This roundtable offers a conversational case study of how a film retrospective on Asian American documentary filmmaker, producer, and activist Renee Tajima-Peña turned into a series of community care and coalition-building events, co-curated by precariously employed faculty at San José State University, California. The curators behind Not Your Model Minority: The Art and Activism of Renee Tajima-Peña had envisioned the retrospective as a way of showcasing Tajima-Pena’s hidden legacy, particularly the way in which her archival work in documentary practice connects the struggles of Asian Americans with African Americans and Latinx communities, essentially curating solidarity among aggrieved communities. Moved by the turn of events brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the spike in anti-Asian violence unleashed by it, the curators remade the film retrospective into a deeply needed time-space for feminist-oriented communal sharing and caring, fostering acts of intersectional intimacy and promiscuous care.

Apryl Berney:

Florencia, do you remember in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when Renee Tajima-Peña would start her documentary class with the question, “What pisses you off?”? I’ll never forget it because the question felt very punk rock. It made me an instant Renee fangirl. All of Renee’s films are about something that pissed her off. Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), her first film with Christine Choy, is rooted in the anger she and other Asian Americans felt not just for the violent murder of Vincent Chin by two white men but for a US justice system and culture that normalized violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Renee made No Más Bebés (2016) with Virginia Espino because of her anger about the LA County hospital sterilizing Latina/x women and girls in the 1970s. Even the five-part Asian Americans (2020) series on PBS, for which she was showrunner and series producer, was due to anger over the white-dominated world of documentary film and the Ken Burns centric-ness of the Public Broadcast System (PBS).1 I bring the “what pisses you off?” question up because, if I am honest, the retrospective Not Your Model Minority: The Art and Activism of Renee Tajima-Pena that I organized with colleagues in the spring of 2020 at San José State University is because I was pissed and frustrated about my treatment as a lecturer (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

“Not Your Model Minority: The Art And Activism of Renee Tajima-Peña” Retrospective Poster. Designed by Cassandra Chen, SJSU 21. Senior in Animation/Illustration at the time of the retrospective.

Figure 1.

“Not Your Model Minority: The Art And Activism of Renee Tajima-Peña” Retrospective Poster. Designed by Cassandra Chen, SJSU 21. Senior in Animation/Illustration at the time of the retrospective.

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Florencia Marchetti:

And you rallied others to work through this with you! This is also something Renee does, as she always works in collaboration with others who share not simply an interest in a subject matter but a particular kind of affective investment that fuels a desire to bring stories and injustices to the realm of the visible.…Can you elaborate on the conditions that fostered this frustration you felt as a lecturer?


Lecturers at San José State University are often treated as failed academics—people whose research failed to earn them a job or whose window of opportunity has passed. It’s a line of thinking that reinforces the myth of meritocracy that underwrites the university’s hierarchical structure and sustains its exploitation. Even though we make up more than half of the faculty at SJSU and other campuses, lecturers are supposed to quietly teach our classes and forget about doing research or devoting time to shaping the conversations within our fields of inquiry. Our teaching loads alone typically prevent us from participating. Well-meaning tenured colleagues are quick to police our capacity rather than act as co-conspirators in disrupting academic hierarchies and engaging in power sharing.2

Feeling like a loser is the worst! However, I knew other people, other lecturers in the same boat as me—talented people whose expertise and scholarship were constantly being ignored or undervalued. The problem is not just at San José State University; it is also at De Anza Community College where I also worked, throughout the Bay Area, and academia more generally.


Yes, definitely a pervasive problem. There were also some changes that opened a window of opportunity at the institution as well, right?


Yes, the new department chair in Film and Theatre, Elisha Miranda, wanted to center race and gender more prominently in the department’s curriculum and programming. At the same time, the College of Humanities & Arts announced a new Artistic Excellence in Programming grant. Wanting to impress Elisha and feeling ignored in the Asian American Studies program, where I also taught for thirteen years, I proposed a retrospective for Renee. PBS’s five-part series Asian Americans was scheduled to air nationally in the spring of 2020. I thought a retrospective on Renee’s work would be a perfect way for the Film and Theatre Department to celebrate Renee’s accomplishment and acknowledge the university’s 34.4 percent Asian American population.


