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20 Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know

By YWCA Minneapolis
May 4, 2020
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During May, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we are recognizing and uplifting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women whose leadership, innovation and creativity have made and continue to make vast contributions to our history. Read on and learn the names and stories of 20 AAPI women to know and celebrate.

We use the term “women” in this blog and also acknowledge and validate the spectrum of gender identification and the breadth of language used by and among women/womyn/womxn/femmes.

Learn more about YWCA’s Racial Justice work and our Inc.lude Equity and Inclusion Consulting.

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American author, philosopher and social activist. She received her Ph.D. in 1940 but was unable to secure a job due to her gender and race. She eventually relocated to Chicago where she was able to secure a low paying position in the philosophy library. In Chicago, she came in contact with the African American community for the first time and was able to see first hand what she read about and understood as “statistics.” In 1941, she participated in the March on Washington and led her to be active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman in space. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, and a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. Chawla served as the mission specialist for the Columbia shuttle. Sadly, on February 3, 2003, a piece of insulation broke and damaged the craft’s wing, causing the shuttle to break apart while reentering the atmosphere. All crew aboard the shuttle perished.

Josefa Llanes Escoda

Josefa Llanes Escoda was born in the Philippines and known for her civil work, defending women’s suffrage and work with the resistance. She came to the United States to continue her study in social work during which she also represented the Philippines at the Women’s International League for Peace and the International House. When the Japanese occupation of the Philippines began in 1941, she taught members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC) how to set up emergency aid and prepare food. She used the network to gain information about prisoners of war and connect them to their families.

Akiko Fujimoto

Fujimoto joined the Minnesota Orchestra as assistant conductor in September 2017, and later went on to become the associate conductor in September 2018. She conducts the Young People’s Concerts and Symphonic Adventures for High Schools, among other programming. She was born in Japan and moved to the United States at 14.

Kaohly Her

Kaohly Her currently serves the Minnesota House of Representatives for District 64A. She is a mother, wife, refugee and a member of the Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus (MAP – Caucus). She has authored multiple bills including legislation to increase funding for English language learners.

Pahoua Yang Hoffman

Pahoua Yang Hoffman joined the Citizens League in May 2014 to lead all efforts related to developing and advancing policy recommendations with the League’s members and partners. In December 2017, she became the seventh executive director of the Citizens League. Prior to joining the Citizens League, Pahoua served as the manager of government affairs and content administration with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT). Pahoua holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of St. Thomas.

Yuna Kim

Yuna Kim aka “Queen Yuna” is from South Korea and was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time Magazine in 2010. She became the first female figure skater to win the Olympics and is currently well known for her philanthropic work.

Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama was a lifelong activist. After the events at Pearl Harbor, she and her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps. She met her husband in relocation, and they moved to New York City after World War II, where she would hold weekly activist open houses at their apartment. A friendship with Malcolm X influenced her work. She and her husband were advocates for reparations and for a formal apology for the internment of Japanese Americans through the Civil Liberties Act. She dedicated her life to advocacy for civil rights for marginalized communities.

Amanda Koonjbeharry

Amanda Koonjbeharry is the director of Public Policy at Citizens League. In this role, she leads all efforts related to developing and advancing policy recommendations with the Citizens League’s members and partners. Amanda previously served as the director of No Wrong Door, Hennepin County’s anti-sex trafficking initiative. She oversaw the implementation of the county-wide six-point plan to end and prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth. Amanda has a bachelor’s degree in family social science from the University of Minnesota, a master’s of social work from the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, and a master’s of Public Policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In 2018, she was a Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal 40 Under 40 Honoree.

Erika Lee

Erika Lee is one of the nation’s leading immigration and Asian American historians. She is the author of the award-winning books At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (co-authored with Judy Yung), and The Making of Asian America: A History, recently published to wide acclaim.

Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink

Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink is a Hawaiian born, third-generation Japanese American. After being denied the ability to take the bar due to being married and having a child (considered illegible then), then challenged the sexist statute and won. She passed the bar and opened her own office in Chicago in 1953 after completing law school.  She most notably ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won becoming the first Japanese American (and WOC) to serve in the House in 1956.

