12 Metro Detroit Asian American women leaders you should know

Since COVID-19 was first identified in China, attacks on Asian Americans have increased. Many Asian American women say hatred against Asians is not new, from the Page Act of 1875 and Japanese American internment to militarism in Asian countries by the United States government to surveillance. 

Former President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” further stirring anti-Asian hatred — nearly 3,800 in the past year alone. On March 16, eight people were shot and killed by a gunman in Atlanta. The gunman said the shootings were not racially motivated, but six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

Model D interviewed 12 women who are leaders in their respective fields, from nonprofits to restaurants, to understand their experiences and their thoughts on the rise in attacks on the AAPI community.

Alessandra R. Carreon, Co-owner of PizzaPlex

Alessandra R. Carreon with husband, Drew McUsic.

Alessandra Carreon co-owns PizzaPlex with her husband, Drew McUsic. Founded in 2017, Pizza Plex is Detroit’s first and only pizzeria serving certified Vera Pizza Napoletana  — the traditional style of pizza from Naples, Italy — her mom’s hometown and where she spent a chunk of her childhood. Her father is from San Juan, Batangas, Philippines. She was born in the United States but is also an Italian citizen. Carreon works full time as a Responsible Sourcing Manager for Ford Motor Company’s global supply chain to protect human rights and the environment. 

As an Italian Filipina American, she has learned to embrace the Filipina side of her heritage fully.

“In all our personal and combined work to become anti-racist as Americans, we have an opportunity to explore and understand our own identities first, recognize our privileges, and embrace the power we create when we meaningfully connect. Being mixed race, I’ve learned to move from saying I’m 'half' Filipina to simply saying that I am Filipina. The culture, my family, and my community make it, so I identify whole-heartedly, 100%. I am eager for more people to learn about what makes my Filipinx community so special, eager to share the warmth of my community, and eager to exchange that warmth with others who are ready to learn and from whom I can learn.”
One of her most cherished projects is co-organizing gatherings for the Detroit Filipinx Supper Club, a community of Filipinx-identifying people in Detroit who convene for food, friendship, and (often pre-pandemic) karaoke.

"This community is like a chosen family for those in search of one or ready to embrace one in Detroit. In the past year, I have turned to my friends in the Supper Club for support, love, and connection — in particular during my Pandemic Pregnancy! I am so grateful for each member of this community and grateful for the way we take care of each other."

Stephanie Chang, State Senator, District 1 and Minority Floor Leader

Stephanie Chang

As the daughter of Taiwanese American immigrants, State Sen. and Minority Floor Leader Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) was born a year after the brutal beating death of Chinese American Vincent Chin in 1982. “I grew up going to Chinese language school on Saturday and had what felt like separate lives — with my Taiwanese/Asian American friends on the weekend and in 'American' school during the week where I was the only Asian American girl in my class and faced occasional teasing or bullying.”
She says she reflects on how much her parents attempted to shield her sister and her from racism as a kid. “I hope that I can instill my parents' immigrant values into my daughters and that they will value their Taiwanese heritage.” 
Chang says Asian American leaders have been talking about the impact of harmful rhetoric about COVID-19 on the community over the past year. “It is really unfortunate that it took a mass shooting for most Americans to acknowledge or understand that anti-Asian hate crime and discrimination exist. There have been 3,795 incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate during the pandemic, including 25 in Michigan.” She plans to advocate for more money for the Attorney General's hate crimes unit and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights for staff to conduct outreach and translate materials to serve materials dissemination to work with the AAPI and other communities regarding people's rights. She and Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) recently introduced resolutions in the Michigan Senate and House, respectively, condemning the rise in hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders and encouraging Michiganders to report hate crimes and discrimination. 

Danielle Daguio, multimedia communication specialist, graphic designer, and community builder

Danielle Daguio

Danielle Daguio is the Fundraising & Data Specialist for Keep Growing Detroit, where she cultivates materials for grants and crowdfunding campaigns for development. She co-created the Online Farm Store and the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, and social justice projects such as reducing infant mortality for Black women, leadership training for youth to be health and wellness ambassadors, supporting yearlong volunteers, and food sovereignty. Daguio lives with her partner and their Shiba Inu on the east side, where they are restoring their 110-year-old home.

