Justice in Action Awards 2015
(photo by Lia Chang)
John W. Kuo, Jessica Hagedorn, and Neal KatyalReceive AALDEF 2015 Justice in Action Awards
Over 700 people attended the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund's lunar new year gala on Feb. 23 in New York City, where John W. Kuo, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Varian Medical Systems, Jessica Hagedorn, novelist, poet, and playwright, and Neal Katyal, partner at Hogan Lovells, Paul Saunders Professor at Georgetown University, and former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, received the AALDEF 2015 Justice in Action Awards.
Juju Chang, Emmy Award-winning co-anchor of ABC News' Nightline, and Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were the co-emcees.
Board president Tommy Shi and AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung welcomed the dinner guests and spoke about the organization's recent activities. Fung noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act. On these two landmark anniversaries, Fung said, "We will continue to work for immigration laws that respect human rights principles and advocate for stronger voting rights protections."
Former Justice in Action honoree Sandra Leung, general counsel for Bristol-Myers Squibb, presented the award to Kuo. She said they both learned about AALDEF as college students and were inspired to get more involved in social justice issues. She praised Kuo's efforts to promote diversity by instilling a culture of inclusion at all levels of his company's business operations.
John Kuo described growing up in rural Texas, where his parents faced discrimination and he was the target of racial slurs. His parents overcame this prejudice and adversity, and Kuo said: "From that, I learned the value of social justice. . .and the concept of fighting for the underprivileged and the disenfranchised." Kuo spoke about the importance of affirmative action in his own career, as one of the few Asian American general counsels at major corporations: "Affirmative action leveled the playing field; it gave me a chance to prove myself, and to succeed and make a difference."
Andrew Hsiao, senior editor at Verso Books, introduced Jessica Hagedorn as one of the nation's great writers: "She's one of the coolest, one of the most protean, multifaceted artists in America." He observed that this year is the 25th anniversary of Hagedorn's first novel, Dogeaters, which transformed Asian American literature. Hsiao praised her as a lifetime activist for social justice, citing her work with PEN American Center to defend free expression and with CultureStrike, a network of artists fighting against anti-immigrant hate.
Jessica Hagedorn spoke eloquently about her work as a writer. She said: "I write to fight, to give voice, and to make others visible. I write to conjure up the beautiful, the mundane, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic, and the unspeakable. We are living in vexed and uncertain times, and we need our lawyers and storytellers now more than ever."
The last presenter was Debo Adegbile, partner at WilmerHale and former litigator at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He said that Neal Katyal had argued 24 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won a major post-9/11 case involving the rights of non-citizen detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. As Acting Solicitor General, Katyal risked criticism by issuing a "confession of error" for the government's role in defending the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Katyal later received the Justice Department's highest civilian honor, the Edmund Randolph Award.
Neal Katyal told the stories of three individuals who faced prejudice in America. The first was about his father, an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1960 and was forced to choose between bathrooms marked for "whites" or for "coloreds." The second was about Gordon Hirabayashi, a student who defied the curfew and exclusion orders imposed on Japanese Americans during World War II. The third story was about Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian immigrant visiting his son two weeks ago in Madison, Alabama. Patel was violently thrown to the ground by police officers and remains in a hospital partially paralyzed. Katyal said: "The beauty of AALDEF is that its resources and support extend to all three types of people. AALDEF fights for those who cannot stand up for themselves, like Patel, or those who don't know how, like my father. And for those who do choose to fight, the Gordon Hirabayashis, AALDEF acts as a pillar of support. This organization's reach and impact are extraordinary, and it's an honor to be a part of that."
Since 1987, AALDEF has presented the Justice in Action Awards to exceptional individuals for their outstanding achievements and contributions in advancing justice and equality. Past Justice in Action Award recipients include Rep. John Lewis, David Henry Hwang, Fareed Zakaria, BD Wong, Jose Antonio Vargas, Sandra Leung, Mira Nair, Deval Patrick, Don Liu, Aasif Mandvi, George Takei, Salman Rushdie, Seymour Hersh, Harry Belafonte, Margaret Cho, Connie Chung, and Yoko Ono.
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For more information about the 2015 Justice in Action Award recipients and AALDEF's programs, view the dinner program here.