And again, not simply acknowledge but intervene…


Yes! The retrospective’s title, “Not Your Model Minority,” was an internet hashtag circulating before the pandemic. To me, it captured the whole pissed-off spirit of Renee’s filmmaking philosophy. I thought the “your” part was clever, too, because it forces you to think about where the model minority stereotype comes from and who benefits from saying one group is better than another. Literary scholar Anne Cheng talks about how racialization for Asian folks differs from that for Black, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous people. Asians are framed in the Western imagination as ornaments or objects, especially Asian women. You rarely see images of Asians and Asian Americans as mad or pissed within Western media unless it is presented as trivial (Angry Little Asian Girl) or farce (Tiger Mom).3 The same is not true of the racialization of other groups. Framing the retrospective around being pissed off connects Asian Americans’ racialized and gendered experiences with other groups rather than the white populations who created the stereotype in the first place. It also brings attention to the university’s complicity with how Silicon Valley benefits from perpetuating the model minority stereotype.


How about the rest of you? Where were you at when you received Apryl’s invite to collaborate? What moved you to do this?

Soma de Bourbon:

Spring 2020 was my seventh year as a lecturer at SJSU. I was teaching five separate preps in three different programs, and, like many lecturers, I was exhausted and stretched thin. Yet, when Apryl asked if I wanted to work with her, Susana, and Rosanna on a collaboration, I was like, “yes”! It was a chance to work with women I respected. The retrospective was organized by women who were all lecturers (at the time), which allowed for a sharing of ideas and stories that often cannot happen with tenure-track colleagues, in part because of the differential power dynamic and microaggressions, sometimes intentional and sometimes not, that tenure-track colleagues perpetrate against lecturers.

Susana L. Gallardo:

The opportunity to work with Apryl, Soma, and Rosanna was a no-brainer for me. Soma and Rosanna were both deeply engaged in various local Native American and Chicana/o community projects that redrew the boundaries of typical university academics. Apryl was constantly coming up with creative pedagogies that she shared with us, and she was the main driver behind the weekly check-in/work meetings that we held throughout the pandemic. So for me, the retrospective was an opportunity to learn with women I respected and then bring that brainpower and experience into a shared space for our students. I was also impressed with Renee’s career trajectory—from the Asian-focused Vincent Chin and My America…Or, Honk If You Love Buddha (1997) to more coalitional work in Calavera Highway and No Más Bebés. I had organized a showing of No Más Bebés on campus a few years before with Soma, so this time I too chose the coalitional option of Renee’s Buddha film to moderate. Doing so also gave me the opportunity to reach out and bring in two younger colleagues who I knew modeled a similar commitment to community building and thinking critically about intersectional identities: Melissa Nievera-Lozano, a second-generation queer Filipina American community writer/poet/educator and mom, and Lindsey Leong, a local Asian American spoken-word artist/host/curator/activist who is constantly producing and hosting local spoken word events despite having no institutional support. Together I felt we were well positioned to experience Renee’s work and reflect on its implications for our students and our respective communities.

Rosanna Alvarez:

I was drawn to this collaboration before we could even fathom the impact and implications of hosting this retrospective within the context of the pandemic. How it creatively sought to bring together a cross section of folks to amplify and examine the work of filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña while having the opportunity to be in conversation with her appealed to me. What drew me in most was the chance to take the time to collaborate conscientiously and co-conspire for good alongside fellow adjuncts who are often split across campuses. The fact that Renee Tajima-Peña came to her filmmaking through a “nontraditional” pathway and through her own design was also enticing. Additionally, the precarity of our employment as adjuncts perhaps lends itself to a complicated dynamic of how we are, or aren’t, at liberty to challenge institutional norms. The fact that this collaboration was being led by an adjunct on the margins of academia also felt like a subversive reclamation of our power. Within this dynamic, community is key.