Daguio says she’s a “proud daughter of immigrants from the Philippines” who grew up in New Jersey. Growing up as an Asian American made her feel like she had to be good at everything yet feeling like she wasn't good enough as a woman, Asian or American. “Besides being fluent in English and tokenized as the diversity quota in many spaces, most of these things don't apply to me. So I often find myself as somewhat of a conduit, exchange, and intersection of cultures.”
She says Filipinos are working at the frontlines of the pandemic as nurses who are dying at exponential rates. “They are risking A LOT and sacrificing A LOT just to care for others, not just during this pandemic, but for generations.” The recent anti-Asian hate crimes remind her of her family. “Whether I know them or not ... in these stories, I see my dad getting slashed across the face with a box cutter. I see my grandma getting attacked while walking to the market. I see my cousin getting shot. So I feel it in that same way. It cuts deep.” 
Rebekah (Bekah) Katlina Galang, Retail Director at Avalon International Breads 

Rebekah (Bekah) Katlina GalangBekah Galang’s grandmother and family moved to Detroit from the Philippines through a nursing program at Henry Ford. Now Galang says she’s learning how to “balance between honoring the journeys of those who have come before and trying to do things our way” by connecting with Filipino American women with similar experiences. Galang is passionate about community building around food and is part of Make Food Not Waste, Detroit Filipino Supper Club, and a board member of Keep Growing Detroit, FoodLab Detroit’s Fellowship, and Slow Food Detroit Central City. This summer, Galang will teach a Filipino cooking workshop with Shane Bernardo and Danielle Daguio and reignite AllFoodDetroit, a community events calendar. 

Galang says she's concerned that many anti-Asian hate crimes are against elders. “Our community’s elders, like most minority and immigrant communities, are our most valued resource. We are scared for them daily — more than we are scared for ourselves, and while it isn’t unbelievable for us, it is despicable, exhausting, and terrifying.” 

Meiko Krishok, Owner of Guerrilla Food and Pink Flamingo To Go

Meiko Krishok

Meiko Krishok says she was drawn to moving to the city due to the Asian American community’s grassroots work, like the Detroit Asian Youth, an offshoot of Detroit Summer. Since working with DAY Project and at a high school in Southwest Detroit, she’s been working on food and sustainability issues. She started doing food pop-up events in 2013, which led to founding Guerrilla Food, a farm-to-table food business using food as medicine, and opening the brick-and-mortar carryout restaurant Pink Flamingo To Go in 2019. 

Krishok’s mother and grandparents immigrated to the United States from Korea, and as an Asian American, she’s sometimes othered, seen as exotic or different. “I also can feel that I come from a long line of women who have embodied the struggle and resiliency of being human in this complex and evolving world, and I feel honored to carry on their legacy in this time and place.” 
She says there is a lot of work to do to learn from history and do better in the wake of the anti-Asian hate crimes. “It takes time and effort to unlearn and extricate ourselves from systems of oppression, it takes work and heart to decolonize, and we can’t expect external change if we’re not continually doing deep internal work ... we can’t get there if systems of oppression aren’t challenged and replaced with more equitable solutions.”

Laura Misumi, Executive Director and Board Member of Rising Voices of Asian American Families

Laura Misumi

Attorney Laura Misumi wears many hats in the realm of racial justice organizing. She’s a Yonsei (a fourth-generation Japanese American) who was born in San Francisco. Misumi’s parents were part of the New Left and Asian American Movement, and her grandparents were among the thousands of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. 

Misumi is the managing director at Detroit Action and the executive director of Michigan Asian American Progressives and Rising Voices of Asian American Families. These nonprofits mobilize Asian American women and youth across Michigan. Some projects include working with AAPI moms to learn the impacts of COVID-19, redistricting with representation, engaging Japanese Americans with a Tsuru for Solidarity Michigan chapter, supporting Burmese siblings and comrades in their fight against a military coup, and gearing up for the midterms and gubernatorial races next year. 

