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Uniting All of Asia in Boston


CAROLINE CHANG is often quoted as saying, ``There's always more to do.'' It's not a statement of weariness, but of purpose. Ms. Chang has been a leader in Boston's Asian Community for nearly 20 years. She has won numerous recognitions for her work, most recently the Amelia Earhart Award from the Women's Education and Industrial Union in Boston.

A regional director of the federal Office of Civil Rights since 1982, Chang's commitment to civil rights is rooted in her role as a community activist in Boston's Chinatown. There, she has helped unify Asians of differing descent and developed programs to help the community. Among them: the Massachusetts Asian American Forum (rights advocacy, education), the Asian Community Development Corporation (housing, business development), and the Chinese Golden Age Center (drop-in center for the elderly).

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In an interview in her modest office on the 24th floor of the John F. Kennedy Building here, Chang talked with the Monitor about the changes and challenges within the Asian community in Boston and the nation at large.

``There's a real overlap'' she says, concerning ``what are community issues and what are civil rights issues.'' Community issues are the same for everyone - safety, jobs, and housing. But ``the degree of the problems are different when you're dealing with race, language, and culture,'' she says.

One of the biggest changes she has witnessed in the past years in Boston's Asian community has been its growth, a phenomenon mirrored throughout the nation. Chang says that when she was growing up in the '50s, Chinatown was practically a ``little village'' of 2,500 Chinese, where ``everybody knew everybody.''

After the change in US immigration laws in 1965, ``the community grew by leaps and bounds'' - almost exponentially - she recalls. ``The traditional systems of providing mutual support no longer existed,'' and residents began to lose that ``looking-out-for-each-other,'' small-town feeling, says Chang.

She estimates that today, there are more than 25,000 Chinese alone in this diverse, 75,000-100,000-member Asian community. Not only are there ``traditional'' Asian populations (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) but also many Southeast Asians (Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian).

Chang's leanings toward community activism go back to her Chinatown upbringing. ``My father was one of the few people in the community who knew English well enough to be a translator for people,'' she says. Since he was constantly helping community members, Chang naturally followed his example. Some of her early accomplishments after college include co-founding the Chinese American Civic Association in 1967 and the South Cove Community Health Center in 1973. She served as the manager of the Chinatown Little City Hall from 1970-1974.

Chang attended Boston public schools, and graduated from Boston University with a math degree. After working as an aerospace scientist, she went on to earn her law degree at Suffolk University.

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Her civil rights concerns are many. ``Women's issues are important to me, just as minority issues are important to me,'' says Chang, a board member for the National Institute for Women of Color. ``We have to continue to battle with stereotypes.''

According to predictions of increased immigration, the national population is going to be more diverse than ever, she says. ``The next ten years are going to be most important in learning how to live, work, and play together. ... We all need to work for the common good.'' That means focusing on two skills: communication and education, ``even on an interpersonal level,'' says Chang.

``[Chang] is a very soft-spoken, self-effacing person - characteristic of Asian women - who, uncharacteristically, has generated all sorts of bridge building in the communities,'' says Elizabeth Boveroux, head of the selection committee for the Amelia Earhart Award. In the Asian world, the ethnic groups don't get along well together, says Ms. Boveroux, and for Chang to create a sense of unity among different groups is ``something quite extraordinary.''

Perhaps surprisingly, one of Chang's major concerns is the national deficit. ``We're going to have to worry about how we deal with deficit decisions and how it will affect populations that tend to be disenfranchised,'' she says.

Too, with downturns in economics, minorities are sometimes treated as scapegoats. She cites examples of violence - one was in Detroit when a Chinese was mistaken for a Japanese and killed by two laid-off auto workers. ``We're still working on problems of the Vietnam war,'' she says.

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