I first met Apryl while adjuncting at a local college because of her role as coordinator in support of the Jean Miller Resource Room for Women, Gender, and Sexuality. I was also aware of how, as an adjunct, she engaged students creatively through out-of-the-box assignments that called on them as a community to critically examine, engage with, and disrupt systems and institutions. We shared this in common while teaching within different disciplines. As someone with a braided repertoire of scholarship, activism, and art in my own professional and personal life, the interdisciplinary approach she took in calling students into their creativity spoke to me. The assignments and engagement push on the confines of the institution by scaffolding a process where students practice freedom and liberation that goes against the grain of a misguided rigor rhetoric.


I have always admired the creative pedagogical approaches Apryl takes in her classes. Could you elaborate more on this, please?


Yes! For example, Apryl often provides students with choices for completion of course objectives and coursework. These alternatives encourage students to explore and engage with course themes through deeply intentional assignments that invite them to grapple with and challenge power dynamics of how research is pursued and archived. Notable examples include public art projects that disrupt everyday space, like yarn bombing a public art statue on campus; asking students to create a trailer for a feminist horror film; creating a fictionalized identity that considers the dynamics of state surveillance, curation, and nonconsensual categorization of different personal traits as required on one’s driver’s license; or creating communal weaving projects for a conference presentation. Each example calls on students to engage meaningfully, creatively, and personally as they work through their daily encounters with systemic oppression and the dynamics of liberation.

Flash forward to the thick of the pandemic when communities of color were the most impacted in the most negative ways. I was adjuncting across two campuses—one of which was hostile and oppressive. People were dying in higher numbers in all of the zip codes I had called home. The misdirected violence against our Asian and Asian American community members within the SF Bay Area in California felt surreal—and yet, it was tragically all too real. Narratives and realities of constructed scarcity, alongside the political landscape that spewed racism at a national level, were splitting communities in divisive ways, pitting local communities against each other with a direct weaponization of the “model minority” stereotype, and one that relied on old narratives of racialized scripts. Renee Tajima-Peña’s retrospective and our solidarity as adjuncts stepping in to tend to the emotional needs of our communities became all that more urgent against that backdrop.


I can hear the force of solidarity weaving in your answers already! I remember the pull I felt when I received your invite, Apryl, to open the retrospective and speak of Renee as an alumna of the SocDoc program she had helped establish at UC Santa Cruz. I was so eager to reconnect, particularly in the middle of that second dreadful year of pandemic online social living. Residing in Montréal/Tiohtià: ke meant that I was somewhat removed from the communal urgency that anti-Asian violence was instilling in Bay Area folks, and yet, even through our brief email exchanges and that first Zoom encounter, the need for taking this as a matter of care beyond mere intellectual concern was palpable. Can you elaborate on how the pandemic as a new biopolitical regime that affected all aspects of our everyday lives and stirred a heinous wave of anti-Asian violence reshaped the project?


COVID-19 and the global move to shelter in place completely changed the retrospective’s configuration and tone. The original proposal was a semester-long student-run retrospective featuring the films Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), My America…Or, Honk If You Love Buddha (1997), Calavera Highway (2010), No Más Bebés (2016), and Asian Americans (2020), culminating with a visit from Renee. Instead, the retrospective became a series of four Zoom events engaging Renee Tajima-Peña in conversation with South Bay scholars, artists, and activists.

Curating this retrospective as an act of care for students and precarious faculty during the pandemic when there was an increase in anti-Asian violence was nerve-wracking. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hate crimes against Asian Americans surged 161 percent in 2021.4 There were a number of high-profile cases in the San Francisco Bay Area, a supposedly progressive space with high populations of Asian Americans, where elderly Asian Americans were targets of racial violence. Local and national news media tried to frame Black youth as responsible for the attacks on elderly Asian Americans. Then in March 2021, right after our first event for the retrospective around the film Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), Asian American women who worked in massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, were targeted and murdered. You had this huge uptick in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the university was silent. People were still fighting for the establishment of an Asian American and Pacific Islander resource center on campus, so outside our retrospective, nothing really existed for folks to process the trauma and grief they were experiencing. I remember posting resources from the San Francisco Chinatown YMCA, where I worked biweekly in the food pantry, for students in my Asian American Studies and Film & Theatre classes. The lack of resources from the university was truly astonishing. It felt like business as usual, even though we were teaching online in the middle of a pandemic, and our students were facing extreme levels of racialized violence and harassment in addition to them already belonging to some of the most impacted communities during the pandemic.


