Sam Hyun ’10 combats Asian American racism

by Siya Patel, Features Editor
photo courtesy of Sam Hyun

Growing up in Newton, ‘10 graduate Sam Hyun said he experienced unchecked racism, which drove him to develop a passion for activism and justice. 

“Anytime I experienced any sort of xenophobia or anti-Asian racism, it was always told as a joke that I was being overly sensitive, that I should just shut up,” he said. “I started to realize that I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself, and I can use my voice and my platform to make sure that I’m creating space for every community, every voice to be heard.”

A career dedicated to public service led Hyun to his current position as chairperson of the state’s Asian American Commission (AAC), which serves to highlight Asian American accomplishments and to address challenges faced by Asian Americans. 

Corrie Popp, a former South English teacher who taught Hyun, said Hyun is a uniquely talented listener who forges strong connections with everyone around him. 

 When Hyun learned about the horrors of child soldiers in Sierra Leone during his  junior year, he started a chapter of Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to raising awareness on issues facing Central Africa, to advocate for the eradication of child soldier recruitment, just one example of his perpetual dedication to fighting injustice, Popp said. 

“He’s always been such an advocate for the underdog, so insistent that all people are treated fairly and that there is equity,” she said. “Any cause that’s in the news, he will jump on it, and he always takes what we would consider the ‘right side of history’ and advocates for people.”

After college, Hyun worked as a legislative aide to former Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, where he developed a new understanding of the government-citizen power dynamic. 

“I saw how people don’t come to the government as a first option, but [a] last option. Not last, but last after the last option. Folks who tried to come and advocate often aren’t the ones who actually need the help, but it’s the privileged who are able to come and advocate because if you’re working three jobs, you don’t have time or the options,” he said. “In Newton, we like to tell ourselves that we understand, but we really don’t.”

Now, serving on the AAC, Hyun said he’s learned more about how the world perceives Asian communities.

“It really highlighted how fractured our community is and how it’s so East Asian-dominated. So much of our community is erased from the conversation,” he said. “We’ve been actively trying to work on increasing our South Asian participating commissioners and Southeast Asian commissioners, making sure that the Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities are also included.”

Hyun said that his experience has highlighted the importance of removing oneself from the spotlight when advocating for marginalized communities.

“You’re not saving anybody, you’re just allowing people to be their true selves because everybody is capable of being able to speak up for themselves,” he said. “I had to shed myself of my savior complex and thinking that I can save the Asian American community myself [and] really learn how to build bridges, build those connections and be able to elevate and make space for all the voices in our community.”

History teacher Lily Eng, who taught Hyun, said that she is proud of him for using his passion to enact change. 

“Trying to eliminate systemic racism and providing structures for groups to have access is more important than ever because we have to build and create the America we want we all want to be in,” she said. “It takes hard work and courage.”

Hyun said that everyone has a role in dismantling oppressive systems that begins with listening.

“The one thing we can do is listen to each other and start to value each other for not just our similarities but our differences. Our uniqueness is what makes us beautiful, but our similarities are also what bring us together,” he said. “I wish that we really could just start actively listening and seeing each other, instead of just trying to talk over each other.”