APA Spotlight is a bi-monthly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).
Kent Wong is Director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA, where he also teaches Labor Studies and Asian American Studies.
Kent previously was staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union, representing Los Angeles County workers. He was also the first staff attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California.
Kent served as the Founding President of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO, the first national organization of Asian union members and workers. He has also served as the President of the United Association for Labor Education, and the University and College Labor Education Association, national organizations of union and university labor educators. He is currently a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.
Kent has published numerous books on labor unions, organizing, immigrant workers, and popular education. His most recent publications include: Underground Undergrads, UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, Miguel Contreras: Legacy of a Labor Leader, and Organizing on Separate Shores: Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Union Organizers.
The mission of The UCLA Labor Center is to promote research, education, and policy change to improve the lives of workers, students, and their communities.
What is the mission statement of your life?
I don’t have one. It is hard enough developing a mission statement for my work place, the UCLA Labor Center.
But I do enjoy life to its fullest, I feel fortunate to have a wonderful family and great friends, and I feel privileged to have a job that allows me to work for social justice.
How did you end up doing what you’re doing?
My beginnings with the labor movement were in high school, when I worked as a boycott organizer for the United Farm Workers of America. After graduating from law school, I worked at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center representing Asian American workers, and then I got a job as staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union representing workers in Los Angeles County government.
I was recruited to become director of the UCLA Labor Center, which combines my passion for the labor movement, my interest in teaching and research, and my commitment to social change organizing. The UCLA Labor Center promotes research, education, and policy change to improve the lives of workers, students, and their communities. (That’s our mission statement.)
We work with car wash workers, janitors, hotel workers, home care workers, construction workers, and day laborers to improve the wages and working conditions for some of the most hard-working individuals within our society. We provide 200 student internship opportunities each year, and place our students with some of the most dynamic labor and community organizations in the area. And we work with undocumented immigrant students who are fighting to change our broken immigration laws.
We also develop union leaders from many diverse communities, promote green jobs and environmental justice, and build global labor solidarity, especially in the Pacific Rim. I feel lucky to work with a great team of people who share a common vision and common values. And we have fun on the job.
3. If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?
I’d prefer having an animated feature produced by a talented Asian anime team, great special effects, lots of brilliant colors, and a dramatic musical score. Maybe James Earl Jones could do my voice over. (“Luke, I am your father.”)
How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?
They can check out our web page: www.labor.ucla.edu
They can also stop by and visit us at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, 675 South Park View Street, across from MacArthur Park. We have amazing conferences, workshops, cultural activities, and gatherings that bring some of the finest social change agents in the city together.
If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?
The Asian Pacific Islander American community is growing, very fast. We are a diverse community that spans the entire country, and can be found in every work place and occupation. The vast majority of API’s are, and will continue to be, working people. I am hopeful that Asian Pacific Americans will continue to join unions, to organize together for social and economic justice, and will play a positive in our society as a force for change.
Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?
Young professionals should pursue their passions, and work for social change. This is especially true for Asian Pacific Islander Americans. API’s are attending college in record numbers, and so we have proportionally more professionals than any other community. With this education and experience also comes an obligation to use these skills to improve our communities and our society.
Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?
My grandfather was a talented Chinese chef, so I have wonderful memories of him visiting us and whipping up amazing dishes in our kitchen: Chinese style fried chicken, chow mein, homemade won ton, and whole steamed fish. My dad was also an amateur chef who focused on culturally diverse breakfast foods: French crepes, huevos rancheros, Jewish potato pancakes, and Chinese rice porridge. So I love to cook because I was always taught that a man’s place is in the kitchen.
Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?
Uni (sea urchin.) Lots of it. The whole tray if no one else is looking.
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