There was only so much I could do as a teacher to demonstrate care for and solidarity with students when we were all suffering through the pandemic, through isolation. It felt surreal to show Who Killed Vincent Chin (1987) during an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes when Asian American students in my classes expressed fear of being attacked if they left their homes to go to the grocery store. I began to wonder if what we were doing was an act of care or just triggering students by showing films depicting trauma while students were trying to survive the pandemic, so I asked my students how they felt about it, and what they expressed (and what I began to feel) was that showing Renee’s films and having these conversations created one of the few spaces where students, particularly Asian American students, felt safe and validated.


Despite my anxiety, I felt strangely prepared to manage the retrospective because I trusted the people I was collaborating with. As a lecturer, you create networks of support that are very different from your tenure and tenure-track colleagues who have more institutional resources, support, and security. Of course, these networks are precarious and can and do fall apart. However, at the time of the retrospective, it felt like what we were doing was special. I made it a point to reach out to not just people I knew but to make it a series where lecturers, community college faculty, and nontenured faculty could shine. You had South Bay scholars, artists, and activists, some who were Asian American, many who were not, centering an Asian American woman’s body of work not for how it was exceptional, as is often the case in a retrospective, but for how Renee’s films resonated with and departed from their own lived experiences. This allowed us to have community conversations around the history of anti-Asian violence, cross-cultural storytelling, and the importance of Ethnic Studies. The kind of care informing the retrospective and generated by it felt very promiscuous.5 Marches and rallies are great. However, they aren’t about dialogue or sharing intimate stories across race and class lines.


I find this to be the most generative aspect of curating this retrospective: the fostering of time-spaces for what you’re calling “promiscuous” care (a turn/term new to me that I love!), which opens up the possibility to gather, think, and feel across preestablished identity/communal lines. Reading more on this term, I found this great article by Diane Wong on the cultural organizing work of the Chinatown Art Collective in Manhattan that mobilizes the notion as well. She writes that “as a framework for praxis, promiscuous care reimagines how collaboration can be a restorative experience vital to the deeper understanding and collective healing of Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, trans, disabled, poor and incarcerated communities.”6 It is not surprising that this resonates so much with the kind of intersectional intimacy that Renee’s work has honed in so well throughout her documentary practice. Her collaborative digging and weaving through forgotten institutional, cultural, and very personal archives has certainly illuminated hidden and intersectional aspects of the history of marginalized communities across the United States. What I would like to ask you now is how the communal and collaborative encounters you organized around Renee’s films nurtured the process of feeling through and further understanding the impact of violence on and across particularly implicated bodies and communities? What kind of intimate and political understandings emerged from this process?


I love that term “intersectional intimacy.” That is definitely what I saw and identified with in the film series. It was something I’d long been thinking about pedagogically as I taught a course on Women of Color and encouraged students to see difference and strategic similarities amongst women of color movements. I’d been lecturing at SJSU for sixteen years, and I had pretty much sealed off my soul from the university. Teaching and working with students was my refuge—but honestly, I was just exhausted after four years of teaching under the Trump administration, and then in the pandemic. To be teaching courses about racialized/gendered social inequality as an underpaid woman of color lecturer during Trump’s pandemic—that’s a special kind of hell. So to make this journey through Renee’s work with colleagues I trusted was deeply…comforting.

In our discussion of Buddha, we did find various connections between ourselves and Renee’s works that we shared during our event. Melissa shared her realization that she had seen Buddha before, and been deeply impacted by it as a nineteen-year-old army reservist, fresh out of bootcamp in her first community college Ethnic Studies course. Watching the scene with the Burtanog family in Louisiana, she said, “as a second generation Filipina, child of immigrant parents—BROKE ME. It SPARKED so much in me, just that. Like a patch, it became part of a larger quilt that would hold me through shaping what I do today, which is teaching ethnic studies, Asian American history, etc. twenty-two years later.”

