During April, Indiana University traditionally celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) with the Asian Culture Center (ACC) hosting a variety of events. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the ACC’s programs were postponed or canceled. But Director Melanie Castillo-Cullather and Program Associate Sarah Moon Stamey were committed to ensuring IU continued its celebration of AAPI Heritage Month and worked to move several into a virtual space.
“As everything was starting to unfold, we kind of predicted everything would shut down,” Stamey said. “So we just looked through events already planned to see which ones we could do later, which ones we could do in a virtual format, and which ones wouldn’t work at all. We had things like our short film festival and our year-end events that wouldn’t translate well, but with our April 8 panel, we were able to get all of our original panelists to do this digital version. And that was successful.”
The panel, hosted by the ACC in tandem with the School of Public Health, was not in response to physical distance and quarantine orders as it may appear. Castillo-Cullather and Stamey were working behind the scenes as early as February to get the panel ready.
“It [COVID-19] was in the national news around January,” Castillo-Cullather said. “And as the virus was spreading, we were beginning to see news accounts of people of Asian descent in the United States who were reporting stories of racial discrimination related to COVID. Calling it ‘Chinese Virus,’ was not only problematic, but dangerous. The idea of hosting a panel came from having to address the pandemic and the racism it exposed.”
“We were already planning on covering COVID, and we had the questions and the panelists ready. There was a lot of planning that went into the event.” Stamey said. “I think a lot of people had the impression that we just threw it together and were like, “oh, how timely,’ but there was a lot of effort put into it behind the scenes.”
With 170 registrants, between 130-140 individuals attended the entire webinar with roughly 30 dropping in and out. “It was a little overwhelming at first,” Castillo-Cullather said. “It was our first virtual event, and we learned a lot.”
Panelists included Dr. Rodrigo Armijos, associate professor in the School of Public Health, Aurora Le, an academic specialist in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Lesa Major, associate professor in the Media School, and Cedric Harris, director of Bias Response, Division of Student Affairs. Participants were able to submit questions throughout, many of which were unanswered due to time constraints. Staff at the ACC sought answers and posted both the questions and responses on their website. “After that webinar, we discovered there were many other issues we thought we should address and find the answers,” Castillo-Cullather said. “We find that each question leads to another important one, it’s like opening another Pandora’s Box. They’re excellent questions and deserve responses.”
In addition to the virtual webinar, the ACC has also hosted Netflix parties during April. Every Saturday, a group of individuals with a unique link could come together and watch a film on Netflix that stars or is directed by an Asian American.
“The attendance isn’t as big as the webinar,” Castillo-Cullather said. “We recognized how abruptly the circumstances unfolded, and we thought that offering an option for students to be connected with others would help ease the sudden change in their and our lives. The other goal was to highlight Asian American artists as we reflect and think of the AAPI heritage month.” This experience has been eye-opening for both Castillo-Cullather and Stamey.
“I’m conscious of how we are all in different spaces and situations during this time, and I am aware that what I value and what I’ve learned does not apply to everyone,” Castillo-Cullather said. “One thing that I have come to really appreciate is the quiet time that allows for deep introspection, to be able to pause for a moment during the day.”
“I have always been someone who lives in the future since planning events far in advance is a lot of what we do at the ACC,” Stamey said. “But this has taught me to live more in the moment. It’s forced me to slow down and take things one day at a time, and I appreciate that in a whole new way.”
The one thing both Castillo-Cullather and Stamey agree on is, in their professional lives, they miss the student interaction. “You don’t notice it until it’s gone,” Stamey said. “You kind of take it for granted—everyone coming and going and just hanging out in the center. I’ve realized that having that physical space where students and staff and faculty can pop in is so valuable and so important.”
For more information on the Asian Culture Center, click here.