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Owen Li

March 1, 2011

Owen Li is currently the Lead Organizer with the Books Not Bars team of the Ella Baker Center, where he organizes directly with youth and families subjected to the destructive juvenile “justice” system.  Owen committed himself to social justice work while still an undergraduate student at Stanford University, where he organized with groups such as the Stanford Asian American Activist Committee and the Stanford Labor Action Coalition.   He also organized an “Alternative Spring Break” trip to Los Angeles that provided Stanford students with an intensive introduction to immigrant worker movements.  Owen wrote for the Real News, the Black student paper at Stanford, and was recognized with the “Activist Ally” award by the Chicano student group MEChA. In addition to his campus-based organizing, Owen engaged in off-campus community activism, such as through an internship with  the Organization of Chinese Americans.  After graduating from Stanford, he organized with a voting rights campaign for Chinese immigrant communities in Seattle. He went on to study law at Boston University, where he worked with public defender clinics in Boston, San Francisco, and Harlem, and he also served as an organizing fellow with the Boston Youth Organizing Project.  After completing his law degree, Owen returned to the Bay Area to work with the union UNITE HERE Local 2850 before taking on his current position with Books Not Bars. As someone who is using his experiences, insights, and elite education to work for social justice and change, what Owen has to share is of great interest to those of us in east306.  His discussion of the death of Simba Martin in today’s podcast underscores why such work is so important and so necessary.

Justin Song, an East Asian Studies major with a minor concentration in Anthropology at McGill University, asks Owen about a wide array of issues related to oppression and the urgent need for social justice work.  Owen discusses his work and activist experiences prior to joining Ella Baker’s Book Not Bars team, the conditions within youth prisons in the U.S., and policies that harm poor people and people of color.  In the interview Justin mentions a recent article in Maclean’s, the original title of which was “Too Asian.” (You can learn more about the “Talk Back” campaign here and here.)  Justin connects the racism in that Maclean’s article to a critique Owen makes in his blog post for the Ella Baker Center entitled “From Asian Stereotypes to Asian Activism” in which he writes, “The true root of these stereotypes is their usefulness to maintaining systems of power and privilege. Stereotypes of immigrants rationalize exploitation when our labor is needed and justify exclusion when economic uncertainty calls for a scapegoat.”

The finished version of the podcast is 57 minutes long and can be downloaded here. The unedited version of Justin’s interview is 1 hour long and can be found here.

If you would like to stream the podcast, please click on the arrow below.″
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