Alumna takes on perpetrators of violence against Asian Americans

Manjusha Kulkarni

Manjusha Kulkarni ’91, a Los Angeles community activist and attorney, knew she had to act. She met with the family of the injured student, worked with local school district officials on behalf of the family, and held a press conference to take a stand against violence against Asian Americans—a soaring statistic in 2020’s pandemic year.

The boy’s family, weighing the thought of leaving the U.S. in the face of such a personal threat, said they appreciated Kulkarni’s advocacy so much that they changed their minds.

“They felt like they belonged,” she says.

It was a meaningful moment for Kulkarni, who recently was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 for her work on behalf of Asian Americans. It reminded her of why she is devoted to this work, she says.

It also marked a turning point that mobilized Kulkarni, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council in Los Angeles, an advocacy organization, to launch Stop AAPI Hate. The group, cofounded with Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, and Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, supports Asians and Pacific Islanders who have experienced acts of violence and discrimination.

The group swiftly went into action, creating an online form that allows victims to report accounts of violence and hate against them, and to find resources to support them through what often is a traumatic experience. Stop AAPI Hate follows up with law enforcement about the logged incidents—nearly 10,000 to date—and works with local governmental human rights agencies, that track hate incidents and advocate for policies and laws to protect the Asian American community.

The group’s efforts are paying off.

A recent study conducted by the Asian American Psychological Association revealed that a third of people who had filled out Stop AAPI Hate’s online reporting form said they experienced lower stress levels after submitting their account. As the study notes, the organization has had an impact on improving the mental health of Asian Americans following traumatic experiences, since those who have experienced racism show more symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, among other ailments.

Kulkarni’s advocacy work for the Asian community in California has earned her recognition as a 2014 Champion of Change by former President Barack Obama and brought her to the current White House to advocate for change.

Kulkarni says she can see the beginnings of her career fighting for social justice by looking back at her time at Duke. She grew up in an Indian American family in the Deep South and came to Duke as one of under twenty South Asian American and Indian American students. She formed a tight-knit group of friends and in between pursuing her political science major and women’s studies certificate, she helped start Spectrum—a student-led group representing students of color.

“We need to address what is happening now,” she says, “and work to prevent it from happening again.” 

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