She says the recent increase in attacks on Asian Americans is rooted in manifestations of white supremacy, a reminder that “the police have never kept us safe (here or in our ancestral homelands).” She says BIPOC communities have to come together to center policies on those impacted, and by having anti-bias training for police officers, “to build the collective vision of what community safety looks like, not just from bodily harm but economic, racial, gender-based harm as well.”

Van Nguyen, chief marketing and communications officer at Schoolcraft College

Van Nguyen

Van Nguyen is passionate about helping college students, especially first-generation post-secondary students. In addition to her role as chief marketing and communications officer at Schoolcraft College, she's chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force created last year to create healthy dialogues across the college. As a first-generation Vietnamese American college graduate and executive, she created the program Reality Ready at Schoolcraft College to prepare students for real-world work experiences. 

Nguyen grew up in Texas. She was often the token Asian in the classroom or at the office and only saw people like her in a nearby city when she purchased groceries or VHS music videos from Asian businesses. That shaped her decision to become more vocal and visible as an Asian American. “I realized the importance of education and the voice it gave me, which led me to where I am today. I lead by example to help open the doors for minority students showing them the vast possibilities and opportunities available to them.” Nguyen moved to Detroit 13 years ago to work for the automotive industry. “I have learned it’s OK to “make waves” as an Asian American woman millennial, and this is defined by not allowing myself to be overlooked or seen as less than ... not settling for what companies or corporations think my roles or responsibilities are but rather showing them I have earned the right to be in every room I'm in.”

She says the recent attacks against targeting AAPI are nothing new. “Xenophobia has existed for many ethnic populations, not just AAPI. While people might not recognize AAPI voices being as vocal, it doesn't mean we aren't hurting, frightened, and disappointed ... we are all targeted. My hope is we continue to have meaningful and relevant conversations leading to understanding and substantive change to come together and recognize our similarities and not be ruled by our differences.”

Eden Sabolboro, Producer and Director, Reel Clever Films

Eden Sabolboro

Film and video producer Eden Sabolboro moved to the United States in 2014, becoming a citizen last year during the pandemic. She was born and raised in Cebu, Philippines. She now lives in Metro Detroit with her husband, Thaad, 6-year-old son, Dallas, dog Leica, and cat Percy.
She and Thaad, a cinematographer, started Reel Clever Films, a small video production company with projects including DIA's "Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City" and an eight-part series for GoDaddy's "Icons of Our Tribe." 
Sabolboro says the recent hate crimes mean living daily with an increased sense of vigilance and awareness of danger and risk. “We've often been referred to as a 'statistically insignificant' group, and therefore our concerns have always been downplayed to the point of almost being invisible. It pains me to see that despite being in 2021 and having made so many progressive strides, not much has changed in terms of Asian American representation, and we're still here, fighting to be seen, heard, and respected.” 

At a time when Asian-Americans are experiencing profound grief, the sense of being unwanted, ostracized, and fearful for their lives and that of their families, Sabolboro says. “You do not need to be an Asian American to empathize with the struggle and to understand that hatred towards one group is detrimental for the entire community. It starts by doing the work of learning about the history of Asian American discrimination in this country, showing up for your peers, and being as engaged in your local legislature as possible.”

Caroline Vang, Civic Engager 

Caroline Vang

As a millennial from the Hmong diaspora, Caroline Vang says she has to work hard to balance two conflicting identities. “Combine the old world's expectations with the new, unfamiliar American standards, and you get a confused young adult struggling with her identity.” Vang worked as a youth program coordinator for Michigan State University Extension to recruit Pontiac’s Hmong youth and teach them team-building skills with students from various backgrounds. She also volunteered with APIA Vote to increase voter turnout. Now Vang plans to create a free YouTube and Zoom series for Hmong elders trying to obtain citizenship. “With illiteracy and little financial support, some of these elders lived in limbo every day while being the primary caretakers for their grandchildren.” 

She says the current anti-Asian hate climate makes her concerned about her child. “Asian Americans are going to work, hoping they don't become the next victim of an anti-Asian hate crime. As a mom, I ask my child every day how school was and if anyone messed with him because we've had bullying incidents take place when school reopened.

