed himself to be an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article. “Immigrant rights are human rights,” said Vargas, who acknowledged the work of AALDEF and civil rights organizations by joking that the reason he “was still here” was that he was “all lawyered up.”
Honoree Simone Wu, senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary, and chief compliance officer of Choice Hotels International, spoke about the need for diversity and inclusiveness. "So many Asian Americans do not get a chance to share in the model minority myth," said Wu. “At Choice Hotels we value diversity in all our decisions and our results are better as a result of doing that.”
The evening came to a close with Rep. Grace Meng introducing civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis with a surprise video of the Congressman dancing “Gangnam-style” for the right to vote.
"The right to vote is precious, even sacred," said Congressman Lewis, who, in 1965, led over 600 peaceful protesters in the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation known as "Bloody Sunday," and the senseless cruelty hastened passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "I gave a little blood for the right to vote. But some of my friends gave their lives. We have made too much progress to stop now.”
Past Justice in Action Award recipients include Fred Korematsu, David Henry Hwang, Fareed Zakaria, BD Wong, Sandra Leung, Harold Koh, Mira Nair, Deval Patrick, George Takei, Salman Rushdie, Seymour Hersh, Charles Ogletree, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Margaret Cho, and Yoko Ono.