We talked about how much we identified with or were drawn to the people Renee portrayed, particularly in domestic spaces, everyday spaces—we talked about so many of the details in these domestic spaces—a quilt, a Playboy calendar, a pageant crown. It felt so personal, so mundane, so real. Somewhere in an interview, Renee says that documentary filmmaking is not just about representing community and culture, but it’s about making community and culture. That was exactly the feeling we wanted to evoke for our retrospective participants, who were students watching in their own domestic spaces.


Connected to what Florencia was saying about how for some people, the violence documented in these films is also our history, and it lives in our bodies. This is important when thinking about how we curate works with folks who may also be the subjects of similar violence, similar histories. One of the surprising aspects of our collaboration was the transformative nature of the conversations. For example, for years I have shown No Más Bebés in my classes—Women of Color in the United States and Critical Native American Studies—when discussing the sterilization of women of color. I even worked with Susana in 2016 when she organized a screening and discussion of the film with coproducer Virginia Espino, so I felt familiar with the film, yet having a conversation about the film content with Renee and Rosanna during the retrospective was surprisingly emotional. Until our conversation, I had never thought about my own experience when as a young woman, before having my two children, doctors asked or rather pressured me to have my tubes tied. I think it wasn’t until that moment of intimacy that I understood this very personal experience as part of a larger trajectory of violence against women of color. I do not want to conflate my story with the women’s stories in the film No Más Bebés. My story is not the same. But the film and the process of dialogue about this history with other women of color allowed me to not only situate my own experience within this larger structural health inequity, but also to understand what had happened to me, not just as an instance of doctors wanting to stop a poor young woman of color from reproducing but as a violent act inscribed both in my body and this country’s history. I will never be able to watch No Más Bebés in the same way, because now it is tied to my own memories, my own emotions.


A series of intimate and political understandings clearly emerged from this process. For instance, there are a set of questions that we might now have in the front of our minds when we ourselves are dealing with our health care as a result of films like No Más Bebés, and that has a ripple effect. It shifts our conversations in ways that lead to ongoing conversations with individual, communal, and eventual systemic impacts, especially amongst folks who identify as women. In some ways it makes me think of community cultural wealth in that the cultural knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups become critical sites of intellectual inquiry and actionable strategy. We can’t dismiss the fact that our medical systems still aren’t primarily shaped by women, and so this in itself—those conversations amongst women that have a direct impact on actual lives, how we navigate our health care, the questions we ask, and the things that we’re paying attention to—leads not only to a series of intimate and political understandings but to an alternative excavation of how we approach individual and collective histories.

The communal encounters organized around Renee’s films helped us collectively bear witness and tend to the unnamed pain within, and organize around issues of systemic injustice, while also challenging hierarchies in our own way. What is it that we’re paying attention to? What lens is being shaped for us by way of this experience? Renee’s films and how she frames them makes you pay attention in a more nuanced way. The communal encounter adds layers—making you want to learn more about whatever it was that you experienced in that moment but also activates you past the moment itself. In our case, it was a series of very heavy topics that are often ignored when it comes to real people, and more so marginalized communities, made visible by film. This brings in those very real people that makes it very difficult to ignore as something that’s just old knowledge on the shelf, temporarily put on display. It becomes an active recovery that extends beyond the encounter.


The retrospective inspired students to not only pay attention but to act in both individual and collective ways. A few months after the retrospective started, student activists borrowed from the retrospective’s title and the imagery Cassandra Chen had created for what they called a “Not Your Thirty-Four” rally aimed at combating anti-Asian hate and racism at SJSU. The thirty-four is the percentage of Asian American and Pacific Islanders at the university. A year later, a public health student emailed me about the retrospective and shared how the discussion around No Más Bebés informed her approach to addressing health disparities among different ethnic groups. These are just two instances of political mobilization and awareness.