Jennifer Vuong, Video Journalist 

Jennifer Vuong

Automotive journalist Jennifer Vuong is a Chinese-Vietnamese American who was born and raised in Michigan speaking Cantonese. Her parents were born in Vietnam and later escaped the Vietnam War. Vuong graduated from Wayne State University with a journalism degree. She has been covering the auto industry for the past 12 years. “I have a passion for telling other people’s stories, especially through video.” 
She says she’s proud of living her truth while “remembering the traditions and values my immigrant parents have instilled in me.” During one of her assignments, Vuong interviewed immigrant auto dealers who went through similar life experiences as her parents, who built a life from nothing. She says she’s realized how problematic the model minority myth is and how it perpetuates stereotypes of Asian Americans. “Being an Asian American woman means being unapologetically myself, vocal, strong, and opinionated.”  
Vuong is a part of the Detroit collective of creatives called Over The Moon, who came together in 2019 to answer, "Where did all the Asians go in Detroit?" In 2019 and 2020, they held Lunar New Year celebrations in the city with hundreds of people. She hopes it resumes in 2022. She says it’s essential to speak up and take action if you see hate crimes against minorities. 

Carolyn Watson (Carolyn Chin), Nonprofit leader

Carolyn Watson

Carolyn Watson has built a life based on her Chinese American heritage. Watson’s mother was born and raised in Detroit, while her father immigrated at 13 years old from Hong Kong to the United States. She says she grew up in a blue-collar home with the trauma of losing her father’s best friend Vincent Chin in 1982. “Having this history built into my fabric made me who I am. How could the experiences, griefs, and joys of parents not shape their children? I'm ambitious, empathetic, passionate, headstrong, and hardly take no for an answer.” Watson says her most tremendous success and joy is raising her 6-year-old daughter, who embodies the same traits. 
A former visual journalist and creative director, Watson has worked in newsrooms across the city, including The Detroit News and Hour Detroit. She has since pivoted to nonprofits. In 2019, she began working for Methodist Children’s Home Society, nonprofit supporting children, families, and underserved populations in southeast Michigan through marketing and fund development. 
Watson says she’s constantly dispelling stereotypes and educating people about her experiences while learning about BIPOC and marginalized groups’ experiences. “It’s exhausting, but I am proud of who I am and how my culture and identity shapes not only myself but my daughter as well.” She says the recent anti-Asian hate crimes motivated her to connect with individuals and groups doing justice and advocacy work. “We will not be silenced. The anti-Asian sentiment is not new. If this is shocking to anyone, it's because they haven't paid attention. Asian hate, rhetoric, and systemic racist policies have been ingrained in America since the 1800s...” 
“We need solidarity with all marginalized groups. Marginalized groups must not compare their pain and suffering with other groups as that upholds white power and white supremacy.”

Mai Xiong, Macomb County Commissioner 

Mai Xiong

Mai Xiong’s family immigrated to the United States for a better life and educational opportunities, and they fled warzones to survive. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Now Xiong is a Macomb County Commissioner. She owns a clothing boutique Mai&Co in Warren with her husband. Last year she sewed and donated hundreds of face masks to senior citizens, frontline workers, and low-income families during the pandemic. 

She hopes to empower Asian American women to run for office. “As a newly elected official who has had to break new ground, I plan to help empower other Asian American women who may be interested in running for office and organizing my community to be better informed and engaged with policymaking.” She says Asian Americans have roots in 48 countries. “Within those countries live smaller, ethnic minority groups, and each has its own culture, language, and history.” She says despite challenges, “Asian Americans have contributed immensely to the growth of America and deserve as much respect as anyone.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Nargis Rahman.

Nargis Hakim Rahman is a Bangladeshi American Muslim writer and a mother of three kids. Nargis graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and a psychology minor. She is passionate about community journalism in metro Detroit. She hopes to give American Muslims and minorities a voice in the press. She recently took part in the Feet in Two Worlds/WDET 101.9 FM food journalism fellowship. She writes for Haute Hijab, Brown Girl Magazine, Metro Detroit Mommy, and other publications.