Miné Okubo

Miné Okubo was born June 12, 1912 in Riverside, California. She received a scholarship to the University of California – Berkeley and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in art in 1935. After that, she continued her studies at Berkeley and received a Master of Arts degree in art and anthropology in 1936. While living in the Tanforan Assembly Center internment camp, she created work that depicted daily living and her everyday experiences. Her most famous work, Citizen 13660, is a collection of 206 drawings and is noted as the first published account of the experiences of an internee. The number 13660 refers to a collective “family number” assigned to those interned.

Mai Nguyen

Mai Nguyen is a farmer and farmer organizer in California. Mai started her career studying atmosphere and soil in Berkley, CA and documenting environmental damage. Her research took place in California, Alaska and several areas of Southeast Asia. She is the co-founder of the Asian American Farmers Alliance, a member of the Farmer Justice Collaborative which in 2017 passed a groundbreaking farmer equity act in California. Listen to a conversation with Farmer Mai.

Josephine Santiago-Bond

Josephine Santiago-Bond is a Filipina-American who leads NASA’s Advanced Engineering Development Branch. Born in the United States and raised in the Philippines, she grew up in a family of scientists. She recalls that her first interest in science began when she played with an acid indicator kit that her mother brought home and loving the colors she created.

After completing undergraduate studies in engineering, she moved to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at South Dakota State University and secured a summer internship at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, one of NASA’s sites. Upon completing her degree, she secured a full-time position with NASA. She rose through the ranks to reach her current position.

Sun Yung Shin

Sun Yung Shin was born in Seoul, Korea, during 박 정 희 Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship, and grew up in the Chicago area. She is the editor of the best-selling anthology A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, author of poetry collections Unbearable Splendor (finalist for the 2017 PEN USA Literary Award for Poetry, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry); Rough, and Savage; and Skirt Full of Black (winner of the 2007 Asian American Literary Award for poetry), co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and author of a bilingual illustrated book for children, Cooper’s Lesson. She lives in Minneapolis where she co-directs the community organization Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang.

Serena Sumanop

Serena Sumanop is the executive director of The Voice, Inc. In Papua New Guinea. She runs a partnership program with universities including the University of Papua New Guinea. The Voice focuses on empowering young people to give back to their communities. They work with 200 youth, helping them understand their own legal rights and work on leadership development with the partnering universities.

Junko Tabei

Junko Tabei was a mountaineer and the first woman to summit Mount Everest, which she did in 1975. She then went on to complete the Seven Summits in 1992, which is to ascend the highest peak on each continent. Tabei was also an author and environmentalist and authored seven books during her life. Through her environmental work, she studied the impact of garbage left behind on mountains by climbers.

Bo Thao-Urabe

Bo Thao-Urabe is the executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) in Minnesota. She was previously a co-founder and COO of RedGreen Rivers, a member of the President’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under the Obama Administration, as well as the senior director of Capacity Building and Organizational Learning at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). Her experience as a Hmong woman whose family fled to Thailand from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War before being resettled in the United States, influenced her creation of Building Our Future, events for Hmong women in cohorts around the world. She is an activist, a social entrepreneur and a leader.

Evelyn Yoshimura

Evelyn Yoshimura is a Japanese American activist whose parents survived Japanese internment camps. As a young activist, she saw the commonalities among marginalized communities and learned from the political movements in the African American and Latino American communities in California.

At California State University, Long Beach, she advocated for and helped develop an Asian American Studies program. She was one of the founding editors of the Gidra; the first Asian American Activist Magazine.


Zarina is a contemporary Indian American Artist, who is best known for printmaking. She became famous for illustrating her families experience during the Partition. Rather than illustrating violence, she created work that intersected emotion and politics. In 2011, She was chosen to be represented at India’s first-ever Venice Biennale pavilion. Her works have also been featured at The Guggenheim, The Art Institute of Chicago and most recently the St. Louis Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

Here’s to honoring amazing, accomplished women during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

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