Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

First Chinese American Woman U.S. Judge Urges Pursuit of Justice Rooted in Common Ground

Currently a federal district judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Dolly Gee traces her involvement with APALC to its very beginnings. Gee served on APALC’s inaugural board of directors as a law student member (1983-84), on APALC’s Executive Advisory Council (1991), and again as a board member (2002-09). In 2009, President Obama appointed Gee to the federal bench, making her the first Chinese American woman in U.S. history to reach that post. Judge Gee recently took time out of her busy schedule to share her reflections on her long history with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC).

How did you first get involved with APALC?

I first got involved with APALC before it actually became APALC (now Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles). In 1982, I was one of the co-chairs of the Asian Pacific Law Students Association (then known as “APLSA”) at the UCLA School of Law (UCLAW). Because I had gotten to know Stewart Kwoh when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I was thrilled to have APLSA involved in helping Stewart to organize the first conference to launch APALC. That conference was held at UCLAW, with APLSA as one of its co-sponsors. In conjunction with that conference, APLSA raised $600 from bake sales at UCLAW and contributed the funds to APALC in its first fundraising drive. APALC has come a long way in fundraising since those humble beginnings! Thereafter, I served as the first law student member of APALC’s inaugural board of directors.

How has your involvement with APALC impacted or influenced your work or life?

My involvement with APALC through pro bono work and participation on its board of directors brought me into contact with some of the most dedicated, forward-looking, and influential members of the Asian Pacific Islander community in Los Angeles and, indeed, the nation. It also introduced me to so many unsung heroes in our community – APALC staff members and clients alike – whose hard work, quiet dignity, and unflinching courage in the face of adversity have fueled APALC’s efforts to advance justice and effect positive change. Their selfless commitment to the betterment of our community and to giving voice to the voiceless inspire me to this day.

What is one particularly fond memory you have your time with APALC?

One of the most poignant memories I have is of my conversation with Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, at a rally sponsored by APALC to support her demand for a civil rights prosecution against the individuals who killed her son. I spoke with her in the Chinese dialect, Toisan, and I saw her eyes light up when she heard me speak with her in her native tongue. We spoke about her village in Toisan, China where she grew up and I told her the names of my parents’ villages in that same region. She told me that Vincent was her only son and that she had no reason to stay in the United States any more. She expressed her intent to return to China after all the dust had settled. Her English was very limited. When it was her turn to speak during the rally, she simply thanked everyone for coming and plaintively said, “I want justice for Vincent.” How courageous she was to travel all over the country for the cause of justice. I will never forget her or the pain I saw in her eyes.

That experience galvanized my efforts to join with APALC in the fight against hate crime. The fight is ongoing and requires constant vigilance – and it is heartening that APALC has always been at the forefront of that struggle.

What do you think is our greatest challenge or opportunity looking forward to the next 30 years?

APALC’s success, under Stewart Kwoh’s able and wise stewardship, has stemmed in part from its inclusiveness and its ability to work in coalition with those with whom it has found common ground. We live in a world that is increasingly fragmented and yet more technologically interconnected than any other time in the history of humankind. The challenge for Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA in the future is finding ways to continue to energize and inspire new generations of Asian Americans to pursue the cause of justice in a fair-minded and clear-headed way; to convince people to put down their electronic gadgets periodically and interact with other human beings because those gadgets were intended to be a convenience and a tool, not a way of life; and to advocate for justice in a way that embraces the many and not just the few because the principles most worth fighting for transcend narrow self-interest.

This piece is part of Advancing Justice - LA's 30 Stories for 30 Years series.

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