How I found my voice as an Asian-American advocate and activist


Finn Partners’ Brenda Hu on how the power of storytelling can help more people from AAPI backgrounds realize they aren’t alone.

Hu is a VP at Finn Partners.

I was seven years old when I first heard someone call my mom a racial slur. 

It was Mother’s Day, and we had just left church. My mom stopped to fill up at a gas station before heading home. Upset that she had pulled in ahead of him at one of the pumps, a man yelled the slur from his truck window. The term was unfamiliar, but I nonetheless felt and understood the caustic undertones. 

At that point in my life, I had grown up insulated, surrounded by other members of the local Vietnamese-American community and my Caucasian friends, who had never spoken to us like that.

My mom ignored it. I was afraid to say anything and felt compelled to respond as my mother did. Once I had better understood my identity as an Asian American, I looked back at that experience and made a pledge that I’d follow for the rest of my life: I’d never remain silent in the face of discrimination. Advocacy and activism through communications and education would be my weapons to fight racism and support the Asian-American Pacific Islander community.

Discovering my Asian-American history and identity

Growing up, I always felt like I either had to be Asian or American but was never enough of either. I wanted to have blonde hair like my beautiful American friends from school. I also preferred using chopsticks to eat dinner at home. It wasn’t until college that I learned about the intersectionality of different identities and that being both Asian and American was something I could grasp. 

During my freshman year at Michigan State University, I was invited to a general meeting for the Asian Pacific-American Student Organization. I went into it with zero expectations and left realizing that there was a whole community of people like me, a group of peers where I felt included and with whom I shared many similar experiences throughout adolescence and in college. It was a revelation. 

The town where I grew up was predominantly white, and I was one of few Asian Americans. I thought that’s just how life was. After that meeting, I realized I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in being the kid who brought Asian food to the lunchroom and had everyone stare at them. I wasn’t alone in being the kid who needed to translate mail at home every night. I wasn’t alone in always being referred to as “the Asian friend.” 

It was also at that meeting I first remember seeing Meaghan Kozar, former assistant director of MSU’s Asian Pacific-American Studies Program and current program coordinator for MSU’s office of cultural and academic transitions. There she was: a mature Asian woman in academia who carried herself and spoke with gravitas, all while being fashionable and bold. I will always recall her blue eyeliner! She challenged our assumptions of what it meant to be Asian in America and the multiplicity of ways it could be expressed. 

It was from Kozar where I learned about the history of Asians in America for the first time in my life. Growing up, I read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march in Selma. Like others, I saw the leis Dr. King and others wore around their necks. Not once did I ever know that it was from his dear friend Abraham Akaka, a Hawaiian American who was unable to make the march that day. Back then, the leis were a sign of solidarity. Today, they are a sign that Asians exist in American history. People like me existed all along! I’ll never forget learning this. Kozar had, and continues to have, a massive influence on my professional career.

Later in college, I decided to run for executive board positions in the Asian Pacific-American Student Organization. As Asian-American women, we’ve been typecast as these geishas who exist to serve others, whether it be on the TV or movie screen or in your local nail salon. I like to think I’m the opposite of that: I’m a little feisty, I’m vocal and I’m not afraid to share my thoughts and break down stereotypes. By being vocal, I earned a seat at the table with MSU leadership, including the VP of student affairs, to discuss issues of representation, including the types of ethnic food available in the school dorms. 

My parents were immigrants who worked at the General Motors assembly plant. They came to the U.S. to give me the opportunity to study and nurture a career that would prove financially successful. Like many other Asian Americans, I thought I was going into medicine. But instead, I was a part of the second generation of Asian Americans who decided to go into communications and creative fields. I discovered PR and realized the power of storytelling, especially for underserved voices like those of my parents. What if their stories were told? Then more people would know they weren’t alone.

My first two years out of college, I was working on campaigns that skewed toward more light-hearted fare. For example, I helped a client get into the Guinness Book of World Records for making the world’s largest bean bag. But at a certain point, I knew I wanted to use my talents to have a true impact and enact change. To that end, I worked with the Flint Community Schools district for several years to build trust with local families post-Flint water crisis. That ignited my passion for advocacy on behalf of children, which later evolved into a broader focus on social impact in general.

Education as a vehicle for social change

I spent most of my life not knowing about my identity and knew others lacked this knowledge as well. I have embraced advocacy seeking to learn more about my history while also informing and educating others.

I recently reconnected with Kozar for an interview on Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit public affairs, news, arts and culture program as part of their Asian-American Pacific Islander stories series. The catalyst for this opportunity arose from a desire to increase Asian-American representation in the U.S. education system. APIAVote, an organization that helps Asians and Asian Americans register to vote in the U.S., sent a delegation to Capitol Hill Day to share stories of Asian Americans across the U.S. The call to action was to ask policymakers to include Asian-American history in the K-12 curriculum. 

The initiative hit home. I didn’t learn about my history until I was an adult. If my history had been taught in school as I was growing up, I could have resolved a lot of the identity challenges I faced later in life. In lieu of attending Capitol Hill Day, I submitted a video recording. It was circulated among those involved in the effort, eventually landing in front of Zosette Guir, manager of content operations and production at Detroit Public Television, who got in touch with me. 

Ongoing dedication to advocacy and DEI

There aren’t a lot of people in PR who look like me, but this is changing! I want to show people that it’s possible, and if you’re an Asian-American female, you don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse, even if your parents are pressuring you to do so. I’ve returned to MSU and continued to give back to the university community to show the headway Asian Americans are making in media fields because it played such a pivotal role in forming my identity.

At Finn Partners, I feel like my career has come full-circle in many ways. I am privileged to be working in the corporate social responsibility group alongside a passionate, hard-working team of colleagues around the world. People share their stories with me, and I get to help tell those stories to increase awareness of issues, rally support and ultimately, ignite real change. 

At home, I continue to support my parents as I have my whole life, but one thing has changed — no one will ever utter a racial slur to them without hearing from me again — and we’re not alone. 

Brenda Hu is VP at Finn Partners. 

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Explore further