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Washtenaw United: Using art to build bridges to understanding and equity

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Yen Azzaro

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

ABOUT YEN AZZARO:

Yen is an artist, illustrator, and a practitioner of graphic recording, a method of drawing and writing what people say in real time. She is most sought-after for illustrating campaigns centered around food and education justice, Diversity Equity Inclusion work, BIPOC leadership and health access. During Covid, her practice shifted from traveling nationwide with a large paper tube and markers to producing imagery on her iPad, streaming to her laptop during Zoom convenings. Nearly 90% of her clients are nonprofit organizations. Over the last eight years Yen has facilitated and/or obtained over $75,000 in grants to produce creative projects uplifting her local community including public murals, performance art and multimedia exhibitions with Ypsilanti students. Yen is an alumnus of University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and lives in Ypsilanti with her husband and son, both artists as well.

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Creating a Culture

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, in this month of May, we mark Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We do so amid some troubling news. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism revealed that anti-Asian hate crime increased 339% last year. Overall, one in eight members of the AAPI community say they've been targeted in hate incidents. I'm David Fair. And on Washtenaw United today, we're going to look at the emphatic call for greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and understanding throughout the country and right here at home in Washtenaw County. And we're going to do it through the lens of an artist. Our guest of Washtenaw United today is Yen Azzaro, and Yen is an artist, illustrator, and graphic recorder. And, Yen, thank you so much for making time for this conversation.

Yen Azzaro: Thank you so much for having me on.

David Fair: Clearly, the pandemic has exacerbated what had already been a significant issue, and that is racism, all too often manifested in verbal or physical assaults. Now, there is a strong presence and leadership within the AAPI community in Washtenaw County. How significant an increase is being felt here at home?

Yen Azzaro: Hmm. That's a great question that I've been pondering, especially as I have aging parents that are out in the world. For myself, I've really been privileged to shelter myself over the last two years, mainly at home or in circles where I feel really safe. Probably many folks that you and I both chat with regularly, but that know how to uplift my identity, see my son, continue conversations and education that are really aligned with our beliefs and really see our identity in everything we do.

David Fair: Here and around the country, many communities try and legislate away the hate or at least create a level of punishment that may serve as a deterrent to the behavior. We know you can't legislate morality. How effective is conversation and verbal communication and creating more acceptance of diversity?

Yen Azzaro: That is probably the priority action that each of us can take individually. The more that we sweep under the rug, the more that we make jokes about it, the more that we other the folks that we aren't used to seeing in our daily lives, the easier it is to target people, to put out things on social media to exclude. And so, I think those conversations with people that are not like you and that don't come from the same culture or history is vastly the most important thing that we can do and that we can teach our kids to do.

David Fair: Sometimes, a great equalizer can be art, whether it's music, paintings, murals, theater. People find some commonality in the various forms of art that sometimes is more difficult to connect to in the process of day-to-day life. What about the manner in which you use art finds its target in creating the opportunity for understanding and acceptance?

Yen Azzaro: I have the privilege of being a graphic recorder. So, that means that I draw while people are talking in real time. A lot of people think it's like courtroom drawing, but this is really, truly about the words. So, I'm capturing text, and I'm also drawing pictures along with it. And during the COVID era, this is all done on iPad. So, I'm constantly disseminating and distilling and synthesizing information for people that are either in a Zoom room or to consume later as a timelapse video. So, art, in this way, is not only about consuming something that's really beautiful to look at, but also disseminating information that may be new for the first time. And if I can subvertly bring people in and have them look at something that's really colorful and then all of a sudden be hit with this challenging statistic that maybe right here in their backyard, they stop and think, "Oh, I never knew that." That happened in the case of the zip code mural that I did in Kerrytown a couple of years ago. People were drawn in by these beautiful pastel colors, but they didn't realize that there was a life expectancy disparity on either side of 23, depending on whether you lived in 48104 or 48197. There could be up to nine years of life expectancy difference.

David Fair: This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Yen Azzaro as we mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. And, just for a bit of perspective, Yen was born in Taiwan but has lived in Michigan most of her life. Much of her elementary school years were spent in Tecumseh. And, Yen, is that when you became aware of what I've heard you refer to as your otherness?

Yen Azzaro: Definitely. I didn't know it at the time, but I knew that through consuming TV and movies and the news that there was very little space for me. So, if there was somebody that looked like me, they were constantly characterized as the nerd or the person with the heavy accent or the person that was not in the know. And my daily life was filled with mostly friends that knew how to establish a friendship outside of my culture, but also honor my culture if they came over and my mom cooked Chinese food. But it did begin very early that I thought that I was aspiring to some sort of goodness or really, for lack of a better word, like, a whiteness. And because that's what I was faced with, I didn't have an alternative until I was much older and started consuming other kinds of media and entertainment.

