William F. Lee and Viet Thanh Nguyen receive 2020 Justice in Action awards at AALDEF lunar new year gala

Image for William F. Lee and Viet Thanh Nguyen receive 2020 Justice in Action awards at AALDEF lunar new year gala
Photo by Lia Chang

New York City…More than 500 people attended the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) Lunar New Year Gala on Feb. 6 in New York City to honor 2020 Justice in Action Award recipients William F. Lee, partner at WilmerHale, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer."

Cindy Hsu, Emmy Award-winning anchor and reporter at CBS2 New York, and Sree Sreenivasan, Loeb Professor of Digital Innovation at Stony Brook University, were co-emcees. Tony Award-winning actor BD Wong (“Awkwafina is Nora from Queens,” “Law and Order SVU,” “Jurassic Park”, “M. Butterfly”) delivered a special message.

Image by AALDEF

The evening at Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers, began with a reception and silent auction. A festive lion dance, led by Grandmaster Norman Chin and the NY Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu and Lion Dance Team, brought guests into the ballroom for dinner.

Image by AALDEF

AALDEF board president Tommy Shi and executive director Margaret Fung welcomed everyone, acknowledged several dinner sponsors, and highlighted the organization’s recent legal victories. Fung described a key priority in 2020: monitoring polling places on Election Day and conducting a multilingual exit poll of Asian American voters in at least 15 states. AALDEF’s exit poll, the largest of its kind in the nation, will provide a unique snapshot of Asian American voting patterns in this year’s critical presidential election.

Image by AALDEF

Co-emcees Hsu and Sreenivasan spoke about lunar new year traditions and invited the audience to join them in a special toast to the “Year of the Rat.”

Image by AALDEF

2020 Justice in Action Award recipient William F. Lee, a partner at WilmerHale, was introduced by Debo Adegbile, a fellow WilmerHale partner and former Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Adegbile described Bill Lee as “a man of tremendous accomplishments, principle, and dedication to public service.” He said Lee was the first Asian American trial lawyer in Boston and the first Asian American managing partner of a major law firm. Lee was elected the Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board, and received the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Lawyer.

Lee was lead trial counsel defending Harvard University in a recent challenge to its race-conscious admissions policy. Adegbile said this important civil rights case was brought not just to strike down Harvard admissions policy but “to end the consideration of race for all college applicants, even when they believe it is an important part of their perspective and experiences.”

Adegbile said: “Bill led the team with passion and understanding. His personal experience facing racial discrimination provided an added layer of meaning to the trial record.” Adegbile said that while the legal team celebrated the federal district judge’s decision in Sept. 2019, which found that Harvard’s admissions policy does not discriminate against Asian Americans, “We knew it was a marker, but not the end of the journey.”

At the outset, Lee thanked AALDEF for its civil rights work and its support of Harvard: “Our case benefited in measurable ways from AALDEF"s perspective and voice.” AALDEF, with pro bono counsel Foley Hoag, had filed an amicus brief on behalf of 20 Asian American organizations, in support of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy and diversity in higher education.

Lee highlighted how the model minority myth had obscured workplace discrimination against Asian Americans. He said there are now 50,000 Asian American lawyers nationwide, and that “for nearly 20 years now, we have been the largest minority group in large law firms, but we have the highest attrition rates. And in management and leadership roles, a role I was privileged to play at my firm for 12 years, we are represented less than virtually any other group.”

Lee concluded: “Just as AALDEF has fundamentally changed our world for the better, I hope that each of us will join with AALDEF and with each other to do our part to achieve a better world.”

Image by AALDEF

Jessica Hagedorn, the noted writer, poet, and multimedia performer, introduced 2020 Justice in Action Award recipient Viet Thanh Nguyen. Hagedorn observed that in 2015, Nguyen “wowed the world with ‘The Sympathizer,’ his dazzling and profound debut novel which went on to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Other honors and awards quickly followed, including a MacArthur Fellowship.” She continued: “But he is no one-hit wonder, fly-by-night rock ’n’ roll sensation. He’s the real deal, and has been here all along as a brilliant, daring writer of keen moral intelligence and a playful ironic sensibility.” She cited his other books: “Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America”; “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War”; “The Refugees,” and “Chicken of the Sea,” a children’s book written in collaboration with his six-year-old son, Ellison. Hagedorn said, “Viet wears many hats and wears them well: writer, teacher, literary scholar, cultural critic, and public intellectual. And in these xenophobic times, we need him and his writing more than ever.”

Nguyen regaled the audience with tales of coming to America as a four-year-old refugee, being separated from his parents, and then reuniting with them in San Jose, where they opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in that city. Nguyen also told this heartbreaking story: “My parents worked 12 to 14 hours a day, almost every day of the year. And they were shot in that grocery store. I remember when I was ten years old, walking down the street from my parents’ store, and seeing a sign in another window that said, ‘Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.’ I have never forgotten that sign.”

Nguyen spoke about the importance of standing in solidarity with other people of color in their struggles for justice. He criticized the false “good refugee-bad refugee” dichotomy often used to justify exclusionary immigration policies and praised the Japanese Americans who were taking a stand against migrant detention camps on the southern U.S. border: “I think they clearly see that the racist logic that led to the concentration camps for Japanese Americans is the same racist logic that has detained immigrants on our border.”

He concluded: “If I’ve done anything at all for justice, it is to become a writer who tells these kinds of stories in all of their complexity that we as a nation have difficulty remembering.”

Tony Award-winning actor BD Wong, a former AALDEF Justice in Action award recipient, spoke passionately about AALDEF’s tireless work: “It’s always there for my community. It is one organization where I know that everyone is choosing to do the right thing.“ He encouraged guests to make a special lunar new year donation to AALDEF in the red and gold envelopes at each table. Wong drummed up even more support for AALDEF with a live auction of his T-Rex necktie (worn at the premiere of his film, “Jurassic World”), which brought an additional $5,000 donation to support AALDEF’s work. (Thanks to Don Liu!)

Image by AALDEF

Since 1987, AALDEF has presented Justice in Action awards annually to individuals for their outstanding achievements and contributions to social justice. Proceeds from the gala support AALDEF’s litigation, advocacy, and community education programs in the areas of immigrant rights, economic justice, educational equity, housing and environmental justice, and voting rights and democracy.

You can download a copy of the 2020 AALDEF lunar new year gala program here.

* * *
For more information, contact:
Margaret Fung, Executive Director

Jennifer Weng, Assistant Director