Those are potent ones. Renee’s work is an ongoing and active invitation for us to come back to the basics of storytelling as connection in a way that offers some permanence. It offers ongoing opportunities to amplify, activate, and reinvigorate that connection with a sense of justice and critical inquiry that challenge our systems while calling on us to connect across differences. In that way, it is largely about the testimonios of marginalized communities finding power in coalition building, and showing up for each other.7

When we experience a film or documentary, we get to show up as ourselves, we get to show up as authentic and flawed human beings bearing witness to injustice that refuses to be minimized, while connecting to the myriad ways in which people show up for each other as more than a static solidarity. Within and through that collaboration, we aren’t simply inviting our students to gaze at this program of knowledge in the default position of removed observer with a detached gaze, but rather, we’re inviting them into the conversation to affirm and reflect parts of themselves and to find connection across space, time, and difference.


Really powerful. I would like to turn to Renee for a moment, who has graciously offered to comment herself on the impact of the retrospective. I am wondering, now that you’re reading this, how it resonates for you, Renee?

Renee Tajima-Peña:

I didn’t realize you were all adjuncts. First, you all out-degree me by a mile. And coming out of social documentary production, I was accustomed to looking at people’s abilities and not their titles. Not that the documentary isn’t immersed in the hierarchy of the media industry, especially after the emergence of the streamer economy and its fixation on murder, celebrity, and food.

But your collaboration as adjuncts, and all that means in terms of confronting the skewed stratum of pay, status, and respect, makes sense. Making and showing documentary films is an act of resistance. Today, the films, histories, and culture that you teach and write about would be banned in many states. About the same time as the retrospective, I was asked to give a presentation on Asian American history at a state college in Texas. They sent me a contract rider in which I was to declare, under penalty of perjury, that I was not boycotting the firearms industry, fossil fuels, or Israel. I refused to sign that rider of course, but it is a reminder of the fraught politics of telling our stories. When I was a sixth grader, my teacher screamed at me that my mother and grandmother were lying about their World War II imprisonment in Japanese American incarceration camps. Even at that age, I knew that we had to fight for our truth. I was an Angry Little Asian girl!

I have always said that films don’t create social change, people do. They collectively organize and use films as tools. As scholars and precarious academic workers, you have been doing the invisible labor of caring for students during that fraught time of pandemic and violence on top of all the expectations of research, teaching, and committee work. That aligns with both the exploitative nature of the corporate university and your resistance to it. In this retrospective, my films were only vehicles for a larger conversation informed by your personal and collective experiences—as women, as scholars, and academic workers. Programming and teaching as an activist practice is what energizes deep learning and dialogue for your students. That is what makes change.


Renee Tajima-Peña, “#DocsSoWhite: A Personal Reflection,” International Documentary Association, August 30, 2016,; Eric Deggans, “Filmmakers Call Out PBS for a Lack Of Diversity, Over-Reliance on Ken Burns,” NPR, March 31, 2021, sec. Television,


The phrases “curation as survival” and “capacity police/policing” are from scholar, activist, and poet Rosanna Alvarez. Rosanna Alvarez, “Capacity Policing Is a Thing,” Citlali Rose,” February 10, 2016.


Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), xi. Cheng highlights the anger issue in the preface. She is more specific about Asian and Asian American women’s experiences in her journal article “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman” in Critical Inquiry 44 (Spring 2018): 415–46.


Randall, “Hate Crimes against Asian Americans Surge, FBI Reports,” AsAmNews (blog), March 27, 2023,


Promiscuous care advocates for the expansion of caring beyond traditional kinship, market, and state models. Articulated by the Care Collective’s The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020), it is a notion inspired by Douglas Crimp’s work with ACT UP during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The Care Collective, Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal, eds., The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (New York: Verso Books, 2020).


Diane Wong, “Promiscuous Care in Movement-Based Research: Lessons Learned from Collaborations in Manhattan’s Chinatown,” Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement 14 (December 16, 2021): 4.


Delgado Bernal, D. R. Burciaga, and J. F. Carmona, “Chicana/Latina testimonios: Mapping the Methodological, Pedagogical, and Political,” Equity and Excellence in Education 45, no. 3 (2012): 363–72.