David Fair: And having consumed all of that and allowing your perspective and positioning to evolve, how does that otherness still manifest today?

Yen Azzaro: It's really given me pause to think about creating my own work. I graphic record for lots and lots of human-centered organizations that are focused on food and education and social justice access. But it's given me an opportunity to think about how would I express this. I'm going to be in an arts residency later this summer, and what I want to do is explode a graphic recording to create a map, kind of like the front cover of the Beatles' Sgt, Pepper. If you remember all the folks that were in there that they were numbered and you had to look and see who was on the back. I want to do that with an altar setting in memoriam of all the Asian-American women that have been targeted over the last couple of years. So, it's given me an opportunity to say, "I want to share information. How can I attract people?" And then, do a little bit of the bait-and-switch on them. It's not just about art for the sake of art. It's really art for the sake of informing, to not forget, to not repeat the same atrocities.

David Fair: So, through this graphic reporting, you've had the occasion an opportunity to hear a lot of stories. And it sounds as though you have found some commonality in the concept of otherness that is very often individualistic.

Yen Azzaro: Yes. It is very much an individual journey. I think that each person's experience is so different from yours or mine. So, it's a bit of a learning process for each person.

David Fair: So, with the individual tales of their own personal journey through otherness, can we further develop greater togetherness?

Yen Azzaro: Absolutely. I was just reading an article about a movie. It was either..I think it was Turning Red. And there were a lot of parents that were up in arms about how this Pixar movie had suggested that young girls should be, you know, against their parents or be independent or be disrespectful. And I think it was Roger Ebert that said the more that you delve into the history and the culture of a character, it actually aligns more with how each of us experiences life. Is this vague and general and tries to apply to everybody? It actually doesn't convey anything. And I think that in this journey of otherness, that is what gets to the root of it. If somebody says, I was incredibly offended or hurt or this thing happened to me, that really, you know, it can help to trigger and also bring our past experiences that we've had. I don't think there's any goodness in being vague with somebody that you're really trying to get to know.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation continues with artist, illustrator, graphic recorder and BIPOC advocate Yen Azzaro. You like to engage and involve younger people in projects that speak to creating understanding and some harmony in our diverse communities. They are the future. So, how do you use your past and present to connect them to their inner voice?

Yen Azzaro: I love to hear what young people are going through right now, especially through the struggles over the last two years. I'm working with Concentrate Media right now and their Voices of Youth project to work with high school students to do just exactly that--to hear what's on their mind and help them express it through different mediums. Some of them are going to be drawing. Some of them are doing poetry. Some of them are creating unique fashions--they're knitting. And it's just incredible to see how our younger generation processes these problems and looks to resolve them, not only through this resolution journalism, but also by expressing the work on social media that can be quickly consumed by their peers and other people the same age that are going to be challenged and inspired to take action, too.

David Fair: And, Yen, we started out today talking about some of the impacts of the pandemic. Have these two-plus years given you cause to reflect and change how you address your personal inner voice?

Yen Azzaro: I definitely have dropped a lot of things. I stepped away from a couple of boards. I really focused to spend more time on my own art practice. I tried to be more patient with my family members. It's been really a time to focus on what I find very important, and that's definitely health and family. And, also, in doing this project with Pam Smith at United Way, trying to get the word out there that kindness and focusing on generosity, whether it's time, energy, or money, is really a much better use of our time than it was before COVID.

David Fair: Well, it sounds like words to live by to me. Thank you so much for the time and perspective today.

Yen Azzaro: Thank you so much, David. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: That is Yen Azzaro, artist, illustrator, graphic recorder, and BIPOC advocate and our guest on Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month edition of Washtenaw United. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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UWWC STATEMENT:

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is celebrated during the month of May for recognizing the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

United Way of Washtenaw County recognizes Yen Azzaro for her contributions to our community as a business owner, and local artist, illustrator and graphic recorder. We worked with Yen to focus on equity in Washtenaw County on the Equity Summit, capturing community voice during community conversations, and most recently illustrating their 2025 Strategic Plan.

Anti-Asian ad racism and violence gained attention nationwide in 2021 and in response during United Way of Washtenaw County’s 21-Day Equity Challenge we dedicated Day 6: Stand with Asian Americans. The content for that day challenges people to:

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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